Category Archives: Views & News

Another View: Timeless conflict in the Middle East

In the breath-holding cease-fire between Israel and Hamas over the Thanksgiving holiday, I was catapulted back to the early 1980s when Leon Uris was writing his novel, “The Haj.” The memory is bittersweet, especially of the enormous challenge the author took on: that of a zealous Zionist writing a novel from the Arab point of view.

At the time we both lived in Aspen, Colorado, only slightly removed from the world. Uris was a prolific researcher; he excavated deep, thoughtful and insightful backgrounds in his stories, many of them political.

I had been Uris’ researcher since the early 1970s, when he wrote “Trinity.” The whole process of bringing “Trinity” to life was a joyous one. Leon and his third wife Jill were in the early years of their marriage, they’d traveled in Ireland, and much of this Irish novel was a love story.

Uris was also a nut for history. So much so, that while he was writing “Trinity,” we put a sign above his Selectric typewriter that said, “This is a novel,” because he could so easily get lost in the record of time and retell it rather than stitch his fictional tale into the historical fabric.

In contrast, research for “The Haj” was not easy. Times were troubled, and the Middle East was, to borrow a phrase from Wordsworth, too much with us. As a Zionist, Uris’ delving into Islam—and how the Arab characters behaved and interacted with the Jews—was a complex and painful exercise for him. While much of what our research revealed supported his views, he had to take negative facts and turn them into character qualities that a reader would find sympathetic.

He had read and digested Raphael Patai’s “The Arab Mind,” and thus formed an idea of what he might learn from the Koran about Muslim attitudes toward the Jews when he assigned me the task of a close reading of the Koran. I read it twice, marking references to the “non-believers,” among which were counted Jews as well as Christians. Uris’ interpretation was that the Koran is rife with hostility toward the Jews.

An Arab view, posted Nov. 20, 2012, on states that, “This hostility [November’s Hamas rocket threat] is the direct result of years of anti-Israel and anti Western incitement in the Arab and Muslim world…. In today’s world of the Palestinians, anyone who talks about peace with Israel is a traitor and a collaborator….” []

“The Haj” opens in the decades before the formation of Israel. Uris paints the Palestinian Jews in as smart and collaborative, while portraying the Arabs/Muslims as hate-filled people who consistently got in their own way.

He rationalized the Arabs’ behavior as supremely tribal, as in this statement by Ishmael, the book’s narrator: “So before I was nine I had learned the basic canon of Arab life. It was me against my brother; me and my brother against our father; my family against my cousins and the clan; the clan against the tribe; and the tribe against the world. And all of us against the infidel.” (The Haj, p. 15)

For Uris the entire process was turgid and tough, like trying to motor through a swamp of mud. The cheerful attitude that had permeated our lives during the “Trinity” years was replaced by sourness, a pursed-lips kind of drudgery. He was tormented by the fight between Arab and Jew, a battle that played out in his head and his heart. His use of alcohol increased, along with cocaine and pot. He was irritable and angry and picked fights with those closest to him.

His longtime editor, the legendary Ken McCormick of Doubleday & Co., encouraged Uris in his book, writing that an Arab hero was “an absolutely great idea—a Jew writing a book from an Arab point of view.” Yet, Doubleday’s chief, Sam Vaughan, was not as enthusiastic, according to Uris’s biographer Ira Nadel (“Leon Uris: Life of a Best Seller”). Vaughan cited the use of too much history in place of story, the rough writing, the lack of Uris’ understanding of the Arab mind, and the book’s structure.

I’m certain Uris recognized these as the diversionary tactics of the hesitant part of himself who fought to turn his distaste and distrust of the Arabs into compassion and empathy for his characters. From my perspective as his researcher, he seemed to listen to the facts on any given subject, placing them either in his Jewish camp or his Arab camp, always reflecting the latter against the light of the former.

As the protagonist Haj Ibrahim comments to his Palestinian Jewish neighbor Gideon Asch, who is also his best friend, “You see Gideon that is why you are fooling yourselves. You don’t know how to deal with us. For years, decades, we may seem to be at peace with you, but always in the back of our minds we keep up the hope of vengeance. No dispute is ever really settled in our world. The Jews give us special reason to continue warring.”

