DATE August 5, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Noah Feldman discusses whether democracy can flourish
in the lands where Islam prevails
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest Noah Feldman is currently advising the Iraqi Governing Council on the
creation of a new constitution. He spent part of the spring and summer in
Baghdad working with the US Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian
Assistance advising on issues pertaining to the structure of government,
including the constitutional process. Feldman is a professor at the NYU
School of Law, where he co-directs the Center on Law and Security. His new
book, "After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy," poses
the question: Can democracy be made to flourish in the lands where Islam
prevails? He argues that it can. I asked him why he believes that at a time
when many people fear that an Islamic government will lean toward
fundamentalist extremism and become more of a theocracy than a democracy.
Professor NOAH FELDMAN (NYU School of Law): The reason is that Muslims
themselves say so. An increasingly large number of Muslims--and in Iraq, just
to give one example, this group of Muslims are probably the majority--say
openly that they think that their Islamic values and compatible with
democracy, that they interpret Islam in such a way as to demand the rule of
law, as to demand equality for all people, men and women, Muslims and
non-Muslims, and to demand elections. So if enough Muslims say that this is
their commitment and belief, then I believe that there will be a version of
Islam that will emerge as compatible with democracy. It just turns entirely
on Muslims themselves.
GROSS: Let me give you an example of the kind of thing I think a lot of
people are worried about in terms of an Islamic democracy. There's an article
this week in The New York Times about how, now that the Iraqi courts have
virtually disappeared, some young clerics are holding court, so to speak, and
giving their opinions about how things should be handled. And in this
article, it described a man who killed his mother because she had been
sullying the family name by committing adultery since he was a boy, so he
murdered her. And he thought that that was the just thing to do, and he went
to the cleric basically, you know, in hopes that the cleric would tell him
that he did the right thing. And these clerics apparently have given
religious approval to certain killings, like killing members of a Baathist
government, the government of Saddam Hussein. What did you think of this?
Did you read the article? And what did you think of these clerics and what
that has to say about the possibilities of Islamic democracy in Iraq?
Prof. FELDMAN: I did read the article, and one of the key elements of the
article is that, according to the leadership of the Muslim community in Iraq,
of the Shiite community, the people running the so-called court are
unauthorized, young essentially graduate students who are clearly relatively
radical, associated with one of the more radical factions and whose views
don't actually reflect traditional Islamic law, something that was made very
clear by the senior clerics when interviewed.
So, for example, the idea that one could, of one's own accord, murder a family
member who was suspected of adultery is absolutely out of accord with Islamic
law. It's not in any way compatible with Islamic teaching. And the fact that
the clerics, or the wanna-be clerics as it were, in the article agreed to
this, as the article reported, is just a wonderful proof that they're not
following Islamic law. Instead, they're acting like revolutionaries who are
doing what they can in a kind of situation of vacuum with respect to the
courts in Iraq. There are secular courts, but they're not yet working in an
extensive way. And so these young bucks, as it were, are getting into the act
by stepping up and offering rough justice, but they're not offering classical
So I think that for Islam and something like the rule of law to work together,
what you need are properly constituted courts. And if a bunch of law
students--no offense to law students; I love law students and I was one
relatively recently myself, but if a bunch of law students got together and
decided in a revolutionary moment here that they were just going to dole out
the law, I don't think we would consider that to be proof that democracy and
our system were incompatible. We would just say that those folks don't know
the law yet.
GROSS: You know, for some people, when they think of Islamic justice, they
think of stoning a woman to death for adultery or honor killings, killing a
woman because she has sexually sullied the family reputation. Is that classic
Islamic justice or is that extremism?
Prof. FELDMAN: Certainly honor killings are not authorized by Islamic law.
They are absolutely not authorized. To the extent that execution is permitted
under classic Islamic law, it's only after a trial at which the standard of
proof is extraordinarily high. Now it's true that classical Islamic law, much
like classical Jewish law, in theory prescribes some very drastic punishments
for things like adultery. So you can find it on the books that a woman
properly convicted of adultery, which means that responsible witnesses in full
broad daylight saw the adulterous act in person, which, if you can think about
it, is a relatively unusual set of circumstances, that in principle, a capital
punishment is prescribed. But in practice, such things are rarely, if ever,
brought about under classic Islamic legal sources. There are one or two
instances of this happening or something equivalent happening in Saudi Arabia,
and I think those are terrible. It's really a shame that such a thing could
But operating within Islamic law, it's entirely possible to avoid ever
executing a punishment like that. What we're seeing is a legal system that
has the capacity to evolve, in much the same way that Western legal systems
have the capacity to evolve. And things that we regularly punished with the
death penalty a hundred or 2 or 300 years ago, we wouldn't imagine of imposing
that sort of punishment for today. Islam has that same capacity to develop on
GROSS: Are you worried that in the vacuum that's being created now, in that
period before a new constitution, before courts are re-established, before
government is re-established--are you worried that in this vacuum, courts like
these extremist young clerics setting up are going to prosper and that other
forms of what you described as rough justice will come into being and that
they'll be maybe hard to dislodge?
