Yossi Avni-Levy: ‘My mum didn’t want anyone to see my book’

11 06 2007

Source: Duży Format, June 11th 2007
Interviewer: Katarzyna Bielas (with simultaneous translation from Hebrew by Michał Sobelman)
Translation from Polish for this blog: (beta version) MoPoPressReview

Interview with Yossi Avni-Levy, Deputy Ambassador of Israel in Poland, former intelligence agent, historian, lawyer, and writer. He lived and worked in Berlin, Bonn, Belgrade and Warsaw. He published four books (his début was a collection of short stories in 1995). Ciotka Farhuma nie była dziwką (Auntie Farhuma was’t a whore after all) is his first book published in Poland.
Yossi Avni is his pseudonym.

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Yossi AvniKatarzyna Bielas: In your book there is a scene, in which the main character Jonatan and his partner Arik are purchasing a flat in Tel Aviv. When they haggle its price, Jonatan notices a camp number on the landlady’s arm. Without hesitation, he deciphers it – the date, the transport, the camp. Surprised woman drops the price, he agrees, and then feels distaste.

Yossi Avni-Levy: I still feel it. But it was no manipulation, I just saw the number during the conversation and recited what came to my mind, the first association. I remember that this elderly lady was from Austria.
There is a lot of my biography in that book.

You were born in Israel. Where does that camp knowledge come from?

Even when I was a child I was interested in Holocaust.
My parents didn’t come from Europe, and aren’t Holocaust victims. My mother comes from Iran, father from Afghanistan. Mum used to send me to library, so that I wouldn’t become a thug, but I wasn’t looking there for Verne’s stories or romances, but books about Holocaust. One day the librarian said “Dear child, this isn’t good for you to read things like that, this is difficult even for grown ups” – but I saw in his eyes that he was pleased. I was borrowing the books, and learning everything by heart: the number of murdered in each camp, names of German commanding officers, camp identifications by number. I was like addicted to that evil magic. I became a little expert on Shoah.
Everyone, my non-European family, and that woman from Austria, we constituted a community, and that community made me a boy, who – not literally – was saved from Shoah. Because of that, Holocaust has become maybe the most important thing in my life.

Auntie Farhuma wasn't a whore after allWhat does it mean? When did you first hear about Holocaust?

Holocaust has always been like a magnet for me, that attracted me to pain. I keep asking myself, when did it start.
I remember, when I was eight, teacher standing before our class and explaining what had happened. I heard “those who were saved” came to Israel. In Hebrew “to be saved” has the same core as “to fry on fire”. In my imagination I saw Germans grilling people. Those, who made it to survive, are my neighbours, people I meet in the street.
At school I was one of few Sephardim – Jews from the East – among many Ashkenazim, who have come from Europe. When I was ten, I had this imaginary aunt, her name was Batsheba. She came from Afghanistan to Crimea, where in 1943 like other Jews, she died in boats that were being sunk by the Germans on The Black Sea.
That imaginary aunt was a way I identified myself with European Jewry, I wanted to feel like my friends, whose parents remained in Treblinka.

Ciotka farhuma nie była dziwkąDid you feel you were outside the community? How were you educated?

No, I didn’t feel excluded.
In the sixties and seventies Shoah was constantly present in our lives. On Holocaust Day, I remember, television used to show terrible documents, and pictures. My whole family gathered around the TV set, with mouths open and fright in their eyes. There wasn’t a single noise in the whole neighbourhood, only blue television light visible in every window, and people were like hypnotised with the nightmare. It’s the stamp of suffering we bare. I myself stood there , I gave myself to it, hypnotised.
However, if I am to be frank, this magnet is in my case an issue connected with my psyche. My friends don’t have it.
This pain is something I can hug to, with my private sadness, I need it, it’s like my emotional anchor.
Even now – and I am in my fourties – I have no answer to why it is so.

That reminds me of Arik. When his reltionship with Jonatan collapsed, he said that he doesn’t want to be happy, that he puts up resistance, because he thinks he doesn’t deserve.

There are people who are not looking for happiness. Sadness is their true home. Sometimes I accuse myself, that I adopted sadness as my inner ID, as the most comfortable solution, to live in a dark cloud all the time. I don’t know why.
People, who know me, say ‘Yossi you’re so joyful with us, having fun, telling jokes, but when you write, your pen is dipped in tragedy. Which of these two is the real Yossi?’

Yossi AvniWhich?

I don’t know. Maybe writing is the road to getting to know yourself – and to liberation. I write about things closest to my heart. When after some time, I read what I have written before, I start to know who I was then. I’m changing. I wouldn’t have written now, what I wrote in early nineties in ‘The Garden of Dead Trees’ for instance.

You wouldn’t have written what?

