To celebrate 2019’s Day of National Culture, the Institute for Advanced Studies in Levant Culture and Civilization, in partnership with the “Friends of Panait Istrati” Association and the “Lingua Economica” Association proposed an incursion into the seductive Levantine universe of Romanian author Panait Istrati, a review that attempts to go beyond the established scholarly exegesis of his work.
The intrinsically Levantine vocation of this “pilgrim of the heart”, a “tumbleweed” born in the cosmopolitan Danube port of Brăila in 1884, was masterfully captured by his friend Nikos Kazantzakis, who mentions Istrati in his novel, “Zorba the Greek”. Panait Istrati - through whose veins flowed Cephalonic blood - left his mother at the age of 22 in order to begin a pilgrimage across the world in earnest. His travels took him across twelve different countries including Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, Greece, France, Italy and Switzerland, where he often lived a very precarious lifestyle, just at the edge of subsistence, as he sought to experience all the joys and sorrows of the life of a truly free spirit. During his travels, he was introduced to some of the stories of Halima and to the histories of the East, which would later serve as his inspiration for literary works that were collected in such works as the “Adrian Zografu” cycle, “Kira Kiralina”, “Codin”, “Mikhail” or the two-part “In the world of the Mediterranean – Sunrise / Sunset”, works that were translated into over 30 languages and stand as a testament to the West’s fascination with Levantine civilization, immortalised in Istrati’s work in pages brimming with humanism.
In the exotic and unusual milieu of this “wider world”, the trials and tribulations of Istrati’s characters’ – often found at the edges of society: Romanians, Greeks, Turks, Egyptians, Arabs or Jews – are primarily informed by the incessant passions that dominate their lives. Despite his international acclaim and his huge success throughout the Francophone world, in his works Panait Istrati has always staked his claim to his national roots: “No matter how cosmopolitan, no matter how much of a vagabond enamoured with the endless horizon I were from birth, I will always be as you see me: at once Romanian, by my mother, my tongue and my beautiful Brăila; and Greek, by my father and his beloved homeland”.
Geo Tuică, television filmmaker:
“Panait Istrati and the sentiment of fraternity”:
“In 1996, we set out for Galați, to film a Greek community resident there. On the way, my colleague, Stanca Ciobanu, handed me some papers and told me: “Read this before we get there!” I took the papers from her and glanced over them: Panait Istrati!
“What do we have to do with Panait Istrati?”, I asked. “I thought we were going to Galați!” We did, however, pass through Brăila, where we encountered a different Greek community. We stopped in the courtyard of the local church and asked whether they could in any way help us in our attempt to create a film about Panait Istrati. “There’s little we can do, and little we can help with, but you should head over to the Maria Filotti National Theatre”, we were told.
There, at the National Theatre, Chance would have it that I ran into an old colleague of mine from my university days: an actor, that – what were the odds? – was playing the very role of Panait Istrati in a performance at the time. After rejoicing in our reunion, I told him what had brought us there in the first place; and upon hearing of it, he had the kindness to supply us with a number of objects that had belonged to the writer himself (his glasses, hat and suit).
At the same time, we were fortunate enough to meet a family who lived on ‘Panait Istrati’ Street, where we were able to find almost everything else that we needed in terms of people, old buildings, trade crafts and so on; everything we would need to recreate the atmosphere of Brăila of those times.
And now, if we could turn off the lights, and see what came of it!”
Emil Constantinescu, President of the Scientific Council of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Levant Culture and Civilization:
„Understanding the Other”
„I am very happy to find myself in such illustrious company. I hope the journeys that have brought each of you here today are merely the first time you shall visit our Institute for, as you well know, the principal characteristic of the Levant and of the Orient is hospitality.
On Panait Istrati, I will present a somewhat disorderly narrative, as was his life, yet at the same time an honest account, as was his literary work. I believe we are in dire need of such honesty today, especially in order to be at least partially able to explain the theme of this round table. While his literary work speaks volumes about Panait Istrati’s vocation as a Levantine writer, in order to speak of Panait Istrati as a Romanian author – a qualification that many times carries an implicit corollary of “national writer” as well – we do in fact need such sincerity. In most cases, by “national writer” Romanians understand an author that tackles the themes of nationhood and those of national identity. We sorely need this approach today, when our national identities are subjected to tremendous pressures from both within and without. However, I also believe that we must at the same time underline this aspect in a different manner, bereft of nationalistic or overly patriotic discourse.
Panait Istrati lived his life honestly, and he paid a price for this extreme honesty of his. He was a national writer who had expressed harsh words of criticism towards Romania, primarily through his manner of describing, at one point, the ongoing shortcomings of the national political class between the two World Wars. Yet the élan of Panait Istrati’s vision also touches upon images of state terrorism and authoritarian regimes such that had not yet come to pass by 1935 when he passed away, but were soon thereafter to become a gruesome reality for many. I believe that this is the great merit of literary writers. Like birds, they can feel the electromagnetic waves preceding seismic shifts. They feel the earthquakes about to hit. These are the merits that impassioned writers and sensitive poets alike have, and that is why we can learn more from them than from those writing the histories that suit whatever present they currently inhabit.
My empathy for Panait Istrati stems from a number of similarities between the two of us. Foremost is our joint passion for the written word. This is a special kind of passion, a passion that leaves one incapable of seeing a day go by in which we haven’t opened a book; a passion that causes us to feel, in the final moments before the end, a profound regret towards all the books that we did not have time to read. Panait Istrati did indeed have this “mania for books”. Our second similarity is our passion for travel, which stems from somewhere within and manifests itself tempestuously. Unlike Panait Istrati, I grew up in a happy household with a loving family, yet I too was ready to jump on a train without a ticket, travel to Constanța, try to sneak aboard a ship and head off somewhere to see the world. In my time, Communism had already taken firm hold, and many gave their lives attempting to escape this authoritarian prison by land, across the Danube or over the sea. Panait Istrati was fortunately able to travel, yet not as we might conceive of it today: with cheap flight tickets, credit cards, all-inclusive resort vacations; his travels carried a hefty price and were paid in full, as you all know. But that is what gave him first-hand experience of life, suffering and of people as they actually are. His works shed light on a world that is no longer: the world of the Levant, extended to Nice in France and then to Russia in the East. This world lives on thanks to Panait Istrati, who knew how to see it, how to understand it, and who paid a dear price for that knowledge.
In a tally of the European intellectual elite from the period between the two World Wars and until after the close of World War II, Panait Istrati occupies an almost singular position. Especially when considering the fact that, at a time when the intellectual elites of France, of Italy and the United Kingdom saw in the developing Communist utopia a glimpse of Paradise, when Bernard Shaw and other famous writers considered that this utopian nightmare was worth supporting and promoting despite (or indeed alongside) its crimes, Panait Istrati was busy penning his “Confession of the Vanquished”.
