Swords into Plowshares: Hajaya tells Kerry how to use Middle East chaos

Bedouin poet Muhammad al-Hajaya entreats US Secretary of State John Kerry to work fast to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and establish a Palestinian state. 

When I found out that US Secretary of State John Kerry was giving a talk to Harvard students at the Belfer Center today, I told Bedouin poet Muhammad al-Hajaya, whom I’d just translated a poem about Kerry with, and urged him to write Kerry a poem. Hajaya asked me what he should write about, and I told him the first thing that came to my mind: urge Kerry to use the chaos in the Middle East to create a Palestinian state. Now, I had no idea how Kerry would do that or what justification Hajaya would give Kerry to do that. But Hajaya ran with it, and the poem below is what we have—a treasury of popular Arab political analysis, with all its donkeys and admonitions and balls of dough.

John Kerry
Source: Watchdog News

Hajaya chose the word for evil, sharr, as this poem’s unifying word: Dickens-like, Hajaya recalls evils past, present, and future if Kerry doesn’t act fast to establish a Palestinian state. The words that follow “evil” in the rhyme scheme—secret, lose, grow, free, gladden—are full of associations made only if you hear them all rhyme together. Or take the rhyming words in the second hemistichs (halves of the lines): defeat, ministry, skill, bitterness, path, decision, loss, business, worthiness, civilization. Hajaya is not dealing with petty issues—this is a poem of kings and armies and the fate of the world!

So you’re saying there’s a chance!

Hajaya, as I’ve written elsewhere, has unwavering faith in his poetry’s power to sway political leaders. After Hajaya and I translated this poem, he asked me to read it aloud to Kerry at the event. Kerry might not think much of it then, Hajaya said. But Kerry might, say, recall the poem before he fell asleep, be influenced, and work to change things.

For Hajaya’s sake, I emailed the Belfer Center and asked if I could read Secretary Kerry the poem during the Q&A and ask a follow-up question or, barring that, have a copy delivered to him. The Belfer Center’s answer was a categorical no.

I don’t fault the Belfer Center for not wanting a poem by a Bedouin tribesman from a village in southern Jordan to be read at their event. The irony is, though, that if anyone deserves a direct line to Kerry, if anyone deserves to be heard out tonight in a “conversation about Iran, Russia, Syria, and the world,” it is this Bedouin poet from southern Jordan, the voice of disenfranchised, marginalized Sunni Arabs, many of whom are so fed up with the Arab world’s divisions and defeats that they’re joining ISIS out of desperation.

Muhammad al-Hajaya
Muhammad al-Hajaya performs before King Abdullah II on Jordan’s 65th Independence Day / Source: Petra News

The Middle East’s Evil

Another aspect of the evil that ties this poem together is the evil that’s tearing the Arab world apart. Apart from the Arabs’ division into 22 countries, each one of those countries has internal divisions such that building Arab power is impossible.

To Hajaya, the Middle East’s chaos resembles scattered pieces of dough that need skilled hands to form them back into a ball and, to follow the metaphor, put it on the fire and cover it with coals (as the Bedouin make ‘arbud bread, for example). The bread would be the New Middle East, which Condoleezza Rice first mentioned in 2006 and which has been in Middle Eastern media and on Middle Eastern minds for the last decade.

As the most powerful man in the State Department, Kerry has a golden opportunity before him, Hajaya thinks. But Hajaya warns that if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn’t solved soon, both Jews and Arabs will “drink a bitter draught,” or, as he explained it, suffer more destruction, killing, and sadness.

Their Last Best Chance?

Why else is now Kerry’s last best chance, especially when people have been saying that for a while? Because now, more than ever, Israeli Jews are scared out of their minds from the recent terrorist stabbings of civilians, policemen, and soldiers. And the Arabs are weaker and more divided than ever. A Palestinian state would make the Arabs feel strong again. They wouldn’t go about “proving their strength” by killing innocent people, an act of desperation on par with joining ISIS.

Hajaya explains why peace hasn’t been reached by drawing on the Bedouin tradition’s rich stock of animal metaphors to compare Abbas and Netanyahu to two donkeys. The former goes when you tell it “giddy up” (in Arabic, hirr), and the latter is deaf and blind and thus can’t take Uncle Sam’s orders. This take on things is a bit cynical: if Abbas weren’t such a lackey of the West, he wouldn’t be so pliable and wouldn’t not “think of his own gain or loss.” But to Hajaya, he is, so peace is possible. Now if only Netanyahu heard and obeyed so well. As little respect as Hajaya has for Abbas and Netanyahu, Hajaya has even less for Hamas, whom he asks Kerry to destroy for using the Palestinian issue to its own benefit.