I wouldn’t have written about the inferiority complex as I did then. It’s a very private matter.
My family, like the whole Sephardi community always wanted to be someone else, more beautiful, richer, better, educated, more like the Jews from Europe.
To go on concerts, take taxis, dine in restaurants, eat gefilte fisz, speak low voice.
Recently Israelis are rediscovering their roots, they say “I am Israeli, but I like Tripolitan food and Yemeni music”. In the sixties and seventies we wanted to be homogeneous nation. Israel wiped out immigrants’ ethnic origins. I was ashamed of my Eastern origins. When I think about it now, I’m sad.

Yossi AvniOne of your characters recalls, that when he was child he used to be ashamed of his mother, who desperately haggled a lower price, buying him clothes. Hate towards the poverty driven cleverness remained in him ever since.

There were situations that were more sad than this, about which I was ashamed to write.
We used to live in constant want. Father was a workman, he picked fruit that were later sent to you, to Europe. He also had a second job.
My mother was a domestic help, a maid. In the sixties it was very difficult for a woman with four children to earn for living. One day I noticed that she begun working as a maid in one of my school colleagues’ home. I acted very arrogantly towards her then, I started to blame her for me not having the sort of parents, my friends had, and i told her I was ashamed of her.
Today I am very ashamed of myself for doing that. I ask her for forgiveness for a hundred, a million times.
In my books I portrait, apart from the sense of humiliation, the very intimate relationship between mother and son – this is very important in Jewish people – and a very distant relationship between father and his children. Undoubtedly this has a huge influence on young boy’s soul.
I am one of those people who have a huge hole in their stomach, and it is difficult for me to fill that hole up. Every time when I suspect I am happy – I run away.

This hole is about what? Is it guilt?

Katie, it would have been great, wonderful, if I knew. But I don’t know.
My mother was still blaming herself, I remember her saying “Yossi, I ruined your life, I am guilty, I need to be punished”. But there was no reason for her to say that.

Tell me something more about her. I still see her moaning, talking back her husband, and cooking.

She was born in 1940 in a small town in Iran. Her mother’s marriage was arranged, and she married a 50-year-old man when she was 10. His children from previous marriage were twice her age. They lived in poverty. My mother was a sensitive girl, living with her fantasies. She wanted to educate herself, but she never made to. She came to Israel in 1952. To earn her living, she picked potatoes. Her education was terminated.
Israel of the fifties, was a country full of barracks, tents, metal huts. In several years the number of inhabitants rose from 600.000 by 2 million. Immigrants needed to be given housing, food… New nation had to be built.

She couldn’t study because she couldn’t afford to?

Not only because of that. All the governmental structures, social structures, education, were reserved for Ashkenazi Jews, school headmasters, teachers all were from Europe. They perceived Jews from the East as second category people, as primitives. Access to education was very difficult.
Mum married my dad when she was 22, not for love. It was hard for everyone, my parents were saying “You will have a different life”.

Were Jews in Iran persecuted at that time?

No. Iran was one of few countries mostly tolerant towards Jews. But people found out a Jewish state was formed. Emissaries from the Jewish Agency were coming and encouraging people to return. In Poland and other countries it was the same. The time to go back home has come.
Similarly, like everywhere, many of the rich remained in their countries, and the poor have left for Israel. Half of Jews stayed in Iran. Most of them left that country only in 1980-82, after Khomenei came to power. Now several thousand live there…

Yossi, where are you going?

I have to show you something.

What’s that huge calendar?

My mother showed it to me, when recently I went oin Israel. She started writing, about her childhood in Iran. She writes about the hunger, about the bathhouse, which they used to frequent, and Muslims shouting at them Jood – Jews – causing fear.
Mother said “Yossi I would like this was published one day as a book”. Look at her fancy handwriting. I started reading, and I was amazed, as this is written in rich, literary Hebrew, with great talent.
I was so moved, I closed myself in the toilet and cried. I’m afraid I’ll start crying again now.

What moved you?

A feeling that I have lost something.
My mother always dreamt about different life, she didn’t want to be poor, she didn’t want to be maid, she wanted to speak languages. She wanted to be a “lady”. And she is a lady. She dresses tastefully, wears make-up, she speaks good English, although it’s self-taught. She used to work in a hotel, where guests from Germany used to stay at, so she knows basics of German. From her neighbour Goldica, she learned a bit Romanian. She knows she could have accomplished a lot more.
Although their tough life, my mum and dad never regretted having come to Israel.
I have inherited this sense of loss, of underachievement, from my mother, like her sensitivity, even little hysteria, and a complete, constant lack of complacency.

And your father?

