Nathan Thrall wins his first Pulitzer Prize – Forward


On Tuesday, the night after Nathan Saar won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, he was supposed to talk about his book at the posh United International Club in Frankfurt, Germany. The club is based in the century-old Merton Villa and defines itself on its website as “a cosmopolitan city between tradition and the spirit of the times”. Tickets for the lecture cost 45 euros.

But a few days before the event—a few days before Sal’s book was published, A day in the life of Abed Salama, was essentially declared Type of the Year – and United Club suddenly canceled it. “There was no notification, no explanation,” Sal told me.

The League One club’s website declares that it is “committed to cross-border understanding” and is “considered the first venue for dialogue between nations and cultures”. But clearly, this book tells the truth about Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

That night, Sa’ar ended up speaking to a crowd of about 100 people at Medico International, a nonprofit that provides humanitarian aid to Gaza and whose website currently reads “Daily Nightmares.” Preaching to the choir, you might say. By the way, it’s free.

It is the triumph and tragedy of this war’s storytellers. This nuanced, textured, gritty, and fundamentally human book about Israel and the Palestinians has won the industry’s highest honors, topped the 2023 Best Books list, and is in its seventh printing. The discussion surrounding it is hopelessly insular.

As we and others reported in October, about a quarter of his initial six-week book tour in the U.S. and U.K. was canceled immediately after the Hamas terror attacks. The book uses the devastating tragedy of Salama’s 5-year-old son, who was killed in a car crash, as a window into the entire century-long conflict.

“I wrote this book with the intention — and I believe this is realistic — that liberal Zionists will read it, engage with it, and be changed by reading it,” Sasha said when we spoke on Zoom yesterday. Tell me. “Now is the moment to show them a picture of life in Palestine, to show them that this is a moral catastrophe, that we are complicit in its perpetuation, and that we should act with greater urgency to end it.”

He lamented that October 7 and its aftermath meant “reading this book won’t be as easy.” Then again, who said it should be easy?

I’ve known and admired Sal for over a dozen years. When I was the Jerusalem bureau chief of The New York Times, he was the director of the Arab-Israel program at the International Crisis Group. Unlike many political and security analysts that I and other journalists often cite, Sa’ar’s acumen has always been deeply rooted in on-the-ground, people-centered reporting on the West Bank, Israel, and especially the Gaza Strip.

He seemed to know everyone and everything that was happening in Gaza. I didn’t always agree with his conclusions, but Sal answered the questions bluntly and specifically. His messages are always checked. I trusted him; still do.

Sal, 44, grew up in a secular Jewish family in the Bay Area. After his grandmother was killed in a car accident, he went on the Birthright tour in 2004 to fulfill his grandmother’s dream of visiting Israel. He received a master’s degree in political science from Columbia University in 2006, subsequently studied Hebrew and Arabic at Tel Aviv University, and has lived in Jerusalem for the past 13 years.

He is married to Israeli-American literary editor Judy Heblum. He was almost the last person to hear about the Pulitzer Prize.

When Sal was announced as the winner on Monday, it was 10:45 p.m. in Jerusalem, and Heblum had fallen asleep after her three daughters, ages 13, 9 and 7. lecture, when his cell phone started ringing non-stop.

“She kept assuring me that she had it set up so that my calls would go over Do Not Disturb,” Sal told me. “I must have called her 30 times that night. I tried our landline. I tried SnapChat to communicate with my daughter’s iPad, just to get any electronic device to ding. In the end, I kept I stayed up until about 5:30 a.m. and finally found her.

“She picked up the phone and asked groggily, ‘Sweetie, what’s wrong?'” he continued. “I said, ‘I’ve been trying to contact you all night.’ She said, ‘What’s wrong? What’s wrong? And I said there’s nothing wrong with it, and I told her I won.

Winning a Pulitzer Prize is exciting. Mark Ruffalo also tweeted his congratulations, calling Sal “my friend.” One of Sal’s mentors had recently passed away, and a message from his wife moved the author to tears. Then a message from his mother: “Congratulations. The next Nobel Prize?

“It’s very on-brand for her,” Sal said.

She was a refugee from the former Soviet Union, and “she was a very committed Jewish nationalist,” Saar said. They had long ago stopped talking about his work, or anything to do with Israel.

“She claimed she hadn’t read any of my articles,” Sal told me. “I think she read the book because it was sitting next to her nightstand when I was there in November. But she never told me ‘I read it’ or ‘I liked it’ or anything Other words. So I don’t really know if she read it.

“That’s the elephant in the room when we’re together because we can’t talk about it,” he added, referring not just to the book but to his public criticism of Israel and its occupation. “It was so disturbing for her.”

The night after Sal won the Pulitzer Prize, he attended a makeup event in Frankfurt. Provided by Twitter

I asked Saar if he was correct in describing him as an anti-Zionist. It depends, he said, on what you mean by Zionism.

“The pro-Zionist side often says that Zionism is the right of the Jewish people to establish a state in their ancestral homeland, which is Palestine,” he noted. “It’s a backward-looking question: ‘When the first Zionist settlers arrived in 1882 and the Jewish population in Palestine was 4 to 5 percent, did you think the Jews had this right? I don’t think the Jews had that right. The right to establish a country for themselves against the wishes of the majority of the local population.

“From a forward-looking perspective, if tomorrow someone proposes that Israel be a state for all its citizens – which means complete equality of individual and collective rights – then any rights that are given to the Jews are also given to the Palestinians,” Sa’ar continued. . “Let’s say there were two states. I’m talking about Israel 67 years ago. I would fully support that. I fully support equality for all people, regardless of their innate characteristics. This makes me anti-Zionist in the Israel debate Activists.

I asked Sal what his next book would be about, and he said he wasn’t sure because he – like every other international journalist or researcher – is now banned from Gaza. He has spent months collectively in this coastal enclave since his first visit in 2010 and knows it better than any outsider I know.

“Gaza is my favorite place in Israel-Palestine,” Sal told me. “I always feel that going to Gaza is like traveling in time. Because historically, the leaders of the Palestinian national movement came from Gaza. Gaza is the place where the most intense resistance to the occupation has occurred.

“Everyone will tell you that the talk in Ramallah is a bubble,” he added. “The West Bank is all these disconnected villages and towns.” Gaza is a city, “full of life. People have more hope and belief that they will be free.

Now, he imagines it could be “fifteen years” before he sees “the Gaza I know” again.

“I talked to friends in Gaza and they said they couldn’t recognize their apartment building,” he shared. “It’s so flat that they get lost in their zone and they spend their whole lives in it, unable to navigate.”

Sarr said he used the time “to do a lot of reading without being able to go into Gaza to do the work I really wanted to do.”

So what’s on his nightstand? Amir Habibie’s “The Secret Life of Said: The Pessimist” is a classic satirical novel about Palestinian citizens of Israel. Khirbet Khizeh, S. Yitzhar’s famous novel about the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948.

He has just completed Primo Levi’s memoir, Survival in Auschwitz.

“This is one of the best books I’ve ever read,” Sal said. “First of all, it’s so low-key. What I found particularly powerful was his description of the different types of survivors. I found that interesting.

“With all the talk about genocide, I read a lot about horrific situations like Primo Levi’s,” he said. “I just wanted to read as much as I could about the really, really dark, dark parts of human nature.”

I love Saar’s work and almost every reviewer rates his books because of its humanity, its 360-degree view of not just the Palestinian protagonists, but the Israeli characters, including their nuances, complexities, backgrounds, and flaws . As the Pulitzer jury said in its citation, “an indelibly human portrait of the Israeli/Palestinian struggle.”

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