When I was a Soldier, by Valerie Zenatti




March 26, 2005

Little soldier girl

Valérie Zenatti was looking forward to teenage life in the discos and boutiques of Nice when her parents emigrated to Israel. Within years she was risking her life as an Israeli army spy

When I was a Soldier by Valérie Zenatti, Bloomsbury, £5.99.

Adolescent fiction is a strange genre. What does one read when one is 17, spotty and riddled with angst? The classic Bildungsroman The Catcher in the Rye? Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? Or even, on a more popular level, Judy Blume, who cornered the teenage American girl market in the 1970s with novels such as Are you There, God? It’s me, Margaret, which tackles the themes of early love, sexual initiation and finding one’s identity in a cold and isolated world? All track the spiritual, moral or physiological development of their characters.

Valérie Zenatti, a French-Israeli writer, brings all these topics to light in When I was a Soldier: One Girl’s Real Story. But Zenatti adds a twist: her heroine, also called Valérie, comes of age in the Israeli Defence Force. And while she grapples with first love, first rejection, first friendship, she is also grappling with more profound issues, such as the responsibility for her country’s security. It’s a tough job for someone who had her first kiss just a year before.

“Can you imagine being 18 years old, a little girl, really, and being told that you are responsible for the security of your mother, your father, your little brother, your grandmother, your grandfather, your country?” Zenatti asks, pausing over lunch in a bistro in the Marais district of Paris. “You have to be a responsible adult, but you are really a child.”


At times, When I was a Soldier is Zenatti’s own story, but it is also the story of every young Israeli girl. “It’s me, but it’s not me,” she says. “It’s my history, but I wrote it like a novel. It’s not an exact memoir.”

Her own history is exotic. Born into a French Sephardic Jewish family in Nice in 1970, Zenatti came home one day, aged 13, to find her parents planning to emigrate to Israel. One year later, they settled in Beersheva, a depressing town in the middle of the Negev Desert in the south of the country, placed there by the Jewish Agency, which recruits Jews throughout the world to settle in Israel.

She arrived not speaking a word of Hebrew, and one week later was installed in an Israeli high school where she was teased for her French accent. It was, she says, a culture shock. But she was also a dreamy teenager and had hoped the move would alter her vision of the world. “I went to Israel thinking I would become another girl from the French one who lived in Nice,” she says. “I thought I would be different. But I was not.”

Gradually, she began to fit in. She learnt Hebrew and English, and began to think of herself as an Israeli. Five years later, she kissed her new friends — mainly other immigrants from countries such as Uzbekistan and Moldova — goodbye and trotted off to do her mandatory military service. She was taught how to shoot an Uzi machinegun and do guard duty, who to fire on and when to hold fire.

Highly intelligent, she was also selected to be part of an elite group working in military intelligence in a village outside Jerusalem. It was the height of the first Palestinian intifada and Zenatti’s job was to spy on Jordanian pilots speaking English. “Once I listenened in on King Hussein when he was flying,” she recalls. “His English was perfect.”

Soldier habits are hard to shake. Almost two decades later, she smiles mysteriously and shakes her head when I ask how the Israelis managed to get so close to the Jordanians. “I can’t tell you that!” she protests. “It’s state security.”

Zenatti’s heroine shares the same experiences as a young soldier. The book opens with her innocence being shattered by a failed romance with a French émigré called Jean-Davide. There are loving portraits of her friends. There is her dreary job at a pharmacy. There are her hopes and dreams.

Then, suddenly, she is thrust into the real world. She takes her exams; then packs her kit and leaves her parents, entering a strange world that every Israeli must pass through: the army. She describes the initiation as “a passport to the nation”. On weekends, she gets to go home and play tennis with her mother. But on Sunday afternoons she and other 18-year-olds head back to their military base.

“I’d discovered that on Sundays the whole country is like a huge military base with soldiers dashing in every direction, leaping on buses,” she writes.

