Ehud Maimon on my Haifa stories

The feature article in this week’s Strange Horizons is Bridge Over Troubled Waters: The City of Haifa in Lavie Tidhar’s Stories, by Ehud Maimon. It discusses six of my short stories that take place in Haifa – including last year’s “The Projected Girl” from Naked City – and “Shira” from The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy. They are two of my favourite stories.

Anyway it’s a really interesting article – for me if no one else! – and raises up some themes I didn’t consider. I find Haifa absolutely fascinating, and one of the most marvellous places to set stories in. Here’s a snippet from the article that explains a little about the city and just why it’s so fascinating to a writer:

The city of Haifa is the venue of six stories by Lavie Tidhar. These stories were not written as a cycle, and only two of them are even directly linked through a shared character, but they all find an engaged setting in the ancient city of Haifa on the Eastern Mediterranean. This isn’t to say that they simply take place in a city called “Haifa,” a passive participant to the activity within it. Rather, Tidhar’s Haifa plays a role in all these stories, and through characteristics common across them, acts as a bridge between its local culture and the more universal enterprise of speculative fiction.

Four characteristics appear in one form or another in all of Lavie Tidhar’s Haifa stories: 1) the power of books and bookstores to shape the reality of the city and the way the protagonists perceive reality; 2) the city’s sanctity (especially with regard to sun and fire worship); 3) the eternal nature of the city, its harbor, and the mountain ridge on which it sits; and 4) the city’s ability to span the vast range of both history and mythology.

The city of Haifa as viewed from the port.

These characteristics are not unique to Tidhar. Speculative fiction is rife with books that expose reality as timeless and malleable. Michael Moorcock’s Tanelorn and Roger Zelazny’s Amber provide great points of reference with respect to cities the span space and time, acting as hubs for the world that exists around them. Yet these are definitively fictional cities, which raises an interesting question regarding Tidhar’s Haifa—do his stories merely apply fantastic conventions to Haifa, or are these fantastic features central to Haifa’s identity? We’ll see that whatever the answer to this question, this dynamic allows Tidhar to utilize Haifa to marry particular and local identity with concerns, themes, and conventions that are universal in scope.

As far as books and their power to affect reality, there is nothing special about Haifa besides a few locally iconic used bookstores. But the power of words is a vital trope in speculative fiction more generally, and it certainly a common theme in Tidhar’s work as a whole, highlighted by his recent Bookman trilogy.

As for Haifa’s nature as a meeting point and crossing point of times, places and realities, the answer may lie in the nature and history of Haifa itself. While it is the third largest city in Israel, Haifa was not one of the major towns of the region until the twentieth century. But it is an ancient port town, with evidence of settlement dating back to the late Bronze Age. It is situated along a stretch of coast that was one of the most important international trading centers in the Mediterranean for some 4,000 years. In recent history it gained importance as one of the largest deep-water ports in the eastern Mediterranean, and during the British rule of the Middle East as the gateway to the entire region. As such it has always been a nexus, a meeting place for people and cultures. Tidhar take this a few steps further. In his Haifa historical periods coexist side by side in the same city, timelines cross and meet and the city is a nexus not just for people from different places and cultures, but for the mundane and the mythical.

The Terraces of the Baha’i faith, located on Mount Carmel in Haifa.

The sanctity of the city can be traced back to the history of the region Haifa is located in. Haifa hosts the world center of the Baha’i religion and is sacred to this faith, but as far as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are concerned it had no major religious significance, especially compared to other cities in the Middle East. But the Carmel ridge on which it sits is a different matter. Mount Carmel is mentioned as a sacred place in the account of Thumose III’s occupation of Palestine in the fifteenth century BC; It is the site of Elijah’s famous showdown with the prophets of Ba’al and Ashera (1 Kings 18)—which implies that the site has an even older history as a sacred place; The city of Megiddo, made famous by the book of Revelation as “Armageddon” (Revelation 16), is along the ridge, less than forty kilometers from Haifa proper. – continue reading!