Prof. FELDMAN: It worries me a lot because setting up a responsible justice
system is the most important task I think of a government in making itself
legitimate. If the citizens aren't going to your courts but they're going to
somebody else's courts, it's pretty hard to say that you are really the
overall most important government in place. So I am concerned about it. On
the other hand, there's a way to combat it, too, and the way to combat it is
to pour a lot of resources into getting the Iraqi courts reconstituted, up and
running. And the people whom I had the privilege of working with in Iraq who
are working on these issues were on the right track. They knew exactly what
they were doing and they had a good plan in place to reconstitute the justice
system. It's really simply a question of resources. And it's my view that we
need to put a lot more resources than we have been putting into that task,
exactly to avoid the problem that you describe.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Noah Feldman. He's the author
of the book "After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy,"
and the book makes the case for Islamic democracy. He is also now advising
the Iraqis on forming a new constitution.
Can you give us an example of an interesting and telling disagreement among
the Iraqis working on the new constitution about a fundamental principle that
should or should not be in the constitution?
Prof. FELDMAN: One crucial subject is federalism in the new constitution.
There's broad agreement among almost all the Iraqis that I spoke to that the
new Iraq has to be federal in some way. In other words, there has to be a
region that corresponds roughly or a series of regions that correspond roughly
to where most of the Kurds live in the northern part of the country. And
there also need to be other regions, perhaps the central Baghdad region,
perhaps a southern region, perhaps multiple regions, broken up roughly
according to the governorates.
Where the Iraqis disagree, though, pretty deeply is about how much autonomy
these individual regions ought to have. The Kurds would like a maximum amount
of autonomy. They've got a history of being oppressed by the central
government. They have a different language--or, rather, different languages.
They have a culture that's distinctive in many ways. They want as much
independence as they can possibly get. And the rest of the country is
concerned that there's a danger that if a Kurdistan or a Kurdish region has
too much independence, that could lead to the possibility of it seceding and
breaking the country apart, which is a result that nobody in Iraq really wants
So the debate about how much federalism there should be is actually going to
be a very, very serious and extensive debate, even though it sounds as if all
sides roughly agree on federalism, that actually doesn't tell you very much,
that there needs to be a lot of discussion about who's going to rule what and
GROSS: One of the fundamental principles of America's democracy is the
separation of church and state. In Iraq, is it likely to--is the constitution
not likely to say anything about the separation of church and state? Is it
likely to be an Islamic democracy that doesn't have that clear line that
America has tried to uphold?
Prof. FELDMAN: I say in my book, "After Jihad," that in America, we have
trouble imagining a democracy without the separation of church and state, but
that in most Muslim countries, and Iraq is one in this respect, it's just
about impossible to imagine a true democracy that had an absolute separation
of church and state. The reason for that is that the vast majority of people
in Iraq, for example, would like Islam to play at least some symbolic or
value-providing role in their government, which doesn't mean that the country
will be governed by Islamic law, because I don't think that will be the case.
What it means is that the constitution will either acknowledge Islam as the
religion of 95 percent or perhaps a little bit more of all the Iraqis or it
will acknowledge that the values of Islam matter to the Iraqi people. And it
will also do so alongside a commitment to democracy, a commitment to equality
and a commitment to basic liberties.
So what you'll have is a state that is both democratic and, in some sense,
Islamic. You know, the phrase `Islamic state' conjures up in people's minds a
picture of Iran, of a government by mullahs, and that's not going to happen in
Iraq and it shouldn't happen in Iraq and I'm confident that it will not. But
a state can be Islamic in other ways, too. It can be Islamic in the sense
that Islamic values affect people's decisions, in a sense that when
legislation is passed, people think about Islamic values. When there are
public events, the prayers that, let's say, consecrate those events take place
in Arabic or are Muslim prayers. And all of those things can happen alongside
a robust democracy, in my view and increasingly in the view of many Iraqis,
GROSS: Before you started directly advising the Iraqis, you were working with
the Bush administration in consulting on the formation of an Iraqi
constitution. Historically, do you think that the United States has worked on
behalf of democracy in the Islamic world, in the Arab world?
Prof. FELDMAN: Absolutely not. Our history is one of--it's a shameful
history, really, of, for the most part, supporting dictators because we were
concerned to keep the oil flowing and we thought that stability was the key to
keeping the oil flowing, and we thought that the dictators were in a position
to keep that process going. Now there may have been some justification for
this approach, maybe, during the Cold War, when there was a concern that some
of the countries of the region might become Soviet allies, might become
Communists or Socialists, as indeed some did, if they weren't kept in line by
a heavy-handed dictator. So perhaps then there was some justification for
this, but there really isn't any now that the Cold War is over. And what's
more, after September 11th, we can no longer tell ourselves that having
autocrats on our side in the region ensures that our interests are protected,
because one of the motivations of bin Laden and of the al-Qaeda terrorists was
to attack us because of our support of regimes in the region, like the Saudi
So given that it's no longer an approach that keeps us safe, given that
supporting dictators is no longer an approach that can be justified by some
broader purposes of the state, I think it's an approach that's got to change.
GROSS: Do you think the Bush administration thinks that way, too? And do you
think the Bush administration, in that the president himself, would agree with
you in your analysis that we have been on the wrong side historically, that we
haven't supported democracy, we've supported the autocrats?
Prof. FELDMAN: It's difficult for presidents, any president of any party, to
announce that past US policy has been wrong-headed, and I'm guessing that it's
especially difficult to do that if one's own father was part of that policy.
On the other hand, people vote with their feet, and so do countries sometimes.