Hajaya leaves the strongest argument for the end of the poem: by delaying the establishment of a Palestinian state, Kerry is giving terrorism one more reason to exist. This new terrorism, Hajaya avers, seeks to “destroy human civilization.” If the US is really committed to fighting terrorism or, to use Obama’s belabored language, to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS and its likes, then why is it biding its time and not doing anything about establishing a Palestinian state?

With humility—after all, he’s addressing the most powerful man in the State Department—Hajaya ends the poem by telling Kerry that the advice he’s giving the Secretary of State is just his own personal opinion, and that Kerry’s free to do as he chooses.

“Unite your Jews and the Arabs!”

By Muhammad Fanatil al-Hajaya

Translated by William Tamplin

October 11, 2015

In the shadow of violent chaos, all of it evil

In the time of the Arabs’ division and defeat

Oh Kerry, hear my advice and keep it a secret

Oh Kerry, ever the State Department’s power!

The Middle East is scattered pieces of dough

And needs skilled hands to reshape it

A golden opportunity—nothing like it’s yet occurred

And if it’s lost, Jews and Arabs will drink a bitter draught

Unite your Jews and the Arabs—do not delay!

And peace, which has stumbled in its way—guide it!

Embolden Obama, tell him “forward march!”

In this time especially must he take the decision

Our donkey of peace trots if you tell it “giddy-up”

But the Israelis’ donkey is deaf and blind

Our donkey—Abbas—if you tell him “march!”

Will march, and won’t think of his own gain or loss

While the situation’s a tilt-a-whirl, found them a state

And destroy Hamas, profiting off the Palestinian’s suffering

If you found them a state and gladden the world

You’ll take—and deserve—a Nobel Prize

If you don’t, everyone will be a loser

And blood on both sides will pour

As the march of terrorism rises and grows

And seeks to end human civilization

This is advice, and you, my friend, are free

But hear my words, dear Secretary of State

وحد يهودك والعرب

في ضل فوضى عارمه كلها شر
وفي وقت تشتيت العرب وانكساره

يا كيري اسمع كلمتي واكتم السر
ما دمت يا كيري كبير الوزاره

الشرق الاوسط كالعجين المبعثر
يريد ايدي تصنعه في مهاره

فرصه ثمينه مثلها قبل ما مر
وان ضاعت الفرصه شربنا المراره

وحد يهودك والعرب لا تأخر
وقود السلام اللي تعثر مساره

شجع اوباما قول له معتدل سر
ولازم بهذا الوقت ياخذ قراره

حمارنا يمشي اذا قلت له حر
وحمارهم اطرم وعميا ابصاره

حمارنا عباس ان قلت له سر
يمشي وما فكر بربح وخساره

اسس لهم دوله ترا الوضع يفتر
وخرب على شلة حماس التجاره

ان تم هذا الامر والعالم انسر
جائزة نوبل تاخذه في جداره

وان ما حصل هذا ترا الكل يخسر
ويسيل دم الجانبين بغزاره

ومسيرة الارهاب تصعد وتكبر
ويمكن نهايتها دمار الحضاره

هاذي نصيحة وانت يا صاحبي حر
واسمع كلامي يا كبير الوزاره


Muhammad Fanatil al-Hajaya’s ‘Following the News on Al Jazeera’


“Following the News on Al Jazeera” is a pop-rhetorical poem by Muhammad Fanatil al-Hajaya, an intervention into recent news, translated and introduced here by William Tamplin:

By William Tamplin

Hajaya at a poetry festival in Isma'iliya, Egypt in 2010 Hajaya at a poetry festival in Isma’iliya, Egypt in 2010

Muhammad al-Hajaya has been recognized as representing modern Bedouin poetry. A literate, educated man with a varied career behind him, Hajaya stopped writing love poetry in 1988 and turned to the political. Hajaya wrote at least six poems on the second Iraq war, and his poetry continues to respond to current events: he’s written poems of warning to Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin, mock-serious love poems to Tzipi Livni and Condoleezza Rice, and an elegy to Mu‘ath al-Kasasbeh, the Jordanian pilot burned to death by ISIS.

