It sucks to be an Arab in Israel. It’s controversial to say that for whatever reason, but it’s true, and no one says it better than Sayed Kashua, an Arab citizen of Israel who writes in Hebrew.
Kashua is a sad clown, or a funny depressed person, who can’t help but find the humor in unjust situations, the beauty in the hideous. His work is autobiographical, and it’s a window into the lives of Israeli Arabs and their problems. As a writer, he lives controversially between Hebrew, the language he writes in, and Arabic, his native language. This stutter-step existence makes Kashua both a greased pig and a boon for literary critics in search of complication. He’s written three novels, four seasons of a prime time Israeli TV series (Arab Labor), and almost ten years’ of weekly columns for Ha’aretz. His voice is more important now than ever.
Last Tuesday Kashua spoke at Wellesley College. He screened an episode of his hit TV show Arab Labor, talked for a bit and fielded some questions from the audience.
The Episode…Out-Jewing the Jew…Get me out of here!
The episode was entitled “Reality” and featured a show within a show. Arab Labor’s main character, Amjad ‘Alian, is asked politely to “disappear” by a neighbor who can’t sell his apartment because an Arab family—Amjad’s—lives in the building. Amjad decides that he has to show the world that it’s possible for Arabs and Jews to live together under the same roof, and he wins a spot on the Israeli spinoff of the reality show Big Brother. His challenge as a contestant is to disguise his Arab identity by pretending to be “Daniel Epstein,” an Ashkenazi Jewish Israeli. The other contestants’ task is to find the Arab among them. As Amjad plays a very convincing Danny Epstein, Itzhik—a loud, rude, Turkish-coffee-drinking, maqlubah-cooking, Mizrahi-music-loving contestant—annoys the rest of the contestants so much that they suspect Itzhik of being the Arab.
While the Jewish Israeli contestants project their disparaging views of Arabs onto Itzhik (“respect them but suspect them”; “they thrive on kissing up”; “he smelled like a campfire”), Amjad invents a Jewish Israeli life story to convince his fellow contestants of his Jewish Israeli-ness: Danny spent his first two years in Kibbutz Bar‘am. Because his father, Nahche, worked for the Foreign Ministry, the family moved to Albania when Danny was 2—thus the accent. Military service was sacred in his family, Amjad/Danny recounts, so when he turned 18, he returned to Israel to join the Nahal Brigade as a paratrooper. While Amjad feeds the Jewish Israeli contestants the Danny story, they roll their eyes at Itzhik as he dances, sings and drinks his coffee with cardamom—in short, acts like an Arab.
The contestants are nice to Itzhik’s face but talk about him behind his back. Amjad feels for him and gives him some advice:
“I know how a person in your situation has to act. Believe me…Try to disappear. Don’t stand out. Also, don’t always put your two cents in…try to go with the flow, try to pamper them, to help, to be positive about things…You must stop being so suspicious all the time. Try not to be. When you’re not there, they don’t notice you.”
Amjad urges Itzhik to do something he loves—to cook!—for the others, so Itzhik cooks maqlubah (a traditional Arab dish) for the contestants’ first Shabbat meal. On Shabbat, identities clash. Itzhik insists on reciting the kiddush, and one of the contestants is affronted that an Arab would try so hard to be Jewish that he would put on a kippah and bless the food. Itzhik then realizes that everyone think he’s the Arab and loses his temper, throwing silverware and screaming “Are you all insane? I’m an Arab?!”
Now that the contestants know Itzhik’s not the Arab, who is? We hear the name “Daniel Epstein” being called from offstage, and Amjad rushes out to the yard to find his father in a helicopter. “Get me out of here!” Amjad yells. Abu Amjad curses his son for the trouble he’s caused him back in the neighborhood, throws a shoe at him, then a rope-ladder, and saves the day.
Like Amjad, Sayed Kashua can pass as a Jewish Israeli. Like Amjad, Kashua up and left—he now teaches Hebrew at the University of Illinois’ Israel Studies program. Kashua explained that after Israel’s Gaza operation last summer and three Jewish Israelis’ immolation of a Palestinian boy, Jerusalem’s streets filled with Jewish Israelis shouting “Death to the Arabs!” As Israeli Arabs in West Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood, Kashua’s family were vastly outnumbered by Jewish Israelis and accordingly easy to target. They lay low and fled to his hometown of Tira for ten days before their end-of-summer flight to Illinois.
The lecture after the screening was more of a ramble. At first Kashua didn’t know where to sit, whether to sit or what to do with his hands. He ended up standing behind a chair for a while, tilting it towards himself and leaning over it, rocking back and forth. Finally he sat down.
