How many times
will I reach
for the phone
to send you
a photo today?
My sister, cooking.
Your wedding silver
on the tables.
My son burning
last night's chametz...
And when time
comes for the
four questions, I'll
ache to make
a video that
I can't send.
Can I trust
that you're watching
from the place
where you are?
Lovingly restored by the Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research and the Film Foundation, this first of only three features by the Boston-born academic and filmmaker is a luminous, numinous, black-and-white microbudget reworking of the Grimm fairy tale, shot on location in Iceland in the summer of 1986 and set centuries earlier in a medieval landscape of turf houses, wooden crosses, and witchcraft, all plain and real as black sand beaches and meadows star-burst with angelica, basalt cliffs and white-spuming waterfalls, the hollow roar of waves and overcast thunder, the northern lights streaming in the sky like the wordless voices of women singing. Through this richly elemental, sparsely human mise-en-scène wander Margit (Björk, pre-Sugarcubes and still credited as Guðmundsdóttir) and her older sister Katla (Bryndis Petra Bragadóttir), looking for a place "where . . . no one will know us," since where they came from their mother was stoned and burnt for a witch. The floating body of an unknown woman, hands bound behind her in the dark reflections of a reed-draggled river, tells them they haven't gone far enough. Katla nonetheless swears to find a husband by magic if she has to, to secure her sister's safety and her own; the blond-bearded young widower Jóhann (Valdimar Örn Flygenring) takes her home after no more enchantment than a tumble in a field, but she rides a triple circle around him just to be sure. Watching her suspiciously from his father's arms is motherless Jónas (Geirlaug Sunna Þormar), towheaded and uncharmed; he breaks the circle, running away into the long, dim, low-beamed house where he will never eye his stepmother without resentment, increasingly accusing her of witchcraft less because he spied her murmuring over charms of burnt braided hair than because it is the easiest stone to throw at an interloper, an outsider, a woman who's "different." With his step-aunt, however, he forms an uneasy, mystical alliance borne out of their shared grief and Margit's visions, which reassure him that his mother remembers and protects him, watching from a raven's black-glass eye as he lays flower wreaths on her grave. "You look like our mother did when she saw," Katla observes wistfully, watching her sister's eyes darken with visions in the fire: a silhouette on the ridge, a wheeling bird. "She could tell everything by what she saw. But I can't see." The last figure in this small cast, as spare and concentrated as a murder ballad, is the mother herself (Guðrún Gísladóttir), glimpsed first as a seated shadow through the small blurred glass of a window, then as a saintlike apparition on the sea-stacks, finally as herself, a wry-smiling silent woman with a black void where her breastbone should be, into which Margit thrusts a hand as suddenly as a gasp. "She can't speak," she warns Jónas as they kneel before the mother he tries to but cannot see, either sitting on a stone or picking burrs from sheep's wool in a space of shared memory. "When people are dead, they can't speak anymore." They can still tell stories, though, and in this film, as in the original tale whose bones can still be seen shining and disarticulated beneath the earth-swept phantasmagoria of Keene's imagination, they do.