And by our intervention in Iraq, we've certainly signaled that we're ready for
things to change very significantly. Certainly the invasion of Iraq, or the
liberation if you prefer to call it that, marks a fundamental change in our
approach to the region and our public commitment to creating democracy there,
a commitment which everything that I saw suggests is actually shared, is not
some public consumption doctrine that, in fact, is secretly being undermined,
suggests that we really are interested in changing our policies in the region.
Now we haven't changed our policies everywhere. There are still plenty of
autocratic governments that are being propped up and and shored up by us. But
by creating a democracy in the region, or helping create a democracy in the
region, which is our stated policy at this point, we're going to send shock
waves through the governments of the autocratic Arab rulers. There's no
question about that. When the Iraqi constitutional convention is broadcast
live in Arabic on Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya and Abu Dhabi TV, it's going to be
watched in Cairo, it's going to be watched in Damascus, it's going to be
watched in Riyadh and Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia, and that's going to have a big,
big effect on the region. And believe me, the governments of the region know
that perfectly well.
GROSS: My guest is Noah Feldman. He's consulting with the Iraqi Governing
Council on the creation of a new constitution. His new book is called "After
Jihad." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Noah Feldman is my guest. He's the author of the book "After Jihad:
America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy." He's now consulting with the
Iraqis on writing a new constitution.
Noah Feldman, let me point out here that you are Jewish and that you grew up
in an orthodox family and, you know, there is a lot of anti-Semitism right now
in the Islamic world and a lot of conspiracy theories about what the Jews are
responsible for. What's it like for you as somebody who is Jewish to be
consulting now on the formation of an Islamic democracy?
Prof. FELDMAN: There are a lot of conspiracy theories around, you're
absolutely right, and in the Arab press, one regularly sees anti-Semitic
language and arguments that had become, actually, relatively more rare over
the last decade or so. They're experiencing a resurgence now. It's a very
troubling phenomenon. But as with many forms of prejudice, it's more abstract
than particular. When I was in Iraq, speaking with Iraqis, everyone from, you
know, ordinary people on the street to college students, lawyers, even a
professor at the Islamic University in Baghdad, I didn't experience any
anti-Semitism directed towards me. To the contrary, people were often sort of
interested in a kind of `Gee, I've never met one before' way to find out that
I was Jewish. And, of course, these are not ordinary circumstances. I was
there as part of a US government operation that includes soldiers with guns,
so it was not as if I was in any physical danger.
GROSS: At what point does it usually come up that you're Jewish? Is it
something that you bring up? Do they ask you about your religious background?
Do they know enough to know that, like, `Feldman. Hmm, sounds like a Jewish
Prof. FELDMAN: It's funny, in the Arab world, first names matter a lot more
than last names. And the Arabic version of the name Noah is Nuh, and in
Arabic, that name is generally a Christian name. It's generally Christian
Arabs who have that name. So based on the first name alone, I think very
often, people don't quite gather that I'm Jewish. So it's something that
comes up in the course of conversation if the subject turns to religion.
In the case of the professor at the Islamic University with whom I had a
conversation, we were sort of talking about high-flown ideas of democracy and
Islam and were they compatible, many of the subjects that you and I were just
discussing. And about two-thirds of the way, he stopped and he turned and
looked at me full on, and he said to me, `Are you a Christian?' And it was
very clear that he expected a no for an answer. And for a second, I thought
to myself, `Well, you know, what answer ought I to give under these conditions
and circumstances?' And then I said to him, `No, I'm Jewish.' And he nodded
his head sort of sagely and stroked his beard, and we went on with the
conversation. He didn't offer a comment on it one way or the other. So that
was how it came up in that context.
One time it came up because I visited a traditional Jewish shrine site in Iraq
in a town called Kifl, which is reputed to be the grave site of the prophet
Ezekiel. And this was a synagogue for well over a thousand years. It's a
very, very beautiful building. Now it's functioning as a mosque. And I was
reading the Hebrew inscriptions, which are, for the most part, well preserved
in the building. And someone came over to me there, one of the local people,
and he obviously knew that I was Jewish, and we had a lengthy conversation
about the Jewish community of the town and what buildings they had built and
which houses they had lived in. And he introduced me to one old man, who was
90-some years old, who could still recite poems that he said had been written
by one of the Jewish inhabitants of the town.
And, there, people would actually, remarkably, welcome me. It's obviously not
a typical town, but they had very, very warm memories of their Jewish
residents. And when we asked the oldest living man in the town how he felt
about the possibility of the Jews returning, he said, `Well, I'm 90-some years
old. I can't read and I can't write. But it seems to me that a good person
is a good person.' And I was very struck by that answer, and the people in
the crowd that had gathered around to listen to the words of this wise old man
seemed pretty receptive to it.
GROSS: Let's get back to consulting on the Iraqi constitution. Would you
like to see in that constitution something that ensures equal rights and human
rights for people who are not of the Islamic faith? For Jews, for instance?
There had been a thriving Jewish population in Iraq. Most of the Jews fled
because of discrimination and persecution.
Prof. FELDMAN: The Iraqi constitution has to guarantee equal treatment before
the law for all Iraqi citizens, regardless of faith and regardless of sex as
well. That's hugely important.
GROSS: Well, that gets to the question...
Prof. FELDMAN: I think that Iraq...
