-New travels on a break from the Book Tour, by Jeffrey F. Barken-
In the tradition of James Joyce and Henry Miller, two of my favorite writers, I always like to include an endnote to my finished manuscripts, detailing some of the cities or places I crossed through while I was writing a book. This Year in Jerusalem, the collection of stories I’ve been touring with these last nine months, concludes:
“New York-Tel Aviv-Baltimore 2009-2013”
Marking a book thus, is personal. For me, the endnote indicates the point of separation. Every character is fully developed. Every plot is realized. I’ve meditated on and digested all of the feelings, emotions, and experiences that were critical to the book’s inception, and I have traveled the full trajectory of my musings. Finally, I can depart from the fiction and begin experiencing the world anew.
Listing places and dates gives the whole the essence of diary entry. Looking back, I say to myself: “First you were there, thinking this; then you were here, changing your mind…”
The author breathes a sigh of relief upon completing a long-term project, but I don’t think I’m alone in saying that a book is never really finished. As far as This Year in Jerusalem is concerned, I’ve actually always thought of the collection as a scrapbook for compiling character sketches and observations of cultural themes relevant to travel and life in Israel.
Since my own life has taken a turn that ensures I will visit here often, when I’m ready, I fully expect to add additional fiction stories to the book I’ve published, thereby extending the collection’s reach and vision. In the meantime, I’m happy to say that the recent accomplishment of selling out of the first edition has enabled me to take a break from peddling books, and to travel in Israel and Europe again with an open mind, and an appetite for gathering new experiences.
As John Irving’s character, Garp would say, I’ve been busy “soaking up.”
Call it an intermission. Last month, I traveled to Rome. The trip was a much-needed respite from daily life in Israel. My wife and I stayed in a hostel near the Santa Maria Maggiore Cathedral. Each day I was happy to forget my stories, dive into new experimental characters and explore the ancient city from their perspectives. Armed only with the same pocket-sized point and shoot Sony Cyber-shot camera I used to take my black and white Berlin photography last summer, the above slide show captures some of the streets and nooks that caught my eye, inspiring reveries…
Upon my return to Israel, I did a little “book buzz” reading at the Café Kilimanjaro in Zichron Yaakov to kick off the arrival of the Second Edition books. Special thanks to Bracha Kurtzer Gross and Kilimanjaro’s lovely staff for organizing this intimate evening of great coffee and literature!
Finally, before returning to my usual book trek, I had a chance to visit the Golan Heights. I had a private jeep tour of the border with Syria where we drove past mine fields left over from the 1973 Yom Kippur war, and explored the ruins of a Russian-built hospital that was bombarded during the fighting. The dilapidated building was riddled with bullet holes and craters and covered with some very powerful graffiti art. Later, we also walked through a labyrinthine Israeli bunker.
As we were leaving, there was an explosion. We turned to witness a tall, mushroom shaped plume of smoke erupt out of the neighboring Syrian town across the border fence. A low-flying Syrian helicopter had evidently dropped one of its nefarious TNT barrel bombs on a rebel-controlled neighborhood.
The gruesome civil war is terrifyingly close, and yet, beyond maintaining the country’s high security alert and assisting the UN’s missions into Syria to rescue civilians caught in the crossfire, there is little Israel can do to interfere. Medics treat the wounded in field hospitals, and then, sadly, have to return them to the war zone because there is no room for another refugee camp in Israel.
“Helpless,” was the only word that came to mind amongst my traveling companions. As we turned our gaze from the carnage, we were painfully aware of the ironies in Western life. There we were, about to have lunch at a restaurant, tour a winery, enjoy the finer things in life, all while horrifying atrocities were taking place within earshot and even on our plane of vision.
The world’s paralysis pressuring Assad to make peace or to hold him accountable for obvious human rights violations weighs heavily on our conscience. Our morals, honor and our core values are all being tested, and yet, there appears to be no practical option for foreign intervention.
When a person feels powerless to effect change, the instinct is to bury emotions and turn away from the conflict. As a fiction author, I’ve always felt it is the writer’s responsibility to view traumas and tragedies like 9/11, the Credit Crisis and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, bravely. I’ll dig in the rubble to gather my research, and allow myself to be moved and shaken by people’s stories. If I succeed in internalizing and portraying a vivid experience for a wider audience, then I’ve done my job well and served a human interest.
Today, I admit that I personally feel poorly equipped to explore Syria’s miserable civil war, or to even fully embrace the “keep the castle” mentality that has characterized Israel’s response to the Arab Spring. It was, however, quite a shock to find myself so close to a brutal conflict, and is perhaps the best starting place I can think of for the next chapter of my ever-wandering work.