Sayed Kashua is a satirist, columnist, novelist, screenwriter, and a household name—in Israeli, not American, homes. Kashua is an Israeli Palestinian, a citizen of Israel who feels, like many non-Jews in that country, like a stranger in his own land.
He grew up with his parents, siblings, and grandmother in Tira, a Palestinian village that lies within the borders of Israel. He writes a humorous weekly column for Haaretz, a leading Israeli newspaper in which he discusses, often ironically, issues of identity and the Arab-Israeli conflict, as well as his personal life with his wife and kids. Recently, I was able to see him speak during his U.S. tour, and I learned about some of the beliefs underlying this writer’s work.
The “fear” of a novel
Kashua has written three novels so far, all of which have been translated into English. When he writes fiction, he is “looking for the smell of a novel—some people would call it the ‘theme’ of the novel.” That smell, that theme, is often fear, he said: “It’s a fear that I want to deal with.” For a writer like Kashua, there is much to be feared. His accented Hebrew has marked him as an outsider since he learned to speak it, and though he is well-known today, he continues to draw on that alienation and desire to be accepted when he writes.
As a child, he sneaked into his grandmother’s room every night because he was scared of sleeping alone. The result was years of listening to her stories. She told him about the land her family owned and the war that stripped them of it. She spoke, without venom or hatred of the Jews, of the work she had to get to support her family once the state of Israel was formed and their rights were reduced. Kashua’s own knack for storytelling, both fiction and nonfiction, seems to stem from these early experiences.
Based on a true story
His first novel, Dancing Arabs, is semi-autobiographical, and focuses on his grandmother’s generation and their experience of al-Naqba, what Palestinians call “The Catastrophe,” which was the declaration of Israel’s independence and the subsequent displacement of countless Arabs from their houses and villages. The novel also fictionalizes Kashua’s adolescence, when he was the only Palestinian boy attending a Jewish boarding school in Jerusalem.
When he entered Israeli-Jewish society, Kashua quickly learned that he stuck out because he “looked like an Arab.” When he traveled to Jerusalem for his first day at his boarding school, the bus was stopped and an Israeli soldier got on and looked around. He beckoned to the young Kashua and made him get off the bus. Kashua watched the bus leave, panicking. His father hadn’t warned him about this. The soldier demanded ID, which he did not have. Soldiers in Israel are young, usually between 18 and 21, and when Kashua began sobbing, the soldier wasn’t equipped to handle it. Alarmed at having a crying boy on his hands, he calmed Kashua down, explained that the bus would pick him up again in a few minutes, and told him to get an ID card as soon as possible.
Kashua longed to fit in at his school, but he was made the butt of jokes for his clothes, his pink frilly sheets, and his lack of familiarity with the Beatles. When Kashua came home for the weekend, he told his parents he wouldn’t go back unless they got him new clothes from a Jewish-Israeli store. His parents wanted him to succeed, to become a doctor or a lawyer, and they agreed. On his next ride from Tira to Jerusalem, Kashua passed the test: The soldier who got on the bus didn’t pick him out of the crowd.
“Addressing the Israelis”
Kashua grew up speaking a regional dialect of Arabic, though he writes in Hebrew. “I’m addressing the Israelis,” he says. “I’m addressing the Hebrew-speakers.” He is not interested in preaching to the choir. He wants to influence people who do not understand his experience and that of a million other Palestinian-Israeli citizens. Kashua doesn’t shy away from controversial topics, and it is clear that he uses his own experiences as inspiration. In his fiction, he acknowledges the Palestinian-Israeli’s desire to fit into the mainstream Israeli society. His third novel, Second Person Singular, depicts a young Arab man committing identity theft and passing as a Jew.
In addition to his novels and column, Kashua created and writes the internationally successful television show Arab Labor, which is currently shooting a fifth season with an entirely new format. The first four seasons portrayed the family of Arab-Israelis living and working in Jerusalem, riffing on Israeli culture and Arab culture, the clashes between them, and the humanity they share. The new season will step out of itself to become quite meta: A fictional screenwriter character will appear at an Israeli awards ceremony and receive a prize for the show Arab Labor. The show will then go on to chronicle the life of that fictional screenwriter, who is based on, but not identical to, Kashua himself.
Kashua is proud to have proven that, even in Israel, “it’s possible to bring an Arab family to primetime TV.” The show is extremely relevant to Israeli politics, but is also bitingly satirical. Kashua’s way of going about his work stems directly from Oscar Wilde: “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”
Kashua is moving to the U.S. this fall to take up a teaching position at the University of Illinois. “I need a break from Israel, I guess,” he said. He wants to show his children another way of living, in which their ethnicity is not so closely scrutinized. He is scared of the temptation the U.S. poses, knowing it could be easier to live here than in Israel, where constant conflict is the norm. The struggle for certain parcels of land, which both Jews and Muslims deem important, has been raging for decades. Israel declared itself a Jewish state from the get-go, so the rising number of Muslims in the country is a cause of concern for the government and many, though not all, Jewish citizens. The nationalist ideologies of both sides continue to provide areas of contention which often spark violence.
While in the States, Kashua will also be writing his next novel, which has been germinating in his head for the past year. Currently, he believes the main character will be a biographer. Not of celebrities or well-known personalities, but of dying men and women who hire him to preserve their life story. Kashua’s talent for humor and pathos promises that he can pull this off.