The above passage is quoted in a 2011 essay by Joseph Puder on Puder goes on to say that, “The dialogue presented by Uris [in The Haj] is more than relevant in our own day. Israel provides food and electricity to Gaza, while Hamas-led Gaza uses the land vacated by Israel in 2005 to fire rockets at Israel’s civilian population in southern Israel….” []

Uris believed the battle between the Jews and Arabs in the Middle East would never be resolved, just as he viewed Ireland’s religious friction between Catholics and Protestants to be an ongoing fact of life. I do not think Uris would be surprised by this most recent turn of events between Palestinians and Jews in the Gaza Strip. Despite his bias, “The Haj” provides an insight about the Middle East. Indeed, Uris considered his book, published in 1984, to be a warning of what could happen.

Originally published:

Autumn’s Saddle

At the acme of any cycle – the seasons, the moon – a sweet poignancy holds me in thrall. Like a carnival ride that shoots us to the top, where we pause for the briefest of breaths. And then we begin the free fall into the next cycle.

The fall equinox, September 23, held me for just such a moment between waning summer and waxing autumn. It is fall, not spring, that quickens my step, dawning each day with excitement and anticipation.

It is that feeling of anticipation I’ve experienced since I was a kid… Fall has always meant new beginnings… one year older and a brand new school year.

It is that time of great fishing and hiking, the saddle between summer and winter, the off-season. It is a miraculous time. In the burnished light of autumn, people seem to walk around in a daze, as if internal springs have loosened, less tension on them.

Up in the mountains, where seasons have distinct personalities, we stretch out into fall, savoring every moment of daylight on hikes and walks through aspens lit up from behind as the sun goes down. Nights grow imperceptibly longer, pulling us toward close winter nights indoors.

We preserve summer’s bounty so we can enjoy fresh tomato sauce or squeaky green beans at our winter dinners. It’s a genetic thing in humans as in animals to store up for the winter. Cravings for bacon, stews, mashed potatoes signal an ages-old physical preparation to add bulk against the cold. Bears do the same thing, filling up for their own dark winters. Squirrels scurry, stripping myriad pinecones of precious seeds.

Out come parkas and hats, ski equipment examined, dollars counted for new gear or a visit to yard sales and consignment shops. Cross training is in full gear, to be ready for opening day on the Mountain.

We take trips in this interim time, lying on beaches, traveling to spots all over the world or across the country. They provide perspective on our lives and businesses, a chance to fill up on theater, music, museums, to spend luxurious time with friends or relax with a good book. Because returning home, whether by car or plane, causes an intake of breath, a sureness that we live in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Breaking New Ground—A rule is a rule until it isn’t

A child in the 1950s, I learned to follow the rules. I was one of those kids who colored inside the lines. The consequences of not following the rules — a spanking or being grounded — were too dire for my little bottom or adolescent psyche to risk.

When I graduated from college and moved into New York City, sexual pioneer Helen Gurley Brown threw my neatly organized pickup sticks into the air and left me to contemplate my sensibilities all messed up on the floor. In New York I found a world of rebellion and gusto-grabbing. I was dizzied by the possibilities that existed for liberated women. Brown’s pioneering voice showed how women had been girdled by their undergarments long enough; it was time to break new ground, throw off the shackles (even the elastic ones of girdles and bras).

Brown’s book, “Sex and the Single Girl,” preached that not only was it okay for women to have sex before or even without marriage, but we should embrace it. It was the rebellious, lascivious 1960s, when the birth control pill had been legalized.

Unencumbered of our rules, we embraced like crazy.

I broke the rule of “skirts only” at the publishing house Harcourt, Brace & World and wore the first pantsuit in my department. (I still prefer pants to skirts; I own only two dresses.)

Brown and Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem said women could have it all, could live any life they wanted to live. We believed her. In that freewheeling city, we could question the efficacy of rules, challenge status quo in all quarters.

When I left the gridlock of city life to move to Aspen and work with the author Leon Uris, I discovered a world without rules. Their absence enabled us to look objectively at reasons behind rules and adopt them or not depending on their perceived viability.

Some rules seem so deeply rooted that it doesn’t occur to us to challenge them: Rape doesn’t cause pregnancy; the Bible holds the one true word of god; home ownership brings security, for example.

Few things in life, I learned from my parents, were more important than owning one’s own home. There was no more real stake in a community or in one’s seriousness, importance and security. The certitude of that advice percolated until the day my husband and I became enchanted with Mammoth Lakes, with its small-town, ski-town sensibility, and scraped together all our funds and bought a condo, a home. Check. One rule of life, followed.