I had previously seen Björk as an actress only in Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark (2000), which I hated so much that I have difficulty even in hindsight evaluating her performance; she's astonishing here. With her dark shag of hair and her long seal's eyes, she convincingly plays a grave, fey adolescent despite having just given birth to her own first child and there is nothing twee or crystally in her half-absent singing as she gathers driftwood at the crunching foot of the sea-cliffs or roams the black-cragged hillsides after her brother-in-law's cows, just as her visions, while often haloed by choral rises in Larry Lipkis' alternatingly folk-angular and modern-atonal score, are as clear as candles or carded wool or racks of stockfish drying, so that we must accept them all of a piece with the natural and inhabited world. Hers is the voice we hear most often on the densely layered soundtrack, musingly telling and retelling a story of stranger marriage and children turned to birds. Elsewhere we hear rhyming charms that blend Christian invocations with pagan correspondences, Bible readings with cautionary tales of wives stolen by trolls. (After hearing the latter, Margit imagines herself curled in a glass coffin as if sleeping, hauntingly touched by another story of violent stepmothers and sorcery.) There might be another world in that white-night sky of wings and seabirds' cries. The juniper tree that springs from a buried bone is as actual as the raven that roosts in its branches. I am reluctant even to describe the character of the mother as a ghost—we were told in the very first lines of the movie that her soul was bound to a bird's heart until the heart should break and that seems to be exactly what governs the duration of her appearance in the story. Perhaps all women's work in this world is witchcraft, spells, sight, and survival. Certainly we see no women who don't practice it, even Margit knotting a charm out of a raven's feather for Jónas to wear around his neck. When they lie under a black overhang of rock, playing a checkers-like game of shells on an outspread cloth and picking at her ambiguous origins ("But you can't change where you're from."–"But what if where you're from isn't there anymore?"), it takes only a small twist in the conversation before Jónas is angrily pelting his outlander stepmother's sister with the shells, drawing blood from her face like a mimicry of stones. "She's a witch," he chants vengefully, swashing the tasseled heads off child-high grasses, "she's a witch, she's a witch, she's a witch, she's a witch!" Katla grinds herbs for a spell of fertility with the same workaday motions with which she spins wool or sews pockets; when the time comes, she cuts fingers from hands and stitches lips as closed as Loki's with the same quiet practicality. I spent the second half of this movie waiting to see if someone would journey to the underworld and I'm not completely sure that they don't, disappearing over the rocky rim of the horizon like the sun winking out. It wouldn't make a difference to the narrative if not.
The Juniper Tree was written, produced, directed, and edited by Keene, who died in 2004 and left her archives to the Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research and as near as damn it disappeared from the historical record. You could, if you felt like it, justly pair this movie with Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957), Sergei Parajanov's Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965), Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev (1966), Pier Paolo Pasolini's Medea (1969), Neil Jordan and Angela Carter's The Company of Wolves (1984), or Aleksandr Rogozhkin's The Cuckoo (2002). I have never encountered it in discussion of any of them. I had never heard of it at all before last month. Even when I was agreeing to watch Dancer in the Dark with a college friend who was a major Björk fan, we didn't run across it, and it's not like I never read about cinematic adaptations of folktales. I am profoundly grateful it's in the wild again, even if I can't yet encourage everyone toward a home release; it reminded me of all the films mentioned above, but its images, its language, even its rhythms are deeply its own. The cinematography by Randy Sellars could be freeze-framed for icons, the uncanny effects by Pat O'Neill are as wrong and as familiar as dreams. It ends with a story where it began with a rhyme and it even fulfills its epigraph by T.S. Eliot. "And so they stayed behind and knew what the birds know," but if you want to know what that is, you'll have to let these ghosts of thread and feather and blood and 35 mm tell you. This spell brought to you by my seeing backers at Patreon.
Today’s the day. You ready, Denver? Meow Wolf has arrived!
No, no, not the BIG Meow Wolf, the massive installation three times the size of Santa Fe’s House of Eternal Return that is going in downtown, just south of I-25 and a mile or so from Mile High. That one will be mindblowing, but it’s not scheduled to open until 2020.
Today you get just a taste: the dark ride called Kaleidoscape, opening at Elitch Gardens.
The DENVER POST got an advance look.
Sadly, I won’t be there myself to experience Kaleidoscape on its opening day. (My minions have me chained to a desk writing). But I will get up there eventually, have no fear. And knowing the gang at Meow Wolf, I have no doubt the ride will be like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
So go forth, Denverites (Denverians? Denvites?) and take a trip to another world.
[[ Comments permitted… but ONLY about Meow Wolf and Kaleidoscape]].
I thought I should mention that I have blurbed Bogi Takács' forthcoming poetry collection Algorithmic Shapeshifting (Aqueduct Press). So has Ada Hoffmann. We both used the words "visceral" and "Talmudic," which should suggest something about the poems. It doesn't look as though copies are yet available for preorder, but e-ARCs for reviewers are an option.
