A conversation with Marek Halter, author of Sarah
Why Did you choose to start this series with Sarah?
You know, the history of monotheism begins with Abraham. He was the first person to discover God—or God discovered him—it was a chance for both of them. And I thought that it could be interesting to learn the role of his wife in the birth of monotheism. You know, Abraham was a young man who spent his entire life dreaming about God, about a God who was more egalitarian than other Gods, a God who talked to him. But that wasn't enough for him to transmit the concept of his God to others. Who did that? His wife. Why his wife? Because she was Sumerian, she was literate, she could write. She would be able to transcribe his dream and his communication with God and to transmit them to other people. And when I read the Bible from the beginning, from Adam and Eve to Abraham, I saw that this is a story of a tribe, of a group of people whose story became universal. Sarah and the women made it universal. When half of humanity, the women, decided to support the idea, it became a reality. And I said to myself, after all, Sarah is the prototype of the free woman, she is the rich Sumerian who decided to marry a Semite man, a foreigner, and she follows him and she loves him and she makes his dream her own.
Do you see Sarah as a "modern" woman?
Very modern. Everything she did was modern. She decided to control her own body, which is the most important aim of the modern woman. She was the first woman to find her own husband, not to accept the husband her family imposed on her. And she used contraception; she said, "I will have the children when I want to have the children." And this was 4,000 years ago! She also helped to realize the dream of Abraham: his worship of a God who is universal, but unseen, abstract. Which was a very revolutionary idea at the time. She was an extraordinary, modern woman. Even at the end, she does something extraordinary. When she knows she is dying, she tells her husband—and this is very beautiful and an example of our time—"I want to see together my child and your child with Hagar." And the Bible says Ishmael and Isaac came together, at her request. Sarah was able to bring them together.
That is significant when you consider that for many people today, the story of Abraham and his two sons is symbolic of the rivalry between the Judeo-Christian world and the Islamic world. Did you have that in mind when you wrote this book?
Oh, sure. It's very difficult to make an abstraction out of this story. After all, I've been involved in the pursuit of peace in the Middle East, so, of course, it was a part of my reflection when I was writing this story.
Sarah and Hagar are, respectively, the mothers of the Judeo-Christian and Islamic religions. You envision them as kindred spirits and even allies. Why?
This is a fantastic story. Sarah is in love with Abraham; she is sterile; she is unable to give him a child. She knows that he would like to have a son. He does not go to other women, because he is in love with Sarah and is faithful to her. So Sarah invented something that is very important: surrogate motherhood. She said to Abraham, "Here I have a servant, Hagar; she will give you a son and he will be our child." And the three of them decided together that this would work. But what Sarah didn't understand is that Hagar was a free woman, a strong woman. When she felt the child in her womb, she said to herself, "I can't give up this child." And Hagar was ready to die in the desert with her child rather than give him up. She was very courageous. But God asked her to go back to Abraham and make a life for her child. It's written in the Bible that God told her, "This child, Ishmael, will be the father of many nations"—the Arab nations.
It's a classic story: on one hand, you may be generous, but on the other hand, you are a human being, and we're jealous by nature. The idea that you are putting another woman, a young woman, in your husband's bed—well, you are a human being. This story of surrogate motherhood and adoption is so modern, so close to us, I was delighted to find it in the Bible and describe it. For a writer, it is a fantastic story.
Sarah finally gives birth to Isaac when she is in her eighties. We know that all of the tribes of Israel descend from him. Was Sarah's destiny just to be wife and mother of patriarchs, or is her role much greater?
I think that she is the spiritual cofounder of the monotheistic religion. At first, Sarah was skeptical about her husband's visions, this God who no one could see and who talked only to him. She loved Abraham, but she laughed at him when he told her about it. she didn't really buy into it. The reason why her son's name is "Itzhak" is that it comes from the word meaning "to laugh," and it refers to Sarah's skepticism. The day she accepted the idea of one God, He proved to her that He was the real God by giving her the son she wanted. I very strongly believe that she was the cofounder of monotheistic religion, the key to the whole thing. But I wanted to express that as a storyteller, so instead of putting that idea in some kind of provocative sermon, I wrote this novel.
Zipporah and Lilah, the heroines of the second and third novels in this trilogy, are less well known to most readers. Why did you choose them over better known women of the Old Testament, like, say, Judith or Rebecca?
Because those women—Judith, Rebecca—ultimately had less influence over the evolution of our history. They had great stories, but they had less influence when it came to creating who we are today. Zipporah and Lilah had tremendous influence when it came to shaping history.
It's no wonder that so many people are interested in Moses, who created the first universal law. The Ten Commandments . . . all the constitutions of the world are based on the Ten Commandments. I wanted to show the participation of Moses' wife, Zipporah, in that. What happened with Moses? Why did he invent these laws? You are never alone in invention. Every revolutionary invention is made with people all around—the inventors are not working alone. And who forced Moses to go back to God when he destroyed the first tablets? His wife. All this is written in the Bible, but it hasn't been explored before because, well, people read what they want to read.
Do people read the bible selectively?
Yes, very much so. So I wanted to show that Zipporah's involvement was a very important moment for all of us, Jews, Christians, Muslims, and so on.
It was the same with Ezrah and his sister, Lilah. Ezra is the man who really made the idea of the book important. Jews, Muslims, and Christians are all "people of the book." Ezra understood that civilizations are created by political or military power, but they only survive when people put their roots in books and tradition. When you are people of the book, as long as the book exists, you are still alive. Your country, your city, may pass away, but the book doesn't, and you always have it. Lilah was the woman who pushed Ezra to impose this idea of the book. Lilah also introduced something else new; the recognition of women as a collective force in society. She organized women against a law that her brother created. He had forced the Jews under his rule to divorce their non-Jewish wives, and Lilah thought that this was horrible, because love is love, and breaking apart loving families creates tragedies. And she organized all these women into a kind of union and ultimately forced Ezra to change his mind.
All of these women's stories remind me of the phrase "behind every successful man is a great woman."
Yes, but I'm critical of that expression. I don't like that expression because it says that women are "behind" the great men. I think of them as "beside" the great men instead of "behind." I'm looking for the kind of woman who works side by side with the man who created something. Whether it was law or religion or tradition, she created it with him.
how do you, as a man of the twenty-first century, put yourself into the skin of these women who lived 4,000 years ago? Why do their stories speak so strongly to you?
My principle is that the only one thing that is universal and didn't change from the beginning of time is the human being. Nature, the invironment, it changes. Cities change. But human beings don't. Love, tenderness, jealousy, anger, the love of power—that is all universal. So when you are reading the story of Sarah, you can envision her as your mother, your sister, your girlfriend. It is easy to understand. Only you are putting those women you know very well into the environment of 4,000 years ago. You need to know the environment, the traditions, the food, the clothes, the vocabulary of that society, but as for the person herself—it is very easy to imagine the women I know living in Sumerian society 4,000 years ago. There's no difference between a young boy today telling a girl "I love you" and a boy telling a girl "I love you" in the Sumerian language of 4,000 years ago. The desires are the same.
This is why literature exists, the permanence of human nature, expressions, feelings, and so on. This permanence lets us feel that we're a part of a fantastic history and tradition. All the ancient civilizations may disappear, but because we still exist and we don't change, they're part of our collective memory.