In any case, when one speaks of Panait Istrati, one cannot but speak of friendship. This Oriental-style friendship carries a special kind of meaning and, during my own travels through the Orient, I myself noticed that, even at the highest echelons of diplomatic protocol, there is the following trend: should one’s guest desire a particular thing, you offer it to them, regardless of its cost. And I very thoroughly learned what not to say, what not to admire, so that you do not stretch this boundless hospitality beyond the appropriate limits of decency. We can find corollaries of this mindset here, in Romania. At the beginning of the 1990s, Western NGOs such as Villages Roumaines or Médecins sans Frontiéres expressed their confusion: “We came to bring food aid to the poor, and yet were greeted with lavish, rich and seemingly never-ending feasts…” I said to them: “Yes, for you do not know what preceded your visit. These people gathered everything they had, made great sacrifices, as on the tables in front of you they weren’t merely laying down food; but rather, they presented an expression of their joy and their happiness that you had come to see them.” It was the manifestation of their joy that the Western world was turning its gaze towards them, of being able to communicate after decades of living in isolation. I also came across the same thing in Macedonia. Javier Solana, the NATO Secretary-General, was once sat to my left and said to me: “The poorer the country, the richer the feast!” We were being presented with endless courses of food. I replied: “Being Spanish, I think you can better understand, more than the Germans or the Americans, this way of expressing their friendship, love and hope in the future”.
Most times, however, Panait Istrati’s similar wish for friendship was not repaid in kind. This in turn led to some extreme gestures. I would not like to draw comparisons, but with Istrati, everything was sincere. We are not talking of another Emil Cioran, who created an entire philosophy of suicide which he never put into practice but merely utilized as a successful formula, leaning on his refined and capable grasp of language. Panait Istrati could never boast of such refinement, which was reason enough for Nicolae Iorga to attempt to flounder his literary career. Conversely, Romain Rolland understood the primal force and impetus behind such apparent simplicity, turned literature.
To return to friendship, which Panait Istrati was unfortunately not always rewarded with, I would like to close by reminding our audience that, perhaps, we might now offer him such friendship ourselves. To read a book is to nullify distances in both space and time. Perhaps, by reading the books of Panait Istrati, we might be able to offer him, across the ages, a kind of friendship he has never known”.
Andreea Grecu Ciupală, General Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Levant Culture and Civilization:
“Istratian characters between individual Choice and Destiny”
“I will take this opportunity to share a few thoughts on the characters of Panait Istrati. The best place to begin would be with those characters presented in the documentary film created by Mr. Geo Tuică, in which Istrati confesses to have always been interested in people. And indeed, he was. His literary work is primarily concerned with Life, definitely tumultuous, as even the author himself could have been mistaken for a character in one of his own novels. His works do nothing more than transpose us into his world, to outline the way in which he dramatically lived his own life, for there is nothing simple in his works just as there was nothing simple in his life. He is a truly controversial character, yet one who, until the end, took on the mantle of courage and liberty, and who demonstrated that, at times, humans lack a spirit of self-preservation. So too do his characters, as at no point do they fold upon seeing the hand they are dealt; they seem oblivious to the intricacies of the game of chess, only aware of unbridled deception, and only capable of reaction without prior judgement.
These are characters that solely live in the present, in the here and the now, that live each moment in the most dramatic of fashions because, for them, there exists no alternative. This is why I claim that his characters lack a spirit of self-preservation; their survival instinct is manifested through reactions that we might judge according to our current societal norms – but which Istrati’s contemporaries also judged by the societal norms of the day – as out of the ordinary, outside of the boundaries of what we might sensibly define as “Man and his way of approaching the world”. Moreover, his characters do not abide by norms or rules, however broad or narrow. His characters seem to not know of mores, norms or rules, bar those of their own making. And these are solely referential to the process of Life, of existence in general, which is bereft of common sense or moderation because moderation and common sense do not exist outside the artificial construction of societal mores. There is emotion, there are impulses and feelings, yet they exist without reference, without a sense of measure, great or small. We are continuously presented with “over”-reactions, that, once set in motion, surpass the characters themselves and take on a ‘life’ of their own. Indeed, one would expect, for example, that Kir Nicola, when happily sharing the fruits of his labour that he began at three o’clock in the morning, would share them in earnest despite the tragic condition of his existence. Yet he goes beyond this, beyond what we could call ‘norms of hospitality’. He goes as far as to offer himself in the act of giving, and one of the most relevant episodes is when he relates to Adrian – one of Panait Istrati’s alter egos – how his relationship with the so-called ‘civilized’ world, with the unnatural world of norms which Kir Nicola enters into in order to sell his produce – in fact, not to sell, as half his stock is stolen from him – unfolds. Here we see how the first to transgress the established mores of society are in fact those to whom it falls to oversee their abidance: the Army, seen then – as now – as a pillar of stability. Half of the fruits of Kir Nicola’s labours throughout the night, like a gift brought to mankind, are paid for by exactly those who lack the means to do so in the first place. Here is who abides by the rules: those most likely to be in a position to argue that they cannot respect them, those whom their own lives force them to break the rules. And from this point of view that other universe, the one which Panait Istrati describes with such magnanimity, begins to come into focus: the universe of the simple folk whose dual points of reference are God on the one hand, and their peers on the other. This is why, in the documentary mentioned above, Panait Istrati eloquently posits that “I only speak of people; I was only ever interested in the people themselves”. This is what it comes down to: Istrati’s fascination with people. His interest was piqued by the utopian promise of Communism, because he sincerely believed that that path would lead to better lives for the people and to the betterment of society in general. Things did not pan out that way, and he himself had this epiphany – as did many other writers who believed with all their hearts in the Soviet promise and who later discovered that, in reality, it was never really about that. And we are reminded of the famous tale of the peasant woman selling a goose egg on the frozen platform of a train station: this is the Soviet Union, this simple woman selling that which she does not even have. That was, in effect, the symbol of the Soviets.
Panait Istrati celebrates the simple folk, with all their goods and ills. He never idealizes them, but rather speaks hard, cutting truths. The reader, when coming into contact with the works of Istrati, experiences moments of shock towards what he is reading. Istrati’s work is full of violence, graphically described, full of actions that go beyond established normality. His characters aren’t circumscribed by societal mores, but rather quite the opposite. They are led by their passions, and there are countless instances in which characters die because the main characters of the Istratian universe decide that those people deserve to die. Later, it becomes apparent that their decision was wrong, and in “Cosma” we find an absolutely meritorious episode from this point of view of the oral tale, yet amoral from the point of view of the actual content of the story. This is because the rhythms of Istrati’s universe don’t follow the steady drum of morality, but operate in closer relation to the ancient divinity of the Old Testament, which violently punishes excess – and, throughout Istrati’s work, we are witness to each of these punishments being doled out in real-time. His characters are aware that, once they act, their next instant could be that of their own death; yet they continue to play their hand, with no regard for self-preservation. For them, this option is unfathomable, and the option of self-preservation non-existent. Their only options are to go all the way to the end, paying the necessary price should it come to that. An inkling of fatalism is also present, a concept that the Istratian character subsumes into his or her own existential universe. At one point, we ourselves feel the primal fear that the Istratian quill deftly manages to convey, but this fear never prevents the characters from taking on the challenges they have decided upon until either their completion or their own end. For them, liberty is more important than life itself.
Were we to have multiple Istratis in a society, what would we do? How would we curtail the chaos that ensues? Of course, we might ask ourselves this question, yet on the other hand, while exploring this authorial universe, we rejoice, we grieve, we fear, and, at the same time, we come out spellbound by the tale of a world that Panait Istrati, like many other sons of Brăila, well knew how to describe in wonderful prose. It is true that he had on his side both a natural and a social inheritance, and a rich, vibrant Balkan life to draw upon. The statement that nous prenons tout ici á la legére quand nous sommes aux portes de l’Orient is not entirely appropriate. Of course, it captures the superficial layer of the realities of life at the mouth of the Danube, but all the other, underlying realities – as Jean Bart describes in Europolis – are filled with tragedy. Yet full, also, of a particular kind of cultural inheritance that we shall attempt to perpetuate through other events, dedicated to other authors that spoke of the Levant and the Balkans, writers such as Ion Barbu or Mateiu Caragiale.