The plan for the rest of the afternoon is to pick up a book from the library and meet rushthatspeaks for a movie and dinner. And then maybe go home and go back to sleep. I cannot stay asleep for a month, but I am really starting to wish it was economically and physiologically feasible.
Battle 5/11 (The Three Lands: Breached Boundaries #4) [Patreon fiction]
The best way to hide may be in plain sight. Or perhaps not.
In order to reach refuge in the north, Serva must travel through a land controlled by the Prince of Daxis, who has already risked war in order to capture her. Outside Daxis, Serva may be able to claim the title of daughter of the King of Daxis, but here in Daxis she is merely an escaped slave, in danger from her cousin the heir.
Her escort is untested, while her own knowledge of Daxion geography is slight. Matters worsen when the Prince extends his reach to catch them on the very border of their crossing. . . .
"It would be best to learn the lay of the enemy."
Rated T. Boilerplate warning for all my stories + my rating system.
All chapters in this novel. The first chapter is free. By donating as little as one dollar a month, you can receive a weekly serialization of my fiction, as well as all my new e-books.
Dad says he visits you
at the cemetery
every day, except
Saturdays when the gates
are closed. (Has
grass begun to grow?
I don't ask.) We agree
you wouldn't care
about the words of kaddish
but it's what we know
to do. He says he's
mad at you for dying
asks again and again why
an incurable lung condition.
I have no answer.
However, there's also a rarer pleasure found in some books, I read them slowly to savor them and fall into them. Nina Kiriki Hoffman's The Red Heart of Memories and Past the Size of Dreaming are novels like this, and so is Lois McMaster Bujold's Paladin of Souls. My awesome new friend alatefeline loaned me this book, and told me it was one of their favorites - I now see why.
Although this week had too much work, with both writing about dragons and revising the book I'm developing, I found a bit of time for reading, and read the last third of the book tonight. It is a lovely book. It's not one of those with brilliant new ideas, and I was familiar with the setting from Bujold's quite good Penric novellas. Instead, it a book that focuses on its characters and their choices, and above all on the protagonist and her choices and her life. I wholeheartedly recommend it.
By Marge Piercy
The courage to let go of the door, the handle.
The courage to shed the familiar walls whose very
stains and leaks are comfortable as the little moles
of the upper arm; stains that recall a feast,
a child’s naughtiness, a loud blattering storm
that slapped the roof hard, pouring through.
The courage to abandon the graves dug into the hill,
the small bones of children and the brittle bones
of the old whose marrow hunger had stolen;
the courage to desert the tree planted and only
begun to bear; the riverside where promises were
shaped; the street where their empty pots were broken.
The courage to leave the place whose language you learned
as early as your own, whose customs however dan-
gerous or demeaning, bind you like a halter
you have learned to pull inside, to move your load;
the land fertile with the blood spilled on it;
the roads mapped and annotated for survival.
The courage to walk out of the pain that is known
into the pain that cannot be imagined,
mapless, walking into the wilderness, going
barefoot with a canteen into the desert;
stuffed in the stinking hold of a rotting ship
sailing off the map into dragons’ mouths,
Cathay, India, Siberia, goldeneh medina*
leaving bodies by the way like abandoned treasure.
So they walked out of Egypt. So they bribed their way
out of Russia under loads of straw; so they steamed
out of the bloody smoking charnelhouse of Europe
on overloaded freighters forbidden all ports—
out of pain into death or freedom or a different
painful dignity, into squalor and politics.
We Jews are all born of wanderers, with shoes
under our pillows and a memory of blood that is ours
raining down. We honor only those Jews who changed
tonight, those who chose the desert over bondage,
who walked into the strange and became strangers
and gave birth to children who could look down
on them standing on their shoulders for having
been slaves. We honor those who let go of every-
thing but freedom, who ran, who revolted, who fought,
who became other by saving themselves.
