Artist in Exile

"I already Consider Myself a Palestinian"

Gilad Atzmon has not only released his fourth album, but also his first novel, an anti-Zionist satire. Martina Sabra portrays the Israeli musician in his London exile.

Gilad Atzmon has not only released his fourth album, but also his first novel, an anti-Zionist satire. Martina Sabra portrays the Israeli in his London exile.

A typically English, cosy, red-brick terraced house close to the throbbing heart of London is home to the jazz musician Gilad Atzmon, his wife, the Israeli singer Tal Atzmon, and their two children. But Atzmon does not have much time for his family: since the Orient House Ensemble won the BBC Jazz Album of the Year award last July for the CD Exile, Gilad Atzmon, who has worked with the likes of deceased rock legend Ian Dury, but also with Paul McCartney, Robbie Williams and Sinead O’Connnor, is in even greater demand than before.

What’s more, his first novel has just been published in German. In October and November, the saxophonist and clarinettist will be touring Germany giving readings and concerts. And as if that wasn’t stressful enough, Atzmon uses every spare minute he has to cram Spanish: the teach-yourself-Spanish cassettes are piled up on the back seat of his car. During a concert tour of Argentina, Atzmon developed a passion for tango. ‘I want to go back to Argentina with the Orient House Ensemble as soon as possible and work with tango musicians there,’ he enthuses. ‘Tango is dramatic and erotic – just what I’ve always wanted to do.’

The rejection of religious Zionism as state ideology

At home, the sounds of English and Hebrew are heard wafting between the kitchen, the grand piano and the children’s bedroom. Like his parents before him, Gilad Atzmon was born and grew up in Israel. But he has since turned his back on the Jewish state and recently assumed British citizenship. This was not just a career move, he explains, it was also because he rejects religious Zionism as the state ideology. While his parents were right wing in terms of their politics, Atzmon never considered the Palestinians to be his enemies.

‘I saw so many corpses when we marched into Lebanon in 1982; most of them were Syrian and Palestinian. And I remember thinking that for me, they were like Israelis: just people playing this stupid, bloody game. I felt close to them despite everything that was going on. Then when some of my comrades began taking photos of semi-decomposed bodies on tanks as if they were trophies, I decided I didn’t want anything to do with all of that; not with Israel and not with Zionism.’

Atzmon's Satirical Anti-Zionism

Atzmon’s debut novel, which he is currently promoting in Germany, is entitled Guide of the Perplexed. It is no coincidence that it shares a title with the work of the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who 800 years ago wanted to bring his Jewish contemporaries back on the right track. But unlike his academic fore-fore-forefather, the former doctoral student of philosophy has not written a sterile philosophical construct, but has painted a satirical, modern view of the world.

The novel is set in the year 2052: Zionism is dead and Israel as a religious Jewish state has foundered on its inner contradictions. Gilad Atzmon’s alter ego, the philosophy professor Gunther Wanker, has emigrated from Israel to Germany, invented ‘peepology’ and on his death leaves behind a comprehensive body of scientific work. Peepology – or the ‘science of voyeurism and assimilation’ – is based on free love and is intended to save both the Jews and humanity from themselves.

"Think for yourselves"

Gilad Atzmon is firmly convinced of the truth of what sounds like a biting satire on Ariel Sharon’s government. ‘When you think that in less than ten years more non-Jews than Jews will be living between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, it is obvious that there will be a Palestinian state in the Middle East sometime in the future. ‘In fact, I already consider myself a Palestinian' he says with a wink.

The Israeli press reacted very positively to the publication of the Hebrew original in Israel in 2001. Nevertheless, Guide of the Perplexed is no masterpiece. While the basic idea is original and parts of the text are brilliantly written, the simple plot and repetition become somewhat fatiguing after a while. Moreover, in view of the increasing racism in Germany, it is justifiable to ask whether Atzmon’s book might possibly foster anti-Semitism. Gilad Atzmon doesn’t care either way.

He admits that misgivings did arise during the translation of the book into German, but adds that he is not afraid: ‘If people want to use my ideas to justify something or to push through their own agenda, let them! Don’t forget: this book is fiction. It describes the process of detachment, alienation and self-imposed exile. And I think that if you read it as a German, you might just think about yourself.’

Martina Sabra

© Qantara.de 2003

Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan

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