GROSS: ...if it's, like, an Islamic democracy, if there isn't a separation of
church and state, what is the place for people whose beliefs are different and
whose religious law is different?
Prof. FELDMAN: With respect to governing their own religious lives, people
should be able to use their own religious faiths, and the constitution should
guarantee that and Islam, in principle, should permit that because the Koran
itself says that there shall be no coercion in matters of religion. And
people should be in a state that's truly democratic and truly Islamic, free to
practice their faiths as they choose and be free of discrimination on those
Now it's certainly true that if there's a debate about some point of the
criminal law, let's say, in the Iraqi legislature and some of the legislators
think that some point derived from Islamic tradition with respect to, let's
say, the standard of proof ought to be dominant, and if a Christian, let's say
because there are many Christians living in Iraq now--there are perhaps half a
million Christians living in Iraq now--got up in the legislature and said,
`Well, you know, actually our legal tradition is different on this point,' or,
`I don't think that the Islamic point should prevail,' it should be fine for
that legislator to say that. When they vote, it may be that the fact that
there are a small minority of people who are Christians--you know, you're
talking about 500,000 people out of a country of 25 million--will mean that
that view won't carry the day.
But it needs to be possible for everyone to get their views out there and to
speak freely, and similarly it has to be guaranteed that everyone who lives
and functions in Iraq is treated as a full Iraqi citizen. But Islam should
not only permit but require that, as understood by many, many Muslims. And
democracy, what's more, requires that. So remember that when I speak of an
Islamic democracy, I don't mean that it's less democratic. I mean something
that's fully and authentically and legitimately democratic, meaning that it
guarantees the quality of all persons, that it guarantees rights and that it
also is, in some meaningful way, something that reflects Islamic values at the
GROSS: Noah Feldman, thank you very much for talking with us.
Prof. FELDMAN: It's been a great pleasure.
GROSS: Noah Feldman is consulting with the Iraqi Governing Council on the
creation of a new constitution. He's also the author of the book "After
Jihad," and he co-directs the Center for Law and Security at NYU.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, Eitan Gorlin, writer and director of the film "The Holy
Land" based on his experiences working at a Jerusalem bar, where Jews and
Kevin Whitehead reviews a new collection of Bob Hope's vocal recordings.
And book critic Maureen Corrigan considers Vivian Gornick's admission that
she invented some scenes in her memoir.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New collection of Bob Hope's vocal recordings
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Last week we said goodbye to Bob Hope, who died just two months after his
100th birthday. A new compilation of Hope recordings has just been released.
Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead checked it out. Here's his review.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. MARGARET WHITING: Every morning, every evening, ain't we got fun.
Mr. BOB HOPE: Not much money, oh, but, honey, ain't we got fun.
Ms. WHITING: If wifey wishes to go to a play...
Mr. HOPE: ...don't wash the dishes, just throw them away.
In the winter, in the summer...
Ms. WHITING: ...don't we have fun.
KEVIN WHITEHEAD reporting:
Bob Hope 1949 with Margaret Whiting. As much as we've heard about Hope the
compulsive entertainer and self-deprecating gag man, little's been said about
his singing. But he'd started in vaudville as a song and dance man, and he'd
come to Hollywood via Broadway, where he introduced the song "I Can't Get
Started." His theme, "Thanks For The Memory," comes from his first movie,
"The Big Broadcast of 1938." It showed off his pleasing light baritone and
soft-shoe delivery, but Hope was too irrepressible to play it straight for
long. Even in the recording studio he liked to work with a comic foil. Why
waste that perfect timing?
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. BOB HOPE and Mr. BING CROSBY: (Singing) We've got nothin', got nothin'
in common, but nothin' in common, we're sorry to state...
Backup Singers: (Scatting)
Mr. HOPE: ...the roads we travel...
Mr. CROSBY: ...oh, the large laughs with Lamour...
Mr. HOPE: Yes, sir. Those days are over.
Mr. CROSBY: Oh, now wait a minute, Dad. Don't be so sure.
Mr. HOPE: That's right. TV's won 'em.
Mr. CROSBY: They got 'em.
Mr. HOPE: They're gonna re-run 'em.
Mr. CROSBY: Ouch.
Mr. HOPE: We look like the Bobbsey Twins.
Mr. CROSBY: I'm gonna shun 'em...
Mr. HOPE: Mm-hmm.
Mr. CROSBY: ...'cause they'll be on too late.
Mr. HOPE: Yeah. You'll have your shawl and your Ovaltine by then.
Mr. HOPE and Mr. CROSBY: The road picks, we're such kicks, but let's nix any
Mr. CROSBY: ...'cause outside of still looking youthful and cute...
Mr. HOPE: ...and outside of stealing all that Paramount loot...
Mr. CROSBY: ...we grabbed a bundle.
Mr. HOPE: What bandits.
Mr. HOPE and Mr. CROSBY: ...we got nothing in common at all.
WHITEHEAD: Hope with Bing Crosby, his partner in seven "Road" pictures, those
deconstructionist marvels which took your money and then kept reminding you
how little you were getting for it. This music is from a timely compilation
from Capitol optimistically titled "The Best of Bob Hope." It's not that, but
it's OK, a grab bag of mostly jokey midcentury singles and album tracks which
also pair him with Dorothy Lamour, Jane Russell and Edy Adams. Wandering off
on his own, things could get surrealer.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. HOPE: The last time I saw Paris, her heart was warm and gay.
