The Arab as a Mirror: The Vulnerable Zionist Collective in The Prisoner and Facing the Forests

S. Yizhar’s story The Prisoner and A.B. Yehoshua’s novella Facing the Forests offer comparable representations of a generally silent and passive Arab. In both works, the authors’ render the Arab as a mirror upon which to project, reveal, and critique the Zionist self. Yizhar and Yehoshua utilize the Arab character to expose the struggles, imperfections, and threats within the Israeli collective. By appropriating the “other” as an articulation and criticism of selfhood, the authors usurp Arab subjectivity in order to express anxiety about the Zionist dream. The Prisoner and Facing the Forests confront the Zionist collective with difficult assertions and critique, but their dissent remains within the dominant consensus and ultimately works to define, contain, and limit critical discourse.

Yizhar projects the psychological crisis of the Zionist collective identity onto the Arab character in The Prisoner. The author blurs the distinction between soldier and prisoner, emptying the Arab of his own subjectivity in order to reveal the struggle of the Israeli individual self. Throughout the story, the soldiers are characterized as trapped, blinded, choiceless, and abused, just like the Arab prisoner. The soldiers complain of “the trenches, the troubles, the disorder, no leave, and all that,” depicting their army base as a prison filled with restless, confined, and hopeless soldiers (298). Echoing the description of the blindfolded Arab prisoner, the narrator repeatedly signals to the soldiers’ blindness, with phrases like “we did not notice,” “nor had we looked,” and “we were stuck by an intense blinding light” (297). In addition to these parallels, the Arab character often resembles the Israeli soldiers. During the interrogation, the narrator describes the acts of violence without an actor—“The barrage of questions continued…The kicks landed like lighting…” (303). While it is clear that the soldiers perform the questioning and the kicking, the subject ambiguity underscores the obscure distinction between Israeli and Arab. This merging between Arab and Israeli characters continues, as the prisoner imitates the soldiers’ actions:

“[The prisoner] struck his left palm like a hatchet against his right shoulder and then against his wrist: from here to there. He beat himself incessantly, unstintingly, to remove any trace of doubt. Even then he was uncertain whether he had done enough or must continue, and around his mouth was the expression of a blind man who had lost his way” (304).

In this incident, the author utilizes the Arab character as a tool to critique the Israeli psychology. The reader is surprised, confused, and disturbed by the prisoner beating himself. With such clear similarity to the preceding moments of violent interrogation, the Arab’s irrationality ultimately reflects the irrationality of the soldiers. In mirroring the Arab prisoner and the Israeli soldiers, The Prisoner highlights that the soldiers, too, are blind men who have lost their way.

Through symbolism and muddled layers of narrative perspective, Yizhar highlights the Israeli struggle for individual selfhood from within an overwhelming sense of collective identity. With the Arab character as an instrument of self-reflection, The Prisoner exposes the crisis of Zionist selfhood. The author renders the soldiers as a flock of sheep, with no possibility for individuation. The Arab prisoner, on the other hand, is one. He is the only character with a name, establishing his autonomous selfhood in opposition to the soldiers. This juxtaposition is evident when the prisoner leads his sheep and the “flock” of Israeli soldiers:

“He immediately began clucking and grunting to his sheep as if nothing at all had happened, dropping from rock to rock through the brush with accustomed ease, the bewildered animals behind him. We followed after with hoarse yells, our rifles slapping our backs as we stampeded along and descended with wanton abandon to the valley” (297).

Their “hoarse yells” like bleating cries, the soldiers will “stampede” wherever their leader brings them, always together and without a thought, like “bewildered animals.” The fact that the prisoner, the enemy and victim, leads the flock of soldiers points to the ignorance bred by the Zionist collective in its ideal of united obedience.

The layers of narrative perspective in The Prisoner further develop the struggle between Israeli individual selfhood and collective identity. Short, fleeting moments of the narration present a singular first person perspective, offering a glimpse into the individual world of a vaguely defined protagonist. Just before the prisoner leads the sheep and the sheep-like soldiers, a moment of individual perspective occurs: “I don’t know what our prisoner thought upon seeing daylight again, what he felt in his heart, whether his blood whispered or roared, or what stirred helplessly in him. I don’t know” (297). Following this short passage, the narrator again returns to the perspective of “us” and “we.” At the end of the story, the reader is absorbed in the soldier’s inner-dialogue. Because of the overwhelming power of his collective sense of self, the soldier is incapable of disobeying orders and freeing the prisoner. While this reading harbors sympathy for the loyal, tortured conscience of the Israeli soldier and for the helpless Arab victim, a deeper analysis finds that this story is not about the need for Arab liberation—it is about the need for Israeli psychological liberation at the expense of Arab subjectivity.

