Poetry News

Shoshana Olidort Interviews Almog Behar at Los Angeles Review of Books

By Harriet Staff

Almog Behar

Stanford doctoral candidate Shoshana Olidort spends time with Almog Behar, a poet, critic, and activist based in Jerusalem, in her most recent interview at LARB. Olidort studies comparative literature, with an emphasis on postwar Jewish literature, across languages. Behar is a native speaker of Hebrew; he chose to learn Arabic as an adult. Olidort writes, "Among his most well-known works is the poem 'My Arabic is Mute' and the story 'I Am One of the Jews,' both of which reflect on issues relating to Mizrahi identity and Arab-Jewish relations in the Middle East." Let's take it from there:

SHOSHANA OLIDORT: You wear many different hats as a poet, a critic, and an activist — do you see these roles as complementary, or are they in tension with one another?

ALMOG BEHAR: There is tension time-wise, in the sense of figuring out what to do and when to do it. I know that some writers prefer that their day job not be connected to words, to poetry. But I do see poetry and criticism as connected. My MA thesis was on Amira Hess (the Iraqi-Israeli poet, not to be confused with the Israeli journalist Amira Hass). For my PhD, I focused on 20th-century liturgical writing by Jews in the Muslim world. I wanted to work on contemporary literature, and inevitably questions about the Judeo-Arabic language came up, questions that led me to go back in time and explore the tradition of writing in the communities.

What about your political activism, how does that fit in?

The activism with which I’ve been involved (through, among other movements, the group Cultural Guerilla) is to an extent connected to poetry and literature. Our aim is to connect identity, culture, and class politics and create a community of both Hebrew and Arabic writers. One of our goals is to introduce economics into literature, and bring literature into the economy: in newspapers you have a literary supplement and you have the economic supplement and they never talk about each other. It’s like there is no economics in literature and no literature in economics. A literary column that makes no reference to economics is disguising the world we live in. The goal is to explode these dichotomies, to transgress the boundaries and cross-contaminate the two domains so that they are no longer self-contained.

In terms of activism, we’ve put on poetry demonstrations, many of which were connected to housing issues, protests against demolitions, evacuations, and the wall in Jerusalem, as well as issues of social justice within Israel. With all the separation in Israel, there is also a literary separation. Jews and Arabs live in separate neighborhoods, in separate political spheres. So there is separation in a mundane, everyday sense, but this separation also exists within the literary community. Hebrew and Arabic writers don’t read each other’s works. Most of what does get translated between the two languages are canonical works, not contemporary.

Continue reading at LARB.

Originally Published: May 2nd, 2017