Carol Berg October 16th, 2007
Nothing surprised me more this year – or perhaps in my writing career – than the email I received last May, asking me to be Guest of Honor at ICon, the Israeli Science Fiction Society’s annual Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Role-playing Festival. Only three of my books have been translated into Hebrew – Transformation, Revelation, and Restoration – but they seem to have struck a chord with the Israeli audience. In 2005, Transformation won the Israeli equivalent of the Hugo at this same festival, and Restoration was a finalist this year. Evidently the books have done well there.
I didn’t take long to consider my answer. The chance to travel to a part of the world so wrought with history and consequence doesn’t come every day. I had met my publisher, Rani Graff, and the multiple award-winning translator of Transformation and Revelation, Didi Chanoch, at the Glasgow WorldCon, and when these two great guys and Naomi Wiener, the foreign guest coordinator for ICon, promised to meet me at the plane, take me touring, show me a great time at the con, and send me safely home again, I jumped. (Besides, I’ve never done a GOH gig, and I thought I ought to grab the opportunity.)
I was actually surprised that almost everyone’s first reaction was: Are you really going to go there? Some were worried for my safety. Some have problems with Israeli history or politics.
I would hate the thought of people not visiting our own country because they judged us all by our national government. And no matter what my personal views on Israeli/Palestinian history or politics, I wasn’t going to become wiser or more intelligent about the issues by not going. And I sure didn’t like the thought of refusing because I was scared I’d be blown up.
I read the US State Department site that advised American citizens to stay out of the West Bank and Gaza and avoid places where large numbers of Americans gather. As the convention is conducted mostly in Hebrew (with the exception of the Guest of Honor events and the film festival!) I doubted there would be large numbers of Americans at ICon. Naomi assured me that most of the convention guests would speak excellent English, which was really a good thing as the sum total of my Hebrew comprises shalom, toda, and mazeltov!
Truly the most nerve wracking part of the anticipation was the shoes I had to fill. Last year’s GOH was Neil Gaiman. Ouch. And before him? Tim Powers. 2004, Guy Gavriel Kay. And in 2003, the man who put ICon on the map for North American authors – Orson Scott Card. Holy moly!!!
So how was it?
What an awesome time! Indeed Rani, Didi, and Naomi, whom I came to call my “minders,” met me at the airport. They allowed my to deposit my luggage in a charming Bauhaus-style hotel in downtown Tel Aviv, then whisked me off to the 4000-year-old port of Jaffa to walk off the long airplane hours and eat hummus and St. Peter’s fish while overlooking the Mediterranean.
We spent a total of four days touching the country itself – Caesarea, the Roman port city built by Herod the Great, the Crusader port of Acre, the Sea of Galilee at sunset and with the full moon rising, a drive through Haifa. On one day we did the fortress of Masada – where the great silence of the desert swallows up the voices of tourists – and a float in the Dead Sea – one of those touristy things that everyone does for a good reason. There is just nothing like it. (I call such things “uniquities.”) And then a full day in beautiful Jerusalem, being trampled on by representatives of all three great monotheistic religions, while finding a lovely peace sharing a meal with new friends on a rooftop in the old city on a golden afternoon with a soft breeze blowing. Jerusalem is a wholly and holy unique place.
And, oh yes, then there was ICon itself. We began with a preview night at a local bookstore, where I began to meet the passionate, energetic people of the Israeli fantasy/sf community. Besides drinking wine and being introduced to many of the con volunteers and bookstore patrons, two Israeli authors, Shimon Addaf and Hagar Yanai, and I gave a brief preview of a panel called “Conquering Fantasy” in which we were to talk about war and occupation as a continuing element of fantasy literature. Even after such a brief discussion, I could tell that this was going to be a great discussion.
ICon runs for 6 days during the autumn holiday of Sukkot, when schools are out. The similarities with North American conventions? Lots of card players, RPGs, non-stop films (the ICon internation film festival component is becoming very prestigious), lots of purple hair, and some costumes (though no masquerade.) Lots of things going on at once. Lots of literary programs. Attendees that are far better read in “the literature” than I am! Many friendly people. Many people who are just there having a good time and could care less about a GOH.
The differences? The attendees are almost entirely under thirty. They can house many students hostel style in a nearby high school, which allows lots more young people to come. This fantasy/sf community is definitely young. Most of the presentations are in the form of single presenter lectures, rather than panels. As these are conducted in Hebrew, I didn’t get to many, but many of the subjects are similar to those we hear. Rather, in between my own events – which consisted of the opening ceremonies (run by a comedy troop who were funny even in translation), a talk & reading, GOH interview/Q&A session, a writers workshop with 15 eager aspiring writers, and the Geffen Award presentation – I sat in the cafe area of the convention venue and just talked to attendees. Some were aspiring writers and wanted to talk writing, some just wanted to talk about the books. Everyone wanted to talk about my impressions of their country. Many wanted to talk American politics. (Our own voters should be so informed!!) I found it interesting that gender issues were a big topic. I really enjoyed talking to two young women who had just completed their military service. Conversation was just terrific and no matter how much they apologized for their English – they were all quite fluent.
One of the highlights of the con experience was my publishers’ dinner, where I got to meet such interesting people as the young woman who has translated all of Harry Potter into Hebrew. She’s midway through Book 7, and invariably people said “Why are you here and not at home working?” I was also privileged to meet the man who translated Tolkien into Hebrew. I have nothing but admiration for people who do this – such a responsibility, and such talent.
Well, I could write about it all night. The upshot is that it was an honor and a privilege to attend. Fantasy readers are special people the world around. If you ever have the opportunity to attend ICon, do. Best if you speak the lingo to go to the lectures, but not a requirement to have a great time.