This episode of NOW With Bill Moyers featured an exclusive interview with Palestinian militia commander Marwan Zaloum, who at the time personally selected and trained suicide bombers to carry out attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians. A lifelong militant, Zaloum was on Israel’s list of most wanted terrorists, and was committed to ending the Israeli occupation. In the interview, Zaloum stated, “Certainly, the goal of this operation is to destroy the morale of the Israeli soldier, and to destroy what is in the mind of the Israeli soldier — that it is possible for the tank or the plane or the rifle or the intelligence services or the security forces to protect him.”
One month after this episode aired, Marwan Zaloum and his bodyguard were killed on the streets of Hebron when their car was obliterated by a missile launched from an Israeli helicopter.
NARRATOR: From our studios in New York, Bill Moyers.
MOYERS: Welcome to NOW.
Tonight we bring you a chilling report: a Palestinian militia commander who trains suicide bombers.
His name is Marwan Zaloum and he is on Israel’s most-wanted list.
We’re showing you this exclusive interview because this man and men like him will be a force to be reckoned with as the Middle East searches for peace.
Investigative journalist Bryan Rich met secretly with Zaloum in Hebron.
BRYAN RICH: His name is Marwan Zaloum and he’s a commander in the militant group known known as Al Aqsa Brigades…he recruits and trains young Palestinians to kill and be killed in attacks against Israel…
Attacks like this one that killed 10 Israeli civilians.
Zaloum was a teenager when he began fighting Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. Israel calls him a “terrorist” and he is on their most wanted list.
I met him at a secret location in Hebron just 40 miles from Jerusalem.
I wanted to ask him face to face if he is responsible for sending suicide bombers out to kill innocent people.
MARWAN ZALOUM: As a Palestinian fighter, I have played a role. My role, of course, given my experience, and this life I have lived… I was asked to be in a position of responsibility.
RICH: What he calls “responsibility” is training and sending young men and women to die; and, what he calls “martyrs,” Israel calls “terrorists”.
ZALOUM: When Sharon was threatening to open the gates of hell we were convinced that if we did not own planes, nor tanks, nor missiles, we had one strategic weapon, and that is faith.
We are obliged to use martyrdom operations. I told you, the gates of hell, we did not want to open them from the beginning. We say the martyrdom operation is a strategic weapon.
RICH: Strategic weapons like Iyad Kafeeshy, whose pictures hang on Zaloum’s wall. There are others. I asked if he trained them too.
ZALOUM: For sure, each one, of course, carried his worries in his heart. Each one was like a moving cell. It is possible that each faithful person sees, until his end, or remarks that now, according to God’s will, he is going to die, it is like a feeling, a premonition. Given his faith, he thinks more and more about hitting Israeli targets.
RICH: Zaloum told me that suicide bombers are driven by two passions; The desire to please God and to force Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories.
ZALOUM: For sure, they occupy my land. For sure, they are destroying my people. For sure, they are practicing terrorism. And, for sure when my mother or my wife are stopped at checkpoints, when they want to pass peacefully in order to bring some food to the house, and they are humiliated and mistreated. For sure they need someone to defend them.
RICH: Just a few miles from where the interview takes place, our car is stopped at checkpoint.
Israeli soldiers are searching everyone…checking Palestinian identity papers.
They hold their weapons at the ready.
They know that the next suicide bomb could come from any one of these people at any time.
ZALOUM: I want to say truthfully and clearly that the whole Palestinian people are ready, and it is possible for the young man that we select or whose fate is to be chosen is very lucky, and it is possible that dozens of others will get upset for not being selected.
RICH: Who knows if everyone is as willing to die as Zaloum suggests, but one thing’s for sure; the death toll keeps rising.
As violence feeds violence, one side strikes, and the other retaliates, and no one any longer knows who first pulled the trigger.
ZALOUM: But we say to Sharon, that if you have the tanks and planes to besiege Arafat, we are going to besiege you in your home. We will prevent the Israeli street from moving around. We will prevent the settler from moving anywhere.
RICH: His goal is to bring to Israel, what he says he and other Palestinians have lived through all their lives.
ZALOUM: Siege: shutdowns, curfews, school closedowns, daily humiliations, destruction of the economic infrastructure, that is on a daily basis. Shootings without any reason and prohibiting me, as a Palestinian, the child of this land and this home, from moving. That is provocation.
RICH: Provocation met by provocation. Outside Yasser Arafat’s compound in Ramallah, I see young Palestinians square off against Israeli tanks. They yell obscenities at the soldiers and stomp on the Star of David. I see an Israeli soldier, behind a tank, fire a rubber coated steel bullet, hitting a young boy. Back in Hebron I tried to ask Zaloum if he killed with his own hands?
My interpreter refuses to translate.
So I ask him directly, “Did he kill any in that exchange?”
RICH: Yes, he said, not one but two.
And what about the future?
ZALOUM: And we, as the brigades of Al Aqsa martyrs, will not retreat or stop until we realize the dream. We don’t want to pass the suffering, once more, to another generation. We see, that as the occupation started with our generation, it must end before we die.
