Invisibles. Interview to Ayelet Gundar-Goshen


«Israel, a nation of refugees, closes its gates in the faces of the present refugees. The United States, a nation of immigrants with the hope of a better future, refuses to give this hope to new immigrants».

Israeli journalist and writer Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, author of One Night, Markovitch and Waking Lions – published in Italy by Giuntina – decodes signs of a faltering modernity, doing deflagrate its contradictions and idiosyncrasies and moving the speech from sterility of informations to faces behind them.

Waking Lions is also about the condition of Eritrean community, invisible to society. In relation to restrictive position of some European and American countries about immigration policies, where do you think it comes, at this particular time, a so strong reluctance regarding reception of the Other?

«All around the world — in America, Italy, Germany, the U.K. and Israel — we talk about “the immigration crisis” or “the refugee problem” as if we were discussing manufacturing problems in the new generation of a cell phone rather than people. Statistics worry us — the charts show an increase in the number of refugees, the percentage of children immigrating alone is rising. But the faces behind the statistics remain vague. I wonder how many times I’ve sat in a restaurant, having an intimate conversation, while a refugee cleaned the table, completely unnoticed. I don’t lower my voice when she leans across my table. She’s not important enough for me to even care if she hears my fight with my partner or the gossip about my new boss. I could not differentiate her face from other faces.

How can someone be at the heart of public discussion, yet remain invisible? That’s the difference between a problem and a person. A problem is something you can talk about. A person is someone you have to look at. The refugee’s tragedy is a heartbreaking picture in the news, but the wall between the news and our everyday life is high and stable.

While we might have a clear opinion on our government’s role, we neglect the invisible wall that shapes our own moral choices as individuals. As people living in states, answering to governments, our feelings of personal responsibility are lessened. If an African boy in Israel, a Syrian girl in Europe or a Mexican mother in the U.S. were dying on our doorstep, each one of us would hand him or her a glass of water. But when they are walking in the desert many miles away, we don’t feel any personal moral responsibility if they die of thirst. This phenomenon is very vivid in my country, Israel, the present destination of Eritrean refugees. Escaping a brutal dictatorship, they try to cross the desert toward the Promised Land. Their journey to Israel through the Sinai resembles the exodus of the biblical Jews. One would expect that those who wandered across the world in search of a homeland would remember this when they find themselves as the gatekeepers. But the memory of a nation is shorter than the memory of a goldfish.

But whose responsibility is it? If the government in Syria violates the basic rights of its people — are other governments responsible for taking in those people as refugees? My answer is yes, but only to a certain extent. While divine grace is infinite, human grace is like yogurt — it has an expiration date. People aren’t angels, and if we want to change the way the immigration crisis is dealt with, we should take that into account. When a person asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” the answer is “Yes” — but this doesn’t mean he should share all he has with his brother. So — how much are we willing hurt our own economy or lifestyle in order to help? It’s obvious for instance that Israel shouldn’t allow the whole population of Eritrea to immigrate to its territory, but right now only 1% of the refugee requests are answered — far from enough. And here I am, using abstract numbers. Once the debate is about 100% or 1%, people disappear, and the matter becomes technical. Sometimes there is no choice but to have a sterile discussion on immigration facts and figures, and yet when you remember the people behind the numbers it is more likely that the discussion’s conclusions will be more human. The higher the internal walls are, the harder it is to see the faces behind them».

You are an activist of civil rights movement in your country. What do you think about a Mediterranean without NGO, claimed the lives – according to informations of NGO Msf and Sos Mediterranee – of 600 people in four weeks?

«I think history repeats itself in the most tragic, and ironic way».

After having brought American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, US President Donald Trump writes in a tweet: «Big Day for Israel. Congratulations!». Do you agree?

«I disagree. I find Trump’s politics like a movie: Donald the kid in the wild-East

In the Middle East city of Eilat, 15 hours flight from Texas, stands the ruins of “Texas Ranch”. It’s a cinema city, built in the 70’s, when American producers shifted entire film-sets to Israel, in order to save money. More than 24 Westerns were filmed here. In its glory days, horses used to wait outside the Sheriff’s door. The bad guys were hanged. The good guys drank beer in the pub. Then the Americans left. It was the end of Westerns Era in Hollywood, and the producers moved on to different kinds of films, shot in other locations. We Israelis were left with an empty wild-west-city that was soon turned into a tourist attraction. For years, local families visiting Eilat would come to the deserted “Texas Ranch”, taking photos of themselves next to the hanging pole. Then, for some un-known reasons, people stopped coming. The houses that were built on the set started deteriorating. Soon it was just a huge amount of trash, covered with the dust and burned under by sun of the Israeli desert. Texas Ranch was deserted. For the last 17 years, the people of Eilat are stuck with the left-over’s of an American fantasy.

I remembered Texas while listening to the guys on the radio preparing for Donald Trump’s declaration on the embassy. It is as if we’re in a Hollywood studio, when everyone on the set has to freeze and be silent, while the actors say their lines. And here are the main roles: we have the Sheriff, Donald Trump. We have the forces of good – the Israeli ranchers. We have the damsel in distress – Jerusalem itself, with the bad guys – Hamas – trying to put their dirty hands on her. Just like me and the other kids enjoyed playing good guys versus bad guys, when we were at the age of five. The Israeli people, just as the Palestinian people, are simply statists on the set of this Eastern. And when Trump leaves, we’ll be stuck with the left-overs of an American Fantasy».

One Night, Markovitch and Waking Lions dig down inside contradictions and secrets of human relationships. Could grey areas and deviations be different paths to achieve Unity?

«I love the grey areas, i feel that’s where literature is born, in the fine line between the good and the bad, when all is mixed».

Your storytelling is characterised by an evident introspective element. Who are your literary lighthouses?

«David Grossman, Romain Gary, Virginia Wolf – all put the the same emphasize on the outside world as they do on the inside».

Could you tell us about your future works?

«My next novel, the liar and the city, will be published in Italy next year.

The narrative follows Nuphar, an ordinary girl who works in an ice-cream parlor during the summer. Dozens of customers come in every day, but no one gives Nuphar a second look – she is not one of those girls that the eye lingers on. But everything changes when Avishai Milner comes into the ice-cream parlor. He insults and humiliates her. Deeply offended, Nuphar rushes out to the backyard, and Avishai—who is still waiting for his change—chases after her. “Leave me alone!” she cries with all her 17 mediocre years’ worth of hurt and frustration. Her screams alert the townsfolk, and to her surprise everyone is convinced that Avishai tried to sexually assault her. Now, for the first time in her life, Nuphar finds herself the center of attention. The support that she receives from the community turns her into a kind of Cinderella and the ice-cream salesgirl becomes a Media Princess. But the magic of this Cinderella story comes from her lies about an attack that did not actually happen».