Interview: Eli Amir
Miriam Halahmy meets an Israeli writer whose political and ethnic backgrounds come together in a trilogy
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Eli Amir: showing pain and sorrow
Eli Amir was born in Baghdad in 1937. At the age of 13, he went into exile along with 120,000 Iraqi Jews to Israel. He went on to serve the Israeli government as a ministerial adviser on Arab affairs and immigrant absorption. He is active in The Abraham Fund for coexistence and equality between Israeli Arabs and Jews.
Above all, though, he is a literary celebrity, well known in Israel for his novels about Iraqi-Jewish experience.His books are part of the national curriculum. He is also gaining recognition in the Arab world, especially in Egypt.
In London to promote the English translation of the trilogy known by the title of its first section, The Dove Flyer, Amir suggests, in the rather apt setting of a hotel facing the Regent's Park Mosque, that "the Israelis didn't understand that we are Arabs. We know the culture, the food, the language, the customs."
When Amir and his family were taken to the ma'abara, the immigrant camp, they were given half a tent to sleep in and spaghetti to eat. His brother thought he had been given a plate of worms.
The Dove Flyer is, its author says, "a book of dreams" - the dove flyer wants to expand his flock, the Zionist wants a Jewish state, the Communist wants to change the world and 16-year-old Kabi searches for his identity amid a huge cast of characters.
Amir paints a throbbing, colourful picture of Baghdad with its soothsayers, rabbis, sheikhs, prostitutes, revolutionaries, Zionists and princes. But, ultimately like the wings of a dove, the dreams of all the main characters are broken as they go into exile. "I write to show the pain, the sorrow, the insult, of losing a homeland," says Amir.
The second novel in the trilogy, Scapegoat, Amir describes as a "very dramatic poem. It shows the exile and redemption of Israel." In the melting pot of the new Jewish state, Amir demonstrates the cultural and social conflicts between immigrant and Sabra.
In the third, Yasmin, yet to be translated, Amir writes about a love affair between an Israeli and a Palestinian. "When they overcome the burden of not knowing each other and see each other as human beings, not stereotypes," he says, "then they fall in love."
Yasmin has proved very popular in Egypt, where one reviewer wrote: "Amir writes from the stomach of the Arab…"
Amir's hope for The Dove Flyer is that people will come to understand "the earthquake" that erupted in Iraqi society in the 1940s. I could smell it in the air. Within 10 years, all the leadership was gone."The old order was torn up, creating chaos and animosity towards the ancient Jewish community. Iraqis have since told Amir: "We miss our Jews. They contributed so much."
"How can there be peace without us knowing each other" Amir once told a Cairo audience. And The Dove Flyer, by an Israeli author of Iraqi-Jewish origin, is an essential piece in the jigsaw of peace and reconciliation between Arabs and Israelis. No other writer has explored the Iraqi Jewish experience of exile in this depth before. "If you believe in the Other, you send out your dream of peace on the wing of a dove," he says.
'The Dove Flyer' is published by Halban at £10.99. Miriam Halahmy is a freelance writer and poet.