Backup Singers: I heard the laughter of her heart in every street cafe.
Mr. HOPE: Hey, garcon.
Unidentified Man: Oui, monsieur?
Mr. HOPE: Tell me, have you seen a girl?
Unidentified Man: A girl? What kind of a girl?
Mr. HOPE: Any kind. My boat leaves tomorrow. Say, do you think that girl
sitting over there would be offended if I said hello?
Unidentified Man: (Chuckles) Monsieur, she has winked at you. She has
dropped her handkerchief. And right now she is smiling at you. What does
that usually mean to you?
Mr. HOPE: She's a policewoman.
WHITEHEAD: Ah, Bob Hope, the loveable leering coward; loveable because you
could tell the persona from the real man. The real Hope did USO shows from
Greenland in the South Pacific. The character hit the road with Bing to Bali
or Zanzibar without leaving the Paramount lot. There, they made cheerful
travesties of one culture and musical culture after another in a way that was
recognizably tasteless even by the end of the cycle. They were at it as late
as 1962 on "The Road to Hong Kong."
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. CROSBY: Kawlooon...
Mr. HOPE: Oh, Kawloon...
Mr. HOPE and Mr. CROSBY: ...we can't get there too soon...
Mr. CROSBY: ...'cause the gal who's cute has the cutest lute...
Mr. HOPE: ...that I'm just dying to tune.
(Soundbite of tired banjo)
Mr. HOPE: Can't you taste those crazy kumquats?
Mr. CROSBY: Oh-ho, isn't life a merry song?
Mr. HOPE: Well, a Chinese gong goes ding, ding, dong. We'll be on the happy
road to Hong Kong.
Mr. CROSBY: ...(Unintelligible).
WHITEHEAD: One of the less-offensive verses. You could fairly draw a
parallel between the writer's happy ignorance of whatever country the boys set
out for and the real foreign adventures that sent Hope packing to Vietnam or
Saudi Arabia. Those dark clouds over the "Road" movie's sunlit surface make
these imperial comedies weirdly poignant. Bob Hope's own complex appeal is
caught up in that. The guy had a lot of layers. You can hear it when he
(Soundbite of music, cheers and applause)
Mr. HOPE: (Singing) Well, thanks for the memories of all you flying men. We
can't remember when we've had more royal treatment. Hope we'll soon be back
again. And thank you so much; oh, thanks for the memories of pilot-zooming
planes through navigators' lanes, you gunners, ground crews, bombardiers who
further freedom gained. We thank you so much. Bombs are away, most effective
to help these men reach their objective. Look ahead with a freedom
perspective. Let's all pitch in. We're out to win.
Ladies and gentlemen, to Colonel Estabrook(ph), Major Becker(ph), Lieutenant
Kuhn(ph) and all the officers and men who helped us with our broadcast here at
Patterson Field and all you fellows over at Lockburn Field(ph), where we
played last night, we want to say thanks to the whole gang.
Next week we'll be in Indianapolis, Indiana, broadcasting from Camp Atterbury.
Good night, everybody!
(Soundbite of applause)
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for the Chicago Reader and the Chicago
Sun-Times. He reviewed "Best of Bob Hope" on the Capitol label.
Coming up, working at a Jerusalem bar frequented by Jews, Palestinians and
journalists. We'll meet the writer and director of the new film "The Holy
Land." This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Writer/director Eitan Gorlin discusses his latest
film, "The Holy Land"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Eitan Gorlin, wrote and directed the film "The Holy Land." It won
the Grand Jury Prize for best feature film at last year's SlamDance Film
Festival, which is a low-budget answer to Sundance. The film is very loosely
based on his own experiences and observations. Gorlin grew up in an American
Orthodox Jewish home, studied at a yeshivah, then went to Israel for a year to
study at a Zionist yeshivah. He went back to Israel after graduating from
college and worked as a bartender for a year.
"The Holy Land" is about an Orthodox yeshivah student in Israel named Mendy
who is having trouble focusing on his studies. One of the things distracting
him is his growing sexual urges. His rabbi quotes an obscure talmudic passage
and suggests that Mendy visit a prostitute to get it out of his system. The
rabbi thinks the student will be back in no time, but that's not what happens.
When Mendy ventures out to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, he falls in love with
Sasha, a Russian emigre prostitute, and becomes friends with Mike, the owner
of a bar in Jerusalem.
In this scene Mendy and Mike are talking late at night on the beach after the
bars have closed.
(Soundbite of "The Holy Land")
MIKE: Christ, I need a drink. What's open around here?
MENDY: I don't know. I don't live in Tel Aviv. I guess everything's closed
by now, isn't it?
MIKE: Yuppie (censored). I don't even think about closing my bar till I hear
MENDY: You own a bar?
MIKE: Yeah, in Jerusalem.
MENDY: Jerusalem? I didn't know there were any bars in Jerusalem.
MIKE: Mike's Place. Mike. Me, Mike. Mike's Place. You got it?
MENDY: Oh, yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MIKE: Craziest bar east of Sarajevo.
MENDY: You've been to Sarajevo?
MIKE: Sure. Still be there if it wasn't for those (censored) peacekeepers.
I used to be a walkabout. Hm. So you a drinker?
MIKE: What are you doing Wednesday?