RICH: That could be any day for Marwan Zaloum. Even as he sends young Palestinians to die, he is himself a hunted man. An Israeli rocket kills a suspected militant in this attack in Ramallah. Looking around…I see the next generation looking at the pool of blood on the floor, I wonder if they too will be ready to die.
MOYERS: That was from producer Brian Rich.
Even as the Mideast prepares for an Arab summit next week to focus on peace, the killing continued.
A vast majority of Palestinians — 87% in a recent poll — said they fully support the acts of suicide bombers against Israel.
One wonders how could so many people come to endorse this violent extremism?
Last week I talked about what it’s like to live surrounded by this violence with Israeli writer David Grossman.
This week my guest is Amal Amireh. Professor Amireh is a Muslim Palestinian who lived in Ramallah most of her life, she still has family there.
Professor Amireh came to the United States on a scholarship and then went home to teach.
She and her American husband now live in Virginia, where she teaches at George Mason University.
Thank you very much for being with us.
AMIREH: Thanks for having me.
MOYERS: I still have a hard time grasping what would lead young people like that to kill themselves and to kill innocent people.
AMIREH: Well, I have a hard time understanding that, too. It’s not something that, you know, we as Palestinians have special understanding. It shocks us. It pains us.
I mean, it’s horrible on so many levels because, yes, there are innocent civilians getting killed, and we know how it feels.
It’s also shocking and horrible because you feel why is it that our young people feeling that this is the only way they can contribute to the cause? Why do they feel that this is the only way left?
I mean, this is such a horrible thought to think that this is what is left for them to do.
MOYERS: And do you think these grievances justify suicide bombings?
AMIREH: Nothing justifies suicide bombings — nothing, nothing.
I mean, maybe we can try to understand it, but I’m telling you, there’s nothing to justify suicide bombing.
And also I don’t think there is any way to justify…anything that justifies occupation.
And this is something I think the Israeli people need to understand.
MOYERS: Help us get inside the psyche of these young Palestinians who will respond to a recruiter like that and go off to kill and be killed.
What is life like for them?
AMIREH: They live trauma on a daily basis.
I know these young people as family members, as friends, as students. And in and in some fundamental ways they’re not different from any young people anywhere else in the world. They have the same hopes, the same dreams, the same ambitions. They work hard. They want to fall in love and get married. They’re insecure like anyone who’s 17 years old is insecure, about how they look and how they measure up to their peers.
But for them, what shocks me, what saddens me, is that they reached a point, this generation, of feeling that their backs are to the wall.
MOYERS: How so?
AMIREH: The occupation. It just went on for too long.
MOYERS: The occupation by Israeli…
AMIREH: The Israeli occupation.
MOYERS: …of Palestinian territory.
AMIREH: Yes. I mean, because that is the problem, and everybody knows that.
MOYERS: But what is life actually like on a day-to-day basis under the occupation?
AMIREH: Well, the occupation, on the good days, okay, the occupation controls every aspect of your life on a good day.
It controls if you go that day to your job or to school, if you make it back, or if your checkpoints is going to prevent you from doing that.
It controls how many showers you’re going to take that…
MOYERS: How many showers?
AMIREH: Showers, because the water supply is controlled by the Israelis.
I went on for days, you know, the summers I stayed in the West Bank recently in Ramallah, for days not having one drop of water in my faucets, and for three and four days.
And that was determined by somebody else. I mean, the occupation is not something abstract; it’s something that affects people’s lives daily. It’s about resources. Okay, it’s about water, about land, about jobs. That is what the occupation is.
MOYERS: The… is… the prominent Israeli writer David Grossman told me last week that Jews no longer think they can think about the future.
Is that what you’re saying about the young Palestinians as well, that they no longer imagine a future?
AMIREH: Yes, they cannot plan.
I mean, I got an e-mail recently from one of my students who lives in the Ballata refugee camp, and I just sent him this e-mail saying, “are you okay?”
Which is euphemism for saying, “are you alive?”
And he wrote back saying, “yes, one of these days — it’s very hard here — one leaves the house, doesn’t know if he’s coming back.” Then he mentioned that he is planning for his wedding for May 26. So the people are still hoping and continuing to hope. And I think that is the most important thing, that you give them something to hope for.
MOYERS: Tell me about your mother.
She lived all of her life…in Ramallah, was it?
AMIREH: Yes, she lived in Al Burin in Ramallah.
And yes, she lived all her life there, and she was sick for a while. I needed to get her to a hospital in Jerusalem. I mean I live in Ramallah, Jerusalem is a 20 minute drive.
Again, you need permits, even for a sick, you know, 72-year-old woman. She needed to have an operation. And it was really traumatic, I mean, having to…
MOYERS: Why was it so traumatic? Why couldn’t you get a permit?
AMIREH: Well, you have…we needed it fast. You need to wait for a month for it for security clearance. And you know, we made it. We had to go a couple of times in roundabout routes.
And it just was humiliating and disturbing to see this sick, you know, woman, having to go through these difficult routes and…in order just to get healthier, health…you know, necessary health care.
She died on October 10, and things were being pretty tense at the time.
And you know, there were people getting killed every day in checkpoints in confrontations with the Israeli soldiers.
MOYERS: Is she buried there?
