There’s a sense, in Tel Aviv, that one has ended up in the world’s lost property department. All is jumbled, chaotic, heaped up – and yet with the sense that nothing and no one here ever belonged anywhere else. Things turn up (and turn) unexpectedly while others vanish without warning. And stranger still, that which you did not know was waiting to be found is also chanced upon. Yes, before I came here I expected to find answers, questions, revelations, confusions, beauty, truth, visions and illusions. I found all of those, thrown around and piled on top of each other. I expected to find meaning, and I did, abundantly – for in Israel, a country which uses its past to distract itself from its present, meaning is like brambles; you keep getting snagged, unexpectedly. Sometimes it tears your clothes, sometimes your skin. It emerges between encounters with the sacred and the mundane. (And by virtue of its exoticism, the mundane also becomes sacred.) All these things I found, yet my biggest discovery is the one I never imagined looking for; namely, my voice. It is easy, in hindsight, to position this within the ground zero matrix of the immigrant; for when you emigrate you are distilled, and gradually drip back into yourself. But it is not apparent until the words spill into your mouth and your mind from elsewhere that you realise your voice is the firmament in which these findings embed themselves. It charts the stars as you seep, returning to the root of the root of yourself, gazing at the constellations of self-discovery.
As such, Tel Aviv has not only re-threaded my ties to myself (as I have written about much in the last year), but also my ties to literature and words. My final solo trip to Israel coincided with my discovery of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, and it has improbably, ineluctably framed my experience of the place since, as well as re-tinting my memories of it. Or perhaps it isn’t improbable, and it is simply the kind of tortured paean that can be related to by all those who are at the mercy of a city which has electrified their mind and saturated their soul. A new year’s day cup of coffee at a Dizengoff cafe recast my understanding of my surroundings through the conduit of 1950s New York, as the furious, psychotically urbane, relentless thrust of the poem bled into and snapped away again from my circulating impressions of Tel Aviv. The infinite rush of inside-out days and nights; glowing, pulsating rooms full of sultry glances behind blackout curtains; curious tastes in ancient new installations and familiar faces in strange places – all skipped across the surface of my imagination and splashed in, followed by another pebble of recollection, and another. Into these wailing winds (experienced quietly at that cafe) sauntered Ginsberg and his beats, and his Beats; whirling dervishes bearing the gifts of syntax and vocabulary finally sufficient to approach the kinesis and rhythm I had struggled to verbalise. So it is that each time I pass that cafe, a door bangs in my head somewhere, whipped open and closed by leftover sighs. It is since I came to Israel that I have been trailed by the idea of books working as a camera lens; adjusting our field of vision and focus on the world around us; picking different bits out for us as we read, and even more so as we ponder what we have read. It seems that we always manage to begin reading the right book at the right time, without meaning to, and without really knowing why. And as I have existed in and experienced Israel over the last year, the opening line of Howl has visited me more than any other quotation: “I saw the best minds of my generation…”
Other times, other places… “My voice was born in Beirut”, the Algerian writer Ahlem Mosteghanemi wrote in a recent love letter to the city. Her words infused with the bewitching fragrance of this region’s writing, she describes the impact Lebanon’s capital has had on her voice, from its offer of “emotional asylum” to its “coexistence of contradictions”, and with a final flourish, that “[s]he experiences her delights like an endangered pleasure, so accustomed is she to snatching joy from the jaws of death.” (Beirut is referred to in the feminine, as all cities of seduction should be.) And that is my experience of Tel Aviv; a city which left me reeling, spinning, tumbling, spiralling, finally crash-landing in an endless hall of a new reality, and a new language in which to render it. It is a ball of wool from which countless threads unravel and are remade. It goes on spinning stories to keep the outside world at bay, to delay the release from its endless reverie. It has a thousand voices and one voice.
Scheherazade, what would you have happen tonight? And will you permit me the words to re-tell it?