Essays & Speeches

I can still remember the conditions in which I wrote my first lines in Israel. It was in 1949, when I arrived in Israel without any family, even before the Ma’abarot refugee absorption camps were conceived. Three rough construction blocks served as a chair, and five blocks as a desk. I wrote mainly in the evenings, after a day’s work in construction as a new immigrant, in the light of a kerosene lamp missing its glass globe. The tiny flame flickered in the gloom of the solitary threadbare tent I had erected in an abandoned orchard on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. There was an abundance of blocks around me since I worked on a construction site (because I refused to apply for a red Mapai membership card).

I was so proud of the Parker pen I had brought with me from Baghdad, but it was stolen at the airport when I landed in Israel. For several months I lived with an unsettling sense that I had not only lost my pen, but also my mother tongue, Arabic, in which I loved, thought, and dreamed of becoming an author. I felt like someone who has lost his ability to speak and has to make immense efforts to become the fluent and articulate man he had been in his mother tongue. It is no easy feat to transition from one language to another in literary writing at the age of twenty-three. I thought the Hebrew language, like any language for someone who dreams of becoming an author, was a temple, and authors had been training since childhood to serve as its priests. The wish of breaking through and being an author was, for me, like indulging in a fantasy. Literature is constructed from words, and I, as I said, had an abundance of construction blocks but very few of the foundation stones of the Hebrew language.

Later, I always endeavored, in every book and novel, to write about the important facets of Israeli reality, which many attempted to blur and even erase, and about the figure of the other: the immigrant, the woman, the Mizrahi Jew, and the Arab. I wrote most of my novels while working full time as a sole provider and an employee at the Hydrological Service. I swallowed clouds of dust in summer, waded through a sea of mud and freezing water in winter, and at night I sat and carved out one word after another. The salary I received from the Hydrological Service was so meager, and my income from writing when I started out was so measly, that I was forced to lecture before various audiences in exchange for a modest handful of coins.

Receiving the EMET Prize holds special importance for me as I review the past and reach the low starting point, which could have made almost anyone who sets himself lofty goals without any support, and even goes against the current and the establishment, give up in despair. This is a fitting opportunity for me to thank my readers who accompany my writing with warmth and kindness. This is the fuel thanks to which the candle of my creativity has not extinguished, despite the obstacles and difficulties.