AMIREH: And we almost could not bury her. We had to delay her funeral, her burial for several hours because it was dangerous. And finally we did.
So I really understand. When I read in the papers that some people during this last invasion of Palestinian cities how people sat with the corpses of their beloved ones not being allowed to go and bury them.
I mean, it’s a horrible experience.
MOYERS: Can you get to your mother’s grave?
AMIREH: I couldn’t.
AMIREH: Well, it’s ten minutes away in a cemetery, but the cemetery is at the bottom of this hill where an Israeli settlement, Sagott, is.
And they were shooting, always.
I mean, during that period between, you know… There is a tank on the settlement that shoots down at people or at, you know, some guy shooting at, you know, towards the settlement.
And I left, I decided to leave the… because I literally didn’t want to end up in the rubble of my apartment building with my family.
MOYERS: You teach literature, which is supposed to help us get inside the others’ worldview and to look at the world through their eyes and through their imaginations. Do you have any sympathy for the Israelis who live in fear of men like Marwan Zaloum?
Do you have any sympathy for their position?
AMIREH: Of course.
I mean, I understand that position. I mean, I understand what it means to be afraid, and I understand insecure in your own home. Of course, I have that sympathy.
I mean, I have Israeli friends. I have a friend who lives in Haifa, and I’m calling her every now and then. You know, Haifa is very close to Tel Aviv, you know — “are you okay?”
I mean, so it’s not…all our lives are entangled with each other. And it’s… I do… I do understand that fear. And I hope they understand also our fear. It goes both ways.
MOYERS: Why do you think you can’t communicate with each other?
AMIREH: Well, I believe people like to have some fiction, myths, that they live by.
I mean, like, I call them sometimes necessary fictions, because they give you a sense of who you are.
And, you know, sometimes it’s deceptive, and sometimes it’s fatal, and I think with…
MOYERS: The mythology is fatal.
AMIREH: Yes, yes, it could be.
And it’s what’s happening in the Middle East.
And I need to tell you, I mean, despite this figure of 87% of Palestinians that you mention, their attitude to suicide bombing, this is a debate within Palestinian society and within Palestinian political culture amongst various political groups, among the ordinary citizens, about this practice.
You know, it’s not like it’s something embraced and something celebrated. Nobody celebrates.
I think that’s why it’s important that we give the Palestinians a solution, you know, a just solution.
No, as I said before, the solution is clear and obvious.
MOYERS: The Palestinian…
AMIREH: A Palestinian state next to Israel; end of occupation, end of the settlements.
MOYERS: And recognizing Israel’s right to exist.
AMIREH: While recognizing the state of Israel as a neighboring state.
MOYERS: Thank you very much, Amal Amireh.
I appreciate you being with us tonight.
AMIREH: Thank you for having me.
MOYERS: With uncanny timing for what we’ve been talking about tonight, a documentary called PROMISES is being considered for an Academy Award this weekend.
It’s about Israeli and Palestinian children growing up with violence.
The filmmakers Justine Shapiro, B.Z. Goldberg, and Carlos Bolado filmed their documentary over three years.
A rare lull in the violence enabled them to focus on seven kids in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
With the filmmakers’ permission, we’d like to share with you a few revealing moments.
The children of Israel and Palestine have violence for a playground.
And on both sides, the casualties are sons and daughters of Abraham.
The children here are divided, not by rivers or mountain ranges, but by politics, religion, and military checkpoints.
Filmmaker B.Z. Goldberg set out to bridge the gulf between the children.
He filmed over three years hoping to bring some of them together.
It was a formidable task.
Just as the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Western Wall are side by side, young people here also live side by side, but worlds apart.
Two of the film’s subjects are Daniel and Yarko, twins growing up in the Israeli neighborhood of West Jerusalem.
Faraj is a Palestinian.
He lives 20 minutes from the twins in a refugee camp called Deheishe.
Filmmaker Goldberg constantly crossed through the military checkpoints separating the twins from Faraj.
GOLDBERG: Checkpoints are situated at all crossings between the West Bank and Israel.
West Bank Palestinians cannot leave the West Bank, travel to Jerusalem, or even cross from one Palestinian area to another without a permit issued by the Israeli military.
As an Israeli, traveling in a car with Israeli license plates, checkpoints are no inconvenience to me, because I’m usually waved right through.
ISRAELI SOLDIER: Welcome to Israel.
MOYERS: The twins’ twins’ grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, found a home in Israel half a century ago.
GRANDFATHER: The first time I cried was on May 9th when I heard the war was over. It was the first time I cried since they killed my family.
TWIN: You only cried once?
GRANDFATHER: When we left Poland, we decided that if we’re leaving our birthplace — then we should go somewhere safer where the Holocaust could never happen again. So we decided to come to Israel.
TWIN: Do you believe in God?
GRANDFATHER: What? I don’t — I don’t believe God could have watched and not do anything.
TWINS: So you don’t believe? Do you believe or not? Yes? Or No?
GRANDFATHER: You have to decide for yourself.
TWINS: We’re asking you!
MOYERS: Jewish elders tell their children how they found a home in Israel.
Palestinian elders tell their children how they were displaced by the Jews.