Emeritus Professor Mariana Nicolae, Academy of Economic Studies in Bucharest, “Lingua Economica” Association:
“Panait Istrati for digital natives. A world without limits?”
“Today, on the 15th of January, we celebrate our Day of National Culture. At the Romanian Athenaeum, a ceremony is currently underway to mark the launch of a new mobile application, called “Mihai Eminescu. The Complete Works.”, an event as welcome and necessary as it has been long delayed. However, Google Romania did not see fit to adorn its search engine homepage with a representative cultural doodle. Here, at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Levant Culture and Civilization, we are celebrating our Day of National Culture by paying tribute to Panait Istrati, a controversial writer who goes almost unnoticed today, especially among the younger generation of Romanians that haven’t yet reached 30. A writer that is nevertheless well-known and appreciated in France, Turkey and (perhaps surprisingly) also in the Anglo-Saxon world, if we are to take into account the recent translations of Istrati’s works into English. I would like to publicly thank President Emil Constantinescu for the opportunity to discuss this tenuous topic, and our colleagues present here today for making this round table discussion a reality.
Our time is much too limited for any sort of ample discussion. Consequently, I will attempt to summarize what I find a fascinating problematic, one that continues to elicit multiple arguments both in favour and against this writer, claimed as he is by both the French and the Romanian cultural consciousness, yet one who thought of himself as Romanian and who often self-translated his fictional works into his native tongue.
In November of 2018, I conducted a brief survey of the Romanian Masters students (about 50 in number) enrolled in a Masters in International Business Communication (www.mibcom.ase.ro) at the Academy of Economic Studies, which unveiled a sad, but somehow expected, reality. In answer to the question “What do you know about Panait Istrati?”, the answers were as follows: “I haven’t heard of him” / “I don’t know” (41); “I’ve heard the name, but I can’t recall in which context” / “It is vaguely familiar, but I can’t give details” (4); “I think he is a writer” (2). The survey was carried out face to face, without the respondents being allowed to consult their smartphones. This provision is highly important, as we live in the age of ‘digital natives’, of those that were born into the digital age and have had access to technology, unlike us, the others, those who are merely ‘digital immigrants’.
Why do I feel the need to make these clarifications? Have they any relevance to our chosen topic? One of the arguments frequently brought both for and against the youth in today’s world is that they were born into the digital age, the age of the internet; and this factor makes them accumulate knowledge differently and manage the pressures of society in very different ways to us, those who only upon adulthood learned to navigate the internet. For the purposes of our present discussion, I am only interested in the fact that, at present, there is an extraordinary ease of access to information, of pretending to know certain things for the simple reason that they are easily able to be found and reproduced – provided you are facing a screen. Naturally, over the course of a broader discussion it would quickly become apparent whether one truly knows what they are talking about or not. But what would we do without Google? To paraphrase a very popular saying that defines common knowledge as that which we know after we have forgotten what we have learned, we can safely say that, in the digital age, we are educated if we can know things without looking them up online or, more aptly, if we know what to look for and where to look for it.
Why Panait Istrati? Because he is a fascinating writer, one who enjoyed extraordinary success at an international level, yet who is, paradoxically, relatively ignored in his home country.
Of course, there is the “Panait Istrati” Memorial House in Brăila, the author’s home city, the „Panait Istrati” Municipal Library, also in Brăila, just as there is a “Panait Istrati” Technical College, again in Brăila. What’s more, there’s even a Panait Istrati Street in Sector 1 of Bucharest, and even a boulevard named after the author, yet again, in Brăila. Such memorials to the writer do exist.
And then there are the films. Panait Istrati has had a number of films adapted after his literary work. I would hazard a guess that, for my generation, more people have seen “The Thistles of the Bărăgan” and “Codin” than there probably are people who have read Istrati’s literary works. But the generation of digital natives, visual par excellence, seems not to have been impressed by Dan Pița’s 2014 rendition of “Kyra Kyralina”. And they also seem oblivious to the existing classic movies for lovers of the seventh art.
Of course, Panait Istrati is well-known in specialist circles, and celebrated at important anniversary moments. I cannot but draw attention to the existence of a number of Associations of “Friends of Panait Istrati”, which keep the memory of the author alive and to whom we extend our most sincere thanks for their generous participation in the proceedings of the International Conference of the Department of Modern Languages and Business Communication of the Academy of Economic Studies titled “Synergies of Communication”, and to the International Colloquium titled “From the East to the West: Panait Istrati – Author, Journalist and Translator”, events organized by the Academy of Economic Studies in November of 2018.
Yet beyond these individual elements, is there a more permanent preoccupation with maintaining the author in the memory of the general public? Is there an available cultural strategy to promote these values of Romanian culture that we are celebrating here today, in order to make them more widely accessible internationally? Film could, indeed, prove an extraordinary medium for this endeavour. Yet Romanian cinematography is almost non-existent. As are the Romanian educational system, and Romanian research in general. Why can I claim this? Because education, research and innovation, supported by culture, are essential elements for the broad development of society that, in Romania, have long been the subject of ridicule on the part of our political betters and, as a direct consequence over time, of our society at large. A vivid and foreboding example is made manifest through a cursory glance at the budgets allocated to each of these departments. The educational budget of Romania is notoriously one of the smallest across the entire European Union, and has never yet reached the percentage of 6% of GDP as enshrined in Romanian law. In 2018, the budget for education was 2.9% of GDP; the budget for scientific research was 0.18% of GDP, a far cry from the 1% of GDP provided for in the same aforementioned law, thus placing us at the bottom of the list of EU countries in terms of both educational and research funding. One does not require advanced studies in economics to realise that without significant budgetary redistribution we cannot see any visible results. With regard to the consumption of culture, a recent survey showed that Romanians spend, on average, 5.8% of their household income on cultural pursuits, occupying the second-to-last place in the ranking of EU countries, which spend, on average, 8.5% of their income on cultural and recreational pursuits. The last place is held by Greece, with 4.6%. It is nevertheless true that Romania has recorded some of the most significant increases in this spending over the past decade, going from 4.8% in 2007 to 5.8% in 2017, being surpassed only by Slovakia and Lithuania in this regard.
Given these conditions, is there any wonder that there are significant difficulties in promoting Romanian culture? Or that there are a great number of short-circuits with regard to the transparency of funding allocations and of marketing and promotional strategies, both nationally and internationally? Is it really a surprise that we cannot come up with a viable and significant national cultural strategy except on paper?
I would like to give a relevant example of robust cultural and national construction, despite the fact that, today, the term “national” sends shivers down many a spine. We admire British culture and can easily point to British cultural values: to Shakespeare, but also to Mr. Bean, or to British humour in general. I quote from Stanley Wells’ “Shakespeare For All Time”: “Shakespeare’s transformation into a truly global author, aided along by the growing usage of the English language as an international language and the global appetite for universally-acceptable cultural icons, was partially the result of a deliberate campaign: (…) an important event, in 1947, was represented by a small international colloquium organized by the British Council in Stratford in order to promote British culture through Shakespeare. This event directly led to the establishment, in 1951, of the Shakespeare Institute as a centre for postdoctoral research into Shakespeare and his contemporaries, and to the creation of a biennial international conference”.