He is one of the biggest mysteries of my life. We lived next to each other, not knowing one another. We lived in the same flat, but I felt he wasn’t there. He was an uneducated, closed man. Years gone by, I can now see how much he loved me, but he could never afford too say that.
He came from a very patriarchal Afghan family, male part thereof couldn’t express feelings. They are difficult, closed people, and when they are angry, they never forgive. My father didn’t speak with his sisters for 37 years, although they lived 2 blocks away. They had a row over inheritance, but in reality, I think it was about whom their parents loved more.

I remember two years ago papers – in Poland Wojciech Jagielski personally – reported about two last Jews of Afghanistan, Izaak Levin and Zabulon Simentov. So quarrelled, and so passionate about it, that even though they were sharing a house, they never spoke with each other. Constantly making pranks, working on each other nerves reporting one another to Talibs and mujahideen. They pursued a private war over who’s in charge of the local synagogue. Only one of them is left now. 80-year-old Levin froze to death in a dirty chamber, in some kind of pallet. “Now only I rule here” – said then the other with satisfaction.

The one who died is my uncle! I also found about his death from a newspaper. I had a business flight from Frankfurt am Main to Warsaw, I grabbed the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and there, on the first page, I read my families’ private stories. I felt, how different and distant worlds, which are contained in me, suddenly get into touch.
My uncle Izaak died, whom I have seen only once in my life, when he came to Israel, and I was ten. Father missed him all the time.
These quarrels are a Jewish tragedy.

Who was he? He claimed he was a rabbi, who sent his family to Israel, and stayed in Kabul himself, to have an eye on the synagogue,wrecked by the mujahideen.

Maybe he was a gabbi in a synagogue, maybe he was a faith healer selling herbs to Muslims, who regarded him as a saint, because had been to Jerusalem.. I don’t know.

Strange.

Very strange. This too is a part of me, hidden in a drawer. Not the only one. I know it. I’ve put my childhood there, unhealthy relations with my parents and I engaged in something else – Holocaust, Germany, where I had lived for years. Now I feel closer to Afghan identity. I read a book on Afghanistan and I said surprised ‘Unbelievable! The way they speak, the humour, the food, the way they express anger – that’s me! I am like that! I am an Afghani!’
Look, I even start to look similar, I only need beard.

Maybe you would like to “return” to Kabul?

Only as Israel’s ambassador, that would have been interesting. So far we don’t have diplomatic relations with Kabul. We recognise them, but they don’t recognise us.
I don’t even know if my uncle knew that his brother’s son is a diplomat, our family has had so many turning points.

How did they land in Afghanistan?

There weren’t many Jews in Afghanistan, almost all of them have left for Israel. My father lived in Herat. Most of Afghani Jews came from Iran fearing pogroms, most of them from Mashkhed, after the reputed “Jewish ritual murder” in 1839. Some came from Buchara in Tajikistan.
I don’t know where my grandparents come from, but they were quite wealthy – grandfather was the head of Jewish community. Through my whole childhood I heard my fathers stories about the wonderful lamb meat they used to eat, about the gardens they used to have and about summer house and winter house. Mother stood in the door, and and ridiculed “Yes, yes, summer house and winter house”.

She didn’t believe?

Mother used to call us, when Afghanistan was being shown on TV: ‘Come quick, they’re showing your father’s country’. We looked at primitive houses, people sitting on the floor, women with covered faces.
Later I understood that the stories our father was telling u, weren’t just his individual story, they were also Afghanistan’s history, the mysterious country, which he had missed, in which his family enjoyed a good living standard, where they were respected by their neighbours. And Muslims called them hajiji, showing their respect, like they call Muslims pilgrimaging to Mecca, as his family used to visit Jerusalem.
He also told us about dwarfs, who kidnapped and ate children. Afghanistan is a country of ghosts and thugs, many tribes, and monsters, legends, fantasies, which are still alive in the oral tradition. Father used to add a lot of this magic dust to his tales.
These stories about houses, this anger, this blockage, this lack of harmony within the family, I still carry that on my shoulders through my life. Maybe one day I will write about this, but now I’m not strong enough.

Why is it so hard to open this up?

Katie, I’ll tell you something. My first book was about my mother. She never read it. My second book was about my mother and my father. They never read it. I’m not even sure, if they’ve heard about it. It was written under a pseudonym. The issues I was writing about were very private, intimate – and almost sensational.

You really didn’t tell your parents about your books?

OK. My mum saw my first book, and she hid it under a pillow, so that no one could see it. She’s afraid, that someone will knock to the door, that policemen will enter, ask where is Yossi and take me to prison. She constantly lives in terrible fear.
One day I asked ‘Mum, did you read a bit at least?’. She closed the door, took me to the corner of the room, and said ‘Yossi, our enemies are waiting behind the corner. Don’t say everything about yourself. Everyone plays some game in their lives, and you do similar. Don’t be a loser. Don’t trust people. People are evil like poisonous snakes.’
SoI asked her again: ‘Mum, but nevertheless, did you read a bit?’ She replied ‘Your mother has a concave face, that’s how you see me’, and she smiled sadly.