He learns about the destruction of his family’s village.
FARAJ: These are our land deeds. They’re really old, Grandmother. Here’s one from 1942.
GRANDMOTHER: This one’s from 1931. And this was the key to our house. I took it with me.
FARAJ: It’s so old, Grandmother.
GRANDMOTHER: The Jews destroyed it, blew it up so no one could say we had a country. That iron beam was part of your grandfather Isa’s house.
FARAJ: If you were united you would have defeated them.
GRANDMOTHER: United?! There was a massacre at Dir Yasin and they took the women. Does anyone want to see his daughter or wife stabbed? Does anyone want to see his brother or daughter slaughtered?
FARAJ: So you ran away.
GRANDMOTHER: Yes. And took refuge in the camps. In Bethlehem and other places.
May you, your father, son, and grandson all return to live here. With God’s will and this key, don’t ever neglect it. Keep it with you always.
GOLDBERG: Do you want to meet Jewish children?
SANABEL: I’m willing!
FARAJ: I don’t want them to come here. Even if he understands me, when he grows up he’ll — take his father’s side against me otherwise his father would kill him. He’d rather displace us than join us and be displaced.
SANABEL: You’re dogmatic. You have to understand their thinking. THEN respond.
FARAJ: Of course I’m dogmatic! What do you expect after all we’ve been through?
BOY: Maybe he’ll understand you. When he grows up he might come to help you.
GIRL: Maybe he’ll be displaced just like you.
FARAJ: He could never handle one tenth of what we went through! They killed your brother, and you want to make friends with their sons?
MOTASSIM: But THEY didn’t kill Bassam. Their father might have. I believe all children are innocent.
MOYERS: By the end of the film, B.Z. has convinced the twins and Faraj to come together.
YARKO: Faraj, I want to meet you and to listen your opinion because I want to know what your opinion….Even if we don’t have the same, the same, the same opinion.
FARAJ: You have his telephone number?
GOLDBERG: The telephone number?
GOLDBERG: I have the telephone number.
FARAJ: I talk with him now.
MOYERS: Faraj calls the twins with an invitation.
FARAJ: I invite you to come to Deheishe.
YARKO: OK. I agree.
FARAJ: Goodbye. Nice to meet you. Thank you.
FARAJ: Thank you for talk me.
FARAJ: Thank you.
YARKO: See you next week?
FARAJ: Yeah. On Saturday.
NARRATOR: Their mother brings the twins through the checkpoint to the refugee camp.
MOM: This is a checkpoint.
TWIN: We know what a checkpoint is. Look. Arabs waiting to be searched. It’s not fair! It’s their land. Why do they have to be searched?
MOM: It’s their land but we don’t want to blow up. It’s complicated.
FARAJ : He’s come
FARAJ: Welcome to Deheishe Camp
YARKO: My really name in the (imitates writing), you know? It’s Yair.
YARKO: Yes, but I like they call me Yarko.
YARKO: I don’t like Yair.
FARAJ: Yeah. Yair, Yair. His name. During the Intifada this was the center of the clashes.
TWIN: These are bullet holes. Many people were martyred here.
FARAJ: Boys threw stones and the soldiers would shoot at them.
YARKO: And he’s dead, him? In the Intifada?
TWIN: Real bullets or rubber bullets?
FARAJ: Real ones.
TWIN: Real ones? Look, don’t speak.
ISRAELI: Here in the camp.
FARAJ: Because the Arabs don’t like anything.
YARKO: They don’t like Israel?
FARAJ: Yeah. You know?
DANIEL: Yeah. But what is?
MOTHER: Welcome. Hello. Welcome.
FARAJ: This is my sister
YARKO: No, no, I don’t like violence.
FARAJ: Come here.
YARKO: I give up. I give up.
GOLDEBERG: The translators are here.
SANABEL: How do you feel after our day together?
TWIN: I used to think that anyone who liked the Hamas was totally insane. Some of the kids here like the Hamas and now I can understand why.
The graffiti might make me uncomfortable, but I can understand it- If I were them, I’d feel the same way.
FARAJ: I feel torn inside. Part of me wants to connect with you and part doesn’t.
TWIN: Just like all Palestinians aren’t Hamas-niks. not all Israelis kill Arabs. Motassim Motassim, why are you crying? I remember how they killed my brother. He went to herd the sheep. Let Ahmed tell the story.
AHMED: He went to herd the sheep on the mountain with his friends. They saw people throwing stones and went to join them. A soldier stood on a jeep and shot him with one bullet.
TWIN: They shot him?
AHMED: With one bullet Bassam was gone and everything was gone. For the first time I felt that this other nation here — who hate us and don’t want us here.
TWIN: Both sides have to deal with it. Israelis are also killed. We’ve also lost people. It’s not one-sided. On TV we see pictures of people killed by the Hamas.
AHMED: What prevents from knowing one another is the checkpoints. The Jews prevent us so we can’t visit each whenever we want.
FARAJ: Faraj, what’s up? This afternoon I started thinking that B.Z. will leave soon. And now we’ve become friends with Daniel and Yarko.
And they will forget our friendship as soon as B.Z. leaves. And all our effort will be in vain.