I hope I do not have to stress the point that these events could not have been organized without an adequate budget. And I return to the mobile application collating Mihai Eminescu’s works, the creation of which I again salute, in order to point out that it was put together in a timeframe of only two years by an inter-disciplinary team of researchers from the European Centre of Studies into Ethnic Problems of the Romanian Academy, members of the Romanian Geopolitics, Geoeconomy and Geoculture Association, together with a group of IT experts. The financial backing for such a project came from the “NeamUnit” Association. And the Romanian Academy argues, extremely pertinently in my opinion, that through this project it aimed to support “the urgency of the reconstruction of bridges between the great founders of modern Romanian culture and society at large”, with a view to maintaining and cultivating national identity, against the backdrop of European diversity.
Why Panait Istrati? Because, although he is a fascinating author, with tremendous international success, the youth of Romania has barely heard of him. Why? We lack the proper timeframe to analyse the causes of this fact: perhaps because he is not a canonical writer, or perhaps because he is an atypical example of a self-taught intellectual, perhaps because some considered him a Bolshevik, others a Fascist, while he himself proclaimed his attachment to the humanist values of the oppressed and the poor; or perhaps merely because he was not studied in school or at university level.
Or perhaps because of all the above reasons, and still many additional ones. I would like to take the opportunity to thank Professor Miorița Got, former Inspector-General for Romanian Literature at the Ministry of Education, who confirmed to me, in writing and with evidence, that Panait Istrati was marginalized during the Communist period, was not studied as part of school curricula but rather only at times referenced for individual private reading, depending on the professor’s preference or orientation. After December 1989, Panait Istrati was not included among those writers ostracized and ignored by the Communist regime who were later rehabilitated. As such, he is not a canonical writer, meaning he is not studied in the educational system, but appears, through his literary opus, in choice quotes across the school curriculum in order to illustrate certain themes: such as in the “Curriculum for Romanian Language and Literature for the 9th Grade”, published by the Ministry of Education in 2009, on page 9, under the heading “Adventure and travel”. With regard to the study of his works in higher education, wherein we can reasonably expect that the entire literary phenomenon be studied in its entirety, Miorița Got also confirms that she only studied Istrati at the Faculty of Letters in Cluj because, she claims, the University of Cluj had always had a more inclusive stance towards studying marginal cultural phenomena than did other Romanian universities. For our part, myself together with University Lecturer Maria Enache cannot remember even discussing, let alone studying Istrati’s works in Bucharest at the Faculty of English Language and Literature, with a double specialization in Romanian. Here are areas open to further research and elucidation.
Moreover, in the context of several notable contemporary reservations towards Istrati on moral or, as is more likely, on ideological grounds, I would like to point out political scientist Vladimir Tismăneanu’s position on Istrati. In his words, “Panait Istrati (1884-1935), yet another seeker of absolute truths, who some would call a great naïve (including Ilia Ehrenburg, the professional survivor, who viewed Istrati as a lumpen adventurer), and others a noble spirit (including us, the authors of the present paper)”. And he draws attention to an aspect he found fascinating, the fact that “it was Panait Istrati who wrote the preface to the George Orwell’s first book, published in 1935 at Gallimard in France.”
Why Panait Istrati? For the beauty of the stories he tells, his delicate approach to understanding the Other, his wisdom in accepting not just cultural and ethnic diversity, but gender and sexual diversity as well – this well before its time, yet interesting to note in today’s world, torn as it is by our incessant positioning, both here and elsewhere, towards realities that existed through the scope of the history of humanity, yet which we sometimes choose to ignore or even condemn depending on the moment we live in.
I would end by, first, giving Istrati himself the floor, to share his opinion (through his tale of “Kira Kiralina”) on a topic deeply ingrained in Romanian mentality. I shall not give it a name, but suffice to say that we speak of different values, of the understanding of the Other and even of ourselves and of the lack of knowledge of our own history and social development – aspects which Istrati throws in an interesting light:
“…Trandafir said to me: Have you ever seen as dumb a Romanian as this one? … (…) Trandafir turned on the young man, slapped him across his hands and – quick as lightning – slapped him twice across the face.
“Why are you beating me?”, yelled the victim…
“Because you’re dumb. … I can’t stand men who cry”, the Gypsy answered, rolling his lit coal eyes around as if he were the Devil. “Now take your five coins and get out, and remember to stay a stone’s throw away from the end of the village tonight, on the high road: at dawn, I’ll bring you the two horses and I’ll slap you twice more… so that you remember never to touch your wife’s bag again, except to put more coins in it.” (p. 40)
And, also with respect to “Kira Kiralina”, I would like to draw your attention to another interesting piece of information regarding kira women in the history of the Ottoman Empire. I don’t know whether Panait Istrati was familiar with these elements of history, but it is highly likely that they were in circulation in story form, and that he might have come into contact with them. In any case, the heroine of the novel is known to have descended from a kira mother, that is, from a – very wealthy – lady who knew many secrets and whose philosophy of life was very uncommon to that of other women of her time. In what follows, I will relate a few fragments concerning Sultana Kösem:
“Kira women were Jewish women who were allowed to enter into and communicate with the women in a sultan’s harem. Their name comes from the Greek “kira”, which stands for “lady”. They were employed in the harem by the sultans’ foreign wives, beginning with the 14th century. In the 15th century, they were the ones who brought the beauties and joys of life outside into the harem: precious stones, cosmetics, elaborate silks and anything else that could catch the women’s eye. As they had no competition, they could sell their wares at exorbitant prices. Yet in this closed world, they brought more than merely goods. They also brought news, or gossip. A French traveller of the period, Michele Febvre, wrote that “kira” women were also capable translators. (…) In the 16th century, they began to play an important role in the economy of the harem. (…) Kira women became very rich due to their travels to and from the Sultan’s palaces.” (pp. 46-49)
What is it that I wish for on this Day of National Culture? I wish for a transparent process of scientific competition offering real funds, announced well in advance, with normal and proper requirements, not ones conceived in accordance with the profiles of those who are supposed to win. What do I dream of on the Day of National Culture? I dream of an edition of “Kira Kiralina” as a graphic novel or – why not? – a mobile application of Istrati’s work made accessible to digital natives. If the British can do it, why couldn’t we? What else do I dream of on our Day of National Culture? I dream of a competitive Romanian culture, one that Europeans, Asians, Africans and all others interested in a cultural space that can provide valuable lessons in multi-cultural and multi-ethnic understanding and collaboration – that is, all of us today living in a world without limits – can readily and heartily consume and enjoy.”
Professor Dana Radler, Bucharest Academy of Economic Studies, Faculty of International Economic Relations, Department of Modern Languages and Business Communication:
“The Istratian narrative as a visual state in a space of Oriental provenance”
“The protagonists of the Istratian opus feed off the living substance of the real people that Istrati met over the course of his travels: his uncles, Dumitru and Anghel, his young friend and co-émigré, Mikhail Kazanski, Kir Leonida, owner of the establishment where Istrati worked as an apprentice, painter–bricklayer Samoilă Petrov, Captain Mavromati and others. Other characters benefit from similar vigorous descriptions, but only exist in the pages of his works (such as Kira Kiralina, Floarea Codrilor, Haiducii), characters inspired from the collective mentalities of the peoples Istrati came into contact with. Both categories are remarkable through their sheer vitality. Today, I would like to present you with three examples, chosen on the basis of the following criteria: different ages and experiences, two male and one female character, two main heroes and one apparently secondary character.