We enjoyed a few years of feeling proudly serious and important. Then, the recession hit and property values plummeted to the point where our “home” lost half its value and our mortgage was underwater. Our notion that home ownership signaled security was dashed.

With hindsight I find myself questioning the fundamental tenets of American life. Those tenets were more solid and safe in my parents’ times. The world didn’t move at such a meteoric pace. Values and goals handed down by parents had staying power — the venerable institutions such as marriage, owning a home, working for 50 years for one company to earn the gold watch at retirement. Oh yes, how about retirement — there’s a rule that has died a sad death for many Americans. Retirement is now so far beyond the norm, light at the end of the tunnel isn’t even visible.

But back to being liberated, and its value in confronting tired conventions.

Back in the ’60s, breaking the rules was exhilarating. We respected the rules, which was why it was so exciting to break them. In today’s world, many people seem to think they they’re more important than the rules.

In HGB’s era, it was breaking new ground. Today it’s acting like you own the ground. In the forest, dirt bikers ignore posted signs that say no vehicles allowed, and tear up the trails on joy rides. Road rage is an expression that one person’s time is more valuable than the next person’s.

Anything, it seems, carried to extremes, risks losing its purpose, its reason. How do we refresh the rules of life; it’s not so simple as pressing a button on your Internet browser.

And with the world changing so fast, a rule may last through one 24/7-news cycle. Whew! Talk about dizzying.

How Vidal Sassoon changed my life…and my hair

That Tuesday in 1969 started out like any other.

Legions of women walked to work in New York City wearing sneakers (tennis shoes for West Coasters) and carrying their heels in shopping bags.

I was one of them. I was also one of millions of women who set our hair on big rollers every night, and slept on them. Mine were one and a half inch-diameter brown mesh over an aluminum spring. Not easy to find a pillow position with this lunar armor covering my head.

But the results—oh, the fluffy hair with body and height. For someone with stick straight hair, I adored the way my hair looked when I unwrapped the rollers every morning.

With my bouncing, long, blonde hair, I left my apartment on 89th Street at Madison Avenue that hot August morning, and walked 40 city blocks to my job at WNEW FM in the Pan Am Building, just north of Grand Central Station. I joined the ranks of my fellow gals. We looked odd dressed to the gills in the style of the late 1960s that verged on formal and sporting scuffed sneakers on our feet. We were a pragmatic lot; no one enjoyed walking in pain-inducing pumps.

I marched; I liked the exercise. Then again, everyone walked fast in New York. At the end of the two-mile trek, I was hot and perspirey. After stopping in at the corner coffee shop for a coffee regular and a toasted corn muffin, I hopped the elevator and THEN ducked into the ladies room before walking to my desk.

The woman in the mirror had loser hair. Humidity had reduced my fluffy hair to a limp, blonde mass that clung to my skull. This despite gallons of hairspray. I hated hairspray.

For this disappointing result I underwent the torture of sleeping on stupid rollers every night?

I kicked the wall beneath the mirror.

Pain shot through my toe; it throbbed, I was sure I’d broken it.

That did it. Anger morphed into resolve, and after work that evening, I marched myself over to Fifth Avenue and straight into the Vidal Sassoon salon.

On Tuesday nights, haircuts were free, as long as you could submit to the ministrations of an apprentice hairdresser. We girls with problem hair, no money for a haircut, or the simple desire for hair adventure stood around waiting to be chosen. Student hairdressers approached each of us. They felt our hair, lifted it to see how thick it might be, how unruly. Gasps and expletives occasionally escaped their lips as they guided their conquests to the depths of the salon to perform magic.

As if they were picking sides for a softball team, they left me until last, clearly disappointed with the fineness of my hair; only at the final moment did they deign to style it.

As Sassoon has said, he was not after style; he was after bones. One apprentice washed my hair, another one cut and styled it, and a third blew it dry. Edward Scissorhands couldn’t have flown through the process any faster. When the cutter whipped away the gown and proudly showed off his handiwork in the mirror, Sassoon’s comment proved true. In place of my blonde locks (curl imagined) I had a cap of hair that contoured the shape of my head. Wispy pixie hair. About an inch long all over.

Just that easily, I had done away with the problems of humidity, hairspray and tormented sleep. I now had wash-and-wear hair; I could jump out of the shower in the morning, dry my hair with a towel, comb it into place and walk to work without fear of losing my style. It was a revelation. There’s far more to life than perfect hair.

Thank you Vidal Sassoon.