Monday, March 19, 2007

Shimon Tzabar

SAD to hear last night that Shimon Tzabar had died. The Israeli (he would of late have preferred to say "Hebrew-speaking Palestinian") writer, poet and cartoonist was 81, and not in the best of health, but he retained a lively wit and good humour, and remained politically aware and active.

Shimon, founder of the informative and satirical Israel Imperial News was born in Tel-Aviv in 1926. In his teens he joined the Zionist underground armed struggle against the British mandate, going on to fight in the 1948 war which established the State of Israel, and serving again in the 1956 Suez-Sinai campaign and the Six Day War of June 1967. It was in a foxhole in the desert that he heard the news that Jerusalem had been taken, Israeli soldiers were at the Wailing Wall, and Golda Meir proclaimed "Our people have waited two thousand years for this moment".

Shimon remarked, "There we were, having believed we were fighting for our very survival, and been told that our leaders strove only for peace, and now it turns out that all they had thought of was a pile of old stones in Jerusalem!"

What really disgusted Shimon, besides the triumphalism, was the way the Israeli government treated the Palestinians, and seized their territories in the West Bank and Gaza, not as some temporary gain to be exchanged as soon as possible in a peace process, but as conquered land to be colonised. It was this new colonialist arrogance infecting Israeli society that drove Shimon Tzabar into leaving his country; and whose absurdity and brutality he felt moved to attack by calling his publication "Israel Imperial News".

I first heard of it from Egyptian humourist Waguih Ghali who had agreed to work with Shimon. Alas, deprived of his own nationality by the Egyptian government and refused permission to live and work in Britain by James Callaghan's government, Waguih became depressed and took his own life in 1969, another victim of our racist immigration laws. I'll write about Waguih some other time, but meanwhile recommend his novel Beer in the Snooker Club.

I first met Shimon himself briefly, when I joined a small demonstration outside the Israeli embassy (in those days you were actually allowed near the railings of Kensington Palace Gardens) organised by Akiva Orr, Moshe Machover and other left-wing Israeli Matzpen supporters, in solidarity with a young guy - he must have been one of the first - who refused to serve in the occupation forces.
(if I'm not mistaken the man's son is also an active refusenik).

Before leaving Israel and settling in London, Shimon Tzabar had been a columnist for "Haaretz" and for Uri Avneri's weekly "Ha'olam Hazeh". He published 27 books in Hebrew, including works of fiction, travel, children's books and poetry. His book in English, "The White Flag Principle" discoursing eruditely on history to prove that it is better for nations to lose wars, has been translated and published in Japanese and in most European languages.

But what nearly became Shimon Tzabar's best-known English work is now difficult to get hold of, having been compulsorily made a very limited edition. In 2004, Shimon produced what looked like a Michelin Guide, complete with familiar green cover, to Israeli prisons and detention centres. The guide gave details of how Palestinian prisoners and detainees had been ill-treated at particular places, together with location details and "how to get there" -if you were not careful.

Michelin were not amused, and threatened to sue him for using their style and trademark, though as Shimon pointed out, he was not trying to compete with them or gain pecuniary advantage, and people were unlikely to think Michelin had published the guide since the title on the cover said: "MUCH BETTER THAN THE OFFICIAL MICHELIN Guide to Israeli prisons, Jails, concentration camps and torture chambers".

Besides, Shimon argued, as an artist, in making use of a familiar commercial logo in his work he was doing no more nor less than Andy Warhol had done with a Campbell's soup tin.
Despite this, Michelin pursued their case - I couldn't help wondering whether they were being pushed along by someone - and it reached the High Court in the Strand. So did I, though my train was late that morning, and I arrived ten minutes after the hearing had been due to start. I got to the lift just as its doors opened and out stepped Shimon, along with friends, including Moshe Machover's lawyer son Danny who had acted as unpaid advisor, Shimon not being officially represented.

"What, case all over?!", I joked, thinking there must have been some break or adjournment ordered while the judge conferred or something. "Yes", they replied, not joking, it was all over. In court, Shimon had agreed not to print any more copies of his not-the-Michelin guide, nor to distribute any more in future. That was that. Since the few hundred copies already printed had run out, and Shimon did not have any money to have more copies printed, he was quite prepared to give that undertaking.

So, as I pointed out, anybody who was fortunate enough to obtain a copy of that scarce first edition now has a valuable rarity, which might be snapped up at auction in future (if only for a Palestinian prisoners charity). As for the rest of us, anyone who knew or met Shimon Tzabar will also have a memory to treasure, of someone who too was valuable, and alas, with his humour and talent allied to principles, also a rarity.

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At 8:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

thank you for writing such a nice post about my father. sincerely, Rami.


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