MIKE: You are now. You're coming to my bar in Jerusalem. Got a great band
playing. Everybody's going to be there, even the Love Boat girls.
MENDY: Is Sasha going to be there?
MIKE: You really like her, don't you?
GROSS: Eitan Gorlin, welcome to FRESH AIR. Some of the story in "The Holy
Land" is set in a bar in Jerusalem, which is modeled on a place called Mike's
Place, a real bar in Jerusalem where you actually worked as a bartender.
Would you describe the real bar?
Mr. EITAN GORLIN (Writer, Director, "The Holy Land"): Well, the real bar was
founded by somebody who's still a very close friend of mine, and lives in
Canada now, Mike. And he was a Canadian war photographer who came to Israel
to shoot the first Intifadah in the first Gulf War, and about '92 he opened a
bar. And the real Mike's Place was tiny. It was quite narrow. You had to
descend a couple of steps to get into it. You couldn't see in, you couldn't
see out. And, I mean, we kept the bar open, basically, until we heard the
buses running. So, you know, most bars in Jerusalem--I mean, it was a heavy
drinking bar, and the kind of music we played was sort of like Jim Morrison
and Janis Joplin. It was a little bit of a throwback to the sort of, like,
wild early '70s. I think that was kind of what Mike was going for.
But it was mostly the clientele, because Mike himself was a
photojournalist--we had a lot of journalists and war photographers who would
come through. But, for example, like, when I worked there, there was an Irish
construction crew which was doing renovations on the Dome of the Rock. And
since it's the Jordanians who controlled the Dome, you know, they're the ones
who paid for the construction firm. So it was the construction company that
was doing a lot of work in the Middle East, and these guys were now working on
the Dome of the Rock; had just come from Iraq, where they were building Saddam
Hussein's palaces. And if you remember the run-up to the first Gulf War,
where Saddam took some Westerners hostage just sort of to buy time--so some of
these guys who are now sitting at our bar and renovating the Dome of the Rock
had just been hostages of Saddam Hussein, though they told us that, you know,
they ate caviar and it was all quite pleasant.
And next to them you would find local Arabs, you know, Jerusalem Arabs, who
lived in the city. We had people from the former Soviet Union. We had, you
know, people who had left Eastern Europe. You know, it was just this real
eclectic mix of people. And I remember, like, 6:00 in the morning we would
look around and say, `What are all these people doing in the same
room?'--which in some respect is what I say about Israel. What are all these
people doing in the same room?
GROSS: In your movie "The Holy Land," Mendy, the rabbinical student--you
know, when he goes out into the world, the person who he becomes closest to is
a prostitute because, after all, his rabbi basically has given him this
advice, you know: `Meet a prostitute. You're so absorbed in your own sexual
urges. Go into the outside world and actually meet a prostitute.' So he does
and he meets her, and he falls in love with her. Is there a big prostitution
trade in Israel? Was there one when you were living there?
Mr. GORLIN: Ten, 15 years ago, I mean, there were prostitutes in Israel, but,
you know, really, it's something you'd barely notice. But, I mean, it reached
proportions where you can't miss it. I mean, I've been to Amsterdam, I've
been to Bangkok; I mean, it's I think at that same level. It's not something
put--I mean, if you were to just stroll through Tel Aviv, you couldn't miss
GROSS: There's a character in the movie called the Exterminator. Describe
his character in the movie and who he's based on in real life.
Mr. GORLIN: Well, I mean, you know, the year that I spent studying in Israel,
it was I think '86, '87, before the first Intifadah broke out, and I studied
in the yeshivah that was very messianic and very much involved in the settler
movement. And each weekend they would take us to different caravans on
hilltops, and I really had a chance to meet some of the most important people
in the settler movement before anybody else had heard of them. I mean, it's
basically people who believe that there--even though I think today most
settlers are economic settlers, which means that rent in Jerusalem and Tel
Aviv is so high that you just get more space for less money, but at the core
of the movement are people who believe very, very strongly in something. And
they believe that we're on the cusp of messianic times. And, in a sense,
they're kind of ashamed of the last 2,000 years of Jewish history, and they
kind of want to turn the clock back to when Jews were priests and warriors.
And they're very much about expanding the borders of Israel and about sort of
forcing the messiah to come.
The Exterminator specifically--so that's kind of the background. I mean,
these are people who I lived with and traveled with, and some of whom are
relatives of mine. But this specific character is based where I actually was
hitchhiking with a friend from Jerusalem to Havan(ph), and there was a car
that stopped for us. A settler car stopped, and I'm--different from the film.
I remember him saying, `You can't sit in the front seat.' It didn't make any
sense to me--you know, the front seat was open--why I couldn't sit there. And
he said, `No, no, I need it for my gun.' And then as we drove, he never passed
15 kilometers on the speed limit, and he would just sort of--the M-16 would go
out the left window, it'd go out the right window. And the entire time he
insisted on talking to us in Hebrew, even though we were both American and
very well spoke English. And he called himself the Exterminator.
GROSS: So this is somebody who you met who basically drove through the
territories with a gun almost doing target practice looking for Palestinians?
Mr. GORLIN: Well, I mean, at least in the ride that we took, he didn't shoot
anybody, but he was basically looking for stone-throwers. He kept
saying--he's always used to point at them. He says, `That's where they hide.'
