Matti Friedman: How I wrote about my time as an Israeli soldier
Canadian Israeli journalist Matti Friedman's second book Pumpkinflowers chronicles the history of a hilltop during a nameless war in the 1990s. The memoir is a finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. The hill was known as the Pumpkin, and it was manned by Israeli soldiers fresh out of high school, charged with guarding the northern border of Israel against determined Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon.
After growing up in Toronto and moving to Israel as a teenager, Friedman was drafted to serve at the Pumpkin for three years. He returned to Lebanon as a Canadian tourist and later became a journalist, covering conflicts in the Middle East. In his own words, Friedman talks about being the first and only historian of the Pumpkin.
The first and only historian
"I am the first, and I fully expect to be the last, historian of this particular hill. For many years, this hill was very important to me and was probably the most important place in the world. If you map my mental landscape, the centre of that landscape is the Pumpkin.
"I'd understood that what I'd seen at the Pumpkin wasn't just this intense and strange experience, it actually had a lot to teach us. The war that we saw in south Lebanon now sounds very familiar — IEDs, videotaped attacks, hit-and-run attacks, a strong modern military facing a much smaller, but ultimately more determined and very extreme enemy. It happened there first. I thought that if I could nail the story of the Pumpkin and make it comprehensible, and make it understandable to people very far away, it would enrich people's understanding of what has happened in the Middle East since this new century began."
Tracking down old comrades
"I tracked down a bunch of guys who also served at this outpost. Through one internet chat room for veterans, I tracked down a few guys and, Israel being a small, tightly knit country, one telephone number leads to another. I started driving around the country, going to these people's houses. Now in their late 30s and early 40s, on the cusp of middle age, I would just sit down and talk to them about the Pumpkin.
"Almost all of them told me the same thing. They said, 'This is the first time I've talked about this since I left. No one's been interested in this.' They had never thought of it as being important. It had just kind of happened to them when they were very young. Like many weird things that happened to you when you're young, it just recedes. If you're not asked about it, then you come to the conclusion that it must not have been very important. I would sit with them and I would look at their photographs, and bring my own photographs as a way to spur people's memories. It's a real cross-section of Israeli society; we were all soldiers then, but everybody has gone off in their own direction. There were farmers and doctors and a physicist and a film director and people doing all kinds of stuff. All we share is this bizarre experience."
Writing about real people
"The hardest interviews were with parents of soldiers who died. I sat with quite a few sets of parents who had lost their kids at the outpost. For them, this is obviously loaded and painful and some didn't want to talk. Most did, most were happy that someone had remembered this and attached importance to this. Writing about them was difficult ,especially since I'm a parent now myself. I have two boys and one girl, and I see this very differently than I would have 10 years ago. Those conversations were more challenging, but also more rewarding.
"It's one thing to relive my own experiences, but to inhabit the lives of soldiers was complicated. These aren't fictional characters. These are real people of real families, people who remember them. I wanted to be respectful of their memory, while trying to describe them in an accurate or human fashion — not as angels, or perfect people, but as living, breathing, flawed humans with potential. I certainly sweated more over those sections then I did over the others. I showed the text to parents with some trepidation, but the response was, to my great relief, favourable. They were happy that someone remembered and that someone cared enough to write about their sons."
Running and reflection
"I had a very emotional reaction to some of the material. I'm sure that age had something to do with it. I'm 100% sure parenthood had something to do with it. I wasn't expecting to really respond to the material in that way, although, in retrospect, I should have expected it. I ended up peering into the abyss a bit more than I had intended when I set out.
"I usually would stop and go for a run, sit back down and keep going. I think it's that journalist training — there's a deadline, you have to finish writing, you can't get carried away. I understood that I was dealing with things that were very important. It made me feel that I was on the right track."
A Canadian enterprise
"I think the book is a very Canadian enterprise. I was not very long out of Canada when all this happened. My experience in Toronto had been one where the lines between different kinds of people seemed not to exist. My friends were all different kinds of Canadians. Their parents came from all over the place. The idea of these deep tribal gulfs between kinds of people was foreign to me. When I was in Lebanon as an Israeli, I had a hard time seeing the enemy as dramatically different from me. It was pretty clear to me even then, looking at that hostile town from the outpost, if the parents of the Hezbollah fighters had been moved to Canada, we'd probably have been at the same high school and we would have hung out in the hallway."
Matti Friedman's comments have been edited and condensed.