Hajaya is most remarkable for putting his poems into the mouths of political leaders. In his 2004 poem “Oh Condoleezza Rice!” Hajaya wrote as if George…

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The Tree With No Name, by Drago Jančar. Reviewed by William Tamplin

In The Tree With No Name, Drago Jančar weaves together thought and plot in a rich and disturbing way. It is the year 2000, and regional archivist Janez Lipnik stops working, drives his wife away from him and wanders underground—or is it up a tree?—to find himself in World War II, fighting Italians and Home Guards with the Slovene partisans. This can all happen because the novel takes place in Lipnik’s mind. For Lipnik, every name, event, memory and association available to him is linked in a burdensome web of meaning. Jančar has written a novel that delights, disturbs and urges us neither to forget our past nor to dwell too much in it.

Janez Lipnik works in a Ljubljana archive researching citizens’ property and inheritance claims after Slovenia’s denationalization in 1991. He finds a file in the archive that contains an account of the sexual adventures of a man Lipnik comes to call “The Great Lover.” Only once this file has transformed Lipnik’s mind (and the reader’s) into a hive of sexual possibility does Lipnik hear his coworker Beno boast that Lipnik’s wife Marijana may have gone sailing long ago with Beno and some friends to Dugi Otok, the island where Lipnik and Marijana spent their honeymoon. But Marijana told Lipnik that she’d never been to that island before their honeymoon!

Lipnik’s unwillingness—or inability—to dissociate work from life, past from present and imagination from reality is the beginning of his descent into insanity. Beset with sexual jealousy and too proud to confront Marijana about her premarital past, Lipnik lets jealousy control him and immerses himself in The Great Lover’s wartime sexual exploits. Suddenly, his jealousy for Marijana is consonant with The Great Lover’s jealousy for his wartime lover. Consequently, Lipnik fantasizes about shooting Beno in the head, just as The Great Lover shot his beloved’s one-time suitor.

After associating similar images, Lipnik begins to associate the most disparate ones: the meatballs in the Chinese dish “ants climbing a tree” with the Pohorje Slovene folk tale about a man climbing a tree; Lipnik’s household bread knife with the knife that a Polish prisoner at Auschwitz used to stab an SS guard; the rain running down shopping mall windows with Slovenia’s underground rivers that explorers used red dyes to trace—red rivers that will one day well up like history and drown the mall and everyone in it in bloody savagery! The “dark beast” of the Slovene people will rise again! As go Lipnik’s thoughts, so goes the novel.

Lipnik is the man with “thousands of stories of words that keep getting jumbled, a whole century in his head” (267), and in the year 2000 he decides to climb the tree with no name and so flee a world forged and sustained by war, holocaust, murder and revenge. But in climbing the tree, Lipnik finds himself in 1943 at the root of the problem that created the world he fled. The more he tries to flee them, the more poor Lipnik becomes prey to the traumas of history and sexual jealousy.

Like Lipnik, Jančar seems to have many stories in his head: the novel abounds in intertextual references to Kundera. Lipnik’s sexual jealousy begins when he misinterprets a postcard (as in The Joke) and the idea of eternal return informs Lipnik’s worldview (The Eternal Lightness of Being). Moreover, the name Janez Lipnik echoes of Ludvik Jahn, returning us to The Joke, its intersection of politics and sexuality and the ability of misreading to ruin a life. And just as Jahn refuses to denounce Trotsky before the tribunal in The Joke, Lipnik fails to (in his overactive imagination, of course) denounce the Slovene Home Guards and is sent with them to the killing fields. But what do these references to The Joke mean? Jančar seems to suggest that intertextuality is its own form of eternal return.

Lipnik’s name could also be an intertextual reference. I know no Slovenian, so I learned online that the name Lipnik refers to a place where lipa—linden trees—grow. The thickest tree in Slovenia happens to be a 700-year-old linden tree in Ludranski Vrh. These connections suggest that Janez Lipnik himself is a bridge between the past and the present, this world and other worlds. Perhaps these details are of utmost significance, or perhaps Jančar wants the reader to get lost in details like these just as Lipnik gets lost in the details of his life.

If the names and ideas of the novel referred us to other stories, the near constant presence of violence in the novel refers us to our own time. Did Europe learn nothing after World War II? Jančar seems to be asking. How fast it forgot! Are Europeans still capable of succumbing to the base national prejudices that tore the Balkan countries apart? Despair over the permanence of those prejudices is what impels Lipnik to flee. But will more violence one day haunt Ukraine, Estonia and Lithuania in a similar way? Jančar suggests that Lipnik can escape the horrors of the past neither by ignoring them nor confronting them. Bereft of optimism, The Tree With No Name hangs its head in irony at the inevitability of war. Legions of rough beasts will forever slouch toward Bethlehem to be born!

