Book club aims for a new chapter in Jewish-Arab relations

By Jessica Elgot, December 30, 2011
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The Middle East conflict is not known for inspiring polite literary conversation. But among the piles of history books, novels and biographies in Joseph's Bookstore in north London, a bookish crowd is discussing Arab-Israeli relations, through the words of Muslim and Jewish authors.

For most of the members of the Arab-Israeli Book Club, run in partnership with the Jewish Community Centre, politics comes secondary to a love of literature.

Huddled on plastic chairs, the participants are discussing two novellas about the birth of the state of Israel - Israeli writer S Yizhar's Khirbet Khizeh, and Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani's Men in the Sun.

The book club is run by Roehampton University lecturer Ariel Kahn and the Palestinian novelist, Samir El-Youssef, who was born in a refugee camp in southern Lebanon. The pair met at an event run by PEN, the organisation that champions writers' freedom.

"We were quite keen to share our passion for literature from these countries, to set up a dialogue," says Kahn. "The first book we did, Arabesques, was the first book by an Arab writer written in Hebrew. It's very literary, very sophisticated.

"We're not just doing Amos Oz. We're very keen to push people into unchartered waters and show them how many different voices there are."

The club comprises students, teachers and retirees along with journalists and businessmen. Around 40 people were at the gathering at Joseph's Bookstore. But the reality is that the audience is probably not as mixed as the organisers would like. The north London location and the promotion by the JCC means the audience is very much Jewish-dominated.

The bookstore's owner, Michael Joseph, agrees that a variety of venues might attract a more diverse audience. "There's a bookshop on the Edgware Road which does the same kind of thing. That would be interesting to explore," he says.

Kahn points out that "one aspect of the book club is about educating different sectors of the Jewish community, and we draw a wide demographic. And as we have got to know one another better, the dialogue between Samir and myself has grown more engaged and nuanced."

In part to reach a wider audience, regular participant, journalist Chris Cox, has set up a blog about the club, and has received enquiries from the Middle East about the discussions.

One of the Palestinian participants at Joseph's Bookstore is film student Ismail al-Qaisi. "More Jewish people attend than Arabs but that, I guess, is because the two cultures live in very separate geographical areas and possibly do not have the chance to mix," he says. "It would be a great idea if more Arabs could participate, because that would open the debate fully."

The JCC's Rachel Mars says that a more diverse membership is the next step. "We want this to be a genuine dialogue."

But El Youssef says he is happy with the core membership as it is. "I'm not troubled by it, to be honest. I'm interested in people talking about literature. If you do have a very mixed audience, then it will be much more a political discussion. I prefer that the people who come love books. It's important to discover common ground. When you talk about Palestine and Israel, people assume you disagree about everything. Some of the regulars are really interested in literature. They read Hebrew, Arabic. People bring something to the discussion, from their own experiences."

Andrew Munck, 28, is an enthusiastic participant in the evening's discussion. "I think Jews sometimes feel uncomfortable discussing the conflict - we need a space where it seems OK to talk about it," he says. "That's what's really going on here."

The next meeting is on February 2. Details at www.arabisraelibookclub.wordpress.com

Last updated: 10:48am, December 30 2011