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Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38
Amy Dockser Marcus is a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal based out of Boston. A series of stories that she wrote about the challenges of living with cancer won the Pulitzer Prize for best reporting in 2005. She was based in Israel as The Wall Street Journal's Middle East correspondent from 1991 to 1998. Her first book, The View From Nebo: How Archaeology is Rewriting the Bible and Reshaping the Middle East, was named one of the top non-fiction books of the year by the Los Angeles Times.
Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for Jerusalem 1913?
Amy Dockser Marcus: I had been working and living in Israel for many years and grown used to the notion of a constant undercurrent of conflict. But in March, 1997, there was a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that shook me. A Palestinian man blew himself up outside a popular Tel Aviv restaurant. There was an image that was replayed over and over again on Israeli TV, that of a distraught policewoman cradling an injured baby outside the destroyed restaurant, calling for the baby's mother to come forward and claim the child. But the mother had been killed in the attack. I think this attack in particular shook me because the baby was the same age as my own daughter at the time, and the restaurant where it took place was one I myself had sat in on many occassions. I started wondering about how the two sides had arrived to such a terrible point, that someone was blowing himself up and killing a young mother. In writing the book, I was very interested in exploring two key questions: first of all, to understand if there had been a period of time when the two sides lived in relative peace, and secondly, what events had forced the sides apart. I focused on the city of Jerusalem because of its continued strategic, political, religious and emotional importance in the conflict and because I knew that it was always a city where Jews, Christians and Muslims shared common ground. When I began reading histories of this period, and poring through the memoirs and diaries written by those who lived in the city at the time, I realized that it was possible to tell a story of a dramatic turning point largely through the eyes of people who lived through it. I also began to see that there were important events where various decisions and choices had to be made, and that these choices in turn made it possible for the ensuing violence to emerge. What was especially poignant was seeing how the main characters in my book--a non-Zionist Jewish leader named Albert Antebi who found himself increasingly collaborating with the Zionists on various projects, a Muslim from a prominent family named Ruhi Khalidi who admired many of the Zionist achievements in Palestine but feared their growing power would lead to violent conflict with the Arabs, and a Zionist Jew named Arthur Ruppin who wrestled with the consequences of seeing his ideas prevail -- interacted with one another. They disagreed on many political issues, sometimes vehemently, but they shared the city, however uneasily. It is the unraveling of their interaction with one another that most touched and moved me.
MT: Isn't 1913 a rather arbitrary date?
AM: The Arab-Israeli conflict isn't nearly as old as people think. Given the level of enmity, people often imagine that the conflict stretches back millenia. But actually it dates only as far back as the late 1880s, when large numbers of Jewish settlers began arriving in Palestine with the hopes of establishing new cities. Traditionally, historians have focused on the British Mandate period when tracing the origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict, since this is the time right before the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. But I argue that the path to war was already firmly set long before the Mandate period. I chose the year 1913 as the focus of my book because I believed it marked a significant turning point, a year in which key events took place that inexorably led to conflict. This was the last time the Zionist Congress was able to meet before the outbreak of World War I, and at this congress, for the first time, Zionist leaders openly stated that they wanted to see a Jewish cultural and demographic majority in Palestine. They adopted Hebrew as the language that should be spoken and taught in Jewish schools in Palestine. 1913 witnessed a rise in Arab-Jewish violence as Jewish land purchases continued to increase. This was also the year of the first Arab-Zionist peace negotiations, an effort to try to come to some sort of compromise or agreement over the future of Palestine. The two sides realized that they were so far apart that they worried that meeting might actually make things worse. In the end, World War I broke out and so the two sides were unable to meet but the peace talks would have derailed in any event. For these reasons, I think 1913 was a year when choices were made, decisions undertaken, that led to the two sides parting ways.
MT: How long did it take you to research and write the book?
AM: It took two-and-a-half years. I spent time in the central archives in Jerusalem, obtaining material, as well as in numerous libraries, including Harvard University's Widener Library, which was a rich source of memoirs and documents from this period. I was able to read copies of Hebrew newspapers from this time at Brandeis University in Waltham and Hebrew College in Newton. I was also fortunate in that family members of several of the key characters in the book provided me with letters, unpublished journals, and other material. One of the challenges of the research was the fact that people used so many different languages during this time period. I needed to get documents translated from German, French, and Arabic. Even though the Zionist Congress embraced Hebrew as the national language, the protocols of the 1913 meeting were in German, which was the common language among Zionist leaders of this period. Albert Antebi, a key character in the book and a Jewish leader in Jerusalem during this period, was a wonderful letter writer. His language was rich and colorful and he left behind voluminous material, but it was all in French.
MT: How do you write?
AM: I wrote the first draft of every chapter by long-hand, usually sitting in a comfortable chair in the coffeeshop near my home. Then I would type what I had written and rewrite off the computer.
MT: Do you see any hope for resolution?
AM: When I was based in Israel, I lived through a golden period. The Oslo accords between Israel and the PLO had been signed in 1993, followed by a peace treaty with Jordan in 1994. I went to Casablanca to cover the Middle East economic summit and was amazed to see Israelis openly discussing business deals with Gulf Arabs. It was a very optimistic time. But Yitzhak Rabin's assassination and the changes in Israeli society that came in the wake of that event, the rise of the suicide bomber on the Palestinian side, the incipient civil war taking place now between Fatah and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, are all troubling things that make it hard to imagine a peaceful resolution any time soon. Still, I believe there is no other alternative except for the two sides to talk to one another and accept a two-state solution.
MT: Do you miss the role of Middle East correspondent?
AM: I spent many happy times in the Middle East, and met many generous and interesting people on both sides of the conflict. I still try to go back every year and find it a fascinating and special place. But the Middle East is far less hospitable to journalists and the kind of journalism that I most enjoyed doing there than it used to be. Danny Pearl and I were colleagues at The Wall Street Journal. When I covered the Middle East, I drove in cars with strangers to isolated places without much fear, always assuming that people were as interested in telling me their stories as I was in hearing them and telling them. My faith in this idea died along with Danny.
MT: What do you do when you are not writing Amy?
AM: I spend time with my family, take long walks, and love to read.
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?
AM: My experience as a journalist and now in writing my second book is that stories that interest and engage and perplex me are ones that will also pull in others. I am intensely curious about the wider world. I also find myself most interested in the expected, almost counter-intuitive idea, and think my work appeals most to readers who share a similar sensibility.
MT: What are you working on now?
AM: I continue to work as a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, and am writing a series of stories called "Funding A Cure" about the dilemmas of patient advocates who raise large sums of money to help finance research and clinical trials in overlooked diseases.
MT: Who is your favourite writer/books?
AM: My favorites are the narrative non-fiction writers -- John McPhee, Joan Didion, Ted Conover, Tracy Kidder, Ryszard Kapuscinski, to name just a few. It is hard to choose a favorite book since more than anything I love being told a riveting story, but two of my favorites are Tracy Kidder's The Soul of A New Machine and Philip Gourevitch's We Wish To Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories of Rwanda.
MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer?
AM: Read voraciously. Have faith that you have an interesting story to tell, and that your perspective is unique.
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