The Fragility of Goodness

I bought the book “Confessions of a Good Arab” (in Dutch) from Yoram Kaniuk, on the flee market on Queen's Day. “So now you have many confessions to read, for only 50 cent”, said the lady who owned the book. I never heard of this book or the writer. It was just the title that attracted my attention. The novel touches me a lot, each time I read in it I start to cry. That never happened to me like this before, right from the start of the book.

The main character, Josef, has a Jewish mother and an Arabic father. The family from his mother's side is traumatized by the Second World War. The family of his father's side is traumatized by the Israelian occupation and the never ending violence. Josef is torn apart between his two sides, one side is each time the enemy of the other, and vice versa.

He asks his father: “How could you stay so calm? You came back here in 1948. You saw how they humiliated you, how they took your land, how they chased away your family, how they ruined your father and you, how can you stay so calm?”

When his father talks to him he always says: “You people have done this, you think like that”. Then Josef says: “You should say “they”, I am not only like them, I am also like you. Then his father says: “You are are a stranger everywhere, both for me and for your mother, you are only from yourself.”

Josef, the imaginary writer of the book, says in the preface: “Because I am emotionally disabled, I can only write this book in Hebrew, but my anger is bilingual. If I translate myself into myself, I would have to shoot at the mirror to prevent it from shooting at me.”

The book is full of poetry / absurd proza:

  • Josef says he wants to rape the desert and to paint it red.
  • Josef says about a Jewish soldier: “He killed and trampled out of a principle that was so full of words that sounded like “moral” or “justice” that in the end I could smell God in the lines of his face. If my father would have had a different God, a God which was completely his own, then I would have asked that God for help, but my father was a failed Arab.”
  • “Dina tried to laugh, but she had her mouth full of dead babies.”

There's a lot of injustice in the world that Josef grew up in and lives in, a lot of violence. In this book many people commit suicide, not as a terrorist attack but because they can't stand their lives anymore. Or otherwise people loose their minds.

I grew up in a different world. People always say that I am naive. Nothing ever happened in my life that comes close to the stories of this book. From my perspective, coming from a country where there hasn't been a war during my lifetime so far, it may seem to be simple: Jews and Palestinians are both humans, they are equal, they have the same rights, they should divide the land in a fair way (and to end the occupation and break down the wall), stop fighting and enjoy the peace. The book shows it doesn't work like that. People get hurt, they are wounded, not only physically but also in their minds. The wound doesn't heal, it remains open, it's hurting all the time, and each time a person gets hurt again the wound will get worse still. Josef cannot hate the Jews for what they have done to Palestine / the Arabs, because he is Jewish himself. He cannot become a Zionist and believe in the justice of a Jewish state in the promised land either. His mother has thrown handgranates to kill Arabs. She could have killed his father if he had been there (or vice versa).

Josef is wounded, from both sides. There's the problem of the fragility of goodness (a book written by Martha Nussbaum). Looking from a distance, without being wounded, it's easy to see that all humans are equal and that all this violence against each other is bad for everybody. But at the moment a person gets hurt, the pain goes deep down. It's unjust, unfair, evil, something should be done to stop it. When the damage is all the time coming from the same direction, it's very difficult not to consider the others as enemies, monsters, not to start hating them. And this is happening during a very long time, from generation to generation. When the wound is very deep, it's difficult to heal it. It influences the way of thinking and acting.

All humans are equal, but different people have a different role in history. There are wolves and sheep. The wolves oppress the sheep, they take away their rights. This injustice has to stop first, before the sheep can say: “The wolves are our brothers, let's make peace”. Otherwise that just means they will be eaten.

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