The other night I was watching a basketball game with friends at a bar near NYU when Jared Malsin stopped at our table and had a beer. Malsin is one of those young journalists for whom I have complete affection because they remind me of myself at that age. It’s a selfish feeling; I like to think I was once as smart and attractive and promising as they are now.
Malsin has an angular face and a dry wit, and he goes out to the Middle East a lot. But he can’t go to Israel or Palestine. He was kicked out of Israel in 2010 after being detained for eight days at Ben Gurion airport and interrogated for hours and hours by “manipulative, misleading, mendacious” officials about his writings critical of Israel.
“Jared, I’ve always wanted to ask you,” I said. “Did you use your brother’s passport?”
“I don’t have a brother.”
“Sorry, it was just something I heard back then, when we were all wondering why they were holding you.”
“Yes there were a ton of rumors about why it was happening.”
“Did that experience change your life?”
“Of course. I mean, I lost my job [he’d been working at Ma’an News for 2-1/2 years]. And my home in Palestine. I had to change my life completely.”
“I meant spiritually.”
“Oh. Yes. I feel like I got some empathy for the experience of detention and incarceration. Just a little. Like when I told this guy about it recently, he said, ‘Yes I know, I was in prison for four years.’ A tiny taste. Like a grain of sand.”
When I got home, I got down two books from the shelf. The first was a Henry Miller book containing his story about being deported from England in 1934, called “Via Dieppe-Newhaven.”
Miller was a poor writer in his 40s then, living in Paris. His first book was about to come out, Tropic of Cancer, but he was in a bad way. He’d broken up with his wife and the Chicago Tribune had lately fired him as a proofreader and he’d moved in with a journalist. His wife was starving and on his case and he rustled up some money to go to England. He was tired of hearing French and wanted to speak English.
“After turning round and round like a rat in a trap I got the brilliant idea of beating it myself. Just walk out on the problem, that’s always the easiest way…”
But he ended up giving most of the money to his wife, and on the boat across the channel he got drunk and bought beers for others and made the mistake of asking about cheap rooms in Paris. An official heard Miller, and when he got in the immigration line they asked him to show them his money. The questioning was humiliating.
“I see that you are a married man. Is your wife living with you — and your friend? Or is she in America?”
“I don’t see that that’s any of your business,” I said. “But since you brought the subject up I’m going to tell you something now. The reason I came away with so little money is because I gave the money for my trip to my wife before leaving…”
“Wasn’t that rather foolish to give your wife all that money and come to England penniless, or almost so?…You’re a writer, Mr. Miller?”
Couldn’t I give him the name of a magazine I had written for in the last year or two? I said no, I had been too busy writing a book… [W]hat were the names of the books?
“There’s only one,” I said. “It’s called Tropic of Cancer.”
At this I thought he would throw a fit. I didn’t know what had come over him for the moment. Finally he seemed to bring himself under partial control and, in the suavest, the most sarcastic voice imaginable, he said, “Come, Mr. Miller, you don’t mean to tell me that you write medical books too?”
In the end the English authorities put a cross on his passport and kept him in a jail overnight and then shipped him back to France the next day. Miller was glad to get back to France. He was filled with joy and understanding–that all life is voyage, “voyage within voyage.”
It’s a beautiful story. I’m not doing it justice on literary or philosophical terms. But my business here isn’t literary.
I got Miller’s book a year ago after I read George Orwell’s praise for it in this book. The two writers could not be more different. Orwell understood Miller as “a simple individualist who recognises no obligations to anyone else– at any rate, no obligations to society as a whole.” But he also recognized Miller’s outstanding gifts, his lack of shame and bold prose, and he found “Via Dieppe-Newhaven” moving on political terms:
I remember reading it just after Munich  and reflecting that, though the Munich settlement was not a thing to be proud of, this little episode made me feel more ashamed of my country. Not that the British officials at Newhaven behaved much worse than that kind of person behaves everywhere. But somehow the whole thing was saddening. A couple of bureaucrats had got an artist at their mercy, and the mixture of spite, cunning and stupidity with which they handled him made one wonder what is the use of all this talk about democracy, freedom of the press, and what not.
Think about Jared Malsin’s story– the wanton destruction of a young foreign writer’s livelihood after days of detention and interrogation.
Well, there have been many other cases like that. Israel denied entry to Noura Joudeh, a teacher from Texas, and destroyed her job at a school in Ramallah earlier this year after she came to the border on two occasions, and they asked her endless questions about Palestinians she has talked to. Frank Barat, human rights activist and writer, got thrown out last month after four hours of interrogation, including going into his email account. The great Noam Chomsky and his daughter couldn’t get in from Jordan after “multiple interrogations” in 2010 (“I was invited by [Birzeit] university, by the philosophy department to give several lectures on topics I work on, American foreign and domestic policy. Perfectly straightforward, I do it all the time, in many countries,” he told Al Jazeera). Sandra Tamari got deported after eight hours of questioning and demands to look at her email, and the US Embassy went right along with it. Poet and therapist Lillian Rosengarten is barred from going to Israel for ten years. She was on a boat trying to visit Gaza. Soldiers tased a crewmember, trampled poor Reuven Moskowitz’s harmonicas, and then deported Lillian and Reuven and two other artists. The scholar Norman Finkelstein wanted to visit a dear friend in Hebron. Before he was deported, he was held for 24 hours and asked questions about his connections to Al Qaeda and how he intended to finance his trip, treatment his lawyer compared to “the behaviour of the Soviet bloc countries.”
They had Jared Malsin at their mercy, and they destroyed his job.
Look at all that wreckage, and Henry Miller’s moving ordeal– and you know: George Orwell would hate Israel.