MOYERS: That’s how the filming of PROMISES ended two years ago.
Sure enough, when B.Z. Goldberg turned off his camera and returned to America, it was the last time Daniel and Yarko and Faraj were together.
Now, of course, it would be impossible.
Boys can’t be boys, it turns out, when politics and war and their leaders won’t let them.
If you want to find out when PROMISES opens at local theaters, go to pbs.org.
BILL MOYERS: We’ve seen in this program how some myths keep human beings imprisoned in political and religious shackles. But other myths have redemptive power. They change the way we see our world and ourselves.
Mary Zimmerman believes in the power of myth to transform, even to transform a thirty-foot swimming pool into an ocean of the imagination. That’s what she’s done on Broadway, making a big splash — no pun intended — with her acclaimed play METAMORPHOSES. She’s taken ancient Roman myths and brought them to life in the here and now. From the ODYSSEY to ARABIAN NIGHTS, from Proust to Leonardo da Vinci…Mary Zimmerman has a way with old ideas dressed up for now. No wonder the MacArthur Foundation awarded her a genius grant.
ZIMMERMAN: Thank you.
MOYERS: In everything you do you find the story in the images. I’ve just showed you a moment ago the film from Palestine, of the children.
MOYERS: What’s the story in those images?
ZIMMERMAN: You know, I think it’s kind of the most ancient story there is, which is the longing for home. You know, so many of ancient myths are really not someone going out but someone trying to get home, like Odysseus coming back from exile, and the story of being taken away from where we think our home is like being taken from ourselves.
There’s also a story of wanting to believe that all men are brothers, that we’re all related — and then, how difficult that is in real life.
MOYERS: You know, when I saw that film and knew you were coming I thought of one of the stories in METAMORPHOSES, Orpheus and Eurydice.
MOYERS: Sum that story up for me, and then I’ll tell you why I thought of you.
ZIMMERMAN: Orpheus and Eurydice are getting married, but on their wedding day Eurydice steps on a snake and is bitten and poisoned and dies immediately — so the wedding becomes a funeral party.
Then Orpheus, so bereaved, goes down into the underworld to try and ask Hades to allow her to come back. And he sings a song that’s so beautiful that the king of the underworld says, you can have her back, but she will be following behind you as you leave the underworld. And you must not turn around and look at her until you’re safely back on earth. If you turn around and look at her, she’s ours forever.
And for some reason or another, temptation or uncertainty, he at the last moment is afraid she isn’t behind him, or for whatever reason he turns, and he turns just in time to see her being pulled back…
MOYERS: She’s lost.
ZIMMERMAN: …and gone forever. She’s lost forever.
MOYERS: She’s lost forever.
ZIMMERMAN: It’s an irredeemable moment.
MOYERS: Every breakthrough in the Middle East seems to reach that moment…
MOYERS: …somebody looks back.
ZIMMERMAN: Yes. A moment of lack of trust or lack of confidence or just panic.
MOYERS: Do you believe in original sin?
ZIMMERMAN: I don’t know. In fact, I’m not even sure I know what the term is.
MOYERS: Well, by that I mean that we’re born with some hand on our ankles, and every time we are just about to soar it pulls us back.
ZIMMERMAN: No, I think I feel like we’re born innocent. I really do. I just feel that those children are such examples of it in their absolute open heartedness. I also feel like in a couple of years they won’t be able to talk in that open way that they were just talking. They’ll be too embarrassed to cry maybe in front of each other like that. They were so unbelievably articulate about their own state, their own way they were feeling, I thought.
MOYERS: Let me show you a few scenes from METAMORPHOSES.
MOYERS: And you describe them as…
ZIMMERMAN: Describe them, okay.
MOYERS:…they come up. Yes, all right, here’s the first one.
ZIMMERMAN: Oh, this is the end of the play, and it’s a story called Baucis and Philemon, which is a story that actually occurs in a lot of cultures and is even in the Bible, a similar story where the gods come down to earth disguised as beggars and no one takes them in except really poor people.
So they take in the gods and they lay the table and make a big fuss, and then the gods reveal themselves and turn their house into a house of gold. So.
MOYERS: And this one?
ZIMMERMAN: This is just Eros and Psyche, the conclusion of it, which is not even from Ovid, it’s a later myth. But I love it so much I just had to put it in.
MOYERS: And there’s another.
ZIMMERMAN: This is Erysichthon with Hunger on his back, and Erysichthon is a man who’s very greedy and destructive, he chops down a grove that’s sacred to Ceres just because he needs the wood, he’s utilitarian.
And he’s cursed for this by having perpetual hunger inside him. And so Hunger is on his back there, and he’s trying to sort of devour the pool by eating everything up to satisfy his hunger. He eventually eats himself.
MOYERS: His own…starts with his foot.
ZIMMERMAN: His foot, yes, in our production.
MOYERS: And finally, Phaeton.
ZIMMERMAN: This is just a transitional moment into Phaeton, so those are three grace figures or muse…people in the transition. And Phaeton is the son of Apollo, but Apollo sort of doesn’t recognize him. He lives over in his hill where he goes and drives his chariot across the sky every day.