* "Goldeneh medina", Yiddish, literally "Golden Land", idiomatically America
I'm doing fairly well at the moment, but I had a very bad mental health weekend last weekend, and haven't really been being the sanest lately, largely due to stress. Largely as a consequence of this, I wrote my first poem in quite a while that isn't a hymn, though it is arguably still religious. (A friend suggested to me that it's in fact very Aeonist, though I haven't managed to check with Ruthanna Emrys to see what she thinks.) In any case, it's a poem about my thoughts about death.
"Three Refuges in Dying"
16th April 2019
I take refuge in my dying:
The mind and body both must fall and fail,
must come apart and become senseless things.
The pains and wants and fears of mortal life
will pass away, and suff'ring be no more.
I take refuge in the Ocean:
All ash and dust, all clay and rock will soon
erode and return to a common sea.
The sins that even blood may not redeem
will wash away in that eternal brine.
I take refuge in the Heat Death:
The final chaos that consumes all things
will bring an end to life and memory.
And so I know, whatever pain I feel,
I need not fear eternal calumny.
In 1903, the Sixth Zionist Congress was convened in Basel. The atmosphere was bleak. Theodor Herzl's negotiations with the then Ottoman Sultan about the colonization of Palestine had proved unsuccessful; the plan for obtaining a land in the Sinai Peninsula from Britain in the form of a concession was heading nowhere. But while delivering his presidential address, Herzl surprised the delegates by announcing that the British had proposed the establishment of a Jewish colony in East Africa. For obvious reasons, the proposal was met with anger and disapproval. Who, after all, could in any way be willing to forsake the idea of the Promised Land, choosing to settle instead in another territory? In the end, following Herzl’s attempts to pacify his opponents, the Congress arrived at a decision to send an expedition that would assess the territory in East Africa—its physical conditions, natural resources, commercial possibilities, and the political situation. But Herzl's untimely death and financial difficulties delayed the expedition to the Uasin Gishu plateau (the territory offered for the colony; now part of Kenya). It was organized, eventually, by the journalist and activist Leopold Greenberg in December 1904, and included three men: an Englishman and Boer War veteran, Major A. St. Hills Gibbons; a Swiss professor, Alfred Kaiser; and a Jewish Russian engineer, Nahum Wilbusch.
The expedition was fraught with difficulties: Wilbusch got lost and separated from the others, and as they were nearing the end of the journey, the three men were attacked by a hostile force of Nandi. Upon return, Wilbusch filed a damning report, writing that all he had seen in the territory was dry and desolate land, ending with the words, “Where nothing exists, nothing can be done.” It was inevitable that Wilbusch, who had all along belonged to the “Holy Landers” (a group in the Zionist Congress that was not ready to compromise on the idea of the Jewish homeland in Ottoman Palestine), would have written a negative account.
This episode, recounted by Lavie Tidhar in the introduction to Unholy Land, comprises much of the historical background of the novel, except that following a vision of the Holocaust during the expedition, Wilbusch instead turned in a positive report to the Congress. With the Congress authorizing the plan for a Jewish homeland in East Africa in the first decade of the twentieth century, European Jews began immigrating to the new land. In this version of events, a Final Solution has been prevented, the scale of the Holocaust reduced, and since a Jewish state exists in East Africa, the Balfour Declaration never takes place.
