“Fields that would never be harvested, plantations that would never be irrigated, paths that would become desolate. A sense of destruction and worthlessness. An image of thistles and brambles everywhere, a desolate tawniness, a braying wilderness. And already from those fields accusing eyes peered out at you, that silent accusatory look as of a reproachful animal, staring and following you so there was no refuge.” — Yizhar Smilansky, Khirbet Khizeh
On the day in 2014 that I read the new English translation of Khirbet Khizeh, Tom Engelhardt published a blog post rewriting recent news articles on the U.S. Senate’s torture report as a 2019 Senate report on drone murders. The 2019 “news” media in Tom’s believable account is shocked — shocked, I tell you — by the rampant murder discovered to have been committed using missiles from drones of all things.
The point is that most of what’s been discussed as news from the recent torture report, and certainly all of the fundamental moral points — has been known — or, more accurately, knowable for years. For the past several years, the U.S. establishment has been repeatedly “banning” torture. It has also been repeatedly discovering the same evidence of torture, over and over again. Leading torturers have gone on television to swear they’d do it all again, while radical activist groups have demanded “investigations.”
The point is that at some point “truth and reconciliation” is lies and reconciliation — the lies of pretending that the truth needed to be unearthed, that it was hidden for a time, that the crimes weren’t committed in the broad daylight of television spotlights on a sweaty old man assuring us he was about to start working on the dark side.
Illustrated above, from the iNakba app, are villages that were destroyed in 1948 to create Israel. Generations of Israelis have grown up not knowing, not wanting to know, pretending not to know, and knowing without confronting the Catastrophe. Israelis are discovering what happened, unburying the hidden truth, filming aging participants’ distorted confessions, and hunting out the outlines of disappeared villages on GoogleEarth.
But what if the truth was always marching naked down the street with trumpets sounding?
In May 1949, Yizhar Smilansky published Khirbet Khizeh, a fictional account of the destruction of a fictional village much like many real ones. Smilansky knew or hoped that he was ahead of his time, so much so that he began the tale by framing it as a recollection from the distant future. The narrator, like the reader, was known by the author to be unable to see for years to come.
What would keep the book alive until that distant day?
It’s not a Senate report. Khirbet Khizeh is a work of masterful insight and storytelling that grips you and compels you to enter the experience of its narrator and his companions, as they do what the author had done, as they imitate Nazis before all the ashes had fallen from the skies above the ovens in Europe.
This book was planted and grew. It’s been taught in Israeli schools. It was a movie on Israeli television in 1978. And now, with a sense that perhaps sleepy eyes are stretching open at long last, the book has had itself translated into the language of the imperial homeland, English.
But how could poetry keep heresy alive?
Several ways, I think. Absolute failure to pay attention, for one. Think about how literature is taught in many U.S. schools, for example. The ability of people to hear the poetry without the meaning, for another. Think about people singing John Lennon’s Imagine without having the slightest idea they’ve just proposed to abolish religions, nations, and private property, or how people throw around the phrase “peace on earth” in December. Perverse but predictable and perhaps predicted misinterpretation, for another. Think about how viewers of the propaganda film Zero Dark Thirty read accounts of torture, for example — as a dirty job that needed doing for a greater cause.
It’s a strain, to me at least, to read Khirbet Khizeh as a celebration of genocide or mass-eviction. And the book not only suffered but also benefitted from being ahead of its time. It pre-existed the mythologies and rhetorical defenses that grew up around the Catastrophe in the decades that followed. When the narrator makes a slight resistance to what he is engaged in, no reader can find anything but humanitarian motivation in his resistance. The idea that this soldier, questioning his fellow soldiers, is engaged in anti-Semitism would literally make no sense. He’s revolted by the cruelty, no more no less — cruelty that every adult and child has to have always known was part of any mass settlement of ancient lands in 1948.
When I was a child, in elementary school, I wrote a story about an eviction of a family from its house, complete with plenty of tear-jerking details. As a good American I wrote about British redcoats evicting patriotic U.S. revolutionaries. My teacher suggested to me that I had a talent for writing. But that wasn’t writing. Had I written of the Native Americans, the Hawaiians, the Filipinos, the Vietnamese, of Diego Garcia or Vieques or the Marshall Islands or Thule or Okinawa or any of the many places about which silence was expected, that might have been writing.
Let us wish no more Khirbet Khizehs on the people of Palestine and many more Khirbet Khizehs on the world.