Writer David Grossman's Best-Selling The Yellow Wind Blows Up a Storm in Israel

updated 08/22/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/22/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

As Israeli writer David Grossman pulled his battered car over to the edge of the Dehaisha refugee camp on the West Bank, he felt the chill of fear. Slowly he began walking into the densely populated Palestinian settlement, where raw sewage flows in streams past ugly cement houses. "I didn't expect the Palestinians to greet me with flowers," says Grossman, who had come to write about the occupied territories for the Israeli weekly Koteret Rashit. "Though they saw I was unarmed, my being an Israeli made them apprehensive." Even then, in early 1987, Grossman could sense the sharp edge of bitterness and rage that eight months later would explode into months of bloody rioting in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Yet Grossman spent nine weeks crisscrossing the terrain known in Biblical times as Judea and Samaria. He talked to Palestinians and Israelis; he visited a kindergarten, universities, villages and courts of law. Then he returned to the small apartment he shared with his wife and two children in Jerusalem and began writing feverishly. "When I write, I don't need sleep," says the small, intense man, who has also written two best-selling novels while holding down a steady job as the host of an early-morning radio show. "I keep waking up and jotting down things on my hand. When I get up in the morning, my hand is black with ink."

It took Grossman only one week to complete the magazine pieces that would soon become a book, The Yellow Wind—a series of urgently composed sketches that lay bare the deep humiliation that Palestinians feel living under Israeli rule. The furor that greeted its publication has been blowing at gale force for more than a year.

The book—which takes its title from rih asfar, in Arabic lore the hot wind that emanates from the Gate of Hell, exterminating the cruel and unjust—quickly became one of the best sellers in Israel's history. It has been debated in a cabinet meeting, drawing praise from Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres and condemnation from Prime Minister Itzhak Shamir. Grossman has also received threats from right-wing extremists enraged by his sympathetic treatment of Palestinians.

But Grossman finds some of his countrymen's strong reactions to the book less shocking than their indifference to the plight of the Palestinians. Returning from his harrowing nine-week tour, it suddenly seemed shocking to him that Israelis were just going calmly about their business. "They looked as innocent as my children lying on their beds in deep sleep," he says. "Didn't they know what was going on? Or were they afraid to see?"

In fact, it was a sense of his own alienation that prompted Grossman to accept the magazine assignment. "I write in order to understand," he says. "I couldn't grasp how I could get up in the morning without my first thought being that I was an occupier. If the roles were reversed, it would certainly be my first thought."

On his first day in Dehaisha, Grossman, who speaks Arabic, approached a grocery store owner with no success. Next he turned to an old woman. "She was more outgoing," he says. "Women are less frightened because they know they probably won't be arrested. So she started talking to me, and a crowd gathered. I told them I wanted to write the truth about the camp, and the women opened up. Probably no Israeli had ever listened to them before."

Grossman spent many hours in Palestinian homes. "I realized very few Israelis had any idea how they were furnished," he says, "what pictures hung on their walls, how husband and wife related to each other, how they hug their children." When he visited kindergartens, some of the 3-year-olds at first "refused to believe I was an Israeli because I didn't carry a gun," he says. But "eventually they came to see me as a father with children their own age." (Grossman and his wife, Michal, a psychologist, have two sons—Jonathan, 6, and Ouri, 3.)

Born in Jerusalem to a bus driver and a housewife, Grossman graduated from Hebrew University in 1979. He also wrote about Palestinians in his first novel, The Smile of the Lamb, which appeared in 1983. His novel about the holocaust, See Under: Love, will be published next year in the U.S. "I usually write about things that frighten me," Grossman says. "Otherwise what's the point? Kafka once said we need books not to be entertained by them but for them to be like an ax on the frozen sea of our souls."

The huge success of The Yellow Wind has enabled Grossman to buy a bigger home but otherwise has had little effect on his intentionally modest life-style. He still reports to the radio station every morning at 5:30 and had to borrow a tie for his New York publication party.

Grossman does not delude himself that one book can have much impact on Mideast politics, which took another surprising turn this month when King Hussein renounced Jordan's claim to the West Bank and endorsed an independent Palestinian state. "But if I raised my readers' consciousness by one millimeter, that's something," says Grossman. "People may still hold on to the territories, but at least they'll know the price."

If he could dictate policy, Grossman says, he would grant the Palestinians independence and then "throw open the doors to cultural, commercial and sport exchange." Palestinians and Israelis, he has learned at close range, have much in common. "Together we could turn the Middle East into something splendid, magnificent—if we weren't at war."

—By Harriet Shapiro, with Mira Avrech in Jerusalem

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