For author Matti Friedman, the most noteworthy takeaway after interviewing several dozen soldiers stationed during the 1990s at a remote military outpost in Lebanon, was their surprise simply at being asked.
Israel’s presence at “the Pumpkin,” the hilltop base in southern Lebanon that the Israeli military held from 1994 to 2000, exists in individual, but not collective, memory, Friedman said.
He added: “These experiences haven’t been considered important [by the Israeli public]. There’s no monument there…Most of the guys I spoke to had internalized the idea that nothing important had happened there…telling me I was the first to ask them about it since they’d left Pumpkin.”
The Toronto-born writer, who himself served two tours at Outpost Pumpkin as a platoon sergeant, has written a new book, Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story, published May 3 by Algonquin Books.
Part memoir and part journalism, it’s about Friedman and other soldiers’ experiences at the base, as well as the implications of what happened there.
On May 19, Friedman was in Toronto for a book launch held at the Leo and Sala Goldhar Conference and Celebration Centre.
Presented by UJA Federation of Toronto and the Schwartz/Reisman Centre, the event featured a discussion about writing, Jewish identity and Israel’s present and future with Friedman and fellow Canadian Jewish author David Bezmozgis, as well as Rafi Yablonsky, manager of Strategic Initiatives & UJA Young Leaders at UJA Federation of Greater Toronto
Pumpkinflowers highlights a particularly traumatic incident that occurred in 1994, several years before Friedman got to Outpost Pumpkin: Hezbollah fighters attacked the outpost with shells and rocket fire, killing one Israeli soldier and wounding two. Four guerrillas scrambled up the hill followed by a cameraman, who documented their planting a Hezbollah flag in the ground.
Set to martial music, the video was then broadcast to millions of viewers across the Islamic world.
Friedman, who arrived at the outpost four years later, said the event became among those who served there like a “story you tell kids at bedtime to scare them.”
Because it was believed that the soldiers who’d been attacked and humiliated by Hezbollah hadn’t been sufficiently alert, Friedman said that recounting to his soldiers what had happened was “a way to get them to stay awake in the guard post.”
Friedman described guarding an outpost as “a dreary routine.”
“Usually nothing happens,” he added, “so it’s deadening and exhausting. After a few weeks or months your guard can slip.”
In addition to wanting to tell a universal story of war, of young people fresh out of high school thrown into “a pretty extreme and interesting place,” Friedman said, he wished to capture a period that saw a type of warfare that he believes “presaged much of what has happened since Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and since the attacks of 9/11.”
In that sense, the book is “a kind of prologue to the wars of the 21st century,” he explained.
Those years in Lebanon are significant, he said, because Israel’s experience fighting an enemy that was markedly weaker yet used improvised explosive devices (IEDs), videotaped hit and run attacks, and were essentially, “not afraid to die” foretold the type of wars the West would be fighting in the Middle East in this century.
“After 9/11 Western armies have found themselves in the Middle East fighting wars that look a lot like this war in Lebanon did, fighting these Islamic guerrillas who are using hit and run tactics, who are savvy in the use of media and acting according to religious ideology that makes very little sense to people in the West,” Friedman said.
Born in 1977 in Toronto, Friedman attended William Lyon Mackenzie Collegiate Institute for high school and moved to Israel at age 17.
Although he’d initially planned to work on a kibbutz for a year, he fell in love with the country and has lived there ever since.
He currently resides in Jerusalem with his family.
Friedman’s first book, The Aleppo Codex, was published in 2012 and won the Sami Rohr Prize and the Canadian Jewish Book Award.
His journalistic writing has appeared in publications including The Atlantic, The New York Times and Tablet Magazine.