What was it about?

There was a description of a woman, in that book, a woman with round, and sort of concave face, who spends 10 hours a day cooking food in the kitchen. That’s how I see my mother, among the great flavours and herbs. I think she started reading, but got so scared, that she never finished.

Scared of what? That your characters are gay? Scared that you are gay?

I don’t know.

What do you think?

I never asked her, why she didn’t finish reading that book. I have some of my own boundaries too. For me too, it isn’t easy to talk with my parents. I decided to come back to that issue some other time.

In Auntie Farhuma, in which you write a lot about your family, growing up in Israel, you don’t mention any kind of oppression. What was she so afraid of?

I haven’t experienced any physical oppression – that’s true. But it’s not only about that. You grow up, you see that people around you have families, and you are different. You have a problem. You start to think about loneliness, and no one wants to be alone. No one wants to be different.
Mum was afraid, that if I talk about my leanings, about my life, my pain, my loneliness, my search for love in an open way, I will get hurt in Israel. A country very macho-istic, conservative, a country in which power decides about everything. Israel is a country of many faces. Tel Aviv is the pluralistic pole, liberal, like Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris, even more than Warsaw. But there are many conservative faces of Israel, for instance Jerusalem.
Maybe this is the reason, why it is easier for me to write than to speak?
My work as a diplomat also plays a role here. I’m split into two persons: private person, and state person – it’s like having two heads.
Writing is a way to stay free, when I write I sit by myself at a desk surrounded by complete silence. Being very sad. If I wasn’t writing I would have exploded. Writing is a medication. Catharsis.

You needed freedom and you’ve become a diplomat. Why?

I wanted to serve my country. Since I was little I felt I was different than my school friends: I wasn’t interested in money, expensive cars, I wasn’t interested in stock market – the only thing that attracted me, were the big difficult questions, Jewish nation, Zionism. I saw myself as the future leader, I cared about my country.
Some people just have it that way, they feel their life is connected with their homeland.
After having done a degree in law, I worked in a law company. It was the worst, the most boring time in my life. I imagined myself in some sort of political activism, government, but I didn’t know which path to follow. Should I join a political party, or send my CV to Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I chose the latter.
I was thinking about leaving the country. I wanted to get out. The charm of foreignness worked on me, new cultures, possibility to breathe different air.
Probably every Ministry of Foreign Affairs applicant will tell you that.

Why, with your obsession with Holocaust, did you come to work in Warsaw? Looking for and apartment you specified you didn’t want it to be within the former Jewish Ghetto.

Probably to light up my biggest secret, the attraction of pain. I’ve been living in Germany for five years, but that wasn’t enough for me. There – this is a paradox – I felt the tragedy of Holocaust much less. In Warsaw I walk the streets of former ghetto.
This was my choice. I’m glad I’ve come here.
Before, I used to be prejudiced like other Israelis. I remember myself ten years ago, talking to my friends in Berlin ‘There are several countries around the world I would never like to be in, for example Poland’. You will ask ‘why?’. Because I thought Poland doesn’t like me. Now I know my views were stupid and unjust. I mean the anti-Semitism, of course, which I have never encountered here. Let’s don’t be naive, Poland has a very unflattering image among Jews in Israel, and outside Israel.
However during the almost three years I have spent here, I have met many people, I saw that for example in a cafe, when I say I’m an Israeli, people say ‘OK, cool’.

What did you expect to happen?

I thought that they would beat me up, spit at me, that I would have to hide my Israelisness, my Jewishness, that I would have to mind what I say – but no. With Poles you only can’t talk about the number of victims, you can’t make comparisons, because their faces instantly cloud over, they take offence, they have to be the world champions in suffering.

How is it in other places?

When in the Western Europe I said I was from Israel, people were scowling, because they are pro-Palestinian. I even felt hostility. My friends-diplomats, for instance, in UK, Ireland, Sweden, Greece, Belgium, France, tell me about terrible ordeal they have with local youth. In Cologne, Brussels people were interrupting me during my lectures. Here – never. Palestinians are not sexy in Poland.
In Poland Israelis are much more liked than there. I feel that Poland is hugging me, and I do want to be loved. Poland turned out to be a huge surprise.
It is only a pity people aren’t vaccinated against anti-Semitism. In Frankfurt on Oder you can say things, you wouldn’t be allowed to say in Frankfurt am Main. In Warsaw’s souvenir shops you can buy little figurines of a Jew counting money.
Now I will say something dangerous: I think I’m experiencing rebirth here, I’m shaking off my addiction… Living here, in a place so closely related to Holocaust, made me distance myself from that subject.