Kashua began by telling us that writing the episode had brought him to tears at various points—especially when he wrote Itzhik yelling “I’m an Arab?!”—but that he’s brought to tears nearly every day now because he lives in Champaign, Illinois. Everybody laughed.
He talked about his new life in the US—it’s really not so bad—and how he instructed his children to tell people they are from Jerusalem and to let their interlocutor decide whether they are from Israel or Palestine.
His daughter’s ninth-grade biology teacher recently asked her where she was from. Ever the dutiful daughter, she said “Jerusalem.”
“I’m Jewish too!” he exclaimed. At the parent-teacher meeting, the same biology teacher tried to impress Sayed, the Israeli, with what little he knew about Hebrew and Israel, oblivious to the fact that Kashua is not Jewish. Everybody laughed at this too.
Why do they like him?
One of the young women charged with preparing questions asked Kashua why he is so well received in Israel. Why do Jewish Israelis like him so much?
Kashua’s aim in creating the show, he said, was to portray an Arab family and to humanize them through humor. He then noted that he was actually not so well received by Israel’s Arab community, many of whom accused his show of having a hidden agenda. Still, Kashua wondered how many Jewish Israelis actually thought they were watching a representative Israeli Arab family and not one made up for the screen.
As optimistic as some aspects of the show are—the marriage of Meir, a Jewish Israeli friend of Amjad’s, and Amal, a Muslim Palestinian friend of Amjad’s wife—those same situations wouldn’t stand up in contemporary Israeli society. For example, Kashua continued, Meir and Amal have a baby. How should they raise him? But then, Meir’s and Amal’s child instinctively likes Farid al-Atrash songs and hummus, shooing away all the painful questions with laughter.
So, why do they like him? Kashua seems to answer that it’s because he writes well and he’s funny. It could also be because he confronts a contradiction—that of living in a state that claims to be both Jewish and democratic—without really challenging it.
His audience…Israel Arab criticism…Arabs don’t read much
The other young woman asked him who his audience was. In terms of novels, Kashua said, anyone with fifty shekels to buy a book. But because he had sort of answered that question already—Jewish Israelis—he took the opportunity to speak about the show’s reception by Israeli Arabs, who criticized the show for the Arab characters’ use of Hebrew. Why couldn’t the Arab characters speak only Arabic? his Arab critics asked.
But is the Arab characters’ choice of language actually unrealistic? After all, Amjad and his wife speak Arabic to Amjad’s parents and at home. They speak Hebrew to Jewish Israelis or to each other when they want to hide something from their daughter, but that’s normal for bilingual parents. They sometimes pepper their Arabic with Hebrew words grown familiar from use, like hagorah (seatbelt) or beituah le’umi (national healthcare). So if the show were entirely in Arabic, said Kashua, he would have no audience.
The irony of ironies is that if he wrote his novels in Arabic, neither Jewish Israelis nor Israeli Arabs would read his books. In order to reach an Israeli Arab audience, Kashua had to write in Hebrew. There’s no market for Arabic books in Israel’s Arab community, he said. Even though Israeli Arabs constitute twenty percent of Israel’s population at about 1.5 million people, there are at most six Arabic language bookstores in Israel and no Arabic publishing houses. The last Arabic book he bought, he recalled, was in a butcher shop in Beit Safafa. But if there are no legal or institutional barriers to entry in Arabic publishing, why is there no investment in it? He said he didn’t know.
But he surmised. Political correctness behind him, Kashua said that there’s just not much interest—Arabs don’t read much in Arabic or in Hebrew. There was no public library in his hometown of Tira, and the first library he ever saw was at the Jewish boarding school he attended for high school. His first publisher told him that, once his debut novel was translated into Arabic, to sell ten thousand copies in the entire Arab world would be considered a success. In Israel alone it sold 80,000. Kashua added that because of Arabs’ lack of interest in reading and the absence of a book market in the Arab world, Arab writers actually have to compensate their publishers in Beirut, Cairo or Amman for the costs of publishing.
The future…His future…Discrimination here and there
The young women’s questions had been markedly literary. But the first question to come from the audience was political: What kind of future did Kashua envision for Israel/Palestine? What kind of future did he hope for?
Kashua said he hoped for one binational state but cautioned that that would never happen with Netanyahu in power. Kashua elaborated by addressing one of the problems facing Israeli Arabs: borders. Israel has no fixed borders, and Avigdor Lieberman’s plan to redraw (or just “draw”) Israel’s borders would transfer 300,000 Arab citizens of Israel to a Palestinian state with the stoke of a pen. But most Palestinians, Kashua averred, don’t want to be part of a Palestinian state. They want to be Israeli citizens! They want government health care! Also, where, exactly, would the Palestinian state exist? Where would its capital be, and what would its economy rely on? Even if it were independent in name, it would probably be under constant siege and occupation. And who’s to say it wouldn’t become as crowded and violent as Israeli Arab towns, which aren’t allowed to expand—only grow in on themselves—because the Israeli government confiscated villagers’ suburban land following the ’48 war? And he didn’t even mention settlements.