Actually what he was doing was he was delivering--another thing that happens,
a lot of these settlers, when they get into trouble, you know, because they
shoot somebody--often they kill somebody, and they get house arrest, where
they can't leave their house. So this person was actually delivering food to
different very prominent settlers, and I guess that was his job. He would
sort of, I guess, bring food from Jerusalem. I'm not quite sure, but I think
it was packed with food, and he was delivering food to prominent settlers who
weren't allowed to leave their homes.
GROSS: Now your own personal story has some parallels with this story of the
rabbinical student, Mendy, in your film, "The Holy Land." You grew up in an
Orthodox home in the United States, went to Israel, studied in an
ultraorthodox yeshivah, lived in the occupied territories...
Mr. GORLIN: Well, actually, I wouldn't refer to that as ultraorthodox.
Ultraorthodox usually connotes the people in the black outfits who aren't
particularly Zionist, and they're much more fundamentalist in their
orientation. The school that I studied in, which actually was kind of a
little bit exciting about it for me, put less emphasis on the fundamentalism
and more emphasis on the nationalism and sort of being on the cusp of history,
almost like these larger-than-life historical players.
GROSS: So in the community that you were living, did men wear the black hats
and have the beards and peyes, the long sideburns?
Mr. GORLIN: No. I mean, the house that I grew up in? No. My father has a
PhD from Columbia. But the school that I switched to was along those lines.
I originally went to what you'd call, like, kind of a coed, modern Orthodox
school. But as I said, you know, I kind of was very curious, and I was sort
of rebellious. And I was also influenced by a teacher, which I think is
something that also happens in the Muslim world and also happens in the Jewish
world--and I think you read about this a lot in the Muslim world--where it's
the teachers who very much influence the kids because the--like, it might
take, like, you know, a typical Muslim Moroccan family who is quite moderate
actually and not that extreme in their religion, but they don't know enough
Koran to teach the kids Koran. So they kind of bring in these teachers from
the outside, and it's these teachers, you know, who are proficient in Koran,
who then influence the kids.
What people aren't paying attention to is how radical and extreme the teachers
are. And I think there was something similar also sort of in the modern
Orthodox world among Jews, where it was hard to find teachers who could
propagate sort of a middle road. So the teachers were quite extreme and came
from sort of extreme backgrounds and often influenced the kids. So then you
kind of spend a couple of years not quite sure who to listen to, and you just
sort of bounce around until you find your place.
GROSS: In your movie, "The Holy Land," Mendy, the rabbinical student who
leaves the yeshivah to experience life for what he thinks will be just a few
days, says to his rabbi, when his rabbi tries to convince him to come back,
that he wants to find God in life. You know, he wants to see God in the real
world, not just to experience God in the confines of the yeshivah and in the
confines of the very Orthodox life. Has that been something you would
describe as an ambition of yours?
Mr. GORLIN: I think one of the things that most--one of my biggest questions
growing up Orthodox was that the stories we read and the heroes we were
supposed to worship were so different than the lives we were living because we
kept reading about these--you know, King David had the story with Bathsheba.
And the biblical stories were people who were living life to its fullest.
They were warriors, they were killers, they were adulterers. You know, they
were involved with black magic sometimes, witches. And they were just living
this really exciting, at times perhaps immoral--but they were definitely, you
know, sucking the marrow out of the bone.
And yet we would read these stories, be told, you know, that, `These are our
heroes, and these people are almost like--you know, as close to God as a human
being could be.' But then they would say, you know, `You can't look at a
woman,' or, `A woman needs to cover her hair,' or, `You can't hear a woman's
voice' or--you know, that, to me, was the contradiction. The stories that we
were studying--though, actually in the yeshivah world, they don't really study
Bible so much. They study more Talmud, which was written later. But the
stories we were studying were just so different than the lifestyle we were
expected to maintain.
GROSS: When you were studying at the Zionistic nationalistic yeshivah in
Israel, did it give you a feeling of great community?
Mr. GORLIN: Yeah. And people also forget that there's a real mystical and
spiritual component to this movement. I mean, Friday night--I mean, first of
all, it's just so picturesque. I mean, you know, you find yourself outside of
Beitel(ph)--and especially people who grew up with the Bible--and that's what
I'm saying. There's a soft side. That's why I don't like to sort of--you
know, kind of make these blanket, brush statements about--I mean, what was
interesting to me about what I would call these messianic Zionists is they
were actually much less fundamentalist than the more traditional Diaspora,
Eastern European Jews. They were more mystical, and they were more active.
They would serve in the military. They were very much about hiking, about
enjoying the nature, about knowing their history.
And that's how you kind of get swept up in it, especially if you come from
America, and all of a sudden--literally, it's like being, you know--I mean,
you're walking through villages that haven't changed in 500 to 1,000 years.
And, I mean, you have wells and you have donkeys and goats and shepherds.
And, on some level, it's almost like being the sheriff. I'm sure it's very
similar to what the early pioneers felt, you know, when they were sort of, you
know, in that wild, untapped New World. But the difference is that these
settlers really believe that this is their land and that God gave it to them
and that they are indigenous and they've always been there. They just took,
like, a 2,000-year break.
GROSS: We were talking earlier about how, when you were living in Jerusalem,
you worked at Mike's Place, which was a bar run by a former war photographer.