The first, Stavru-/Dragomir, a one-of-a-kind character (according to the letter penned by Istrati to Romain Rolland on the 21st of December, 1922), the „sole figure that followed me and terrified me more than the shadow of Branco did Lady Macbeth” (preface to the bilingual edition of Kira Kiralina, 2009 edition (XX)). The physiognomy of the character – „of above average height, with washed-out blonde hair, very thin and very wrinkled, with his wide blue eyes sometimes open and honest, other times hidden and cunning; thus was Stavru’s entire life reflected in them.” (Kira Kiralina, 1982, p. 19). The character corresponds on the face of it to the harsh category of “example of villainy” of the Brăilan shanty. (19). The real Stavru revealed to the author a psychology of turbulent waters, outlined in broad, powerful strokes. Both the fictional, tragic character and the author detach themselves from their lived experience, melting down their old sufferings in a landscape in which the people have disappeared into the fields, in the ample and implacable flow of time and space.
The physical aspects of Neranțula are revealed with similar acuity, in reliefs as strong, yet as relatively concise, as Stavru’s. Her gestures are quick, the tempers of her youth fiery, and the visual imagery bleeds into tactile, oral and olfactory elements. Neranțula becomes incapable of experiencing love towards any of the three young men that idolize her, even when she accepts Epaminonda at her side again. Her sensuality, so charming in adolescence, transforms into its own obstacle preventing her from living a normal and fulfilled life.
Captain Mavromati is part of the suite of Istratian characters that we might call ‘secondary’: with an almost “distempered” visage. Panait’s victory, succeeding Țoapa after his ploys are found out, is followed by the death of Mavromati “in his room, on a bed of rags, alone, bereft of the caress of the sea.” His disappearance, predictable following his prolonged suffering, is recounted with the dispassionate eye of a narrator that is relating his own life of departures, “often preceded by victory and ending in defeat”. (Past and Future, 1925, 98) By the end, his thoughts turning to the image of the Danube slowly carrying slews of ice downstream like “white coffins” – in true Bacovian spirit -, Panait watches the hearse carrying the corpse of his former comrade as a symbolic and inevitable passage to another stage of his own life, leaving behind childhood and plunging headfirst into the vortex of adult life.
Through movement, gestures and speech, the fates of Istratian characters are placed under the sign of the paradoxical, exuding from excessive feeling, as Panait Istrati suggestively declares – in the same manner as many of his own characters: “to grasp the fleeting ray of joy, to bare one’s teeth in the laughter that a pair of crying eyes implore of you, and then, then, to cry madly, from all your heart, too full of happiness! To cry a while… and then to laugh.” (Neranțula, 1984, 413)
Camelia Stănescu Ursuleanu, radio host for the Romanian Radiophonic Association (1972 – 2007), “Friends of Panait Istrati” Association:
“The Levant, a journey of initiation for Panait Istrati”
“On this night, the 12th of December 1906, I finally escape my country!” was the exultant affirmation of Adrian Zografi, Panait Istrati’s literary double. Emboldened by his unbridled desire to reach Egypt as soon as possible, that Egypt of mystery and wonder that he had dreamt of ever since, as a child, he admired the pictures of pharaohs, temples and swaying palms in his school’s history books, Panait Istrati would go on to see not just Egypt, but also other countries across the Levant: Turkey, Greece, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine. He who referred to himself as “a mad oarsman on the rivers of passion”, would go on to transfer the fascinating Mediterranean dream he fulfilled to several of his most famous works: “The Mushroom Fisherman”, “In Egypt”, “The Perlmutter Family”, “In the World of the Mediterranean – Sunrise”, and “In the World of the Mediterranean – Sunset”.
At the heart of these writings lay the mad courage of a young Istrati when, at only 22, he decided to plunge into the wider world, without money, without papers, without a travel ticket. In the port of Constanța, he had the good fortune of running across a coal stoker who, in exchange of a bottle of pineapple liqueur, helped him clandestinely sneak aboard the “Dacia” steamer. Their destination: Alexandria in Egypt. The wealth at young Istrati’s disposal? Four measly pounds sterling, well-hidden in the lining of one of his boots, and the immense enthusiasm of a love for live to match his superb youth: “What good is it that the world is so vast and so alluring, what good the burning longing that troubles the heart, if we are forced to spend our entire lives running around the same square kilometre of terrestrial space?” the young Istrati rightly asked himself. After six days at sea, a white line with shimmers of gold crept unto the horizon in front of his eyes: Alexandria. Egypt. Young Istrati is overcome with elation.
Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine
Shortly after disembarking, we find young Istrati among the colourful crowds in the port. On his head, he wears a military beret. He is sat on the suitcase he had departed Romania with. He lights a cigarette, and waits. His friend Mikhail soon arrives, and their meeting is an outpouring of joy and of fraternity. From the port, the two decide to go straight to the train station. They would take a train to Cairo. In the train cars overfilled with the dregs of society, hideously comprised of “great numbers of the blind, their eye sockets emptied by the ravages of trachoma”, Istrati gathers the courage to take a close look at the depths of human suffering. And, unbeknownst to him, rather than remain a mere observer, he soon becomes inquisitive about their suffering. He compares this train of terror with “a convoy of human cattle: ragged, dirty, destined for the darkness”. More than a symbolic search for millennial lost knowledge, more than a spectacular descent into the past, through myth and dreams, for Istrati the crossing of Egypt becomes the start of a journey of initiation. He is far from home, in a strange world, rich in dramatic contrasts. He is faced with the main character of ancient Egypt, the falaj, tragically multiplied countless times, each instance painfully marked by squalor. With great insight he would define him as “so poor it would break your heart, hiding close to his chest the only guarantee of true civilization: kindness.” Istrati would meet this character not only on the busy streets of Alexandria, but also in Cairo. He would truly get to know him, in his house, his humble daub cottage. Unimaginably poor, the falaj showed Istrati all the hospitality he could muster, feasting his guest with ful, meaning, kidney beans boiled in olive oil and sprinkled with lemon. From the very beginning, Istrati perceived the world of Egypt as hot, imaginative, passionate, but especially painfully poor, and always defeated in a never-ending bitter struggle against hunger, poverty and mute suffering; a conflict to which Panait Istrati would dedicate a number of pages across his later literary works, because “Suffering is not a thing, it is a person. Maybe it is someone great and holy – someone destined to forever remain crucified, that does not sink to falsehoods, that bulldozes dead churches, that unmasks faith laden with guilt and social norms swollen with narrow-mindedness, a masked figure nailed to the cross by God himself.”
In order to earn a living, the two friends are sorely tested by fate. In Cairo, they would live the lives of servants. Throughout his initiation journey across the Levant, Istrati would come to understand that only the individual, only the ego triumphant over the vicissitudes of life, searching for its place and mission in this world, can constitute the basis of any form of knowledge: “Ah, the costly freedom of two friends, alone in the world, finding each other on the dusty streets of a cosmopolitan city, united in brotherhood under the threat of a shared, terrible fate. Who will sing of it?”, wondered Istrati, who was convinced that there exists “an enemy more powerful than all the terrors of the world: the inability of the vagabond to linger and thus to improve his lot.” Istrati’s Egyptian impressions ceaselessly mounted up, as he gathered more and more new life experiences. His books exude Oriental exoticism, distinct from the Orientalism of Western literature which amounts to little more than the ostentatious display of opulence and luxury. Western Orientalism is full of Eastern marvels: spectacular harems, belly-dancers and eunuchs, viziers and sultans, palaces gleaming in the sunlight. Istratian Orientalism abounds in musty bordellos, full of the impoverished and their wattle-and-daub huts. As Panait Istrati himself recounts, “It is not in Alexandria, but in Cairo that you truly feel as if you were in Egypt. Firstly, the streets themselves are much less Westernised. Then there is the clamour of its alleyways, filled with rushed peasants, chuckling cocottes, drunk soldiery, garrulous tourists, travelling merchants and their anguished cries. Then there are the old buildings, and the Arab statues, much more beautiful and more numerous than in Alexandria. (…) It was only before the Pyramids and the Sphynx that I was able to find the Egypt of the Pharaohs and of my childhood. Their overwhelming image, presiding over an empire of sand bereft of any modern haggling, confesses, in its maternal nudity, the boundless passion of those biblical kings that honestly meditated on the salvation of their own souls, and glorifying them forever”.
