Since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, West Asia has constantly been, The New Yorker staff writer Jeffrey Goldberg observes in his book Prisoners, “a landscape of wasting sadness and obliterating furies”. For almost six decades now, the Israeli state has been locked in intractable conflicts with Arab forces both from without—Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon—and within, in its ever-shifting tussle with the people of Palestine.
Talks, accords and agreements have often come to nothing: West Asia today is more or less in the same parlous condition, a kind of default mode, as it has always been in public memory. Is there a way forward after all these years of accumulated memories and resentments on both sides? Or, will the matter only be settled now by guns and bombs?
Goldberg’s book, although it takes stock of the many mistakes made, proposes no solutions, in part because there is no solution now that has not already been thought of before—what is missing, rather, is the will to proceed. Instead, his book is a kind of political autobiography with some exceedingly interesting twists and turns—he is not a detached observer, but an engaged party looking for some way that is acceptable to all.
Sober and yet anguished, Prisoners carries on the great tradition of American non-fiction with its roots in magazine journalism, from Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Joseph Mitchell all the way down to the current editor of The New Yorker, David Remnick.
Goldberg writes that he was born an American Jew, in a family that was not very religious or tribe-conscious. But, in his adolescence, he began to seriously read Zionist literature and felt the pull of the state of Israel, the first real home of Jews around the world after thousands of years of harassment culminating in the abomination of the Holocaust.
He bought into the perception that Jews were too soft and bookish, and unless they took up arms in their self-defence, they would continue to be oppressed. With the zeal of a new convert, he journeyed to Israel in the late 1980s and lived and worked for a while in a kibbutz. The state would not let him join the army because he was not an Israeli citizen, but he was drafted into the military police.
Goldberg was posted to Ketziot, the largest prison in Israel, home, at the time, to more than 6,000 Palestinians taken prisoner after the First Intifada of 1987. The presence of top leaders from Hamas, Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization made the jail “a virtual Palestinian parliament”. As a prison counsellor, Goldberg, who had never met any Palestinians before, had to serve as a bridge between the prisoners and the jail management. His account powerfully records, even from the point of view of someone who was not captive, what it is like to live in captivity.
At Ketziot, Goldberg established a tentative friendship with a young Palestinian prisoner, Rafiq Hijazi, and began to have discussions with him across the jail fence. Unlike the vast majority of the prisoners, with their aggravated sense of humiliation and implacable hatred, Hijazi was cool and analytical, open to another point of view.
Many years later, now working as a reporter, Goldberg returns to Palestine and once again seeks out Hijazi, now a free man and a professor of statistics at a university.
Goldberg’s motto seems to be that of E.M. Forster who, in the epigraph to his famous novel, Howards End (1910), urged, “Only connect.” Only through people-to-people connections, goes the optimistic hypothesis, can national or tribal hostilities be gradually broken down. Goldberg’s talks with Hijazi over the years embody in microcosm the different stages and moods of the West Asia peace process.
“I realized I had all the hallmarks,” writes Goldberg of his repeated visits to Palestine, “of a counterphobe, a person who seeks out close encounters with the thing he fears most.”
Counterphobe or not, his book illuminates in startling detail the texture of daily life in the occupied territories and the mentality of the different parties involved in the dispute. Goldberg’s diagnosis is not optimistic. The radical group, Hamas, is now in power in Palestine, and it was Hamas which, “more than any other force, transformed the dispute between Arabs and Israelis into one between Muslims and Jews” in the 1980s.
But, in humanizing the conflict and attempting to understand the aspirations of the adversary,Prisoners lays the groundwork for a day when it may be possible to “only connect”.
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