The Arab prisoner, as the singular named character, is ambushed, trapped, and beaten by the Zionist collective. By blurring the distinction between Arab prisoner and Israeli soldier, Yizhar renders the Arab character as a representation of the imprisoned Israeli selfhood. Descriptions of the prisoner as he lay in the jeep echo descriptions of an Israeli individual engulfed by the Zionist collective: “Perhaps he is a victim of the intrigues of his people” and “Is that what you really think? Is he a soldier?” are two examples (308). At the height of the soldier’s indecision, he thinks,

“The abducted man, the stolen sheep, those souls in the mountain village—single, living strands that can be joined or separated or tangled together inextricably— suddenly, you are the master of their fate” (306).

The “abducted man” may refer to the Arab prisoner, but its deeper meaning suggests that this man, a “single, living strand,” is truly the Israeli selfhood. This reading is especially supported by the phrase “the stolen sheep.” Yizhar challenges the Israeli to break away from the collective flock and embrace individual freedom. As a symbol of Israeli individual selfhood, the Arab prisoner offers psychological liberation to the overbearing Zionist collective that smothers “independence of thought” (308). In this way, the inner-dialogue at the end of the story does not reveal a conscience torn between duty and righteousness— instead, the Israeli conscience struggles to liberate its own individual selfhood. If he were to succeed in this, “all would end well, one could breathe freely again” (308). By rendering the Arab as an empty screen upon which to project Zionist struggles, the author erases Arab subjectivity. Just as the protagonist proclaims “Oh, Hasan Ahmed… who are you and what is your life, you who can cleanse from our hearts all this filth,” so too does Yizhar appropriate Arab subjectivity in an effort to repair and liberate the Zionist psyche.

A.B. Yehoshua’s Facing the Forests features another Arab character whose subjectivity only exists in relation to the Israeli protagonist. Like Yizhar, Yeshoshua utilizes the Arab character to expose the illusions and threats within the Zionist dream. The Arab belongs to a buried village, “a thing of the past” (222). The author warns of the potential for relapse—for the past to rise up into the present—by the hands of those on the fringe of the Zionist collective. The protagonist is a failing scholar, weak, passive, and bald. He sleeps with his friends’ wives; he wanders aimlessly with no purpose. The fire watcher feels no ideological connection to the Zionist narrative of building up the land, as he exclaims, “’Forests… What forests? Since when do we have forests in this country? What do they mean?’” (204) As a traitor, a bookish weakling, and an apathetic outcast, the protagonist defies all characteristics of the New Hebrew Man. This character is alienated from the Zionist collective, removed from the flock of sheep-like soldiers that Yizhar illustrates. The free indirect style and third person psycho-narration in Facing the Forests underscore the protagonist’s status as an outsider by producing a sense of distance between reader and character. Even with access to his inner thoughts, the third-person narration inhibits a sense of proximity to or identification with the fire watcher.

Even before the fire watcher hears about the buried Arab village under the forest, he yearns for some kind of destruction, as readers learn, “No longer does he trouble to caution against fire. On the contrary. He would welcome a little conflagration, a little local tumult” (219). Out of boredom and a base human desire for rebellion, the fire watcher attempts, in multiple instances, to set the forest aflame. Yehoshua writes,

“He wakes with a start. He lights a cigarette, tosses the burning match out into the forest, but the match goes out in mid-air. He flings the cigarette butt among the trees and it drops on a stone and burns itself out in solitude” (223)

The solitude of the failed match recalls the solitude that the protagonist pursues as a cure to his unproductivity. Despite his craving for “local tumult,” the fire watcher is not capable of burning down the forest in his solitude. So when he learns of the Arab’s demolished village, the protagonist latches onto this “thing of the past” as his own. He begins drawing a map of the area, and the story reads,

“What interests him in particular is the village buried beneath the trees. That is to say, it hasn’t always been as silent here. His curiosity is of a strictly scientific nature. What was it the old man had said? ‘A scholar’” (223)

As a “scholar,” the opposite of the New Hebrew Man, the fire watcher works to excavate, seize, and control the Arab’s vehemence to fulfill his own personal objective, the excitement of destruction.