Istrati’s descriptions are expressive, filled with colour, carrying the evocative power of cinematographic scenes: “Colourful streets of the Orient, coffee shops where smokers greedily draw from their pipes, dilapidated houses with the washing hung out to dry on the porch, corner shops peddling brightly coloured trinkets, crammed into a two cubic metre space, sweetmeats laid out on marble slabs, hundreds of hand carts pushed and pulled hither and thither, donkeys with baskets on their backs carrying all manners of fruits and delicacies, flocks of Arab children, unwashed and scraggly, who brazenly perturb the paths of noble carriages, from which there always falls a toll of a couple silvers.” In Cairo, Istrati lives stories worthy of inclusion in the anthology of the Arabian Nights. When the rains, as eagerly awaited as a new-born child, finally come, Adrian – Panait’s alias – joins the young girls in the streets to enthusiastically welcome the blessed event through their song and dance. And then, the sheer joy of being alive fills the soul of our rogue traveller, irredeemably enamoured by the profound charms of the Earth: “I love my beautiful life for itself. I am happy to be in Egypt, to be free, to not care whether I have, or don’t have, something to eat today, tomorrow or thereafter!” And thus, the complicated physical and chemical laws in accordance to which the human organism functions, are verily ignored by Istrati, who subsists on heartfelt and intense feeling, on pathos, alone.
An apprentice of Oriental culture, Panait firmly believes in the eternal truths of Life. His spiritual journey across the Levant was initially determined by the paradoxical experience of thoroughly embodying his innate inclination towards vagabondage. Istrati was convinced that “An adventurer wants and is able to get rich. A vagabond neither can nor wants to. If presented with the opportunity, the former is capable of exploiting other men, of cheating them, even of committing infamous crimes. The latter is entirely incapable of such things.” Remembering his initiation journey across the Levant, Panait Istrati would concede that both himself and his friend, Russian émigré Mikhail were “the draughthorses of this motley crew, traversing the beautiful lands of Egypt with great pomp”. Yet unlike Mikhail, Panait turns out to merely be a novice in the ways of vagabondage. Of course, he has all the time in the world to perfect his ‘craft’ over the following years. Entirely aware of his condition, he states that “the primary condition of the art of vagabondage is a willingness to leave in the first place”. Unshakeable, and unstoppable, acting beyond the rigours of reason, rich in filth and in interesting events, his life was always haunted by this powerful, compelling longing to leave. Despite accompanying Mikhail many times during his voyages, in 1907, Istrati is not tempted to join his friend in travelling to Mount Athos. The two comrades would separate in the port of Piraeus. Panait then attempted to reach France. He boards a ship bound for Marseille from Piraeus without a ticket. He is caught, and forcibly disembarked in Naples, where for a month he lives in abject poverty. He then returns to Egypt, where poverty follows him. He works, in turn, as a plasterer, servant, distributes flyers and even acts as a sandwich-man. Could we imagine the person who was to become a famous French writer of Romanian origin, Panait Istrati, in the Year of our Lord 1907, standing next to a lamppost in Esbekieh Square, wearing a lit placard advertising “Cinema Mignon?” Then again, what does he care? He is young, he embodies to the fullest that hurried restlessness of getting to see as much as possible, to understand as much as possible. He doesn’t feel like being weighed down to the lamppost he shares his corner with. He tempestuously leaves for Port Said, where he fails in his attempt to book passage to India.
„The fiery-tempered Levantine of Romanian origin”
He returns to Jaffa, Beirut and Lebanon. He becomes lost in the Ghazir mountains. Finally, he reaches Damascus in Syria, where fortune appears to favour him. He becomes a sign painter, „one-eyed in the land of the blind” as he would ironically call his situation, where, „spoiled by the Arabs, he almost gets entangled in harem politics, falls in love with a pantomime actress, plays the role of a mute prince and harmless executioner, earns two beshliks per evening, meaning, one franc and five centimes”. The French literary critic Roger Dadoun deciphers in his fabulous itinerary „Istrati’s wish to escape his own shadow, in order to be able to pursue a different shadow of himself, or rather the shadow of his different self, as yet non-existent as his literary career was at the time. If the Mediterranean offered him the promise of finding himself, it most assuredly also presented the correlate risk of him losing himself in it. Because, for Panait Istrati, the Mediterranean was fundamentally a problem in and of itself, the space within which he sought and tested himself. Istrati’s Mediterranean is not a literary-tourisic voyage, it is a fiery pit of dangers, and the one place where Istrati can see himself, naked, in all his glory. Ecce homo.”
But Panait Istrati always knew the exact cost of his daring: “No other form of happiness can come close to that which you snatch from Life at the price of unimaginable risk and hardship. (…) All joys are enlightening; and all are attainable, if one is willing to risk one’s hand to sift through the burning coals of one’s own destiny. At that point, even the heat of the fire pales before your daring, as long as you do not hesitate at the thought of being bitten by the merciless guardian of earthly treasures. This is what no school, no amount of education, can teach! And this is why the Earth is laden with more cowards than heroes. This explains the insipid lifestyle of the masses, generously provided to all – from the human worm to the enlightened star-seeker.” Panait is consoled at the thought that “Everything can be seen as heroism in the life of a man who confronts the world with his bare hands and his warm heart that protects him from the temptation of a cosy and brain-addled life.” Panait Istrati would go on to admit that “I would deprive myself of so many things necessary to life, only to satisfy my burning gaze with the light that streamed in, with the sky that extended endlessly, with the Mediterranean.” Subjective, empirical knowledge finds reflection in the Oriental ideal portrayal of wisdom: “In the Levant, Man and Nature are not separate, but go on to coexist harmoniously.”
Haffif the Egyptian initiates Panait into many such secrets of his mysterious land, whose earth is riddles with vestiges of the past. And in turn, Istrati teases him, jokingly reproaching him for his enigmatic demeanour, “akin to his ancestors: the Sphynx and the Pharaohs of the Pyramids”. Unforgettable are their endless travels “along roads shaded by palms, on the banks of the Nile, domesticated by enormous dams, through museums, where we met glorified figures of history such as Ramses and Sethi.” Let us imagine Panait and Haffif in one of the many Arab coffee-houses in Cairo, where for only 6 centimes they have just received their shishas with long pipes, and where they settle down for one of their usual long chats. They have the same age: 25. They are both plasterers. They love their trade. They both have known suffering. And they share something else in common: they feel a need, an uncontrollable urge to feed off the harmonious beauty of this earth. Knowing it well, Istrati understood that one can only reach wisdom by resignedly accepting the suffering ordained upon them by fate. Because, reasons Istrati, “Our fate is our heart. We are small, average or great through our hearts whom we blindly obey. Only fate leads us towards good, or towards evil.”