And so Phaeton wants acknowledgment that Apollo is his father. He’s being teased at school, literally, a kid named Epaphos is sort of teasing him. And his mother says, well, go make the journey and your father will acknowledge you.
He makes the long arduous journey, typical sort of epic journey, and…Apollo says, yes, you’re my son, I’ll grant you any wish you desire. And Phaeton basically says, give me the keys to your car, I want to drive the chariot across the sky today.
And the father doesn’t want to let him but he does, and he ends up destroying everything. It’s a kind of painful myth, I think, for us these days, because we like to think we can leave our children and they’ll be okay, because we’re seeing them on weekends and stuff? But this father-less son doesn’t ever quite mature. He never is quite ready to be a grown up because his father has ignored him. And it leads to great…terrible disastrous consequences.
MOYERS: That’s one of the oldest stories 2,000, at least…
MOYERS: …2,000 years old, and yet you set it in Hollywood…on a psychiatrist’s couch.
MOYERS: Only a Hollywood producer or a broadcast journalist would entertain…neurosis like that.
ZIMMERMAN: I thought you meant only a hogway…a Hollywood producer or journalist would have a therapy session in his swimming pool, because there’s no real indication it’s Hollywood but I understand why you…I guess the sunglasses and the swimming pool make it that.
MOYERS: How do you explain their power to transform? One of my colleagues went to the play last evening, came out and said, I laughed, I cried, but I felt transformed. And several of the other people out in the audience, in our audience, said, we did too, we’ve been there, we feel transformed when we leave.
I’m not so…I’m not sure what that…what causes that, but there is something about these stories being so ancient. And they have something to say because they are so ancient that help you take the long view.
MOYERS: This play was in rehearsals during the World Trade Center attack.
ZIMMERMAN: Yes, it was. We were in rehearsal September 11th and we went into technical rehearsals on the 13th. And you know, it felt sort of strange going in to rehearse a play at that time, but on the other hand, the play suddenly had all of these very profound resonances.
There are at least two stories in the play where someone goes away, off to work basically, and is suddenly taken from the earth — just destroyed. And I remember on our first public performance, which was the 18th, just sort of shaking and trembling off stage about showing this and dragging the audience through this story, including the dying prayer of a man saying, I only pray my body is found. Just let my body be found.
MOYERS: Not added…
ZIMMERMAN: And I was just shaking.
MOYERS: …not added after 9/11.
ZIMMERMAN: No. Nothing. Not a line was changed.
ZIMMERMAN: Not a line was changed.
And I didn’t know the proximity in the…the people in the audience’s proximity to the event.
ZIMMERMAN: And yet I just had to sort of accept finally that catharsis and the way people talk about it being dragged through pity and terror is a real thing.
MOYERS: They’re changed by it.
ZIMMERMAN: It does.
MOYERS: We’re changed by it.
ZIMMERMAN: It does. It releases something in us and it lightens us.
And the line that has become the most important to me in the play that was never important really before, is in the final minutes, Baucis and Philemon where this poor couple are setting the table for the gods and they’re bringing out all this different food, and there’s a moment where one of the actors brings out a basket of apples and someone says, remember how apples smell?
And then everyone pauses and remembers. And that’s a very, very important line to me right now, because there’s a lot of rhetoric about how everything is changed, nothing will be the same, everything is different, we can’t go back, everything is lost, it’s all different, everything is over and done with.
But the natural world — the smell of apples — to me remains innocent. Don’t lose sight of the fact that there is still beauty in the world, and there is still love in the world, and these simple pleasures in the world, which are indelible.
MOYERS: But it’s hard to go there…
MOYERS: …and see the play as you wrote it because of 9/11.
MOYERS: I can’t even listen to the 23rd Psalm in the same way.
MOYERS: It sounds different, you know, Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…
ZIMMERMAN: Yes it does.
MOYERS: And the moment I reach that point the abyss of the World Trade Center appears in my mind.
ZIMMERMAN: Yes. But you know, there was poem that appeared on the back page of THE NEW YORKER, their first issue after that, Try and Praise the Mutilated World. And that poem to me is I think what I’m always seeking, maybe the world is mutilated, maybe there is original sin.
But there’s also this joyfulness in it. And just even in your piece with the children, seeing those boys be boys and like wrestling with each other the way boys like to do, is so enormously affirming and thrilling, even if it’s just a moment, you know, in the darkness.
MOYERS: You make me think, I had not asked B.Z. Goldberg, the filmmaker, why he called it Promises, but this must be why he called it…
MOYERS: …Prom — …there is that glint.
ZIMMERMAN: Yes. There’s a promise of youth and of innocence and childhood in that story.
MOYERS: Whose line is it in your play, let me step out of my…
ZIMMERMAN: Oh, out of my own heart.
MOYERS: Out of my own heart.
ZIMMERMAN: Oh, gods, I pray you change me, transform me entirely, let me step out of my own heart.
I actually wrote that line, let me step out of my own heart. And it’s partly because when I first made this play I was sort of undergoing some personal transformation in my life. I had lived with the same fella from the age of 20 to 37, and he was leaving me.