What hasn’t still changed about you? You’re going back to Israel soon.

There was a time, when I wanted to run. From my mother’s hugs, from the feeling of suffocating, from the family-intimacy. In my first book I described the desire to escape from my small town to Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv was my New York. Then I escaped from my country and I started to wander about the world, looking for freedom. My first book was about tearing handcuffs, breaking walls surrounding the body, about escape to Europe.
Europe was the ultimate paradise, beautiful, with red-yellow autumn, an opposite to the heat in the Middle East and colours of the desert. I felt close to my virtual European roots. That was part of my need, my desire to be someone else.

And what do you want now?

I want to go back. Make a circle. I see many young people leaving Łódź, Wrocław, Warsaw, they go to Ireland, to London. I meet them in cafes. I hear them talking about wages, about the need to escape, about the great world that is out there. Sometimes I want to grab their sleeve and stop them. Although you can always return, you can’t turn back time, it may be too late for some things.
I’d like to reach some stability. These are the problems of many embassies’ employees: who travel and have loved ones in every port. But I don’t want it any more. I have an apartment in Tel Aviv with boxes, that haven’t been unpacked for the last ten years.

What happened so suddenly?

I felt that I want to belong to something. I want to be part of something. I want to have a family, I want to be a father. But I don’t know how to do it. Should I have a traditional family? Or make up something different? And isn’t it too late for that?

The wish to have a child, is strongly accented in ‘Auntie Farhuma’. Characters discuss possible mothers. Jonatan even makes a statement: “The experience of death is the strongest for gays (…) There is something left after every person, only gays really die. (…) Fully-fledged fags will deny angrily what I said, and call me a homophobe”.

Many people, mainly gays, were offended by this sentence. They wrote to me outraged. They thought I was cruel. It’s true, this is brutal, but this is the essence of loneliness, you have no extension. My book is full of fear of death, because I’m afraid of it.
Now talking about children, about adoption, is something usual, but when I was writing this several years ago, it wasn’t so. Many gay people adopt children in Israel, they also have children of their own. If they don’t marry women, they arrange it somehow, and children have both parents, although they’re not together. Many children are born in these relationships in Israel.
Two weeks ago I received another letter, author wrote ‘It’s not true that those who don’t have children really die – those, who don’t have children don’t know how to live.’
That sentence from my book really touches people, it disturbs them.

In how many worlds do you live Yossi?

I know that the way I answer you questions, shows how divided I am. I admit to that. I have several passports, sometimes it’s very tiresome. I have my personal passport – my friends know which cafes and clubs I go to. Second is the state passport, my work, my position. There is also my family passport, in which it’s written “be careful”.
We don’t live in an Utopia. Life is more complicated than progressive slogans.
I’m not a gay rights activist. First and foremost I am a Jew and Israeli. This is my prime internal commitment. If I was to choose between pro-Israeli, but very conservative direction, and very liberal, but anti-Israeli – I would have chosen the former.

Mum’s preaching is not wasted then.

The private microphone is not on this table, but it’s plugged to a book. I never lied about myself.

* * *

See also:
Yossi Avni’s review of Aharon Appelfeld’sPoland is a Green Country’ in Haarec
Another interview – with picture. In Polish. in Gazeta Wyborcza


If you enjoyed this post why not visit Polandian, a collaborative blog on Poland.

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“Women sacrificed on the altar of the Holy Mary”

13 03 2007

An interview with Agnieszka Graff, published in Przekrój (no.10/3220, March 8th, 2007), conducted by Piotr Najsztub on March 1st, 2007.

* * *

Agnieszka Graff (37) writer, translator, publicist and feminist studied at Oxford University, Amherst College and School of Social Sciences at The Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN). In 1999 she received doctoral degree in English literature. In 2001 she published World Without Women, in which she described the absence of women in Polish public life and the patterns upon which the discrimination in Poland has been signed. She has had translated works of Virginia Woolf. She works for Warsaw University’s Institute of Americas and Europe, where she lectures Gender Studies to sociology students. Her essays are being published in Gazeta Wyborcza, Zadra, Literatura na Świecie and Katedra. She is a co-founder of Porozumienie 8 Marca, which organises the annual Women’s Day March. She’s married to a photographer Bernard Osser.

Przekrój: Do Polish women have anything to celebrate during this year’s 8th March Women’s Day?

AgnieszkaGraff: – No. The situation is dramatically bad and the fact that both: the majority of women, and the general public underestimate it is even more dramatic.

So what is dramatic about what is going on?