And, you know, you met a really wide range of people there. There was also a
branch of that bar in Tel Aviv. And that bar, the one in Tel Aviv, was bombed
in the spring. Three people were killed and I think about 50 people injured.
Did you know any of the people who were hurt?
Mr. GORLIN: I know the owners of the bar, the people who kind of took it
over from Mike. And I've been to that bar because I was living in Israel up
until about 14 months ago. So, you know, I've been to the Tel Aviv branch. I
don't know if I knew anybody who was hurt, but, for example, if you notice,
like, in the movie, the band that we have playing in Mike's place, that is a
band that plays at Mike's Place. So I think The Rupshmoral(ph), who performed
in the film for us--I think his bass guitarist was in a coma for a while. And
then they had benefit concerts all across North America to sort of raise money
to help the survivors and reopen the bar. Yeah. I mean, I know all the
people who run the bar because they're kind of holdovers, you know, from when
Mike was there.
GROSS: Well, Eitan Gorlin, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. GORLIN: Oh, thank you.
GROSS: Eitan Gorlin wrote and directed the new film "The Holy Land."
Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan considers Vivian Gornick's admission
that she invented some scenes in her esteemed memoir.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Commentary: Irritation and sadness to admission by Vivian Gornick
of made-up scenes and conversation in her memoir
TERRY GROSS, host:
Last week, in a talk at Goucher College outside Baltimore, journalist and
autobiographer Vivian Gornick stunned a crowd of writing students by her
admission that some of the scenes and conversations in her acclaimed 1987
memoir, "Fierce Attachments," were made up. Gornick also reportedly said that
she'd used composite characters for some of her pieces that ran in The Village
Voice during her tenure there from 1969 to 1977. But critic Maureen Corrigan
has some thoughts on why, in the wake of so many other similar revelations,
Gornick's confession still shocks.
The plot by now is so familiar it's become its own notorious literary
sub-genre. A prominent writer of non-fiction, an autobiographer, journalist,
historian confesses to being or is exposed as being someone who's played fast
and loose with the truth. In this case, the culprit is autobiographer and
journalist Vivian Gornick, and her oddly offhand admission came spontaneously
to an audience composed partly of journalists and other professional writers
pursuing advanced degrees in non-fiction writing. Gornick told them she'd
invented some scenes and conversations in her revered memoir, "Fierce
Attachments." Her readers, Gornick said, were `willfully ignorant of this
device.' Gornick also said that she'd concocted some composite characters for
some of her Village Voice pieces.
Maybe Gornick thought that in these post-modernist days, we were all hip to
the notion that the word `fact' should always be written in quotation marks;
her audience would be unfazed. But because the crowd was filled with
journalists, steeped in the details of the recent Jayson Blair debacle at The
New York Times, it pounced, reportedly grilling Gornick about ethics in
non-fiction. Gornick was taken aback by the response, and a couple of days
later, in a phone interview with Salon magazine writer Terry Greene Sterling,
she denied ever saying that she made up anything in her memoir or used
I haven't felt this disheartened since historian Doris Kearns Goodwin was
accused last year of plagiarism, or before that, since Benjamin Wilkomirski,
author of a childhood Holocaust memoir called "Fragments" that I reviewed for
FRESH AIR, turned out to be a fraud who made the whole story up. Any reader
who falls in love with a work of non-fiction leaves him or herself open to
being betrayed. But I didn't see it coming from Gornick. Her books are
mainstays of every course I teach. Sometimes I assign "The Romance of
American Communism," her moving oral history about the rise and fall of the
party, or I'll ask students to read selections from her smart collection of
essays, "Approaching Eye Level." And I frequently assign "Fierce
Attachments," her now classic memoir about walking with her aged mother
through the streets of New York, reminiscing and arguing about the past. It's
a memoir that inspires adjectives like `unflinching' and `honest.' It's a
memoir that people take to heart.
When I did a tribute to books about New York City in the aftermath of
September 11th and left "Fierce Attachments" off the list because I thought it
was temporarily out of print, I got e-mails from listeners, not about the
hundreds of other New York books I could have mentioned but about "Fierce
Attachments." It hooks you from its very first sentences, in which Gornick
recalls the Bronx tenement she grew up in, full of women she describes as
`shrewd, volatile, unlettered.' Gornick writes, `I, the girl growing in their
midst, being made in their image, I absorb them as I would chloroform on a
cloth laid against my face.'
Lies don't make an autobiography a lesser work of literature. In the women's
autobiography course I teach, we always study the work of Mary McCarthy and
Lillian Hellman, each of whom famously accused the other of lying and both of
whom told some world-class whoppers. But what lying does do is damage the
relationship between reader and memoirist. Autobiography is a genre that is
defined solely by a handshake. There's no internal distinction between an
autobiographical novel and an autobiography. Rather, it's the
autobiographer's pledge to try to tell the truth that makes a reader respond
differently. I say try because, as the theorists rightly point out,
autobiography is an impossible genre. Time and literary style inevitably
distort memories, and the person writing is not the same person who lives the
life. But the autobiographer gives his or her word to try, and we readers
give our trust. And when this quaint contract turns out to be a con, we feel
Gornick is still a wonderful writer, and I'll continue to read and reread her
work but with my guard up. But it's irritating and saddening to hear how
casually she's confessed to letting down her end of the bargain.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University.
I'm Terry Gross.
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