The power of the pen

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • By BARRY DAVIS

Metin Arditi cer­tainly be­lieves in the power of the pen, and has been pre­pared to put his money where his mouth is for some time now. Born in Turkey to a Jewish fam­ily with Span­ish roots, he moved to Switzer­land with his fam­ily as a youth and at­tended a board­ing school there. He went on to take an un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree in physics, fol­lowed by a mas­ter’s in nu­clear engi­neer­ing, and then a PhD in busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion. The va­ri­ety of fields he delved into as an aca­demic says much about the man and about his sweep­ing range of in­ter­ests in gen­eral.

Arditi’s phil­an­thropic and other ef­forts on be­half of his fel­low hu­man be­ings – across the globe – dip into all sorts of ar­eas. A fre­quent vis­i­tor to these shores, he says he has been here “thou­sands of times.” Arditi was in Tel Aviv a cou­ple of weeks ago to at­tend the award cer­e­mony of the Arditi Play­writ­ing Com­pe­ti­tion, spon­sored jointly by the Univer­sity of Tel Aviv and the Arditi Foun­da­tion. The lat­ter or­ga­ni­za­tion’s full ti­tle is the Arditi Foun­da­tion for In­ter­cul­tural Di­a­logue, which sup­ports the play­wright con­test of the Tel Aviv Univer­sity, and also ini­ti­ated a sim­i­lar com­pe­ti­tion for Ar­me­nian and Turk­ish stu­dents.

The lit­er­ary con­test was ac­tu­ally spawned by a sim­i­lar project but in a dif­fer­ent field of the arts.

“I started this com­pe­ti­tion in 2014,” Arditi notes. “I had al­ready had some phil­an­thropic ac­tiv­i­ties in Is­rael with mu­si­cal ed­u­ca­tion. I sup­ported pro­grams in the con­ser­va­tory [of mu­sic] at Ma’alot-Tarshiha [in the Galilee] and a school in Pe­tah Tikva.”

It was around this time that Arditi stepped up his mu­sic-re­lated en­deavor by join­ing the board of the Geneva-based Orchestre de la Suisse Ro­mande, but he also be­gan de­vel­op­ing his own lit­er­ary gifts.

“It just so hap­pened that, when I was 50, in 1995, I joined the board of the orches­tra and I started writ­ing,” he re­calls. “So these two ac­tiv­i­ties, mu­sic and writ­ing, ac­com­pa­nied each other.”

Over the years he has pro­duced an im­pres­sive slew of tomes, in­clud­ing close to 20 nov­els, pick­ing up a clutch of awards in the process.

His body of lit­er­ary work, orig­i­nally writ­ten in French and sub­se­quently trans­lated into var­i­ous lan­guages, fo­cuses on deep emo­tions and chal­leng­ing life sit­u­a­tions, such as the dif­fi­cul­ties of par­ent­ing, lone­li­ness and dis­place­ment.

Arditi wasn’t just con­tent with ex­plor­ing the per­sonal de­vel­op­men­tal pos­si­bil­i­ties of­fered by for­ag­ing in the arts. He wanted to put them to prac­ti­cal, gap-bridg­ing, ben­e­fi­cial use. The In­stru­ments of Peace Foun­da­tion, which he es­tab­lished and chairs to­gether with Pales­tinian poet Elias San­bar, started life in 2008. It ad­dresses the mu­si­cal ed­u­ca­tion needs of Is­raeli and Pales­tinian youth.

A lit­tle fur­ther down the line, Arditi – whose nu­mer­ous al­tru­is­tic ac­tiv­i­ties also fea­ture a post­ing as UNESCO Hon­orary Am­bas­sador and Spe­cial En­voy for In­ter­cul­tural Di­a­logue as well as a stint as a UN Good­will Am­bas­sador

– be­gan re­con­sid­er­ing his prin­ci­pal means of dis­pens­ing acts of gen­eros­ity aimed at cre­at­ing a more har­mo­nious ex­is­tence for one and all.

“In 2013, I re­al­ized some­thing. I un­der­stood some­thing very easy to un­der­stand. It just took me five years,” he laughs. “Mu­sic is some­thing very beau­ti­ful. It is es­sen­tial in life. It is an ex­pres­sion of life. But it kind of sug­ar­coats the prob­lems. When you and the other per­son lis­ten to mu­sic to­gether, ev­ery­thing looks much more beau­ti­ful than it re­ally is.”

ARDITI WANTED to get to the nitty gritty. “The only way to get to the bot­tom of things is through writ­ing – the words, les mots, la pa­role (speech). Oth­er­wise, you are al­ways in an ar­ti­fi­cial sit­u­a­tion. Mu­sic is too beau­ti­ful. This is the only cri­tique I can make of mu­sic. Mu­sic doesn’t get to the bot­tom of things.”

