Nakba, the Night of Bad Dreams

Last night, I read S. Yizhar’s Khirbet Khizeh. It’s a short novel about the Israelis’ roundup and expulsion of Arab villagers from a single village in 1948. Published in Israel in 1949, it’s a classic piece of modernist prose, veering within a single paragraph from the most biblical cadences and august references to the shit talk of soldiers. It’s also beautiful prose, observing the most incidental details—about animals, vegetation, dress, vomit—that never leave you once you read them.

It also gave me a night of bad dreams. Maybe it’s because I’ve just come out of my six-month immersion in the Arendt/Eichmann archive, but it’s almost impossible—even if you’re the most fastidious of scholars or committed of Zionists—not to read Khirbet Khizeh without some sense of the historical parallels. The co-translator of the novel, Nicholas de Lange, who’s a professor emeritus of Hebrew and Jewish studies at Cambridge University, says, “The Israelis are portrayed really like Nazis.” Lest that make you toss the book aside in disgust or disbelief, let me say that there’s nothing tendentious or unbelievable in the book’s descriptions; it’s quiet, carefully and closely observed prose, yielding what seems like an eminently plausible, and non-accusatory, narration of a war or founding of a state. Anywhere. A slightly more embroidered and lyrical version of Coetzee. But just as horrifying.

Throughout the novel, there are several roundups, where the soldiers and narrator speculate on the Arabs who don’t resist—and the crazy few who do, in a variety of ways (from the dignified and futile supplications of a village elder to the defiant lighting up a cigarette of a mustachioed peasant to a woman, driven insane with grief, racing back to the village she’s just been expelled from and her house that’s just been blown up, with the knowledge “that her home and her world had come to a full stop, and everything had turned dark and was collapsing”). These moments were all too reminiscent to me of the reading about Eichmann I’ve been doing these last six months. It was hard for me, reading the words of a Israeli soldier making fun of those Arabs who simply do as they’re told, who are shocked and surprised by the Israelis’ power into apathy and abjectness, it was hard for me not to think that a mere decade before, Jews were thrust into a similar situation of apathy and abjectness, uncertain what to do except obey, in the hope that something good might come of their cooperation.

In a weirdly contradictory sense, however, the book also refuses such comparisons. Not for political or ideological reasons. But because it hugs so closely the ground of its narration.

The Nakba is one of those grand words—like Shoah or Jim Crow—that by its very nature has to conceal more than it reveals. It’s a necessary shorthand for thousands of local events and decisions, a convenient argot for the multiple and varied experiences of hundreds of thousands of people. It’s one of those words or phrases we all use in order to get to our next sentence or paragraph.

Khirbet Khizeh slows us down. The whole of the novella is one day in one village. The pacing is quick, but the narrative is slow. Every bush, camel, donkey, grass, every twist and turn of an alleyway, is noticed, observed. And every victim and every soldier, it seems, is, too. The sustained attention to this single event, in one day, in one village—how casual and cruel this soldier is, how uncertain this other one is, yet how they all add up to this one awful moment of expulsion and exile, of roundup and transport, those terrible words that should make any Jew shudder—brings the Nakba into focus as no amount of polemic or history quite can.

The first sentence of the book reads, “True, it all happened a long time ago, but it has haunted me ever since.” It’s only been one night of bad dreams for me, but I have a sense of what the author means.


  1. thom March 25, 2015 at 12:58 pm | #

    Corey, I am grateful for your moving thinking, writing, research and for this moving, sobering post.

  2. lazycat1984 March 25, 2015 at 3:08 pm | #

    Well you sold me on the novel. Israel takes some well deserved knocks for this kind of behavior. The fascism seems to be getting worse, but then the great powers aren’t exactly setting a shining example.

  3. crb March 25, 2015 at 5:05 pm | #

    Mention of Coetzee is interesting as the dominant metaphor in his masterpiece Waiting for the Barbarians is blindness of almost all Whites–except the hapless Magistrate–in their settler-colonial outpost:

    I have never seen anything like it: two little discs of glass suspended in front of his eyes in loops of wire. Is he blind? I could understand it if he wanted to hide blind eyes. But he is not blind. The discs are dark, they look opaque from the outside, but he can see through them. He tells me they are a new invention. “They protect one’s eyes against the glare of the sun,” he says. “You would find them useful out here in the desert. They save one from squinting all the time. One has fewer headaches. Look.” He touches the corners of his eyes lightly. “No wrinkles.” He replaces the glasses. It is true. He has the skin of a younger man. “At home everyone wears them.

    I suppose it’s the bad dreams of their supremacist reality that allowed swift passage of the recent law banning use of the word ‘Nazi’ to refer to one’s political opponents in what Max Blumenthal refers to as JSIL–‘Jewish State in the Levant’.

    No shortage of massacres in their history (and another one will take place with metronomic certainty soon within the next couple of years), but with the passing of earlier generations that had memory of what had happened in Europe, their heirs have given up even any pretense of having moral qualms as they do “what needs to be done” to build their ethnically pure state:

    A refugee from Nazi Germany, he had experienced Kristallnacht in 1938 when Nazi troops conducted a pogrom against the local Jewish population. He was saved when a Nazi policeman warned him: “Run home fast, boy.”

    Remembering that moment 18 years later as Arab workers arrived at his checkpoint, he said: “I fired in the air and shouted in Arabic – ‘Yallah, go home fast’ – just like the German policeman who warned me on Kristallnacht.”

  4. LFC April 2, 2015 at 4:23 pm | #

    Thanks — had not heard of the novel. Is it based on Yizhar’s own experience in the Israeli army, or on things he was told, or…?

    • LFC April 2, 2015 at 4:25 pm | #

      p.s. I see in an earlier post you linked a Wall St Journal article about the bk — I suppose the background can be found there (though WSJ pieces are usu. gated).

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