It’s no surprise that half way through her military intelligence training, Valérie has a breakdown and is treated in hospital. But this is not Girl, Interrupted territory. No plush loony bins, no indulgent shrinks, no Prozac. It’s back on the job fast, with a stiff upper lip. There is a country to defend. “In Europe, you begin to be yourself at 18,” she explains. “You travel, you work. Maybe you still live with your parents. You are free. But in Israel you go to the army. And armies are not meant to give you freedom.”

Then there is the first love, Jean-Davide. Valérie wants back the boy who dumped her, so she heads to Jerusalem for the weekend where they sleep innocently together like brother and sister, both wearing T-shirts. Then she finds out that he has another girl. Broken heart is followed by burning inspiration to write. She goes everywhere with her notebook and pen. An Israeli Stephen Daedelus.

And then, one day, she finishes her training and goes home. She is initiated. She was a soldier.

The real Valérie Zenatti finished her military training and university studies in Jerusalem. But after the first Gulf War, she found the atmosphere in Israel oppressive and returned to her native France. “I was so very tired after my military service, after the Gulf War,” she says. “I just wanted to live somewhere normal.”

In her early twenties she met and married her Polish husband, Raski, while working for a Jewish radio station. She has two children. She still loves Israel and still feels like a “French Jewish Israeli”, but she does not want the life of her parents, who still live in the apartment in Beersheva that she describes in the book. When her children were born, she says, she knew they would not be soldiers.

“It’s not that I don’t love the country; I do,” she says. “But you cannot just live simply there. You are never really free of politics, of fear, of war. When you are in Israel or Palestine, a country at war, you are not allowed to live your life, to be yourself.” She is thoughtful. “There is this constant question: what is it to be Jewish? And you have 100 different answers.”

Instead, Zenatti morphed into French-ness again, working as a Hebrew teacher and writing children’s books at night. She finished seven. She does not think this is such a major feat. “I have to write,” she says. “And if I am not writing physically, putting the words on to paper, then I am writing in my head. So it is better to get it out.” She also did not find it difficult to write books with eight-year-olds as the main characters. “When I am writing for a child, I try to get profoundly into the head of a child. I have a very sensitive memory. When I am writing for children, inside this 35-year-old woman is an eight-year-old.”

Then she decided to turn to a period of her life that still haunted her: her military years. But, more importantly, she points out, “that special period between teenager and adult”. She wanted to write about the friendship that exists between young women and chose to merge it with her own experience as a soldier.

The interesting thing about When I was a Soldier is the lack of politics in the book. There are no lectures, no propaganda, no history. Simply a young girl joining an army and missing her mother’s food or her boyfriend. The same book could have been written by an 18-year-old Chechen rebel or an 18-year-old from Ohio serving in Iraq. It is about emotion rather than politics.

Zenatti says that she did this deliberately. She began writing in the summer of 2000, a few months before the second Palestinian intifada in which thousands of people have been killed. At that time, Israel was relatively quiet. There was a still a sense of hope that peace might be achieved. “I did not want to write a political book or a militant book,” she says. “I just wanted to describe what it is like to be 18 and a girl.”

When the intifada hit, Zenatti stopped writing because she felt that her words were trivial compared with the horror. “I was afraid people would criticise me, say that I no longer lived in Israel,” she says. An editor friend took her aside and convinced her to go on.

Her new book, A Bottle in the Gaza Sea, is more political. It is the story of a young Palestinian who lives in Gaza but has no interest in radical groups or politics, who wants only to be a doctor. It is a difficult topic to handle, given that Zenatti was in Gaza only once, when she was six years old. But she says that is not the issue. Imagination is far more important.

“People asked me how I could get in the head of a 20-year-old Gaza boy,” she says. “I just described what it was like to live in Gaza. To not be Hamas or Fatah, to just be a boy who wants to study and grow up and heal people’s suffering.”

She finishes her lunch and smiles. She has to get back to her young son, who is home on school leave. But she has one final point to drive home. “I just want to write about life," she says, with a surge of passion. “The human vision.”