Kashua believes that his future is here in the United States. He wants his children to have opportunities equal to others’ and marveled at the makeup of his daughter’s high school class—Muslims, Christians and Jews, whites, blacks, South Asians and the children of a Japanese coworker at the University of Illinois. In Israel, such diversity would either not exist or be a big problem, he said. In Israel, Arabs are routinely and casually discriminated against. In the US, at least they discriminate according to your bank account. The audience chuckled.
Just joking, but not really…An Arab Uncle Tom
After some uncomfortable fact—Israelis are racists—we get some comic relief—Americans are classists! So it’s all okay. This is classic Kashua, irony at its most desperate. It’s even how he began his talk, telling the audience that he cried several times while he wrote the episode—boo-hoo—but that he cries now because he lives in the flat, corny Midwest—ha-ha. He is a master of masking an uncomfortable reality with a good laugh because, to him, there is no changing the reality.
Inside the prison it must be to be an Israeli Arab, Kashua has learned how to be a Jewish Israeli. And like Uncle Toms with their insincere smiles or too-hearty laughs, Kashua’s characters know how to make Jewish Israelis feel better. In the episode that preceded the discussion, the un-self-conscious Mizrahi Jew, Itzhik, whom everyone assumes is the Arab, gets advice from the too-self-conscious Israeli Arab, Amjad, who has out-Jewish Israeli-ed the Jewish Israelis. Amjad knows more about how to be one and how to make them happy than Itzhik does partly because Amjad is not one. Amjad’s perspective is clearer from the outside.
I can think of a few situations parallel to Amjad’s in the United States. In addition to Uncle Tom, Amjad reminds me of Alvy Singer, the hero of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. Singer is funny, refined and eager to be accepted, but he’s troubled because he does not fit in. Remember the scene where Alvy meets Annie’s family? Singer can know the Great American Songbook back to front, appreciate Modigliani, quote Strindberg and have read Joyce, but he can never totally fit in. Or so the movie seems to say.
Likewise, Kashua can have grown up in Israel, have attended a Jewish boarding school, have read Agnon, Brenner, Bialik, Oz, Grossman, call Etgar Keret a friend and work with Daniel Paran and Eran Riklis. He can live in a Jewish neighborhood, send his kids to Jewish schools and write his columns in Hebrew. But, Kashua says, he can still be told by a Jewish American first-time visitor to Israel that his connection to the Land is not strong, or at least not as strong as that Jewish American’s. Because he is not Jewish, production assistants he’s never met can come up to him and pontificate about how Israel has to “bomb the hell out of them, one by one.”
It’s painful when someone is not loved because of some innate trait. I find it even more painful when that hate is internalized because of society or the dominant ideology or whatever you want to call it. That someone does not (or cannot) love herself because of what she’s taught implicitly or explicitly. White Americans couldn’t simply love Alvy Singer’s character, but they could love him in spite of the fact that he’s Jewish, Allen suggests. And Alvy Singer doesn’t even love himself. Could his self-hate stem from the fact that he can be loved and accepted only in spite of himself?
Kashua’s autobiographical main characters are often presented in spite of the fact that they’re Muslim Arab men. Amjad is a Hebrew-language journalist who lives in Rehavia, eats schnitzels and sends his kids to a Jewish school, but he’s a Muslim Arab. The same ironic humor/self-hate combo shines through the Black Star album (“Thieves in the Night”), Junot Diaz’ short stories (Drown), Tyler the Creator’s or Das Racist’s raps, Chappelle’s Show or the odd Key & Peele sketch. Just as these artists are often loved in spite of themselves, Sayed Kashua is loved in spite of himself.
I don’t think humor can change reality, and I don’t think that Arabs and Jews can live under the same roof right now. And for better or worse, Sayed Kashua is not interested in solving problems. He’s interested in portraying an Arab family. And if he lives an “in spite of” existence, his work lacks spite. He empathizes just as much with the Jewish Israeli, born in Israel with no second passport, as he does with the Palestinian refugee—whose house that Israeli’s grandparents may have taken—sitting unemployed in southern Lebanon for the last sixty years.
Last August NPR quoted US writer Junot Díaz on the predominantly white US publishing industry’s inhibiting a more diverse book market: “uncomfortable, awkward, stumbling dialogues are absolutely necessary. No matter what their flaws, they’re better than…utter, agonizing silence.” These uncomfortable, awkward, stumbling dialogues need to happen everywhere. Kashua, with his command of Hebrew and gift for storytelling, has brought one such dialogue to the fore.