Facing the Forests (Mul Haye'arot) by A. B. Yehoshua, 1968

views updated

by A. B. Yehoshua, 1968

The early short stories of the leftist Israeli writer A. B. Yehoshua, those written during the 1960s, have been often described as the Kafkaesque nightmares of alienation and isolation experienced by the "generation of the state," persons who came of age after 1948, the year in which the State of Israel was proclaimed. In these stories Israel is not the land of hope and fulfillment usually depicted in the works of other Israeli writers and reflected in the hopes of the Zionist ideologues who created the country. Instead, Yehoshua's Israel is a place of pessimism and despair inhabited by dislocated people concerned with the moral dilemmas that arise from, among other things, the Palestinian presence in Israel and the danger of holding on too assiduously to the Zionist vision of the previous generation without taking into account the reality of the Palestinians and their demands.

Yehoshua powerfully depicts these dilemmas in Facing the Forests (Mul Haye'arot), the title novella of his 1968 collection Three Days and a Child. A highly controversial work that provoked extensive, sometimes acrimonious, debate both inside and outside of Israel (some thought it subversive), the story concerns a shiftless, lonely, unnamed graduate student of modest intellectual means who, for want of something better, takes "a marginal job" as a forest ranger. He is interviewed for the position by the head of the Afforestation Office, "a worthy character edging his way to old age." In the silence and isolation offered by the job (he is to watch for fires), he hopes to complete extensive readings in Latin for a thesis of some sort dealing with the Crusades. The forest grows over land where an Arab village used to stand until it was razed by the Israelis. The ranger's Arab servant lives in the firewatch tower with his daughter; he used to live in the village, where his wives were somehow murdered. Occasional visitors include hikers, foreign dignitaries and tourists who come when donor name plates are placed on rocks and dedicated to the memory of loved ones, and the ranger's middle-aged mistress.

Though initially weary of the ranger, the Arab and his daughter warm to the young man, who is vaguely sexually attracted to the girl. He learns that the authorities believe the Arab to be saving kerosene to burn the forest. One night the ranger lights a bonfire from pine needles, as if to give the Arab "a lesson" on how to burn down the forests. On the night before the ranger is to leave, the Arab sets fires to the forests; because the telephone lines have been cut, the ranger cannot call for help. Taking the girl with him, he escapes the holocaust; and though fire engines eventually come, nothing can save the forests, and the ranger is held responsible. Both the ranger and the Arab are relentlessly interrogated; eventually, the Arab is accused. As he is led away, his daughter clings to him. The ranger demands that, somehow, she be taken care of. At this suggestion the Afforestation officer attacks the ranger, who is then roughed up and driven to town by the police. Looking like "a savage," he eats and tries to sleep. He can only drowse as visions of green forests spring up before him. His friends abandon him, treating him like a "wet dog begging for fire and light," a pariah.

In this story, the Arab-Israeli conflict is depicted as a three-sided affair: the old director of Afforestation, an articulate and organized person representing the older generation that established Israel, wields power on behalf of and takes pride in the forests, a symbol for Israel; the rootless, uncertain student, whose competence the older man seems to question and who, at first, does not even believe that the forests exist; and the Arab, whose tongue has been cut out, by either other Arabs or by the Israelis, a symbol of the silent, unheard Arabs living in Israel, performing menial jobs and capable of violence.

During the job interview the older man, wishing to think the best of the young man, asks whether he is writing his dissertation; the younger replies evasively that he is not quite that far along. The implication here is that the older man's expectations of the younger are not met, or are perhaps inflated, unrealistic. When the older man comes to the forest with visiting dignitaries, the younger man notices that he is "darting troubled looks about him, raising his eyes at the trees as though searching for something." The older man introduces the younger to visitors by the hyperbolic title of "scholar." Later the officer holds the ranger responsible for the fire and attacks him when the ranger seems to show more concern for the young Arab girl than for the forests.

The Crusades, the ranger's thesis topic, hold powerful metaphorical meaning in the story. These were events in which zealous yet rapacious Europeans invaded the Middle East, for ostensibly justifiable religious reasons, and established short-lived, so-called "Latin" (European) kingdoms there. The analogy between the Crusaders and their ephemeral kingdoms and latter-day European Jewish occupiers of Israel is stark. That Israel, like the kingdom of the Crusaders, might disappear, due in part to the lack of commitment of younger Israelis, is blasphemous for many, especially Zionists convinced of the God-given right of Jews to this land.

Highly symbolic and, in light of the intifada (uprising) among the Palestinians in the occupied territories of Israel, even prophetic, Facing the Forests is one of Yehoshua's most politically disturbing stories. Though his later works are, by comparison, more muted, this story may be viewed as Yehoshua's appeal that, though Israel may wish to gloss over the presence of Palestinians by planting forests, both actually and symbolically it cannot do so.

The next day the police and the old Afforestation officer arrive; Israel must face the possibility that what is buried beneath these "forests" will come forth not merely as trees but as Arab grievances and, perhaps, even conflagration as well.

—Carlo Coppola