When I entered first grade, it was the beginning of my schooling, as there weren't yet any kindergartens in the Druze village where I was born. Today, my children are privileged to attend not only kindergarten, but also nursery school. In a few years' time the nursery education of village children will begin at the age of two, or even earlier. My daughters-in-law will probably play the music of Bach, Rimsky-Korsakov and Rossini to children still in the womb. This is what I imagine to myself. This is why we are living in a new era. I don't know how much longer my eighty-year-old mother will live. Her mother, my grandmother, lived till ninety. My grandfather lived till one hundred and ten, and he forms part of my childhood memories. Only four more years till 2000, and my mother continues to tell stories of my childhood. My family and I live in my father's house, a stone's throw from the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus walked on the water. There, almost every day, my father's grandchildren and great-grandchildren get together and my mother tells them amusing stories about their parents' childhood, about me and my brothers.
Two of those stories always make the children laugh. On the morning of the first day of school, my mother came to wake me up and found me already awake and in tears. "Why are you crying?" she asked. "Because I don't know how to read and write and I am afraid to go to school" My mother laughed - making my brothers laugh too - at her son who was afraid of school, never understanding that she herself was to blame for neglecting to prepare her son for his first day in school. But how can you blame a mother who has never been to school? The only formal education she'd had was learning the alphabet from the Imam (the Muslim cleric) who broke down the words of the Koran into their individual letters.
The second story is also related to school. One day a child returned home from school in a state of confusion and ran to his mother: "Mother, are we Christians or Muslims?" he asked. She burst into laughter. He cried and begged her to answer. She relented and told him that we are neither Christian nor Muslim, but Druze. "Why do you ask?" said the mother. He replied that the teacher had asked the Christian students to go into one classroom, and the Muslim students into another, to study religion separately, but the Druze were free to go home since their religion was secret and not taught in school.
And from the pastoral atmosphere of a small village - set apart from the outside world - this child was sent to school in the big city to become a learned man like the Jews. Such was my father's reasoning. The city of Haifa on Mount Carmel hugs a beautiful inlet of the Mediterranean Sea. Jews and Arabs live there. Near the German Colony are a Catholic monastery and an Italian hospice. Above the German Colony is the golden dome of the Bahai temple, and above this the Ahmadi village. Ahmadya is a unique sect within Islam. In 1962, the mayor of Haifa, Mr. Abba Houshi, opened the doors of one of the city's schools to Arab students, though not in large numbers, so they could learn alongside Jewish students. My father knew the mayor. Under the British Mandate, Abba Houshi found shelter more than once in my father's house. Thus he agreed to my father's request that I should attend this school at the age of twelve. I had to live in a rented room. Thus I came to live in the home of Jews from Europe, in Haifa's German Colony. Mrs. Steiner, the Hebrew teacher, told me one day: "Listen, kid, with that kind of Hebrew you won't be able to go on studying here." She didn't realize I couldn't tell my father that I was unable to learn in this school. Maybe if she were alive today she would be embarrassed to learn that the boy she knew went on to receive a doctorate in the Hebrew language and is, indeed, a Hebrew writer.
Several people have tried to embarrass me about being an Arab writing in Hebrew. The first was one of my university professors who believed that no one can write creatively except in his mother tongue. More recently, there was an Egyptian writer who loathed the fact that an Arab was writing in his enemy's language and, as a result, would not receive me as a guest of the newspaper where he worked. Just as I wanted to prove to my teachers and parents that I could meet their expectations, so I wanted to prove to my people that I could also write in Arabic. And so I can, but the way I write in Hebrew is very different from the way I write in Arabic. Before I speak about this I have to confess that the words of the professor bothered me less than the provocative questions I get asked, mostly by Jewish audiences:
"Why do you write in Hebrew? Are you considered a Hebrew writer or an Arab writer who writes in Hebrew?"
Many countries in the world have never heard of Hebrew, and some people abroad even think that it's an ancient dead language found in dusty books, like Latin and other languages which have been forgotten, or are not spoken anymore. The Hebrew language, for those who don't know, is the language of a nation consisting of barely five million souls. This reminds me of a funny story: a Chinese tells his friend about a trip to Israel. The friend asks, "How many people live there?" Answers the Chinese: "About five million." "Oh," replies the friend, "which hotel do they live in?"

Hebrew is the language of the Bible and in this language it is written:
"God said, 'Let there be light' and there was light, and God saw the light that it was good." There is not another language today in which almost every word is loaded with so many possibilities for expression and for meeting the need of human poetry in its eternal quest to speak of the sorrows of man and his wondrous attempts to find meaning in life. At times I have felt the distinctive weight of the Hebrew while reading again the most beautiful love songs in the world; the Song of Songs, and David's elegy on the deaths of Saul and Jonathan. The power of Hebrew does not end here. It begins here.