Most works of alternate history have taken a major event—the American Civil War in Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee, the Reformation in Kingsley Amis's The Alteration, World War II in Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle—to imagine how the world would have decidedly been worse had these played out differently (or in Amis's case, never taken place); if it was the “villains” of history who had won. In Unholy Land, tragedies of history have been prevented, those particular villains have never gained power, and yet in fundamental ways this world is our own. In the very beginning of the novel, Lior Tirosh, one of the main characters, looks at a “white towering wall” meant to keep refugees out of Palestina—the country established in East Africa; later, he very narrowly misses a bomb attack on civilians in Ararat City. Moving forward, we read about displaced refugees, military crackdowns on the resistance in disputed territories, followed by raids on the homes of Nandi civilians, another character, Bloom, whipping a child on the cheek with his gun for information, and non-consequential peace talks taking place between the government of Palestina and the leaders of neighbouring countries. But this is not a simple work of alternate history, as it may initially seem. While most of the novel plays out in Palestina, the three characters central to the plot belong to other different versions of our world, where a small divergence of events has shaped a history wholly unrecognizable. Palestina, therefore, does not exist in our world (which is described as one where the violence and the disputes never end); it is instead, a “place where the Jews won” (p. 156). We also read about a world where a “kind of holocaust has taken place” (p. 109) and Jerusalem has ceased to exist, resulting in a shared victimhood that births peace in the Middle East. In another world, a Jewish homeland named Altneuland (incidentally the name of a utopian novel Herzl published in 1902) exists on the shores of the Mediterranean, with Jerusalem as its eternal capital. There are also brief descriptions of places where dinosaurs still roam the earth, Wehrmacht soldiers lurk in the Mau forest, and dead British explorers clutch decaying notebooks with drawings of impossible creatures. Using the Kabbalistic concepts of the olamot (different “worlds”) and the sephirot, the forces through which the infinite creates itself, Tidhar creates richly detailed worlds through which his characters slip.
Of the three major characters, Lior Tirosh, a writer of detective fiction, arrives in Ararat City to visit his ailing father, but is soon caught in the middle of a conspiracy that involves a missing niece, a murdered friend, and an attempt to break the borders that separate different worlds. Tirosh takes on the role of one of the detectives of his own novels, is kidnapped, released, attacked, and later learns about his centrality to the conspiracy. Special Investigator Bloom is an agent of the internal security apparatus who keeps professing his love for Palestina despite his status as an outsider; he also recollects his memories of “Altneuland,” which sits “on the shores of the Mediterranean, with Jerusalem as its eternal capital…” (p. 234). Nur Al-Hussaini is a literary historian who studies Hebrew pulp writers of science fiction and alternate history, and guards against intruders attempting to cross the borders of the sephirot. The three characters are all consciously aware of the long histories of anti-Semitism in their different worlds, but have different attitudes towards it. Bloom, ruthless, maintains throughout the novel the need for maintaining aggression against anyone who threatens the Jewish homeland; Tirosh feels disgusted at the displacement of the Nandi, but expresses an impotent anger towards it. Nur, on the other hand, displays a passive indifference to all but the need to maintain the border between the worlds. It is only Tirosh who originally belongs to the world where Palestina exists; Nur has travelled to this world for a mission to protect the sephirot, while Bloom has left his own world to protect Palestina, the Nachtasyl or “night shelter” of Jews. When the novel opens, it seems as if Tirosh has merely returned to Palestina after living for years in Berlin, but soon his memories of life in Germany (of a different world) begin to fade away and we learn that he is trapped between two realities. The plot follows Tirosh's investigation into the case of his missing niece, in the course of which he is chased by mercenaries attempting to murder him; Bloom’s attempts at uncovering the conspiracy to break the borders of the sephirot; and Nur—the only character in the novel who has a slight hint of what the plot to break the sephirot is about—following leads to save both Tirosh's life and the borders between worlds.
The slippages that take place in Unholy Land are not just limited to those between different worlds. The novel also moves between first-, second-, and third-person narration for its three characters and attempts to use this slippage as a literary device. Tirosh's and Bloom's points of view, presented through the third- and first-person respectively, are well suited for the mannerisms of both these characters and the extent to which they are aware the reasons why events are unfolding as they are. This works best in Bloom's case; his single-minded defense of Palestina at all costs, his declarations of loyalty—“I loved this country; I felt an immigrant's devotion to it that might have shocked or amused a native-born Palestinian” (p. 45)—and his brutal approach towards crushing all obstacles, could not have possibly been presented through the third-person without dulling his character. Tirosh, on the other hand, is for the most part clueless. He wanders through Ararat City, a place that he no longer recognizes, and gets caught up in events he has no control over. Slippages keep taking place between Tirosh's and Bloom's points of view; the third-person narration for Tirosh moves within a single chapter to Bloom's first-person, until it becomes clear that we are reading Bloom's recollections of events.