In an effort to resist against the Zionist project, the Israeli protagonist appropriates and manipulates the passion of the Arab. The narrative signals this possession over the Arab’s agency when the fire watcher stumbles upon the Arab’s stash of kerosene:

“Small tins filled with kerosene. How wonderful! The zeal with which someone has filled tin after tin here and covered them up with the girl’s old dress. He stoops over the treasure, the still liquid on whose face dead pine needles drift. His reflection floats back at him together with the faint smell” (224)

In this moment, the fire watcher discovers the Arab’s great “zeal” that has hitherto been hidden away. In the Arab’s fervor, the protagonist sees the potential for the destruction of the Zionist project, the forest, signaled by the “dead pine needles.” The fire watcher takes ownership over the Arab’s passion, symbolized by “his reflection [floating] back at him.” From here on, the protagonist manipulates and controls the Arab through calculated maneuvers. Seeking to “impress his own vigilant existence upon the [Arab],” the fire watcher spends more and more time with him. Soon the Arab follows him everywhere and even “goes down on his knees” before him (223, 228). The protagonist sets a small fire in the forest, inciting the Arab’s “lunatic hope,” and concludes, “Thus far it was only a lesson” (227-228). This manipulation is successful, as it is written, “Together, in silence, they return to the forest, their empire, theirs alone. The fire watcher strides ahead and the Arab tramples on his footsteps” (227). The protagonist decides on their path, leading the Arab and blazing their trail. The Arab loyally covers up any trace of the Israeli’s involvement, leaving only his own footsteps behind. By the time the Arab finally sets the forest on fire, the Arab is no longer himself. Like the Arab prisoner in Yizhar’s short story, the subjectivity of Yehoshua’s Arab character is erased. While the Arab expresses agency by igniting the fire, he is actually under the influence and control of the Israeli protagonist.

Yizhar reveals the brokenness of the Israeli self, and Yehoshua reveals the fragmentation with the Zionist collective. Neither story exudes hope or sympathy for Arab liberation. The destructive fire in Facing the Forests begins with “the loneliness of a single flame in a big forest” (231). The alienated protagonist is just one flame, but he is a serious threat to the Zionist enterprise. The dissent of those on the fringe of Israeli society can revive threats of the past. The fire watcher even facilitates the possibility for total renewal of this past–“In order to soothe his conscience he sits the [Arab] girl in his chair. It has taken les than a minute to teach her the Hebrew word for ‘fire’” (229). As a new generation, the young Arab child represents the ultimate threat to Zionism, displacement. Yehoshua expresses fear that the Zionists will resemble the Crusades (the protagonist’s area of study) in their bloody and temporary reign. Through the representation of Arab characters, the author illustrates the imminent vulnerability and disintegration of the Zionist collective. In both The Prisoner and Facing the Forests, the Arab figure is an instrument to expose the authors’ anxieties about the Zionist dream.

Neither Yizhar nor Yehoshua idealize the mythical Zionist narrative. Both admit complexities, mistakes, brutalities, and vulnerabilities of the Zionist project. Still, these authors participate in the ideological and political consensus of Zionism. Ammiel Alcalay describes this phenomenon in his book After Jews and Arabs, which reads,

“The existence of a certain mold can determine the range of possibilities open for writers who become difficult to place within the accepted terms of the discourse. The mold, both self-created and externally constructed and promoted, is generally that of the engaged liberal” (232).

Performing as “the engaged liberal,” Yizhar and Yehoshua produce boundaries in the discourse prescribed by Zionist ideologies of power. With these authors as the chosen representatives of dissent and criticism, other narratives that lay beyond their limits are silenced, discredited, and labeled “extremist.” An exploration of The Prisoner and Facing the Forests reveals the authors’ investment in the Zionist ideology and contribution to the dominant consensus of the Israeli narrative. Their stories participate in Zionist power structures by usurping the agency and subjectivity of their Arab characters. Both Yizhar and Yehoshua represent the Arab as a mirror upon which to reflect and expose the vulnerabilities of the Zionist collective, calling for self-awareness, improvement, and fortification. In accordance with the “engaged liberal” mold, The Prisoner and Facing the Forests create barriers of containment within Zionist literary discourse.

By Lucille Marshall. Written for Independent Study with Professor Gil Anidjar at Columbia University.

Works Cited

Alcalay, Ammiel. After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1993. Print

Yehoshua, Abraham B. The Continuing Silence of a Poet: The Collected Stories of A.B. Yehoshua. Trans. Miriam Arad. New York, NY, U.S.A.: Penguin, 1991. Print.

Yizhar, S. Israeli Stories; a Selection of the Best Contemporary Hebrew Writing. Ed. Joel Blocker. Trans. V.C. Rycus. New York: Schocken, 1962. Print.


About lucystarer

college student. hiker. oatmeal eater.

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