This text below is a phonetic transcript of a radio story broadcast by PRI's THE WORLD. It has been created on deadline by a contractor for PRI. The transcript is included here to facilitate internet searches for audio content. Please report any transcribing errors to email@example.com. This transcript may not be in its final form, and it may be updated. Please be aware that the authoritative record of material distributed by PRI's THE WORLD is the program audio.
LISA MULLINS: The Middle East was in the headlines earlier this week when President Obama met with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And it's going to be in the news next week when Mr. Obama meets Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. But for the people of the region, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is something they never stop thinking about. That's certainly true for writers there. Our book critic, Christopher Merrill, is here to talk about some new books from some of those writers. And Chris you have chosen some books from the Israeli writer Amos Oz along with a biography of a Palestinian poet. Let's start with Amos Oz though. This is a man who just turned 70 years old. He's got a new collection of writings out called the Amos Oz Reader. Why read Amos Oz now?
CHRISTOPHER MERRILL: Well Lisa Amos Oz is one of the signal figures in world literature. He's a famous Israeli novelist. He's a prominent political journalist and in this reader, which collects samples, excerpts, form 15 of his books, you get a real taste of the course that he has been navigating all these years. He left home at the age of 14; changed his name to Oz which means strength; went to live on a kibbutz; and then over the years began to become a peace activist in Israel. So now we have a chance to taste who he is as a writer. See what the work measures up to him.
MULLINS: So is he taking that political stand and converting it into his literature? Is his writing in this reader overtly political?
MERRILL: Well it's both. There is intensely political work. There's writings about life on the kibbutz. But there's also the most tender evocation of his mother who committed suicide when he was 12. And to see how carefully and tenderly he delineates that is to be reminded of what it's like to be in the presence of a writer who has an acute political consciousness but also a deep understanding of human foibles and human capacity for greatness.
MULLINS: Well that brings us to a new novel by Amos Oz as well. This is called Rhyming Life and Death. And it's basically eight hours in the life of an author in Tel Aviv.
MULLINS: Well speaking of imagining the life of another. This is what authors have to do as they write a biography. Some of it based on fact. Some of it based on supposition. And it brings us to the biography of a man named Taha Muhammad Ali. He is in his late 70s right now. He was born in 1931. His first book was published when he was 52 years old and he is not really the most well known of Palestinian writers. He's also, unlike Amos Oz of Israel, not overtly political either. This biography itself has an interesting back story written by an American woman. Tell us about her.
MERRILL: Well Adina Hoffman is an American Jewish woman who has been living in Jerusalem for the last 16 years and she grew very interested in the poetry and the person of this Taha Muhammad Ali who runs a souvenir store near the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. As he says he is a Muslim selling Christian souvenirs to Jews. And the other part of the story is he had only four years of schooling and yet he has managed to become a world class poet.
MULLINS: What does he write about?
MERRILL: Well he writes... Really at the heart of it he's writing about Al Nakba, the catastrophe, 1948 the Israeli war of independence. His village near Nazareth was completely depopulated and then destroyed. He and his family set out on foot for Lebanon and then they made their way back and began to set up shop in Nazareth. So in one way or another what he's really writing about is what's gone. For example, his older brother has devoted part of his life to gathering up souvenirs and antiques and anything he can find that relates to that village â€“ a way of trying to make that village come back to life in the physical world. And what Taha does is to do it on the page.
MULLINS: Well if our listeners would like to find out more about Taha Muhammad Ali, the book itself is called My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness a Poets Life in the Palestinian Century. And you can check out more on our website including images of Taha Muhammad Ali who one critic said has a face like a catcher's mitt. Chris also told us Amos Oz's newest works. One of them the Amos Oz Reader and the other one, his new novel, called Rhyming Life and Death. Again go to theworld.org for more. Chris Merrill, director of the international writing program at the University of Iowa, a pleasure as always.