But this movement between different modes of narration, used effectively to create a sense of difference between how Tirosh and Bloom perceive the world around them, begins to falter when we are introduced to Nur. A long section in the novel retells Nur's past as an agent for the mysterious Border Agency, entirely in the second-person. Here, the voice, because of its marked difference from the rest of the novel, overburdens both the prose and the narrative:
On and on Anwar went and you followed, through would have beens and could have beens, until the rotting skeletons of old armoured cars began to appear on the sides of the road and the air filled with smoke and car exhaust, with drivers leaning out of their windows cursing, and a ruined fort came up on the hill, and you saw a van stop, and Jewish averchim clad in black poured out, placed giant speakers in the middle of the road and began to dance, to the echoing beat of machine music, dancing and clapping and running between the stalled cars, their zealous joy infectious—
Until they, too, were gone abruptly. A small red sun rose momentarily in the east and fell, too quickly, and for a moment you saw Ursalim as a city of white, delicate, towering stone, a city of the future with its minarets and skyscrapers reaching for the sky. (p. 101)
The second-person narration in Nur's case also affects the presentation of her character, which is never developed well enough to integrate with the plot, despite the fact that she often seems to be the only clearheaded character, in contrast to the brash Bloom and the confused and helpless Tirosh.
These three characters, different both in temperament and their worldviews, have but one thing in common: an awareness of the irreconcilability of the opposing claims to the land of Palestina. Who is to blame? Halfway through the novel, an Orkoiyot, a spiritual and military leader of the Nandi—the ethnic group claiming their land back from Palestina—tells Bloom, “It is not that you have made refugees of my people, it is that you would then deny it. It was not enough to do a bad deed: but you would retell history, so that in the telling, it had never happened. You cast yourselves as the wronged party, and thus we can never progress, can only fight” (p.177). A central question that keeps appearing throughout Unholy Land is what would Jewish consciousness have been like, had Jews not been “defined by the great Holocaust that shaped them, the survivors, that formed of them creatures of power and guilt…”(p. 221). Power and guilt, the novel suggests, do not entirely stem from the Holocaust, but are inherent in some form in Zionism itself which, emerging as a political idea in the first decade of the twentieth century, had much in common with the nationalist movements of nineteenth-century Europe. However, as each nation state enshrined its majority communities, based on language, ethnicity or religion, minorities were assigned no place, and pogroms—of which Jewish people were frequent targets—were a common affair. Leo Pinkser's booklet Auto-Emancipation, which Tidhar quotes in the epigraph to Unholy Land, argued that minority persecution was a part of human nature itself, and as such, a minority could control its destiny only through the establishment of its own nation-state, in which it wields majority power (Bloom expresses similar thoughts towards the end of the novel). The events of the alternate world(s) of Unholy Land—in Palestina, Altneuland, and Israel—take place after the expedition to East Africa had returned to Europe, long after anti-Semitic pogroms in Odessa and the Dreyfus affair had strengthened the conviction that European Jews needed a land of their own. In our own world, the formation of Israel was accompanied by the refusal, among the founders of the nation-state, to live with the Palestinians. As the historian Ilan Pappe notes in Ten Myths About Israel, denial of the Palestinians’ claim to the land was quickly coupled with the development of moral grounds and practical means to displace them.
Compare this with a scene in Unholy Land, where Barashi, an alcoholic war veteran and a spy for the state security apparatus, says:
“You want to bring down the wall, for what? The Nandi? They have no claim to this land. It's ours. Granted and paid for in full.”
“Paid in blood,” Nir said.
“Paid in blood!” the old man said. (p.113)
The Palestinian society of this world is also a deeply segregated one, where nannies and servants are mostly Black, the labourers building the wall Nandi, and cheap labour for "dirty work" is brought in from other African countries.