– The situation is symbolised by the constitution amendment, that is being forced by Deputy Prime Minister Giertych and a part of the Law and Justice Party (PiS). Which de facto leads to total ban for abortion. However this is a part of a bigger thing: the total seizure of Women issues by the extreme right.

Because only they talk about it?

– This subject has been given away to them like they owned it. They became experts for Women issues.

Who has given it away?

– Other parties, and most of the media. This obviously sprung due to the number of scandals the left side were engaged in. However before it collapsed under all the scandals, there was a very clear “non-agression pact” between them and The Catholic Church. For the price of its support for joining The EU, the left has given up the debate on abortion. And the view that this odd, current abortion law, one of the most restrictive in Europe, cannot be changed, has consolidated. That it is better not to touch it, because something terrible may happen.

Some call that law “the wonderful compromise”.

– This is reputed-comprimise. Comprimise of the rightwing with other rightwing. And the thing that is happening now, I think, is seen also by a part of The Church as dreadful, or deeply immoral.

What could be dreadful for them?

– The idea of a total abortion ban, including the cases of rape, adultery, and handicapped foetus.

Why would it be dreadful for them?

– Because The Church is not a ferocious institution. It is, from my point of view, an anti-women institution, deeply traditionalistic, but it is not a criminal institution. However the idea to force a woman to give birth, a woman who can lose her life during the labour, i see as criminal, as threatening the biological existence of women. The newest proposals for constitution amendments are being ignored in Poland, and seen as some kind of folklore, because no one believes the extreme-right will ever execute those regulations.

And will they introduce it?

– I think many people believe they will, but no one believes that they will execute it effectively. To let them for such antics in Polish constitution seems to me like like giving up completely. This is a coup on democracy – closing the debate on a subject that divides the Poles. This is frightening for me, however Poland is not the only country in which such things happen. Nationalists, when let to power, take over the control over women, and the whole rest agrees for that. You cannot let the extreme nationalists govern the foreign policy, you cannot give the extreme populists the power over economy, but since something has to be given to them, women are being sacrificed. And this is happening in Poland.

Do you feel it personally?

– I am not in the position of a woman living for 180 euro a month, who gets unwanted pregnancy. So I do not feel personally threatened -I will be fine. But this is my country, and I do not want to live in a country that despises of women. The situation of most women is similar to the situation of people being hijacked on a plane. Giertych and company are the hijackers – and the rest of ruling class negotiate. On our expense.

But maybe most of these women, having the alternative of being hijacked or not, would have chosen to be hijacked?

– No. The number of people supporting the total ban for abortion is 9 – 10 percent, and these are mostly people who have long passed their reproductive age. This is some kind of an extreme group. I also represent a statistically extreme group, because I believe that abortion should be safe and legal – and with the easy availability of counterception – should be treated as a medical service. This is a cliche in the West. Well, 10 percent of the Polish society shares my view. All others are somewhere in between. They think for example that abortion should be available for economical reasons, or they more or less support the current pseudocompromise. Which is abortion legal in the instance of rape, serious foetus handicap, or a threat to mother’s life. Many women say “I would never have an abortion, but I think women should be allowed the choice”. Or: “Abortion should be banned, but if my younger 15-year-old sister got pregnant, of course I would have helped her to get a surgery”. There are many inconsequent and self-contradictory emotions involved.

Should only women decide on the right for abortion, or men too?

– Many people from my environment think that women should decide. I do not fully agree with that. The right for abortion is a part of a set of women’s rights called ‘reproductive rights’. These are human rights. Rights of a human, who is a woman. And I don’t think, let’s say that only Afroamericans in The USA should support fighting racism – this is an issie importaint for the whole America. Similarly, I believe that it is an issue of all citizens of this country to decide, how will women’s rights be. Reproductive rights are some kind of an emancipation of civilisation level and level of Church interference with the state. So not only women, children also have fathers. And the childless do not have to be keen to live in a country where Marek Jurek and Wojciech Wierzejski are Women issues experts.

You said that the attitude to women’s rights is the gauge of civilisation level. Measured like that, where are we?

– You want me to say that…

No, it is not like I want you to say something.

– … that we live in The Middle Ages or in Africa, but I don’t believe that progress in inevitable.

So is it The Middle Ages all the time?

No. I think all kinds of occurrences – even not related to women issues – have influence on the attitude towards women’s rights. At this moment the issue of women’s rights in Poland is greatly influenced by the increase of nationalist moods. Nationalism debases women. These mechanisms were very beautifully and deeply analised by Professor Maria Janion in her last book Niesamowita Slowianszczyzna (The Incredible Slavs). To make the long story short, nationalism is the ideology praising the manhood. Manhood based on a certain vision of “brotherhood”, a bond between men. But at the same time the fatherland is really the motherland. This universal phenomenon, that the personification, the symbol of the country nationalist loves, the nation he feels part of, is in fact idealised womanhood. In Poland it is the Holy Mother, together with Polonia and the mythical “Polish Mother”. We hear all the time the right wing MPs idealising that womanhood, who is supposed to make sacrifices for them. They show their mentality very clearly. But the same can be said about nationalists in Ireland, Singapore or Sri Lanka. From research and observation we know now, that the more idealised is the symbolic womanhood, the more humiliated, and the more powerless the real women are.