And it was so devastating to me, and change felt so soul destroying and fear…you know, I was so frightened of what was going to come. And I couldn’t sort of stand the state I was in; I wanted to be through it — through the moment of…the moment of metamorphoses is so excruciating but then it can produce something new, you know.
MOYERS: The birth.
ZIMMERMAN: Yes. Something the world has created through these horrible changes. And I don’t mean that particularly from the World Trade Center, but if you take the long view, we’ve suffered incredible disasters and transforming events, and yet story goes on, narrative goes on. That’s kind of the big message of METAMORPHOSES, I think, is it tells stories in a bunch of different ways…
ZIMMERMAN: And so a kind of subtext of it is, we’ve always liked to tell stories, and stories keep continuing, and narrative always continues. Even though we die, these stories continue and sort of ties together.
MOYERS: So many people with whom I’ve talked, their favorite story is Alcyon and…
ZIMMERMAN: Ceyx? Yes.
MOYERS: Ceyx. Tell me that story.
ZIMMERMAN: Well, in that story, and this is one that seemed to have a lot of resonance.
Alcyon and Ceyx live, it says, in a monotony of happiness. In other words, an unchanging kind of life, you know? And then one day Ceyx just gets it into his head to take a sea voyage to consult an oracle.
And Alcyon has a premonition about it, I don’t like you going on the sea, it’s dangerous. And he’s like, what are you talking about? It’s just a little trip, I’ll be back soon.
He sails off and before you know it he’s just, a terrible storm comes up and drowns him. And as he’s drowning he makes a prayer to the gods, just let my body be found.
So then we sort of cut back to poor Alcyon, and I have her sleeping by the shore waiting for him to come home. And the gods take pity on her and send her a dream of her husband who says…
And this is so wrenching in light of, you know, recent events. Your prayers have done no good, for I am gone beyond all help or hope forever. And he says, get up from your bed and put on your mourning clothes. And then he disappears and she wakes up and searches the shore for him, and he’s not there, but then his body comes up.
And then in a very…you know, his body comes to the shore, his dead body. And in a very unusual moment I think in any myth — it’s rare for this to happen — she starts to run towards him and in her agony she turns into a bird…
ZIMMERMAN: …that’s not the rare part. The rare part is that he is resurrected and turns into a bird as well.
And then they fly off together. And then it talks about how for seven days each year there’s a calm on the ocean because these birds like to build their nests on the waters, and that at that time Alcyon’s father, who is the king of the winds, keeps the winds short reined so everything is calm. And it says, and these are the days we call the halcyon days, which is an example of myths for the earliest form of science, it’s a sort of explanation of why there’s this regular period of calm in a certain season.
MOYERS: None of us believe that, and yet to some…what’s the comfort in it?
ZIMMERMAN: Well, you know, I think in a certain way we do believe it though, that even in a scientific way everything can be turned…Leonardo says, everything can be turned into everything else.
And that some part of us does go on, some spirit does go on. And just a vision of the birds by the shore, to think that they were once people is a really sweet vision. And you can believe. I mean, it’s a suspension of disbelief, that’s what the theater is.
And the whole play works that way, because it’s really a single set and you’ve got to pretend these people are gods and goddesses, and that they’re birds and all they’re doing is sort of moving their arms like children would. And so you’re already in this sort of enchanted realm where you’re vulnerable and giving over.
And so it makes it easy to enter the heart and to believe in greater change as well, not just the little magical enchantment of the theater but that we all can transform.
MOYERS: Is that the reason for your line, let me step out of my own heart?
ZIMMERMAN: Yes, I mean, I do think that…I mean, that story in particular when I first was engaged with it, seemed like the most tragic thing ever, and now it doesn’t at all. It seems like a beautiful thing, it seems like a necessary thing.
It seems to me that that couple was a little too interwoven with itself, like a little too much lost in each other, not individuated enough, not able to manage a day without each other. But now as birds they’re freer, they have more independence and yet they’re always a team. It’s a more mature relationship when they’re birds.
MOYERS: METAMORPHOSES just seems like such an appropriate play for a time, thinking of those children again in Israel and Palestine, when God has no answers.
ZIMMERMAN: Yes, well, there’s lots of gods in METAMORPHOSES, and the Greek gods I believe are 12 different names for feelings inside ourselves.
So there are moments when you’re being governed by Aphrodite, she’s chairing the meeting of all the different parts of your personality. There are moments when you are governed by Zeus, when you’re in a kind of authoritative position and you’re very reasonable.
There are moments when you’re being governed by Mars and you’re crazy angry. But all those different parts exist inside us; it’s just sort of who’s chairing the meeting at different times. You know, who’s really got the upper hand at that moment.
MOYERS: How did you come to love these stories?
ZIMMERMAN: I’ll tell you, I read Edith Hamilton’s MYTHOLOGY when I was a child…
MOYERS: So did I.
ZIMMERMAN: …and yes, those little pen and ink drawings are engraved on my heart.
And that’s the reason in a way Eros and Psyche is in the story because I so have the memory of this picture of Psyche with the parted curtain holding up the oil lamp looking down at Eros.
And I knew as a child that, I thought they were sort of fairy tales but on the other hand they’re not, they’re very adult, they have adult sexual content, they have very dark content. They don’t have happy endings a lot of the time, tragic things happen. They had just a tremendous power over me as a child.
