I’m not sure when I first read Yuval Ben-Ami‘s travel writing. It was almost certainly on a recommendation from my friend Lisa Goldman, who I met one motor-mouthed evening at a pavement café in a mildly hipster part of Tel Aviv during the pre-hipster autumn of 2009. I was there to research this story for the Independent, and Lisa made me realise just how big it could be, just how far I could keep on digging down and down into rotten roots, where the kernel of the issue lay. I didn’t go deep. Why? I’m not sure. It’s complicated. Because I didn’t think I could. Because I wasn’t being paid much. Because I was scared of really writing something. Because I felt like I was pretending at journalism.
The story had bounds. Lisa, like many of the people I met on that trip, talked of the big old wide open choppy swirling sea.
We tell ourselves we can’t do things, or needn’t do things, or shouldn’t do things, so that we can turn round to ourselves later on and say, ‘If only.’
Anyway, Lisa was writing for +972 magazine, and so was Yuval, so it probably came out around that time. Then sometime after Tahrir and all that followed in 2011, Lisa tweeted Yuval’s brilliant ‘September Journey‘ – read it, all of it – and then his ‘Christmas Journey‘, both about travel in the (Un)Holy Land, and I was hooked. I wanted to be Yuval’s friend. I wanted to travel with him. I knew some of the places, I even felt like I knew some of the people, but I knew none of the stories, none of the interior glow. Nobody I know writing about Israel and Palestine writes with Yuval’s compassion. His straightforwardness and lack of self-conscious inhibition disarm you, then catch you, then kick you out of the park. He bottles up whole worlds into dense, heady little paragraphs. He does things I wish I did. He writes things I wish I wrote. I hate heroes, but Yuval Ben-Ami is a hero.
I should add, I’ve never met him. We’ve never spoken. We’ve emailed once or twice in, what?, three years. My stake in Yuval’s success is precisely zero. So don’t roll your eyes at what follows.
Yuval has a new book out. In 2012 he did ‘The Round Trip‘ – travelling around the borders that Israel thinks it has, but, well, you’ll see. Here he is introducing the idea. I love it. It’s sparkling stuff, from beginning to end. The whole thing is online. You can read it anytime. But don’t. Click here for a much nicer e-book version, spread over 300 pages. Perfect for your iPad.
In case you need any more encouragement, here is part of the introduction Yuval has written especially for the e-book, pasted here with the publishers’ permission.
My favorite word in the English language is “circumnavigate.” As with many things, perhaps all things, my Israeli identity plays a part in this. Hebrew is not as particular a language as English; it is short on single words that carry such complex meanings. I remember learning that English actually has a word for traveling around something – in particular sailing around a mass of land – and being fascinated.
Strangely, when I look over “The Round Trip” ahead of its publication as an e-book, I find that this word is missing from it. Why would I not use “circumnavigate,” my favorite English word, in a record of a circumnavigation? Perhaps I felt the word conjured too strongly a romantic nautical image, which does not really suit Israel and Palestine. Though the journey begins along coastal dunes, it later drove me into a fair bit of barbed wire – too much barbed wire for beautiful words.
It’s not a sad book, I don’t think, but it may be troubling, and this may be where its merit lies. “The Round Trip” started off as the third in a trilogy of travelogues, written for +972 Magazine. That it is the first of the three to come out as a book may be because the +972 team and myself found that it was the most troubling of the three. We feel a need to present our concerns for this land. It is the one true home we have, a home which is in fact a strange island growing further and further detached from the rest of the world. … The emotional experience of the Round Trip – which swung between this deep sense of worry to enchantment with this land’s richness and uniqueness – remains encapsulated here.
Oh, and you’re absolutely right. The e-book costs money.