That is an in­trigu­ing viewpoint. Many, from all po­lit­i­cal, so­cial and eth­nic stripes, have talked – and con­tinue to talk – about mu­sic as “the univer­sal lan­guage,” as a means of ne­go­ti­at­ing oth­er­wise seem­ingly un­bridge­able dis­crep­an­cies.

Arditi begs to dif­fer, and now says that much of his en­ergy goes into do­ing what he be­lieves is good for this coun­try.

“As a Di­as­pora Jew, I am very very con­cerned about the fu­ture of Is­rael,” he says. “This is not a once-in-a-week con­cern. It is a 15-times-ev­ery day con­cern.”

Even the briefest of glances at Arditi’s bio am­ply spells out that the man is not one to sit back and let oth­ers get on with things. He was de­ter­mined to ad­dress his anx­i­ety over this coun­try’s lot. His epiphanous mo­ment came im­me­di­ately af­ter yet another round of re­gional violence.

“I thought, what can I do? Maybe I can do noth­ing. Lit­er­ally the day af­ter the Gaza War of 2014 stopped, if I re­mem­ber cor­rectly it was Au­gust 24. The day af­ter, Au­gust 25, I had an idea. Why don’t we or­ga­nize a com­pe­ti­tion whereby Is­raeli Jews write fic­tion based on the sit­u­a­tion, re­gard­less – yes­ter­day, to­day, to­mor­row. Free topic. But the Is­raeli Jews will have to write it by putting them­selves in the shoes of an Is­raeli Arab, and vice versa.”

Arditi hap­pened to know some­one who could pos­si­bly fa­cil­i­tate the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the new no­tion.

“I called a guy called Amos Elad, who is vice pres­i­dent for de­vel­op­ment at the Univer­sity of Tel Aviv. I called him and I told him I’d like to or­ga­nize a com­pe­ti­tion at his univer­sity, be­tween stu­dents of Ara­bic and Jewish ori­gin. I told him it should be about fic­tion, a short story, and I said, ‘What do you think?’ He an­swered: ‘It’s a fan­tas­tic idea.’ Just like that.”

So, one green light had lit up, and Arditi was look­ing to spread the word as far and wide as pos­si­ble. With Elad’s bless­ing Arditi set the ball rolling and made the com­pe­ti­tion open to stu­dents of all lead­ing aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions across the coun­try.

“Ten days later I was at the Univer­sity of Tel Aviv, at a meet­ing, and around the ta­ble were rep­re­sen­ta­tives of all the ma­jor uni­ver­si­ties in Is­rael.”

THAT SOUNDS all neat and cozy, and it looked like ev­ery­one was on board in dou­ble quick time. But re­cent events seemed to cast their shad­ows on the ini­tia­tive.

“Raanan Rein [vice pres­i­dent of the Univer­sity of Tel Aviv] said to me, Metin, we’re just out of a war and you’re ask­ing Jews to put them­selves in the shoes of an Arab, and vice versa. Maybe you’ll get 10 or 12 sto­ries from the Hu­man­i­ties De­part­ments.” Rein missed that mark by a mile. “We got 550 short sto­ries,” Arditi ex­claims.

Arditi is a man of the big wide world, with con­nec­tions in all sorts of places and cir­cles, and he got some A-lis­ters along for the com­pe­ti­tion ride. Peo­ple from the uni­ver­si­ties sifted through the hun­dreds of en­tries, and whit­tled the list down to man­age­able pro­por­tions. They also had the sto­ries trans­lated into English. That en­abled Arditi to ask a cou­ple of former Swiss pres­i­dents to serve on what he calls “the in­ter­nal jury” in Geneva, as well as former Pres­i­dent of South Africa Fred­erik de Clerk to serve as an hon­orary mem­ber of the panel. The lat­ter gave the ini­tia­tive a rous­ing thumbs up. It tran­spired that de Clerk knew what he was talk­ing about.

“I went to see him in London and I asked him if he’d be will­ing to par­tic­i­pate – I knew he would. I said, ‘What do you think?’ And he said. ‘You are do­ing the ex­act thing you should be do­ing. That is ex­actly what they did with Man­dela. We would not have suc­ceeded [in post-Apartheid South Africa] had we not put our­selves in the other’s shoes.’”

AF­TER A cou­ple of short sto­ries con­tests, Arditi upped the cre­ative re­quire­ment ante.

“Af­ter two years, I thought we should make the com­pe­ti­tion a lit­tle more de­mand­ing. We de­cided to ask the guys to write plays.”

That set the cat among the pi­geons, but things soon picked up again.

“The first year we got 30. Of course to write a play is much more de­mand­ing than a short story. The fol­low­ing year we got 60 and this year we got 130.”

Arditi at­tributes the in­cre­men­tal growth in en­tries to a ba­sic lo­cal ex­i­gency.

“I think there is a gen­uine need to com­mu­ni­cate in this coun­try,” he posits, adding that the pow­ers that be don’t seem to be do­ing the busi­ness, so an al­ter­na­tive route to sup­port­ing peace­ful di­a­logue is in or­der.

