Prompted by recent press coverage, writer and photographer Ruth Corman explores the ‘real’ Israel in her new book, she tells Rebecca Wallersteiner

 Ruth Corman

Ruth Corman

Ruth Corman’s life has had as many twists and turns as the stories in her beautifully-illustrated new book, Unexpected Israel.

The work reveals a mosaic of fascinating people from infinitely different backgrounds, each of whom, according to the author, contributes to the rich tapestry of the country.

“About five years ago I became increasingly irritated with the negative media coverage on Israel and decided to try and redress the balance. I wanted to show the beautiful, the creative, the positive, the caring side of Israel, which is usually overlooked,” she says.

Not only is Corman (pictured, right) a writer, photographer and, unexpectedly – a singer – but, during her varied career as director of the British Israel Arts Foundation, she curated many exhibitions both in Britain and Israel.

Her first book, now published in three languages, was the life story of photojournalist David Rubinger.

Unexpected Israel

Unexpected Israel

When I arrive at the author’s Hampstead home, she warmly welcomes me in and offers tea. Three hours flash past as she recounts her experiences, shows me her photography and even sings arias from Puccini, while I listen spellbound.

“Singing is like taking a happy pill – it should be given on the NHS,” quips Corman, whose witty northern humour reminds me of Howard Jacobson.

Is it true that Corman is happy to chat to total strangers? “Yes. Even as a child I was extrovert and have always been fascinated to find out how others tick. The only person I’ve ever met who talks to strangers more than me is Alon Galili, who became my guide and friend.

“I asked him to show me some lesser-known places in Israel and for five years we travelled in his 4×4 finding the “unexpected,” which I then converted into stories.

“Alon has always worked in the field of nature preservation, so he knows Israel like the back of his hand. He has the gift of bringing everything to life – even in the most arid landscape. Through him, I have been introduced to many of the fascinating people and places that feature in my book,” she adds.

Focusing on cameos of everyday life, Corman’s book introduces a rich collection of characters and places that one would rarely encounter – stories range from camels to caviar, sabras to snow and pilgrims to pomegranates, the humorous and the spiritual, the poignant and the dramatic.

She has a genius for spotting people who are different and getting them to tell her their stories. She is keen that people begin to realise Israel is like one huge family – caring, often interfering, but essentially kind.

“If I fall on a street in Jerusalem, everyone will immediately rush to help me, whether they are Arabs, Christians or Jews,” she explains.

People playing sheshbesh

People playing sheshbesh

She began writing Unexpected Israel in 2011 and, during her travels, has encountered many remarkable individuals – the sheikh of a Bedouin tribe who hosted her, Gershon Luxemburg from Uzbekistan who runs a boxing school open to all, Amnon Damti – recognised as one of the world’s leading deaf dancers – and Professor Yossi Leshem – an outstanding ornithologist, whose expertise is helping countries worldwide with many problems.

One of the most inspirational people in Corman’s book is 92-year-old Sister Emahoy Tsegué-Mariam Guebrù, who lives in a convent in Jerusalem and is something of a cult figure in music circles.

Corman enthuses when I ask her about her heroine. “Every time I visit Tsegué-Mariam, her smile lights up the tiny cell in which she lives. She has a wonderful gentle sense of humour and this, combined with her serenity, never fails to affect me.”

Despite her age, this remarkable woman still creates compositions for piano in her head before committing them to paper.

Another unusual story features the Hai-Bar Yotvata nature reserve, which Galili helped to establish in the 1960s, to repopulate Israel with now extinct wildlife mentioned in the Bible. So far, it has succeeded in rescuing several species, including the onager and white oryx to the wild, but were not so successful with ostriches.

On release, the birds ran towards Jordan and had to be rounded up and brought back to avoid being hunted. The second time they were released, they ran towards Egypt. They are back in the reserve pending their agreement to stay where they are supposed to.

One special project was the breeding of the scimitar horned oryx [Senegal’s national animal, that had become extinct], but Hai-Bar managed to breed and return a group of these animals back to their homeland in Africa.

Whether she is photographing owls or oranges, caviar or camels, musicians or market traders, Corman’s photographs have an unpretentious freshness and joie de vivre – rather like the author herself.

• Unexpected Israel: Stories You Never Read in the Media by Ruth Corman, is published by Gefen Publishing House, priced £22.50.

For more details, visit: ruthcorman.wordpress.com, email ruth@cormanarts.com or call 07847 205905. Also available at Amazon.co.uk