Interview with Yossi Yonah, Author of Tel Aviv Ramallah

07 Jul 2021

What can you tell us about your new release, Tel Aviv Ramallah?

As a longtime peace activist who moves back and forth between Israeli and Palestinian societies, I was struck by how little Israelis and Palestinians know about each other. Despite living in close geographical proximity, they tend to view each other as a “radical other” – one who lives beyond irreducible cultural barriers. Tel Aviv Ramallah shortens this mental distance. As one reviewer succinctly noted, the novel “has the readers bring Israelis and Palestinians back together, pointing out the similarity of concerns, anxieties, fears, and dreams. Yonah manages to convey – yet never preach – the inexhaustible truth that humans are ultimately alike despite all difference of nationality, religion, or race.” 

What or who inspired you to become an author?

My Mother, who is illiterate, was an incredible storyteller of folk narratives and legends. Long before TV became commonplace in Israel, my siblings and I used to gather around her on winter nights and listen avidly to her stories. She would typically lay out a narrative over three or four nights, each installment lasting two to three hours. To the extent that we can reliably glean from our childhood constitutive elements shaping our identities, values, and aspirations, I dare say these cherished experiences are what instilled in me the love of storytelling and the desire to become an author. In fact, my next novel, Echoes from the Euphrates (soon to be available in English) is directly based on my mother’s recounting of her family’s saga in Iraq.  

What’s on your top 5 list for the best books you’ve ever read?

  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  • The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years by Chinghiz Aitmatov 
  • The Human Stain by Philip Roth
  • Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  • Disgrace by JM Coetzee  

Say you’re the host of a literary talk show. Who would be your first guest? What would you want to ask?

Philip Roth. My question for Roth: What does it take to delve into the psyches of protagonists with whom the author shares precious little cultural, historical, and personal background? I wonder what Roth would say about the oft-repeated claim that, perspective-wise, an author is ultimately limited to walking in his own shoes. How and to what extent can we overcome these limitations? 

What’s your favorite thing about writing?

The moments of elation when writing a scene and being moved by what you’ve written. This is not about the sense of accomplishment, but rather about the scene’s surprising emotional impact on oneself. In those moments, reading the scene from a distance, the characters you’ve invented no longer feel like figments of your imagination, but assume a life all their own – allowing you to identify with them, exulting or mourning as you follow their victories and defeats.  

What is a typical day like for you?

I wake up late, skim a daily newspaper, have a small breakfast, and spend 4-6 hours writing or trying to write. Three times a week, I take an 8-km walk in the late afternoon along Tel Aviv’s beach. I usually spend more than an hour day listening to music: classical, rock oldies, blues, and Hebrew and Arabic music – again, mostly oldies.  

What scene from Tel Aviv Ramallah was your favorite to write?

I enjoyed writing the scene where Hadil, one of my heroines, informs her Greek Orthodox parents of her love affair with Hisham (who is Muslim) and her desire to marry him. This scene echoes the conflict often described in art, between romantic love and cultural and religious barriers. It allowed me to restage the conflict against a Middle Eastern socio-political background, and to examine the extent to which a spontaneous bond between two individuals can challenge the despotism of rigid collective identities. 

Do you have a motto, quote, or philosophy you live by?

“Unfortunately, life has no meaning other than the one we grant it.” 

Yossi Yonah is the author of the new book Tel Aviv Ramallah

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rebecca