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Nir Baram Talks Tachlis About A Land Without Borders

A version of this article originally appeared in Plus61J, an Australian-Jewish publication.

Israeli journalist and author Nir Baram set out to find out what life is really like for people living in the West Bank. Sometimes, he found words could not do justice to their experiences.

One of the most moving parts of Nir Baram’s book A Land Without Borders takes place inside the mourning tent for Mohammed Abu Khdeir, the boy from East Jerusalem burned alive in July 2014 by Jewish extremists. Here, the author meets Mohammed’s father, and acknowledges the futility of speech.

“He hears so many words”, writes Baram. “Faced with such a devastating loss, faced with a father who must picture, over and over, the final moments of his son who was burned alive — it seems impertinent to use words”.

In researching A Land Without Borders, the 41-year old Israeli spent months speaking to those who call the Occupied Territories home, from secular Jews in remote outposts to Palestinian Jerusalemites living just beyond the separation wall.

Similar pilgrimages have been undertaken by Israeli writers in the past, and both David Grossman’s The Yellow Wind or Amos Oz’ The Land of Israel are referenced. But over a cold beer on a scalding hot evening in central Tel Aviv, Baram reccounts with enthusiasm that it was his love of travel books, works by Mark Twain, Daniel Defoe, or Leonid Tsypkin, rather than these luminaries of Israeli literature, that accompanied him on this journey.

One of his priorities, says Baram, was keeping out any clichés about the West Bank — all olive groves and dusty hills. Indeed, the writing in A Land Without Borders is intentionally sparse, almost barren, for a novelist. “I was really trying to make the encounters with people the most interesting part about the travel”.

The aim, he explains, was not to “psychoanalyse the people I met, but to have a conversation with them, and to take what they said seriously”. Still, the temptation to lapse into detailed descriptions was real and Baram admits it might have been easier to depict his subjects as he would draw characters in a novel.

That said, certain experiences were perhaps made easier thanks to his craft. In the documentary, a former Hamas member who has served time in an Israeli jail for plotting an act of terror, instructs Baram: “Go away from here. You and your son. Go to Brooklyn”. Did Baram feel any hostility toward him at all?

“I’ve written about much more horrible characters than him,” he laughs. And then turns serious. “When you do it you have to try and understand the world from his perspective, and when you try to do it, you understand where he is coming from. They see the process from a totally different narrative, which I learnt to understand”.

Toward the end of the book, Baram writes he is “overwhelmed by all the sights of this past year on the West Bank, and they flicker together at the forefront of my consciousness until I can no longer see a thing”.

Did things become clearer with time? “When I started to open the notebooks that I wrote, yes. I could see from a distance what was very hard for me to see in the process. Suddenly you see the pattern in the conversation about ’48”.

What Baram came to understand was that 1948, the year of Israel’s establishment and what the Palestinians call their Nakba, had never actually left the Palestinian consciousness. And therefore, that no agreement with Israel without a right of return for refugees and their descendants would ever carry popular support. This was news to Baram, who has been active in left-wing activism and known Palestinians his whole life, although Palestinians from “the peace industry” world.

In Israel his work has rankled many who identify with the Israeli left, which see 1967 as the only basis for negotiations. In fact, liberals even suspected Baram had not spoken to “the right Palestinians”.

In the documentary, a heated argument takes place between Baram and his father, former Labor Party minister Uzi Baram, in which the author accuses the Zionist left of denial about 1948. In turn, Baram senior retorts that the theory his son presents — that Palestinians will not accept an agreement without a right of return- only serves the interest of the Israeli right, which has always trumpeted the Palestinian adherence to 1948.

Would he consider going into politics himself? “No, I’m not an egomaniac,” he answers, deadpan.

Back to literature then. Could his next move, I ask, only half in jest, be to pen the War and Peace of the Occupation? The answer is perhaps unexpected for someone who has spent years trying to find ways to resolve the conflict.

“I don’t find where to enter as a storyteller, as a writer, because I’m too much involved in it”, he reflects. “It’s on my consciousness, I cannot shake it off”.

A lover of Russian literature, he is critical of the didacticism of Solzhenitsyn, for example, and states that to write about the occupation in this way would “bore” him. Similarly, he objects to what he senses is a certain expectation from abroad that Israeli writers should tell stories about the conflict. “I would never tell a writer from the UK: ‘Ok you should write about the Falklands, you should write about the last war’.”

A moment later, the writer who has been likened to a 21st-century Dostoyevsky demurs, “But maybe it’s my flaw as a novelist that I haven’t found a door to enter this world”.

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