What happens when everyone writes the same book as you?


Fragments of History – a short account in Simon Sebag Montefiore’s 2011 book “Jerusalem”; a mention of an “archaeological dig” in the Ottoman archives – had attracted at least six other people like me to it. We were all researching sources and turning our notes into book proposals around the same time.

When we found out about each other, it was a little awkward.

The person to tell us was Nirit Shalev-Khalifa, a curator at the Yad Ben Zvi Institute in Jerusalem, who had recognized the power of history years before us. In 1995, Nirit, then at the start of his career but with characteristic determination, tracked down a box of glass negatives from the expedition, enlisted a student to locate Valter Juvelius’ great-grandson in Finland, and contacted my grandfather in England. My grandfather gave her some photos and documents, and in 1996 she organized an exhibit on the Parker Expedition, her article making her a key contact for anyone who came to the story later, at source research.

It might have been a boring position for Nirit, but she took it with relish. She welcomed each of us who wrote to her as if she were our party host, passing on news of our fellow expedition explorers and enjoying the coincidence that these books were all happening at the same time.

It seems less exciting to me. I felt my loose bond with great-great-uncle Monty turn into possessiveness: who were these people writing about what I unfairly felt was my story?

It was a diverse group, Nirit explained, and scholars: Louis Fishman, a history professor at Brooklyn College, who found a file on the excavation in the Ottoman archives; Timo Stewart, a Finnish scholar whose book focuses on Juvelius; Graham Addison, a retired British businessman turned history writer; and Andrew Lawler, an American journalist studying underground Jerusalem.

Eleven days after telling me about these men, Nirit emailed me with a smiling emoji about “the newcomer in town”: Brad Ricca, a Cleveland author who writes books that mix reality and fiction. And four months later, my father was sitting down to dinner one night when Nirit phoned to introduce him to Lior Hanani, a young Israeli software developer who chose the expedition as the basis for his first novel.

Nirit envisioned a conference that would explore our collective research and decided to introduce us to each other on Zoom. Some of us admitted to feeling nervous, even competitive. But Nirit’s enthusiasm was a spreading force. There was enough room in the world for each of our approaches – journalistic, fictional and academic – she insisted.

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