The persecution of an entire population is not limited to the world of Palestina. In one of his recollections of Altneuland, Bloom casually tells Tirosh that in his world, the Palestinians had no place in the Jewish state, and were displaced. It is not just the case that Altneuland witnessed this displacement of the native population. Even within the Jewish state, all political dissent has been quelled and Altneuland seems for all purposes, a military or police state. During one of his investigations, Bloom attacks and grievously injures a student activist, and when subtly rebuked by Barashi, goes on to state: “Where I came from we had no insolence such as this, no criminality of any kind! Ours was a clean, well-ordered place” (p. 125). One can only imagine the free hand that the state has gained in this world and, in the absence of dissent from civilians, the ease with which it has swept through the Middle East, occupying territory from “Beirut to Baghdad.” It is this order that Bloom wishes to impose in Palestina, and in his hardened worldview, only what is best for Jewish people matters. “I was merely doing my job,” is his standard response to any ethical dilemma.
Tidhar's outlook towards the conflicts in these worlds is deeply pessimistic, as he writes at one point that “No matter what we do, human history always attempts to repeat itself” (p. 225). Much of this seems to stem from an anxiety over the futility of his own work, both as a writer and as someone who wishes to see some justice—for the Palestinians, or in the world of the book, the Nandi. Lior Tirosh, we discover, is in many ways Lavie Tidhar; in the beginning Tirosh mentions to his agent the idea of writing a novel with Adolf Hitler as a private detective (the plot of A Man Lies Dreaming) and later, Tidhar ascribes the authorship of his novel Osama, to Tirosh. In the afterword to the novel, he writes, “… like Tirosh, I often think I am merely a pulp writer with delusions of grandeur. Like Tirosh, too, I feel eternally displaced…” (p. 255). Like Tirosh, one might add, Tidhar also feels distraught, adding that peace talks, both in the novel and the real world, can amount to nothing more than a public relations display, that “the bumbling, ineffective Tiroshes of this world can do nothing much more than write their little flights of fantasy and get on with life as best they can.”
It is difficult to disagree with Tidhar, given the events of the last few years. Gaza, the world's largest open-air prison, continues to deteriorate and will soon be uninhabitable; last year, in July, Netanyahu's government passed a law that declared Israel a nation-state of Jewish people, codifying apartheid and consigning non-Jewish citizens to a second class. Meanwhile, the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that informed the Holocaust have returned to the mainstream, to the extent that in the United States we now see a leadership and media that are informed by the same. Following the Pittsburgh shootings that took place last year, the politician Avi Gabbay called upon the US Jewish community to “immigrate more and more to Israel, because this is their home,” essentially implying that anti-Semitism can be countered only by migrating to Israel as a settler, inevitably at the cost of Palestinian rights. Throughout the world, demagogues whip up the fear of minorities and immigrants, of the need for walls, both literal and figurative—a project in which both Israel and the United States occupy a central position.
But if one of the tasks of speculative fiction is to compel us to imagine a world that is entirely different from our own, to think of possibilities that directly contradict its present status quo, what do we take away from Unholy Land, a “what-if” novel that presents to us a world no different from our own, where the same oppression and bloodshed that well-meaning people find themselves compelled to act against, prevails? In the different versions of reality that Tidhar writes of in Unholy Land, the Jewish homelands of Altneuland (Herzl's novel of the same name imagined Arabs as equal citizens) and Palestina, and the Israel of our world differ from one another only in terms of geographical location. The foundation of these states rests on the same logic of majority rule as the only guarantee of security, and of correcting a historical wrong through the assertion of military strength and state-sanctioned discrimination, the result of which has been segregation and mass displacement.
“Like Bloom in this novel,” Tidhar writes in the afterword, “no one sees themselves as the villain” (p. 253). Certainly, Unholy Land offers us no vision of a transformed world; the constant undermining of political possibilities, that would have otherwise underpinned such a project, deprive it of all chances to make any attempt at it. But it is a novel that takes aim squarely at the kind of self-righteousness embodied by Bloom, the inability to see beyond naked self-interest, and the kind of loyalty to one's own suffering that blinds those deeply invested in the idea of a nation-state to the atrocities committed by them.