In this light, the apparently paradoxical affirmation on the part of the author of the “Thistles of the Bărăgan” no longer seems surprising: he admired Haffif “for his capacity of being enamoured by nature, like all those who endure social injustice with sound judgement and a strong heart.” Istrati would later feel great nostalgia for such youthful friendships in his later years, which he would spend in France where he would sorrowfully conclude that in Paris, for example, “friendship is a trade, nearly as polite as any other trade. In the Orient, things are different… there, at least with regard to those people of good heart and sound judgement, all suffering is shared in common, and all joys are jointly celebrated. Otherwise, there can be no talk of friendship”. In order to synthetize the exceptional experiences through which the Levant and, especially, Egypt, moulded the spiritual biography of Panait Istrati, we have chosen a revealing confession on the part of the author referring to Port Said: “For me, Port Said will forever remain the greatest intersection of maritime routes, the one place where my heart vibrated with and recorded the pulse of the great arteries of universal life on our planet. It was here that I had a clear vision and a precise sentiment of the diversity of human fates, that tear men from their wives, sons from their mothers, lovers from one another, and brutally launch them into spaces that attract them through different affinities, more harmonious than the ones they had painstakingly attempted to craft for themselves through familial ties. Often times, our true parents and our motherland sit at the antipodes of the place wherein we are born and which we inhabit as strangers. From onboard the ship that was taking me to Beirut, I saluted this small city and the statue of Ferdinand de Lessers whose sharp gaze, fixated on the Canal, appears to taunt the fearful: “Hey you, move! There lies another road that might lead you to a place where you could feel at home!” Why did Istrati consider the city of Port Said as a great intersection of the maritime routes of the planet? Perhaps because the Egyptian city nestled on the banks of the Mediterranean was truly famous in its time for its population of all different nationalities and religions, creating a community entirely remarkable for its tolerance and cosmopolitanism. Little wonder, then, that the famous English writer Rudyard Kipling would confer unto Port Said the same special importance: “If you truly wish to find someone you have known and who travels, there are two points on the globe you have but to sit and wait, and sooner or later your man will come there: the docks of London and Port Said”.
Panait Istrati truly felt at home in the Levant. He was especially fascinated by the talent for storytelling of those living on the south-eastern shores of the Mediterranean: “Out of all the breeds of storyteller, the Orientals are those who gush like torrents, telling of a world like ours, haunted by turmoil, passion, disquiet, in which for every thousand agitated people you might meet one, just one, serene individual”. In Istrati’s view, such a world populated by “stone-people” requires not a Voltaire, but a Shahrazad. And Istrati explains why: “Shahrazad, as in the storyteller, is the soul oppressed by that which it needs to recount. (…) it wins us over primarily through the warmth of its confidence. The storyteller is all confession, and that is why it captivates. It is the only one that captivates by virtue of the sublime nature of its own soul”. Appreciating his gift for Oriental storytelling, the famous author Ernst Bendz would call his good friend Panait Istrati “that fiery-tempered Levantine of Greco-Romanian descent”. When he would be overcome by sadness, Istrati would fill his mind and heart with Oriental wisdom. As happened in 1935, shortly before he passed away, when he wrote to Ernst Bendz: “’Malesh!’ says the Arab. Meaning, ‘It’s nothing!’. Beyond my window, life goes on in its ugliness and in its joyfulness all the same.” An exceptional writer, Panait Istrati is today powerfully brought anew to the attention of lovers of literature. His novels, stories and autobiographical works, who went on to garner quasi-universal acclaim during the first decades of the 20th century, are now being appreciated by a new generation of readers, fascinated by the originality, exoticism, authenticity, verve, humanism, intelligence of observation, capacity to glean perennial universal truths and the overbearing talent of this eternal vagabond, a defeated man who became invincible through the test of time, and who does not cease to charm us with his unsurpassed storytelling talent. There is little left to us but to take him at his word when he declares, with uncompromised honesty: “I am Shahrazad!”.
Mugur Popovici, former diplomatic advisor, Economic Representative of the Embassy of Romania in Brussels (1993-1999; 2007-2011) and Rome (2001-2005), “Friends of Panait Istrati” Association:
“Panait Istrati and his Jewish friends”
“Throughout his tumultuous existence, Panait Istrati pendulated between Romania, the Middle East and Western Europe. There are twelve countries which he crossed under the sign of nomadism and his journeys of initiation, many times without booking passage. Of the countries in the Levant, between 1906 and 1912 he travelled across Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine (the city of Jaffa) and Syria. This was his first extra muros experience.
His meeting in Brăila with the Russian Mikhail Kazanski would plant the seed of a lifelong impetus to leave to new lands, either in his friend’s company, or on his own. A sizeable number of the people he evoked in the retelling of his travels across the world of the Mediterranean originated in Romania. Some were his comrades, with which he shared his many troubles and his ephemeral joys: Moritz Feldman (Musa), Herman Bunder, Sarkiss, Bakâr, Sara and Isaac Perlmutter…
Of course, Istrati resonated in tune with the breath-taking beauty of the Mediterranean (he, a native of a Danubian city), yet he found the murky Nile not unlike the Danube. He resonated with the majesty of the Sphynx and the Pyramids, but also with the cedar forests of the mountains of Lebanon, and thoroughly enjoyed the dolce farniente of the locals given to lengthy talks, who told him of their own familial troubles, of their own longing for home, of their hope in a more humane life. These were beings struggling with the hardships of life but, more importantly, they were also victims of their own illusions. He later spoke of them in his works – of the Turks, Arabs, Armenians, Jews and Greeks that he met wherever his road took him.
We have precious little information regarding his travels in Palestine. We only know that at some point in 1907 he was in Jaffa, where he worked as a dockhand. Years later, in 1929, he had an interesting conversation – likely in Romania – with Yitzhak Ben-Aharon (who would go one to become of the leaders of the Palestine Worker’s Party and Secretary-General of the General Confederation of Labour – Histadrut), when he asked about the situation of young Jews that settled as farmers in Palestine. Aharon published an account of this meeting in the Jewish periodical “Ketuvym” in Tel-Aviv on the 13th of February, 1930.
“My Jewish characters are not fictional. I have met them all. Some of them, in Romania. Others, during my sojourns in Egypt, Turkey and Greece”. Because he was greatly appreciated for evoking their plight with so much love and compassion – to the extent that some Westerners believed that Istrati was Jewish himself – the author would go on to respond that, in his eyes, all peoples are equal; but that he talks about Jews in this way because his attention is drawn by the persecuted and the frustrated echelons of society: “Pariahs of the Smaller Romania of yesteryear, pariahs of the Greater Romania of today, scapegoats of the Romania of tomorrow. I have lived among the Jewish people to which mankind owes at least part of its progress. I have known the kindness of the Jew, and his compassion”.
In 1935, a month before his death, Istrati would pen an article, arguing that “It is common knowledge that I was a plasterer; and, in this trade, Jews once made up three quarters of the workforce in Romania. Well, I cannot remember to have ever been privy to an argument between Jews and Romanians on issues of nationality. Both for one and for another, work, hardship, the injustices of the patrons of Romanian or Jewish tradesmen crushed us underfoot alike, and made us all into brothers that shared in the same pain” (…) “Oh, Jews! Beyond the many injustices that overwhelm you, I strived to recount the endearing quality and the humanity I encountered in your miserable ghettos, despite the fact that I was a goi, shunned by your religion”. For Istrati, there are no “priorities” in terms of suffering, and all the peoples of the world are equal in this regard: “When I see someone fall, I rush to help them, without asking which God they pay homage to first.” “You are all good or bad, but never mediocre. The Jew encapsulates the course of Life itself.”, says one of the protagonists of “The Perlmutter Family”. What Istrati does reproach them for, however, is their passivity in the face of the injustices they have to bear, urging them towards action.