Terre Promesse

di Elena Loewenthal

Avere 18 anni a Beer Sheva

1 marzo 2003

Valérie ha diciotto anni o giù di lì. Abita in una cittadina di provincia sperduta, di quelle che non sembrano proprio fatte apposta per i giovani. Ha tre amiche più o meno del cuore, una camera come tante altre e si sta preparando per l'esame di maturità, una materia per volta. E' di quel genere un po' intellettualoide con un senso dell'umorismo tagliente che disarma gli altri e nasconde una certa insicurezza: di quelle ragazze, insomma, che trovi adorabili oppure non sopporti. Forse anche per colpa del suo sarcasmo è piuttosto sfortunata in amore. Ma forse è colpa di Jean David, che è un farabutto e basta, uno che si fa i comodi suoi senza badare alla sofferenza altrui.

Comunque, il giorno dell'esame si avvicina pericolosamente e non c'è tempo, per fortuna, per gli affari di cuore.

Avere diciotto anni è una gran bella cosa, soprattutto vista a posteriori. Quando magari nei hai trenta, sessanta. Avere diciotto anni a diciotto anni, invece, può essere un guaio, una maledizione: se sei innamorata del tipo sbagliato, se il compito di matematica è al di là delle sue possibilità. Comunque sia, avere diciotto anni è una cosa piuttosto normale, uguale a tante altre.
Ma avere diciotto anni a Beer Sheva, città israeliana in mezzo al deserto del Neghev, è una cosa un po' diversa dalle altre. Un po' speciale. Perché all'indomani dell'esame di maturità, ancora caldi di bagordi da fine scuola, si ha da fare i bagagli e partire per il servizio militare. Che si sia maschi o femmine. Senza rinvii o stratagemmi di sorta: si parte e basta. Capita ovviamente anche a Valérie Zenatti, che qualche anno prima della maturità è venuta a stare a Beer Sheva insieme alla famiglia, dalla Francia. E che una decina d'anni dopo racconta questa esperienza in un libro che speriamo presto tradotto in Italia: Quand j'etais soldate (Medium editore, Paris - rue de Sèvres 11 -, pp. 257, euro 11,00).

E' un libro spiritoso e molto intimo: a volte sembra un diario, a volte un romanzo. Intorno a Valérie c'è il suo mondo, e più di un dotto saggio sociologico lei ci spiega che cosa significa oggi essere giovani - e adulti - in Israele, un paese in cerca di normalità ma stretto da una storia e da un presente così diversi da quelli che si immaginavano, cinquant'anni fa. Un paese in cui tutti i ragazzi a diciotto anni devono diventare soldati (due anni le ragazze e tre i ragazzi). La vita in caserma ha regole nuove che devi imparare da un giorno all'altro, e sin dalla prima licenza, tornando in famiglia, si capisce quanto si è cambiati, dal modo in cui gli altri ti trattano. Si cresce di colpo, nuove domande s'affollano nella testa. Ci si sente, come dice Valérie allo psicologo dell'esercito, bene e male al tempo stesso: più grandi e responsabili, però anche smarriti. Ma in caserma nascono anche nuove, tenaci amicizie e si trova magari la forza di gettarsi alle spalle le malefatte di Jean David.

Valérie racconta questi due anni con un garbo raro, senza cedimenti retorici né antiretorici: è un libro sincero e a volte sconcertante nella sua profondità, nella capacità di svelare attraverso l'entusiasmo e le lacrime, le sconfitte e le vittorie quotidiane della vita in caserma, a diciotto anni.

