Etgar Keret’s latest book, a nonfiction collection of essays called “The Seven Good Years,” is so personal, he wrote it in English instead of Hebrew. He didn’t want the neighbors reading about him.
It has, however, been translated into Persian.
Written as an ode to his terminally ill father who died a few years ago, it’s a typically wry, humorous and edifying look at Keret’s life.
“It’s not in Hebrew because this is my house and place that’s most important to me,” said Keret, who lives in Tel Aviv. “It’s not a sanction against the country. They’ll read it here in English but for now, it’s under the radar.”
(The book is being sold in English in local bookstores.)
But Aziz Hakimi, an Afghan fan of Keret’s works who grew up in Iran and is also a writer, asked if he could translate the book into Persian. Given the ban on Israeli books in Iran, he’s now disseminating it through a Google app.
It was all about the love of a good read.
Hakimi, a former BBC reporter, first read a short story by Keret in The New Yorker and to his own surprise fell in love with the writer’s work.
“I loved that story,” said Hakimi, speaking on Skype from Malta, where he now lives.
He ended up translating that first story for his creative writing website.
But a few months ago, Hakimi noticed that Keret had made mention of his Persian translations, commenting how pleased he was to be translated into the language of Iran.
“It’s the most moving thing,” said Keret, whose books have been translated in countries that have difficult or no diplomatic relations with Israel, including Malaysia and Turkey.
“If you ask me, the most that literature can achieve is to humanize the other,” he said. “I’ve met Palestinian readers overseas, and they’ve said to me that reading my stories made them see Israelis in a different light. They’ve said that all the Israelis in their life were soldiers, and after reading my book, they don’t think that I’m not their enemy, but I became their human enemy.”
That’s how Hakimi felt.
He found that the honesty of Keret’s text made him feel that the stories were written specifically for him.
That didn’t seem possible, given that he is an Afghan who lived in Iran as a refugee and is Muslim by birth. Despite having spent years living abroad, Hakimi had grown up with the idea that Israelis and Jews are not ordinary people, not like other human beings.
“When I read Etgar for the first time, it just proved to me that Israelis are like other people,” he said. “Israelis are worried about being late to work, just like me, or worried about paying bills. It makes them just like me.”
It was a realization that Hakimi didn’t want to admit to himself, having lived for more than a decade outside of Iran, and believing that he’d transcended the prejudices with which he’d been raised.
“It’s maybe hard for Westerners to imagine this, but believe me, in our part of the world, it’s hard to believe that Israelis are people like yourself,” he said. “There’s a lot of propaganda.”
There’s something about fiction, said Keret, that perhaps doesn’t tell the story of a nation but rather “the weaknesses in the center,” he said.
“It makes people from different cultures and places have some kind of grounding,” he said. “It pulls them closer to your world.”
He recalled doing a reading in Turkey, where some of his readers are religious Shiites and “look like Nasrallah,” he said. “You think, ‘they’re here to do something to me, but no, they’re my readers.’”
Hakimi said he felt that translating Keret’s works into Persian was a way of affecting humanity, a way to help those who wouldn’t otherwise access the Israeli mindset.
The book, which is named for the biblical story about Joseph who helps interpret the Egyptian pharaoh’s dream about seven good years and seven lean years, was mostly written in “real time,” said Keret, often as the events were taking place and not necessarily with the intention of publishing them.
“I wrote it sporadically and I didn’t think it would be a book,” he said.
It was when Keret’s father was terminally ill — he died at age 84 — and Keret wanted to do something for his family that he decided to gather together the essays into one comprehensive book.
The essays talk about the birth of his son, and about being the father of a son in a country facing an uncertain future. He explores religion within the scope of his own experience, as a secular man with a sister who is an Orthodox Jew. And he writes about his Holocaust survivor parents.
“It was like a literary tombstone for my father,” he said.
For Hakimi, Keret’s words create a space for talking about what is taboo, for creating a sense of connection between people, even Iranians and Israelis.
“When I read Keret, I feel like I’ve entered a new world, and you can’t do that with journalism,” said Hakimi, who has written one novel and one collection of short stories and is working on his third book.
Hakimi’s translation can’t be sold or published in Iran, and while he has published it in London, it can’t be sold in any Persian-language bookstores and is only available online, in a professionally formatted download for iBooks and Kindle.
He is also negotiating with a publisher friend in Kabul, Afghanistan, to print copies of the book. While there aren’t as many restrictions in Kabul, people are scared, said Hakimi.
“I’m trying to tell him that this actually helps everyone,” he said, “that it’s more important to know more about everyone. I want to break this taboo, I want people to talk freely about it.”
Keret posted on his Facebook page a photo of Hakimi in a bulletproof vest inside a Blackhawk helicopter, joking that most translators and editors take buses to the printing house, while Hakimi required the protection of a Blackhawk helicopter.
There’s been positive feedback on Hakimi’s Facebook page from people who “love the idea of this book being published,” he said.
“I think literature can create that space of talking about [peace],” said Hakimi. “It can’t do everything, but it creates this sense of connection between people. That’s why it’s so important. If Etgar’s stories create that sense for me as a person to do all this, to translate the book and make sure it will get to people and make this connection, this is the effect of literature.”
“For me, this is much more important to my career than being translated into German or Dutch,” said Keret. “If you’re translated into a language of a people who are prejudiced against you, the sense of achievement is greater.”