Istrati’s meetings with Moritz Feldman (Musa) remain eminently memorable. He met Musa in 1907, as a fellow plasterer, whom he compares to one of Gorki’s vagabonds: “Among all the people I met and cherished throughout my life, Musa was one of those rare travel companions that know how to hold their head high in the face of Life’s vicissitudes, and how to remain a loyal friend in unfavourable conditions”. The short story titled “Musa” appeared in the “Viața românească” publication in November of 1925 and recounts the adventures of Moritz Feldman, off to find his daughter who had become a prostitute in Egypt in order to convince her to return home. Another colourful character, portrayed in “Isaac, the Wire Weaver” short story published in Strasbourg in 1927 by Joseph Hassler Publishing, is old Herman Binder, “a Jew from Galați”, whose ruin came from him opening an establishment in Alexandria that served Romanian food, and which flew the Romanian flag in celebration of the National Day. Istrati sorely wished to see him again in 1930, but British authorities forbade him to enter Egypt – ironically, just at the time when he had booked passage and was travelling entirely legitimately.
After he had traversed the breadth of the Orient, in the winter of 1912 Panait Istrati would discover the world of the West. The Socialist militant Alecu Constantinescu, who had appreciated Istrati’s particular writing style in his articles published for the Romanian Worker’s Press, would facilitate the author’s initial travels westwards. The three months spent by Istrati in the French capital in 1913 – during which time he became accustomed to the Paris of History and the Arts, were merely the prelude to his future encounters with the country which would baptise him as an author in his own right. In the spring of that same year, he returned to Brăila. In 1916, faced with Romania’s imminent intervention in the Great War, he left the country for Switzerland. While hospitalized in 1918 in the Sylvana sur Lausanne sanatorium, he met author and journalist Josué Jéhouda, the editor of the “Révue Juive” periodical in Geneva, who introduced him to the author of “Jean Christophe”. Istrati remembers how, “for me, Romain Rolland’s work represented a return to life just in my time of greatest hopelessness. I will bear his mark forever, despite the mastery of my sanatorium peers who, unfortunately, were only able to heal my body”. Seven years on from their initial meeting, at the height of his glory, Istrati would receive a letter from Jéhouda. A short series of correspondence ensued, followed by an emotional reunion in Geneva. The two decided to write a book together, titled “The Perlmutter Family”. It was a series of individual stories whose protagonists were the members of a Jewish family in Constanța who, amidst a climate of antisemitism, decided to emigrate either to America or to Egypt. Sotir’s narration reconstructed not only the lives and livelihoods in existence at the beginning of the 20th century, but also recounted the vicissitudes of an entire epoch, seen through the eyes of proud and obstinate losers.
Speaking of their collaboration, Jéhouda remarked that “By associating me with his name, Panait wanted to make my work known to the broader French public. Yet our collaboration was not a real one. He provided me with the integral manuscript of the book, along with the freedom to add or cut whatever I felt necessary. My task was to illuminate the inner lives of the characters and to breathe into them a Jewish soul”. The final product was, however, unfortunately undermined by Jéhouda’s interventions which, through his addition of a series of religious considerations, made the text eminently cumbersome. Istrati himself noticed this, later salvaging his chapter on “Isaac”, on which Jéhouda had not intervened, publishing it as a stand-alone title, “Isaac, the Wire Weaver” – a story to which we have already referred above, and which is appreciated as a literary work of tangible artistic merit in itself. Years later, Josué Jéhouda would write an evocative study titled “Panait Istrati – a friendship between a Greek and a Jew”, which well synthesised his friend’s personality: “His life is entirely beholden to the cult of friendship. My testimony, forty years on from when I first met him, aims to bring to light a personality of exceptional intransigence, a man hungry for ideals and for justice, who would whip any form of oppression no matter its origin (…) For us, Istrati will remain someone who has always defended individual dignity, in firm opposition to submission to a herd mentality and to the powerful “chokers of Life”.”
Isaac Horowitz was, undoubtedly, Istrati’s closest Jewish friend. Originally from Popricani (Iași), he left Romania when he was 16 for the United States, where he would become a journalist. He returned to the country in 1931 for a series of journalistic despatches, among which one opposite Panait Istrati. Although their coming together was only meant to be as long as the interview, Horowitz’ visit extended for some further months, and was crowned by the budding of a great friendship and, tangibly, by a book written in Yiddish, “Teg und necht mit Panait Istrati” which was published in New York. Horowitz was a direct or indirect witness to the latter years of Istrati’s life, his most dramatic years, which he recounts in this book – including addressing the claims that, during this period, the author might have become anti-Semitic. The book has the following motto, from Walt Whitman: “Who touches this book, touches a man”. In place of a preface, an exchange of letters between the two:
I have noted down the days and nights that we both spent in your house, which provided us both with many joys but also with many sorrows. From these notes, my book was born. In it, I speak of you and of your work. It is not a biography or a critical essay, but rather more like a letter destined for me, yet addressed to you. A letter from someone who sought to find you in your work, yet found your work within you. It needs not be said how well-rewarded I would feel if at least part of my readership could find you, in turn, in the pages of this book. Yet I cannot imagine a book, even the greatest of books, to be worth as much as our friendship. For this reason, I humbly ask for your blessing to publish it. I would rather tear it to shreds than damage our friendship.
The answer was forthcoming:
It goes without saying that I give you my blessing so that you might publish your book. I’m quite surprised that you would ask for it in the first place. I well know that those days and nights will remain without likeness amongst the days and nights we spent together. I remember listening to you until dawn, without ever getting enough of it. Often times I thought myself living in a fairy-tale, such was the fantastic nature of your tale of the heroic challenges of a life much too full lived there, beyond the seas and mountains, where your destiny had taken you. I need not mention that I would be greatly gladdened were you to return to these shores, in order to once again relive other days and nights gone by. But relive them, with whom? Perhaps, with the shadows of our souls.”
When Horowitz’ book finally saw print, in 1940, Panait Istrati had already died five years prior. We believe that a translation of this work into Romanian would bring to light a friendship that defied both the times, and time itself.
Aurel Vainer, President of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania:
“I was very impressed to listen to a recounting of Panait Istrati’s relationship, declarations and authorial work with regard the Jewish community.”
This afternoon, I have met truly special and interesting people. I was very impressed to be able to listen to a recounting of Panait Istrati’s relationship, declarations and authorial work with regard to the Jewish community. These commentaries cannot but flatter me, as a Jew, today. I am convinced that through mutual understanding, we will be able to reciprocally recognize one another. What transpired here today proves the validity of this position.
Unfortunately, we are very few in number today. Where we were over eight hundred and fifty thousand Jews before the Second World War, strewn across all the territories of Romania back then, today the Jewish communities of Romania hardly total around seven thousand. Yet, we nevertheless try to preserve our history. In our limited capacity nowadays, we strive to maintain this opening towards culture, towards art, towards science, towards everything that is of importance.”
 Stanley Wells, Shakespeare For All Time, Macmillan, 2002, p. 170
 Panait Istrati, Kira Kiralina, Moș Anghel, BPT, 1969
 Özlem Kumrular, Sultana Kösem. Power, ambition, intrigue, RAO Publishing, Bucharest, 2018, pp. 46-49.