Arlington's bicycle network has gaps and some routes feel dangerous, so some people who would otherwise bike may be less inclined to ride. It's especially urgent to get people out of their cars as the county and the region work to mitigate climate change. Happily, the county now has the opportunity to build a safer and more robust bicycle network.
The Arlington County Board will consider updating its bike plan on Tuesday, April 23, which in Arlington-speak is called the “Bicycle Element of the Master Transportation Plan.” It will guide future bicycle projects and policies in Arlington County, so it's really important to get it right.
The policies in the draft plan generally expand opportunities for low-stress bicycle routes, but the projects listed are vague and might not be very safe. The question for the Board is: Will Arlington County commit to building safe bicycle infrastructure that cyclists of all stripes feel comfortable using?
Here's what's in the update
Over the past two years, Arlington County staff have consulted with a public working group to develop the proposed update. The draft plan lays out the following vision: “Bicycling is an integral part of Arlington’s equitable, multi-modal transportation system and provides safe, reliable, convenient and comfortable travel for persons of all ages and abilities.”
There are six goals and 15 policies, each with a multitude of specific implementation actions, to support that vision. The draft outlines quantitative measures of the plan’s success, such as “achieve 8% bicycle commute mode share by year 2025, and achieve 12% bicycle mode share by 2030,” “provide bicycle safety education to at least 75% of APS’ K-12 students by 2025 and 100% by 2030,” and “complete 75% of the planned low traffic stress bicycle network by year 2025 and 90% by year 2030.”
The latter part of the draft identifies the bicycle network, which covers the entire county, and specific projects necessary to complete the network. One section outlines how the projects will be built, and the appendices include a glossary, a guide to bicycle infrastructure facility types, and also give design guidance.
Here's what could be better
Appendix D lists the specific projects necessary for a fully-connected bicycle network, and that's where the most glaring deficit is. Many of the project descriptions call for an “enhanced bicycle facility” along a given route, but the draft does not define what an “enhanced bicycle facility” is. That definition matters.
Design guidance and other policies in the draft clearly state that only protected bicycle infrastructure is appropriate for streets with high vehicle counts or high speed limits. But one could argue that going from no lane at all to a painted “sharrow” is an “enhancement” and is therefore consistent with the plan, even though it's not as safe as installing a protected lane.
Moreover, the “low traffic stress bicycle network” referenced in the measures of success is never defined, which could give the county a lot of wiggle room to install infrastructure that's not very safe or stress-free.
The good news is that there is an elegant solution that would clearly call for the county to build the type of infrastructure we need to match the Bicycle Element's vision and goals.
The plan could clearly define an “enhanced bicycle facility” as one that meets the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) guidance for low stress. It could define the body of projects, along with existing low-stress routes, as a “low traffic stress network.”
There are a few other ways the draft plan could be improved:
- Without funding, this ambitious plan is just a nice idea. Arlington County needs to commit to funding the plan.
- When drivers park in bicycle lanes, they're less useful and safe. The plan should call for policies to address parking in bike lanes in the policies section.
- It should also address under- and misreporting of crashes.
- Add a low-stress bicycling route along Army Navy Drive on the east side of I-395 that connects to the planned Army Navy Emergency Access Road.
- Include calls to build solutions—not just study them—for the W&OD Trail route through East Falls Church and for the Four Mile Run Trail’s crossing of Shirlington Road.
- Add a project that connects the W&OD Trail to Carlin Springs Road, which would improve access to Kenmore Middle School.
- Make the ability to change street design to reduce speeds or traffic volume one of the potential tools for creating low-stress routes.
The Arlington County Board will consider the Bike Plan on April 23. If you live or work in Arlington, sign our letter to make sure this rare opportunity to plan for great infrastructure isn’t missed.