So we should destroy that myth of Polonia-Holy Mother-“Polish Mother”?

– You cannot destroy myths. You can cure yourself from myths, you can mock and ridicule the myth in a creative way. Professor Janion believes that is what the contemporary Polish literature (for example Maslowska, Kuczok) and art (Nieznalska, Zielinska, Baumgart) does. I am more of a pessimist. These works of high culture, very interesting, have no influence over the Polish mentality. Roman Giertych very effectively communicates with that mentality. It is his great symbolical success and should be not depreciated as extremity. I have found an information published by the Polish Press Agency (PAP) in August 2006 describing the beginning of the campaign for changing the constitution. Roman Giertych visited the Jasna Gora shrine and has made a vow to the Holy Mother that he will change the constitution. He added that the abortion can be “analogically compared” to Holocaust. This is the classical example of sacrificing the real women on the altar of the symbolical woman. And the Holy Mother of Jasna Gora, is here basically personification of Poland itself. Giertych’s Holy Mary is some kind of a ferocious goddess, to which women have to be sacrificed. This is incredibly graphical and powerful rhetorics – today it strikes PiS too. They are afraid to be against it, to say: it’s cruel. It would mean they are not patriotic enough, that they signed out of the “brotherhood”.

So maybe Jerzy Urban is right calling the Holy Mother of Czestochowa “an indian woman with cuts on her face”, maybe this is the way to fight it?

– No, disdain and tainting the symbols is not the right way, because it’s basically doing the same thing au rebours. What we need is a strong, alternative, secular discourse. A discourse that neither puts the Holy Mother into the centre of Polishness nor does it offend her or throw objects at her. Some serious feminist force from inside The Church would also be handy…

Maybe there is no alternative to the Holy Mother as the centre of Polishness, and that’s why it’s happening?

– That’s why we will probably end up having the total ban on abortion in our constitution. A terrible thing is happening: women’s rights have been made equal to betrayal of Polishness. What Polishness is about is that our women our different than that bitches in the West, our men are real men not some transvestites or transsexuals from Berlin.

Our real men will introduce the ban on abortion into constitution. Do you think nothing will change and we still will have such widespread underground abortion service? It’s estimated that 80-200 thousand surgeries are carried out every year.

– The question is will the underground abortion service be safe? Now the underground service is very civilised. It is expensive, but abortions are being conducted by doctors. Before the Second World War or in the 50s-60s in the United States, before abortion was legalised, abortion was the cause of death of many women, often already mothers, who died in hands of some freaks. I don’t know if PiS will bend to the next idea of the extreme-right, to the idea of liquidating the underground abortion services. If they start sueing doctors doing those surgeries we may end up again in “women’s hell” as Boy-Zelenski called it. The League Of Polish Families (LPR) party are religious fanatics, they could do that. I hope for the optimistic alternative, that this will cause the women’s rebellion.

How could it look?

– For example forming a women’s party, which in opposition to Manuela Gretkowska’a party will take care of the subject of abortion.

So one more women’s party?

– I don’t know if one more. Manuela Gretkowska’s Manifesto published in Przekrój has pointed to the barbarianism of the idea of a total abortion ban. And it was a Manifesto of justified anger against making women powerless. Since then from what Manuela’s been saying, it seems she’s scared of this subject. Lately she said in an interview for Dziennik, that she can imagine herself voting both for and against the right for abortion. That doesn’t mean anything, only that she pulled out, that she got scared – like the whole Polish political scene – of The Church and that odd idea that Poland equals the Holy Mother, and the Holy Mother equals no abortion. I hope that women is this party will realise, that this matter cannot be postponed until later, because these mad people will eat and digest all of us.

Apart the abortion, do Polish women taking part in this years Women’s Day March have other reasons to worry?

– Job market for the starters: sexual harassment, pay gap, or employers during the job-interview demanding a declaration that a woman will not have children. I can go on like that for long. Poland is the country in Europe in which there is the biggest difference between the level of employment of men and women. 59% of men aged 15-64 are employed, compared to 47% of women. That’s 12 percent. In Denmark or Sweden it’s only 4.

It has been worse, so maybe it’s better now? And I don’t mean the communist era, but the 90s. In the communist era there was full employment.

