Hassan and I are about the same age, we are both writers, fascinated by Jews and Judaism. We both love books, bookstores, and good coffee. And then there's difference: I am an American Jew, and he's a secular Palestinian. We were asked to appear together, read a bit from our work, and talk about identity.
We'd already met informally. Hassan has never been in America, and he arrived in New York without an overcoat in January, then flew down to New Orleans. I can't imagine what kind of America one could construct from a glimpse of New York City and a sojourn in New Orleans. So I thought inviting him out to sushi would be the right way to top it off. We began a conversation that really hasn't stopped.
Hassan Khader is a charming, literate man, a great reader, a wonderful talker, and he quickly seemed at home strolling the streets of New Orleans. He is the author of several books, all in Arabic, including Time and Hostages: Theories of Literary Criticism, and his recent Memoirs of Exile. He is Director of Creative Writing for the Palestinian Ministry of Culture, he writes a column and edits a literary supplement. The interesting thing is that he's made a special study of Israeli literature, has had extensive conversations with the Israeli writers A.B. Yehoshuah and David Grossman, and regularly reviews books about Jews and Judaism. He told me there's quite an interest in Jewish and Israeli literature in the Palestinian intellectual community.
That evening at Loyola, I read a poem of mine called Grandfather Clause, which touches on my grandfather, David Kamenetz, the town of Kamenetz-Podolsk, and the slaughter of the Jews there by Einsatzgruppen during World War II. After reading it, I pointed out that poets really don't have identities when they are writing poems. That in fact, poets lie. I wondered myself what my true connection was to that terrible slaughter, why I had chosen to use the passport of my name Kamenetz to connect me to that terrible moment in history, and why this Jewish suffering was so important to me. Here's a bit of the conversation that followed:
Khader [speaking about his return to Palestinian territory after 21 years in Tunis]: "When I came back there was psychological, cultural, and political shock. Things were different. I had been living in my diaspora and thinking of the promised land. At the same time, when I came to my promised land, everything was different, social reality, political reality.
"For instance, one of the things I remember in my diaspora experience, I was parking my car in Tunis. A driver made a mistake, and I started to scream at him. And he discovered from my accent that I am not a Tunisian. And he told me, 'Go back to your country and you can start screaming there.' I couldn't go back to my country. That was really humiliating. I had seen different pains in my life, I'd been in war in Beirut, but I didn't feel the same sense of humiliation as at that moment.
"I came back to my country [from Tunis]. I was able to scream all the time. But I didn't feel satisfied. This is the difference. In exile we create imaginary countries. We create ideals. We sacrifice our lives for these ideas. When we face reality, reality is different all the time. That's why the first few years were very difficult for me. [Yet] I don't want to be anywhere in the world. I just want to be in Palestine. I started to think about identity and how we invent or reinvent our identities.
"It's not the best place in the world. It's not more interesting than any other place, but this is where I belong, where I have a strong feeling, a sense of belonging. I think it's a blessing I think it's a blessing personally for me to be there.At the same time I try to think that we can do what can be defined as identity engineering. [The phrase comes from the Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshuah] What is identity engineering? Palestine is a very unique place. If I think about the Palestinian identity, that identity should be pluralistic, should be made of different cultural elements. Islamic, Jewish, and Christian are natural elements of my identity and my heritage. This is the new ideal, it might be the new delusion, but at least for the time being I have something to think about and to dream of."
Kamenetz: "You are saying that exile can become an identity and that to have your dream fulfilled can be very difficult. Once your dream is fulfilled, you are back in the mundane realities and they can be annoying. Because of who you are, you are a writer, a literary person, the dream is something important in your life so it's much more difficult to build a dream in a context that's annoying, difficult, petty.
"I've come to think that all people are on a journey. Or that the story of a journey is important because our very condition of being here is that we've been sent down to live out this journey. Every journey, every exile is the story of every human being. That's how the stories of exile become powerful because they have to do with our ultimate condition as human beings. We are looking for a deeper place in the world, a deeper way that will truly satisfy us."
That's just a tiny piece of the conversation between us, which went on for hours. The discussion got very frank, we touched on our differences, but we emerged as friends. And the conversation continues today. Hassan will be attending Sabbath services at my synagogue and speaking to the congregation. I'll introduce him and moderate the discussion. And I hope sometime soon to visit him in Ramallah. The conversation will go on.
Rodger Kamenetz is the author of The Jew in the Lotus and Stalking Elijah, which won the National Jewish Book Award in 1997. His most recent publication is Terra Infirma: A Memoir of My Mother's Life (Schocken). E-mail him at JewInTheLotus@aol.com or visit his Web site.