Matti Friedman is no doubt best known as the ex-AP journalist who, in 2014, blew the whistle on journalistic reporting from the Middle East after the 2014 Gaza War; revealing how editorial positions defined reporting content (http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/183033/israel-insider-guide). But, also equally notable is his 2014 book, The Aleppo Codex, winner of several major literary awards.
A little history: In response to continuing attacks by the PLO against Israel, Israel invaded Lebanon (for a second time) in 1982. Israel withdrew from most of Lebanon in 1985, but maintained a 12 mile (17 Km) Security Zone in the south, with the assistance of the South Lebanese Army (SLA). In Southern Lebanon, Israel established several military outposts, one of which was known as Pumpkin. (An aside, Friedman says the IDF often uses the names of fruits/vegetables to describe places, events, actions; hence Pumpkin) On May 24, 2000, Israel withdrew completely from South Lebanon, after which Hezbollah became even more firmly and menacingly entrenched on Israel’s northern border.
In his new book, Pumpkinflowers, Friedman gives the reader a personal tour of events emanating from The Pumpkin (Apparently in Hebrew simply Pumpkin, but Friedman takes the liberty of adding the “the” article to the name). The book is composed of four Parts. Part 1 describes a series of events beginning in 1994 as seen through the eyes of Avi. Part 2 introduces two mothers who developed actions to encourage Israeli withdrawal from Southern Lebanon. Part 3 describes Matti Friedman’s time on The Pumpkin, including the final withdrawal in 2000. The final part, Part 4, recounts his return to the Pumpkin in 2002 as a “tourist” visiting Lebanon.
The Pumpkin was located on a hill about 6 miles (9Km) north of the Israeli border, within the sight line of Metulla. Soldiers accessed the hill from the east side, via an often mined road. Guerrillas threatened The Pumpkin from The Forest, mostly old trees and scrub. To the north along the Ali Taher range one could see another outpost – Red Pepper. To the south was Beaufort Castle, about 3 miles (5 Km) away. To the west, and outside the security area, was the Shiite town of Nabatieh.
As Friedman says in the beginning of the book, “This book is about the lives of young people who finished high school and then found themselves in a war – in a forgotten little corner of a forgotten little war....” (p. ix). He goes on to explain that to understand the Middle East today, one would be wise to consider the events at The Pumpkin.
The early part of the story of The Pumpkin, beginning in 1994, is told primarily through the eyes of Avi Ofner, z’l, a soldier who proceeded the author on The Pumpkin.
It is not exactly clear when Matti arrived at The Pumpkin, but likely in late 1997 or 1998, two years before the withdrawal, and sometime after the great helicopter accident of 1997 in which 73 soldiers were killed, no survivors. Friedman describes snippets of events which occurred at The Pumpkin. Sometimes he is describing them as Avi experienced them, other times from his personal experience. While the descriptions are not always compelling, they are intriguing enough to keep the reader engaged and moving forward. His simple and yet elegant writing style temps the reader to keep reading.
The book is a compilation of material from Friedman’s personal experiences, interviews (many in 2013) with soldiers from The Pumpkin, surviving family members and friends, and IDF and other declassified records of events during the life of The Pumpkin. The Notes at the end offer extra details for each chapter. The notes also pay tribute to soldiers who spent time there.
Friedman’s has a very easy and enjoyable writing style, making this a fast read. The book is composed of 60, mainly short (2-4 pages), chapters. And, as noted, there are several pages of source notes at the end.
This is not a complicated book, but it does give a precise insight to a forgotten time. It also reveals how experiences during Israeli wars linger in the psyche of its brave soldiers, their family and friends. It is odd to call a book about a war an enjoyable read, as many of the events are tragic and very sad, but this was a good read and one that can be recommended. Hopefully, Matti Friedman will continue writing.
Oh, and what are Pumpkinflowers; not what you might think, but you will have to read the book to find out. A copy is available from the Kaufman-Silverberg Library.