– It’s not about full employment. It’s what womanhood is. Then women identified themselves as functioning in public life. Now, because of the discrimination, and the attack of the nationalist ideology, many women don’t even attempt going back on the job market after having a child. This is of course related to the problems with kindergarte. If a woman earns 180 euro per month and there is no kindergarten near her, or the kindergarten cost 150 euro, it’s more appealing for her to stay home with the child. From many years there were attempts to push women back on the job arket with other methods. And childbirth-benefit is one of the most scandalous idea. Its main result is, i think, the fact that women who would have given their children for adoption after giving birth, now decide to keep them.

You don’t see any positive outcomes of childbirth-benefit?

– No.

For some women these money mean they can buy something.

– Of course, but this money can be spent in a more reasonable way. Encouraging having children should not have the form of single time financial benefit, but a complex system of supporting the parenting.

And when the state is not able to create such a system, maybe it’s bette for it to give away the child-birth benefits?

– Well yes, but that generates lots of pathologies. Already couple thousand children in dysfunctional families were born. Only to receive the benefit, and go drinking or other things like that. Because of the childbirth-benefit less women leave their children for adoption at the hospitals. After few months they end up in foster care.

Do you see in the Polish parliament anyone thinking similarly?

– I have great sympathy to Izabela Jaruga-Nowacka. What she says always makes sense, however it not always is reflected in what later happens. In relation to the current parliament I have chosen the attitude of something like internal emigration. I no longer listen to every debate.

Before have you?

– Yes, I had the parliamentary debates downloaded from the internet, i knew the names of MPs, I was interested in the actions of the Parliamentarian Group of Women. When I returned to Poland after graduation in 1995, I was in such a naive and enthusiastic way a patriot. I thought to myself that Poland has regained independence, that we’re building a modern democracy, that this my feminism is my input to the common good. When I read now some fragments of my old books, I smile. I was so excited, so patriotic, so optimistic.

PiS needs patiots.

– I never predicted that the word patriotism will be seized by people, who in my books act as weirdos throwing rotten eggs at us. The boys who were throwing object at me in Wladyslawowo couple years ago, are MPs now.

They are in LPR, but PiS… PiS needs patriots.

– No. PiS uses the word patriotism, to describe something, which is nationalism. This patriotism we have now, is not from my world. That’s why I stopped saying “this country”, and I say “my country”. Because I got scared that me and my environment will get pushed on the position of ironists, distancing themselves from Poland.

Why did you get scared of such perspective, if you already are on “internal emigration”?

– Because this is after all my country. I am on my internal emigration in my favourite district of Warsaw. I love this city, I love those landscapes. I returned with full understanding, that after seven years of emigration, this is the place where I want to live, and I don’t want to be offended by some…

Do you want to live in a country in which women will have their rights taken away?

– Where would a feminist live if not in a such country? This is the place, where things need to be done. This is my country, and it has been stolen from me by PiS inc. I’m not shopping, I’m not looking for a cool place, with best options for women.

Do you feel Manifa (the Women’s Day March) has supporters in the media, or not really?

– This year Porozumienie 8 Marca has decided that there shall be no more happenings, no more funny wigs and stuff. Manifa is serious. And this is a serious ideological decision, and also a challange for the media. Because the media got used to that a colourful March of girls and boys walks down the streets of Warsaw, and no one really knows what its about, but there are funny signs like “Sex yes, sexism no” or “Feminism, I’m worth it”. But we are no longer on the stage of celebrating our internal unity, that we’re so emancipated, that we have read those cool feminist books. Our country is now gripped by nationalist plague. And I hope that the media will see what is happening, that there is something importaint going on, which concerns all of us. Not only women in reproductive age.

What would be your dream parliament-act concerning women’s rights?

– Gender Equality Act, like they have in many EU states. And which we still don’t have in Poland. However in the matter of abortion, the best act would be a blank sheet of paper. It’s just not a matter for politicians or lawyers, but doctors and women. Or first – women, and doctors second. It is the women who takes the costs: both economical and emotional – of having a baby. It’s mostly men who make law, but they leave the whole responsibility to women.

So your dream is to cross abortion matters out of law regulations and constitution?

– Yes, maybe except medical regulations defining the moment until which abortion should be available.

You have convined me, I’ll come to the March. What do you expect from men, who don’t share the ideas of nationalist ideology?

– A serious interest in women’s rights, including reproductive rights. Not as one of many issues, but an issue that has become the symbol of fight for Poland. Because everyone in the media thinks it’s the matter of lustration and everyone argues about it constantly. But this will pass, together with the generation concerned. However the women’s rights can be lost for many years. And it’s not only about women, but also about what you tell children in schools, on those lessons that re no longer called “sexual education” but, i don’t know “preparation to life in virtue”. This is the moments that decides about atmosphere in Poland for generations.

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