I’d met Tamar Verete-Zahavi on various occasions and thought that her story should be told, or at least ‘choice parts of it’ on this blog. Tamar is so humble, but her influence can be felt on a large group of children, teenagers and adults. I wanted to know how it all started and what the background was for the books she’d written, and consequently discovered a whole world. Fortunately, Tamar agreed to share her story with us, especially the background to some of the stories that she’s written about a shared life for Arabs and Jews – all with political and moral messages.
Tamar, how did this all start?
I was about seven years old in the tense days before the 1967 war. I was a sickly girl in Jerusalem. I had way too much free time on my hands while my friends and siblings were in school, and me, alone in my big room. I remember the phrase that was buzzing around the house at the time – The Arabs were going to throw us into the sea. It frightened me, I didn’t know how to swim at the time…I kept imagining it and thinking about it – how would they throw us into the sea, I mean Jerusalem doesn’t have a sea…I mean people who live in Tel Aviv, ok, but us? As I kept thinking about this phrase, it became increasingly clear that the adults were again talking scary nonsense, and that no one was going to throw anyone into the sea. This insight grew stronger for me when after 1967 our house became crowded with Arabs: Mahmud the gardener from Hebron, Suhaila, the maid from Bethlehem, the delivery boys from the supermarket and many others. I asked myself – if Arabs are our enemies, what are they doing in my house? Even though I was a little girl I realized that there was something basic that I wasn’t understanding, and that there was no one to ask. Maybe because of these confusing experiences I decided to write for children about the multifaceted relationships between Jews and Arabs, Arabs and Jews.
All my books that deal with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict come from my personal experiences and are not based on imaginary situations.
My first book Rim, the girl from Ein Hod, I wrote with my friend Abedalsalam Yunis. He wrote in Arabic and I wrote in Hebrew. The shared writing is already a political statement – sharing is possible, and here’s how
No one relinquished their identity or language – we divided the page between us and there was room for both. And when the kids read in their native tongue, the other language is present on the page as well.
Hebrew and Arabic share the space and…the Arabic is on top(!) We were often asked by the kids (both Arabs and Jews) why the Arabic was on top? And we would ask back – why should the Hebrew be on top? And then we would start a deep discussion on hegemonies. Truly, already in pre-school our boys and girls understand power struggles.
The second book that we wrote together is ” Yussef’s Dream.” I was 8-months pregnant and drove with Abedalsalam and Miki Kratsman the photographer to the Dheisheh Refugee Camp (by Bethlehem). Twenty minutes from my home and a completely different world. We accompanied Yussef our hero from his morning wake-up to his nighttime going-to-sleep routine. Miki took hundreds of pictures and we wrote about the daily routine of a Palestinian boy, a dreamer and gifted artist. Yussef is very attached to his grandmother who tells him all about her childhood prior to 1948.
She tells him about her adventures as a girl in a village (that was destroyed), about her initiatives, resourcefulness, fruit trees and working the soil. Yussef is sustained by her stories and thanks to them gets…I won’t tell.
The next time, we decided to write both languages side by side. And again, had many conversations about why the Arabic is on the right of the Hebrew, why the Hebrew is in red and the Arabic text is blue.
My book Sruta (Aftershock) was written during the Al- Aqsa Intifada. A time of terrible terrorist attacks in my city of Jerusalem and all over the country. Arab hatred was all around me and growing stronger following an attack at the neighborhood supermarket. I told myself that I was being given a great challenge – to write about the attack in a different manner.
Ella, the story’s heroine, is wounded during a terrorist attack on a Jerusalem neighborhood supermarket and her friend is killed. Ella is obsessed with understanding why 18-year old Nadira, the terrorist, decided to kill innocent Jews and herself. With the help of Maher, an Arab boy from Beit Safafa who she befriends at the hospital, she is exposed to the many narratives of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She gets in touch with the terrorist’s cousin who lives beyond the barricade. Maher and Ella decide to meet at her house. I won’t tell you the ending of this one either…
A wonderful initiative was born in my city of Jerusalem – a Jewish-Arab circus for children. The boys and girls, half of them Jews and half Arabs, learned basic circus tricks and especially learned to trust each other. I got permission to observe the relations being woven amongst the children and the preparations for taking the shows abroad. The book Back Somersault is based on this. The book’s heroine, Netta, an impolitic girl, falls in love with the brother of her circus friend. Thanks to her great love for Shafiq she encounters the reality of the conflict at its most powerful – humiliating examinations at the airport, the West Bank Barrier, delays and searches at barriers, etc. Will their love survive despite the obstacles? You can find out by reading the book…
Wow Tamar, how many books have you written about inter-cultural ties or maybe I should call them political books, since everything is political?
So far I’ve written 16 books (click here for a list of Tamar Verete-Zahavi’s books) all about human rights, equality, great leaders, but I won’t write here the story behind them all. I’ll finish with my book, Rosie’s Song. The book is based on two powerful things I experienced in Hebron. First, visiting the home of my daughter’s teacher, a settler in the Jewish settlement in Hebron. Second, a full year in which I taught Hebrew to a group of Palestinian women in Hebron. I would travel there every Wednesday with my friend Naama. They wanted to learn basic Hebrew in order to communicate with soldiers and military government officials, and I went there knowing that conversations reduce violence. Also, I was intrigued. And I got so much out of it, as well as another book.
Rosie, my heroine, experiences the extreme adventures that I had in Hebron. It took me seven years to write this book. I’d write and and break away, write and stop. It was very hard because Hebron is an extreme place – the very essence of the occupation, settlement and oppressive patriarchy. I love this book because I found a fascinating angle for viewing the Hebron experience. Rosie the teenager – who defies conventions, feeds off anger and tantrums – falls in love with Hebron and with her two friends, Emuna the settler and Sana the Palestinian. The city reflects her inner world and only there is she able to write the crazy song that will bring her international fame.
Tamar, what are you doing today?
Today I teach Early Education at the David Yellin Academic College of Education. My PhD dissertation was about children who starting from age three begin to develop their political stances and was written in French. I am also a social activist on many subjects including the very sad subject of refugee children, and everything to do with human rights. I’m also working on a Young Adult novel with Reuven Abergel about the Black Panthers. I’m also socially active for asylum seekers, both children and adults. In my opinion it’s important to start educating towards a shared life from an early age. And that’s my message to you. Teach children to be human beings with all the complexities, to think critically, to act to advance basic human rights for everyone. And this must be started at an early age, which is of course my area of expertise.
Following you will find an article on a book I wrote about asylum seekers.
Anyone wanting to delve deeper, here’s Dr. Shai Rudin’s article The character of the Arab in Tamar Verete-Zehavi’s books, I recommend it.
Thank you Tamar Verete-Zehavi – I was happy to meet you