“Many ef­forts are made po­lit­i­cally not to en­cour­age peo­ple to com­mu­ni­cate. This is the prob­lem. And it ap­pears in the plays we will re­ward tonight,” he said a few hours be­fore the prize-giv­ing cer­e­mony took place. “There are ways here to dis­cour­age

Jews and Arabs from com­mu­ni­cat­ing. I am not talk­ing about Pales­tini­ans in the West Bank. I am talk­ing about Is­raeli cit­i­zens.”

The base­line frame­work was more than a sim­ple two-way street.

“In the play, there must be at least one Is­raeli Jew and one Is­raeli Arab, as char­ac­ters. Of course, the Is­raeli Jew who is writ­ing the play has to put him­self in the shoes of the Arab. But, in the play he also has to put him­self in the shoes of the Is­raeli Jew. In other words, he has to take a step back and have a hard look, an ob­jec­tive look, at his own ac­tions, at his own at­ti­tude. That is much more dif­fi­cult than just putting him­self in the shoes of an Arab. It calls for self-ap­praisal. It calls for a lot of strength.”

That may be a stretch for some but, nat­u­rally, all artists, in­clud­ing the in­cip­i­ent kind, need to be tested in or­der to pro­duce the goods.

Arditi be­lieves the com­pe­ti­tion al­lows the writ­ers to get a thing or two off their chests, and share some of their views about on­go­ing con­flict here.

“Es­pe­cially among univer­sity stu­dents there is a gen­uine need to com­mu­ni­cate. There is a gen­uine need to un­der­stand what the hell is go­ing on.”

CAR­MIT DGANI, an English lit­er­a­ture MA stu­dent from the Univer­sity of Haifa, won this year’s play­writ­ing com­pe­ti­tion with a work called En­ti­tled. The play is about an in­ti­mate en­counter be­tween two peo­ple and the com­plex­ity that arises from it. Dgani looks at the space be­tween loss and iden­tity, at­trac­tion and re­jec­tion, unity and sep­a­ra­tion, and the con­nec­tion be­tween our wish to ac­cept our­selves in a deep way, and our abil­ity to love the other.

Rotem Bachar came in sec­ond with We Re­mem­ber – An Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. Her play ad­dresses the ori­gins of life and mat­ter, and light emerg­ing from chaos.

The bronze po­si­tion was taken by Adi Brodeski, for Stuck, a comic drama that de­picts an un­usual meet­ing be­tween Danny and Michal, who are stuck in a traf­fic jam on their way to their son’s grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony, and Mah­mad, who is stuck in the same traf­fic jam, also on his way to his son’s grad­u­a­tion. Any­one who has ever driven on an Is­raeli road knows just how ex­plo­sive a sit­u­a­tion that can be, even with­out cross-eth­nic ten­sions.

Arditi hopes the com­pe­ti­tion will con­tinue go­ing from strength to strength, and prompt us to be a lit­tle more con­sid­er­ate and ac­com­mo­dat­ing of each other.

“I think that the con­cept of – very mod­estly, very humbly – ask­ing peo­ple to put them­selves in the other’s shoes is some­thing that is perti­nent to the sit­u­a­tion.”

He is keen to the fact that, of­ten, tak­ing on some­one else’s bag­gage can be far eas­ier said than done.

“Of course, all shoes don’t fit your size,” he chuck­les. “Some­times it takes some ef­fort to get into them.”

(Chen Galili)

A PER­FOR­MANCE of Rotem Bachar’s ‘We Re­mem­ber – An Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy,’ which placed sec­ond.

(Chen Galili)

ARDITI COM­PE­TI­TION win­ners with Metin Arditi (left) and Tel Aviv Univer­sity vice pres­i­dent Prof. Raanan Rein.

(Omri Ei­lat) (Alla Lei­tus) (Zo­har Shitrit)

From top: RUN­NER-UP Rotem Bachar’s en­try, ‘We Re­mem­ber – An Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy,’ looks at the ori­gins of life, and the tran­si­tion of the neb­u­lous into the tan­gi­ble. UNIVER­SITY OF Haifa English lit­er­a­ture mas­ter’s de­gree stu­dent Car­mit Dgani won this year’s play­writ­ing com­pe­ti­tion with ‘En­ti­tled.’ THIRD-PLACE win­ner Adi Brodeski’s comic drama ‘Stuck’ por­trays the way in which a Jewish Is­raeli cou­ple and an Is­raeli-Arab man deal with the chal­lenges of get­ting to their off­spring’s grad­u­a­tion cer­e­monies.

(Courtesy Tel Aviv Univer­sity)

ARDITI HOPES the an­nual com­pe­ti­tion he founded will help to nur­ture a sense of mu­tual em­pa­thy and iden­ti­fi­ca­tion be­tween Is­raeli Jews and Arabs.

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