I am not sure if the Jewish people in Israel are aware of what I think of the Hebrew language, and this does not concern me. It is not for them that I write in Hebrew, but because of them. As to the question of whether or not I am a Hebrew poet, the answer is very simple: a Hebrew poet, yes, but not a Jewish poet, just as I am too a Druze and an Arab poet.
However, these questions led me to ponder the importance of the national identity of writers, and of cultural dialogue in general. It became clear to me that in some cases this identity is an issue only when speaking of mediocre writers. Otherwise how would you know of the Jewish identity of Kafka who was born in Prague and wrote in German? And what is the identity of Ionesco, the Rumanian, who was always thought of as a leading French writer? And what about the great Lebanese writer, Khalil Gibran, whose universal fame comes from his writings in English? And that goes for my friends, the good Arab writers from North Africa who compose in French. My dream is to become a writer who will never again be asked about his nationality or religion; or, at least, this shouldn't be the first question. If not that, I dream of creating a chemical-spiritual synthesis of East and West which only art can achieve. I have in mind, for example, my own Arab culture and the virtues of the mystical Druze religion: the secrets and symbols of the Sufis who knew the way to inject into the sinews of the Near East the liquid essence of Greek philosophy as transformed by Buddhist ideas, carrying in their veins the spiritual lifeblood of India and China.
Another question which haunts me today is how we can bring artists and intellectuals back to their rightful task of challenging and guiding the decision-makers in our region. Especially, in Israel and in the Arab world alike, in quotidian reality, the politicians, democratic or otherwise, are the sole decision-makers. And it is they who deal with war and peace. Now, after the important decisions that have been made in our region, it is inconceivable that an intellectual, an artist, a writer would say "No" to peace. But there are still many writers in the Arab and Muslim world who reject the peace process. But we should also observe that the question of peace is more complicated and more ramified than one first imagines. Thus, for example, a subsidiary question arises: can peace exist without individual freedom?! Or without a real cultural dialogue? Because, just as you cannot challenge the role of a politician in making peace, you also cannot challenge the role of the intellectual in dealing with the question of liberty and man's redemption in freedom, and in involving himself in I-Thou encounters. Meanwhile, we should monitor carefully the following situation: today's liberal politicians and economists seek to replace a serious culture based on history and religion and serious exploration of modem issues by a superficial culture based on leisure and the free market, whereas fundamentalist religious leaders want to substitute for freedom and creativity a closed universe of discourse. In sharp contrast to both, we must find the "third way" in Israel and in Arab and other countries in the region; and this is a major task for intellectuals and writers.
Some months ago I participated in a literary happening in the small city of Conversano in the south of Italy, and right from the start I felt at home. The human warmth, the local panorama, and spirit imbued with historical realities and philosophical insights found their way into my soul, as if a dream of my own creation was freed and my imaginings became reality. But the reality was stronger and more stubborn. I'm not one of those who prefer emotions to intellect or intellect to emotions. I seek a balance. In that search I always return awestruck to literature as the most wonderful creation of mankind. It is the common denominator which can unify all people. However, the real dialogue between writers in our region hasn't begun, and it's sorely missing.
This is not the place to sharpen this thesis, but there is a human reality which encompasses emotions, history, culture, fears, love, dreams, imagination. We cannot base ourselves only on formal politics and economics. Such a move would impose on us a pattern of shallow life and cause us to forget our deeper roots. We should observe our in-depth patterns in Israeli and Arab culture alike and not leave those recesses to fundamentalism as a gift. But the depth of the human soul, as I understand it, is multidimensional, and access to it can only be achieved through literature and encounters between various spiritual powers, or at least by cultures-in-dialogue. In any event, the golden age of both Hebrew and Arab (and Muslim) literature was blended with philosophical influences dating back to Antiquity. The same may be said of the Renaissance in the Christian West. In sharp contrast to this approach, fundamentalism cancels reference to inner multidimensionality in the culture of its own people, and declines to relate to the inner richness and multidimensionality of the culture of "the other," of the "enemy."
To sum up. In my view, global Americanized culture, free-market political economy and the formal machinery of the peace process cannot erect or constitute a sufficiently strong barrier against fundamentalism. This is the reason why today, more than in any other period, there is a need for what I call the "third way." It means that we should prevent the standardization of culture, and seek to strengthen the status of writers and intellectuals vis-a┬Čvis politicians and economists - especially where faced with dictatorial regimes. Only intellectuals and writers, if they are not utterly fanatical themselves, are able to see and reveal the deeper dimensions of life. (It is no coincidence that many prominent members of the Arab and Iranian intelligentsia are in exile in the West.)
Be that as it may, during the recent peace process the voice of poets, writers and intellectuals has been conspicuously absent. I, for one, as a Druze Israeli citizen but also as an Arab and Hebrew poet, feel intensely that the formal, diplomatic peace process, with the likely consequence of an economic boom, has to be accompanied by very serious attempts to launch a real cultural dialogue in our region. Even initial steps in this direction should be regarded as quite important.

From The Jerusalem Review, No.1, April 1997. Reprinted by permission. <