Also I was read THE ODYSSEY when I was living in England when I was a little girl, and I thought myself to be in exile away from my homeland of Nebraska. And our teacher read us THE ODYSSEY every afternoon, and I was just absolutely transfixed by that.
MOYERS: In your story of Cupid and Psyche, and I’ll quote from it…
MOYERS: The narrator philosophizes on happy endings. You mentioned happy endings.
MOYERS: Quote, it’s just inevitable. The soul wanders in the dark until it finds love. And so wherever our love goes there goes our soul. If we’re lucky and if we let ourselves be blind…
MOYERS: …instead of always watching out.
ZIMMERMAN: Yes. That has very personal meaning for me. Those ideas are a lot drawn from James Hillman writing on the figure of Eros.
MOYERS: The Jungian scholar.
ZIMMERMAN: Yes, the Jungian scholar, protege. But I guess I feel that I believe in that sort of idea that there’s another I, that love operates from a sort of internal I, but that we’re often fooled by appearances. It’s the Beauty and the Beast story, too, you know.
And I just have faith that if you allow yourself to be trusting, to sort of forget about your past hurts, your past wounds, that’s the chance at which you will find love.
And that story remains always mysterious to me. Their names are Eros, which means love, and Psyche, which means the soul. Why is it forbidden for the soul to look directly on love? Like, why should that be…and it’s the myth that feels like it has the most urgent symbolic content and yet it remains elusive to me.
And part of it I think is it actually…she’s forbidden until she has gone through some kind of maturation. She had to go through all these tasks and sort seeds one from the other, and go to the underworld. She had to go on a whole little epic journey and then she can live with Eros. But before that when she’s untrusting, when she’s believing her sisters, what they say, like, it’s not going to work out somehow. She has to grow up.
MOYERS: How do you think you have changed? Metamorphoses is…
MOYERS: …just so much, but how have you changed most from the time you were growing up in Nebraska?
ZIMMERMAN: Oh, from the time I was growing up in Nebraska!
MOYERS: What’s the…
ZIMMERMAN: I hope I’ve returned to how I was when I was growing up in Nebraska. Again, Willa Cather said I’ll never be the artist I was as a child. And I really love that idea that like when you’re a child and you don’t have much, you’re so purely imaginative. And I like the idea of going back to that aesthetic, you know, to like just making things up and making do.
I’m different, though, I guess. I mean, although I do still read as many books. I’m not that different.
MOYERS: Since the tragedy…since 9/11…
MOYERS: And seeing films like the one we just saw from Israel and Palestine, do you still think love is real? Do you still think there are happy endings to be embraced?
ZIMMERMAN: I do. I think we can’t lose sight of that dream. I think that dream guides us even if it’s not finally attainable. I think it brings it out the best in us. I mean, I don’t think…I think if you’re in love with the wrong person or you’re just kind of crazy, then no, I don’t believe in love no matter what the cost.
But I do think that there are people who find commonality and are sort of meant for each other, whatever, and make it work. Yes, I do believe in it. I do.
MOYERS: What do you believe about death now, because we were talking earlier…
MOYERS: …that life comes out of the ordeal of the mother’s pain and travail, and to…
MOYERS: …a new life.
What about death? What do you think happens at death?
ZIMMERMAN: Well, I’ll tell you, I don’t know what happens at the moment of it, of course, but I have a friend who very simply said, why does everyone ask us what’s life after death like, what’s death like?
We already know what it’s like, we’ve been there. We were dead before we were born. It’s just like that.
MOYERS: That great…out of that great unconsciousness, right?
ZIMMERMAN: Yes, exactly.
MOYERS: In the playbill you acknowledge your debt to Joseph Campbell.
MOYERS: And one of the great scholars …students of mythology.
MOYERS: Campbell once told me once the secret cause of all suffering is mortality. I mean, that we are here and we suffer.
ZIMMERMAN: Then the consciousness of mortality, the fact that we know we’re going to die…if we didn’t know that, then maybe that wouldn’t be the problem in the way that I’m not sure animals know it.
But the fact that we know it and that frightens us and we’re impermanent and that scares us and it’s just…it’s difficult and that loss is part of our life, growing older, that’s what these myths are really about, is that life equals change, it equals loss. And you have to embrace it. You have to sort of go with it.
MOYERS: Thank you, Mary Zimmermann. Thank you for your stories.
ZIMMERMAN: Thank you very much.
NARRATOR: Now a look a stories coming up on NPR radio this weekend.
JACKIE LYDEN: Hi, I’m Jackie Lyden of NPR news.
This weekend on all things considered, a portal in cyberspace opens the door to a hidden world.
Muslim women find their rights under Islam are perhaps more liberal during the time of the prophets than they are today.
They say Islamic tradition gives them the right to be entrepreneurs.
Women and Islam and cyberspace, this weekend on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, on your local public radio station.
MOYERS: Tell us what you think about the ideas you heard, and the myths that matter to you.
Go to pbs.org.
That’s it for tonight.
For NOW, I’m Bill Moyers.
That’s it for tonight. For NOW, I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on March 27, 2015.