Valerie Zenatti, Quand'ero soldato, Mondadori, 2003, Pagine 144, ISBN 8804515538



Quand j'étais soldate
Valérie Zénatti
Editions de l'Olivier, 2004
240 pages, ISBN : 2879294398

Journal de l'Intifada

par Laurence Liban

Lire, octobre 2002

C'est une histoire vraie, un témoignage étonnant: Valérie Zénatti, l'auteur, née à Nice en 1970, est partie vivre avec ses parents en Israël. Là, après son bac, comme toutes les filles de son âge, elle fait son service militaire dans la redoutable armée de Tsahal. Cela se passe de 1988 à 1990, à l'époque de la première Intifada. Ecrit comme un journal, son récit accompagne ses découvertes: la dépersonnalisation sous l'uniforme, les questions qui se posent autour de l'histoire d'Israël, etc. Un livre passionnant sur un monde dont on n'a pas idée.


Sisters in arms

Valerie Zenatti conjures up the authentic voice of a teenage Israeli conscript in When I Was a Soldier, says Diane Samuels

Saturday May 7, 2005
The Guardian

When I Was a Soldier
by Valerie Zenatti
240pp, Bloomsbury, £5.99

"You don't talk to a soldier the way you would to a teenager," writes Valerie Zenatti, reflecting on the changes in her parents' behaviour towards her during a weekend's leave from the Israeli army. "No one tells them to tidy their room, to turn the music down or to get off the phone." Almost as soon as she has left school at 18 she, like everyone else of her age in Israel, is called up for military service. Valerie brings to this experience a particular perspective — she grew up in France before emigrating with her family at the age of 13 to Beersheva in the desert; she is bright and questioning, has a conscience and loves reading and writing. "It feels like such a brutal change," she explains. "A soldier is a sort of adult with even more responsibilities than her parents. She's carrying the nation's security on her shoulders."

When we first meet Valerie she is preoccupied with the final preparations for her bac exams, working after school at Extrapharm, wrapping perfumes and stacking shelves, hanging out with her close girlfriends, Russian immigrants Yulia and Rahel, and nursing a broken heart after being phased out by her boyfriend Jean-David. She is in many ways an ordinary girl with recognisable concerns and a modern, western lifestyle."Here," she writes, "the army is part of lives. Soldiers — boys and girls — are the heroes of the past." She is daunted, excited and disoriented by taking on this heroic mantle, only too aware that she lives in a country "where there are widows of 30, where the cannons have never fallen silent and where, when someone says their neighbour's son has 'fallen', everyone knows that that's in a war."

And so she joins the pack of expectant 18-year-olds bussed into the training base, where they are given their kit, uniforms and weapons and told that "in two years' time, if everything goes as it should, you will be young women".

Valerie's progress from rookie to corporal in the top-secret intelligence service includes waking daily at 4am, acclimatising to the strict discipline of military life — gruelling runs, latrine, kitchen and guard duties — learning how to handle her machine gun, and intensive memorising and testing. Her old friendships change as life moves on, new friends are made and the love affair is revisited and finally let go. When she is released from the army after what feels like an "eternity", there are rumblings in Iraq (just before the first Gulf war) and, even as she heads for the beach, she is aware that this relished freedom might be short-lived.

Now in her 30s and living in Paris, Zenatti is writing retrospectively about a formative period in her life. She manages to capture her younger voice (and credit must go here also to the book's translator, Adriana Hunter) so authentically that the writing feels green and fresh, wide-eyed, truly from a late-teen perspective. And the story she tells is one that is at once normal and exceptional, providing an insight into the personal struggle to deal with huge political realities without making a point about it. She does not balk from sharing her commitment to taking up arms and spying on Israel's neighbours to serve her country while also questioning the use of those arms and attempting to face the reality for the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. She returns to base one day taking a bus that drives right through a number of Palestinian villages and, against advice, places her face against the window to see clearly. A rock thuds against the reinforced glass and then more follow. "I burst into tears and the other passengers try to reassure me. I don't feel like explaining that I'm not crying because I'm frightened."

Even though When I Was a Soldier becomes sketchier in its depiction of Valerie's second year in the army, overall it paints an illuminating portrait of what it is to be a young woman maturing in a society where violent conflict is as much a feature of "normal" life as longing for love, loud music and trips to the beach.

Diane Samuels's plays include Kindertran