The sand and the sea

Thursday, 2018-02-15 09:43:21
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What we know is but a single grain of sand compared to the vast ocean of the unknown.
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I met Etgar Keret when we were attending an international writing camp. He is considered a master among writers of contemporary Israeli short stories, best known for The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God And Other Stories.

He and I were quite fond of each other because we were the same age, had the same liking for martial arts, and we were usually placed in the same group of countries with a history of considerable war experience at workshops and seminars.

At the end of the writing camp, Etgar and I promised each other that we would meet again soon, but it was something of an empty promise because he lives in Tel Aviv while I live in Hanoi, a distance so huge that no-one knows when we could actually meet!

More than ten years later, I stumbled upon a piece of news about the upcoming launch of a Vietnamese translation of a book titled Suddenly, a Knock on the Door by some Keret at the Goethe Institut in Hanoi. I immediately thought of him and decided to attend the event. No sooner than I had stepped into the event hall, Etgar stood up and embraced me with the warmth of old friendship.

The next day, I took him around the capital city and in the late morning we stopped at Sword Lake, which is near my office. With curiosity, he looked at The Huc Bridge and the couplets at the gate of Ngoc Son Temple. I showed him the Tower of the Writing Brush and explained its significance to him.

Etgar suddenly asked me “Do you know why the Hebrew script is written from right to left?” I was dumbfounded and asked myself why I had never thought of this before. Etgar explained to me that up to now the Hebrew script has never gone beyond the scope of the Tanakh or the Hebrew Bible, which dates back more than 2,500 years.

In the past when pen and paper were not yet invented, the scripture was inscribed on stone. With his left hand holding a chisel and his right hand a hammer, the artisan moved the chisel from right to left, which was the most convenient direction. That is why the Hebrew script is written from right to left, in contrast with most other scripts.

Hearing Etgar’s explanation, I instantly thought of how Chinese characters are written in the same direction, from right to left. The only difference is that the characters are written vertically. The origin of this writing order is perhaps the same as that of the Hebrew script, which was created by craftsmen who inscribed the characters upon stones.

Then a new question occurred to me as to why Latin-based and Slavic alphabets are written from left to right and why people do not use the left hand to write such scripts, rather than the right hand as most people do today. There must be some reason which we are yet to realise.

In life there are many simple things that we often take for granted but in fact are puzzling questions. What we know is but a single grain of sand compared to the vast ocean of the unknown.

In my humble opinion, script is an extraordinary intellectual product of mankind and has made enormous contributions to human civilisation. Joining letters according to distinctive rules, script is the manifestation of sounds used to express and store all information from scientific knowledge to philosophical writings and poetry.

Some say that the scripts we know today are just a fraction of the unexplored treasure trove of boundless methods of recording sounds that are sufficient to meet the demand of language development in the future in concert with the development of human society.

A script is the writers’ means of creation and as a way to express gratitude to script, the writers make every effort to enrich the language. I once told Etgar that the scripts can be compared to a fistful of sand, when we hold them tightly, they will slip away. But when we hold them in our hands with care, they will remain. We can write in different directions and in different languages, but if the friendship between writers is treasured, it will never wane over any time or distance. There are always sand banks waiting for the waves of the sea to carry them away to the ocean of beautiful life together.