An Interview with Mya Guarnieri Jaradat on Israel's New Others
In 2005, African asylum seekers started migrating to Israel in search of refuge. It took Israeli society about five years to register that the influx of a new population of around 45,000 was an existential threat to the Jewish State. Since then, there have been endless debates in the political and social sphere about how asylum seekers and migrant workers from Africa and Asia should be assimilated into the country, if at all.
Mya Guarnieri Jaradat’s new book The Unchosen: The Lives of Israel's New Others is the first comprehensive look at this ten-year issue. After spending over a decade in the Middle East, Jaradat was one of the first international journalists to report on Israel’s treatment of asylum seekers and migrant workers. The chapters of the book cover different communities and circumstances and together illustrate individual and communal attempts and failures to make a home in Israel by people who share one thing in common: they are non-Jews in a "Jewish" state.
Through personal stories of volunteering in black market kindergartens and Kafkaesque descriptions of NGOs attempting to fill in for governmental institutions, The Unchosen serves as a case study on how efforts to maintain a dominant ethno-religious group inevitably leads to the erosion of democratic institutions. The story holds particular relevance in the face of rising populism throughout United States and Europe. Bookwitty spoke with Jaradat about her writing process, balancing journalism with narrative, and her new project on Bethlehem.
What were some of the challenges you faced writing the book?
I had a hard time balancing the stories with the policy that made the stories. The stories of the African asylum seekers are so dramatic, they can stand on their own, with minimal brush strokes as far as policy. But with the migrant workers, there has to be a lot of policy background to understand their situation.
As a model, structure-wise, I looked at the book, Far From The Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon, which is a very different book. It's about families where the children’s experience has been very different from their parents. Structurally, I looked to Solomon’s book as a way to balance narrative and policy, but I think it's hard, and I feel like I didn't hit my stride until the last chapter, when I spent more time in narrative, and backed off the policy, because by then I managed to establish all the background.
I did have a few readers tell me they like the last chapter the best, or the last chapter was gut wrenching, but at the same time, I couldn’t have gotten there without describing all the policy first. It's problematic. How do you keep the reader’s interest and keep them reading about stuff like legislative debates?
The book really does merge reporting with narrative. Could you talk about how your journalism experience and your background in creative writing came together in this book?
I feel until I didn’t know how to write a sentence until I became a journalist. I have an undergrad in English and an MFA in creative writing, but from a craft perspective, I learned so much from journalism. The biggest lesson I learned was when to step away from a story and let the characters do their thing. Having hard deadlines forced me to overcome some of my nervousness and anxiety around putting things out there that aren’t “perfect.”
I am still trying to develop, I hope I will always be trying to develop. I don’t think you get to the point where you reach the end of the craft of writing. But I’m really focused on getting the right balance between the journalistic “eye” and the narrative “I.”
How does this issue fit into the larger context of the occupation?
The point of my book is to show that, really, it’s about Israel defining itself as a Jewish and democratic state, and what they have to do to maintain it. A Jewish and democratic state is a contradiction of terms.
In the early years of Zionism, there was discussion not about making a state in Palestine, but in making one in Uganda. The discussion was very brief and I think it was put down very quickly, but my understanding is that Herzl wasn’t totally against it. I make a point in the book that had there been a state in Uganda, they wouldn’t be talking about the Palestinians, they’d be talking about the Africans. It’s really about the very definition of trying to maintain a state that seeks a hegemony of a particular group. And if you’re going to maintain that hegemony, you’re going to hurt others in the process.
What projects are you working on next?
I’m working on a memoir now about living in Bethlehem. I’m trying to open up the issue to a general audience and take the reader by the hand through the Israel and Palestine that I know. And I say Israel because I can’t talk about how I ended up in Bethlehem without talking about how I ended up in Tel Aviv, and then Jerusalem and finally Bethlehem. So, it’s about my journey from being a leftist American Israeli to going even further left, and finding myself in the West Bank, and discovering things were even more complicated there than I expected.
What are you reading these days?
I’m really in memoir mode. One book I recently read and thought was amazing is An Abbreviated Life, by Ariel Leve, about her growing up with her mother. What I loved about her memoir is the way she moves through time and space. She's present, and then, boom, all of a sudden she’s in the past, in a memory, and then we're back in present day with her. I think it very effectively captures the way the past works on us.
I also just read the graphic memoir Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke. I think in reading this book, I’m actually gearing up for the project after Bethlehem, which is about the Vietnam War and my extended family's connection to it and how that reverberates down the generations.
photo credit Equal Times