The book’s timelessness aside, some aspects of Lipnik’s character are implausible. Lipnik is accustomed to doing research with all the resources at his disposal. But instead of asking his wife whether Beno’s claim is true, he lets suspicion eat away at his peace of mind. If Lipnik is otherwise so meticulous in his research, and if he mixes the methods of life with those of work, wouldn’t it have made more sense had Lipnik just asked his wife, as he constantly fantasized about doing? Lipnik’s pride seems to be Jančar’s answer to that problem. But I don’t believe that, for the sake of a dubious slight, an otherwise content regional archivist would destroy his life without first determining what really happened.

Just as Lipnik’s pride is implausible, Jančar’s construction of the book seemed contrived. The narrative begins in the year 2000 on page 56. The “end” of the book on page 208 allows us to return to page 1 and read until page 55 as if we had not finished the book. Although this construction seems clever at first glance (in light of eternal return and the inevitability of violence), it is not justified. There is no link between chapter 99 and chapter 1, page 55 and page 56. The book would have worked just as well had Jancar begun chapter 1 on page 1 and finished chapter 99 on page 208.

On first read, Lipnik’s merging of imagination and reality can be cumbersome, especially when Jančar moves between perspective, tense and historical time—sometimes within the same paragraph. But this is not inappropriate at all. Given how close the narration is to Lipnik’s mind, the reader experiences his insecurity, confusion and sensitivities. Likewise, that Jančar did not develop other characters, like Marijana and Beno, is not a problem, considering that these characters matter only insofar as Lipnik perceives them.

Despite its despairing view of humans, The Tree With No Name was fun to read. At no point was I bored. I think that was because Jančar never stopped developing Lipnik’s interior. Every detail either had meaning when it was introduced or acquired meaning as the novel progressed. That does not mean that the novel’s resolution was facile. On the contrary, just as Lipnik thinks he has escaped this world, he finds himself in a much darker version of it. Jančar didn’t give us any advice or answers about how not to end up there, so here’s to hoping that we can find a way to deal with reality that Lipnik never did.

This review was published in Literatura as part of the project “Slovene Literature and Foreign Critics.”

Staring Arabs…Being White in Jordan…How I Came to Say Shalom and not Salaam…

I’m a tall blond white American, and when I lived in Jordan, I got stared at a lot. It wouldn’t be fair to say that everyone stared at me because some people didn’t. But very many people did, more so than did in the US or Israel or Europe. To someone who’s not used to getting stared at a lot, the staring is a shock. At first you know it’s a cultural thing and that Arab society is ingroup-outgroup and that strangers occupy a sometimes reviled place. So it’s no big deal that most everyone you pass on the street stares at you.

But after a few months of telling yourself this, you start to question if it really is the culture you’re in and wonder if maybe people aren’t staring at you because of you or because of something you did. You start to think, is there something wrong with me? In Jordan, The Staring can make you hyperconscious of your external appearance, and if you don’t consider yourself vain before you go, you might after a few months of being stared at.

Staring struck me as a worthy topic because after I came back from a weeklong vacation to Israel, the moment that my being back in Jordan really sunk in was when a little boy standing in front of me in the customs line stared at me. And stared. And stared. His eyes didn’t leave me except when he turned to tell (or warn?) his mother about me. She turned around, looked me up and down and turned back around only when her eyes met mine. She didn’t crack a smile.

The next morning I went to get breakfast, and everyone I passed on the street was staring at me. I was not in Israel anymore. At the little restaurant where I picked up my fava beans and falafel, college-age girls in hijabs were pointing at me and giggling. College or middle school? I thought. Did they think I was cute? Did they think I was funny-looking? What was making them laugh? I could have smiled or talked to them or showed some emotion, but in a society where keeping your cool is the very essence of being a man, I wasn’t about to break fly.

On the way back from the little restaurant, kids from the school across the street were staring at me. Sometimes they would throw rocks at me. The white-guy-getting-rocks-thrown-at-him scenario reminded me of Israeli soldiers in the West Bank getting rocks thrown at them and how violently some of them react and how the international community gets outraged by soldiers arresting little kids for throwing rocks. But how jarring it is to be hit by a rock! And how helpless you are when the people throwing the rocks are half your height and, compared to you, powerless! They’re so small, and after all they’re just a bunch of kids having some mischievous fun. Didn’t I used to throw rocks at people when I was a kid? Well, actually, no.

Later that week I was walking back home from an Arabic lesson, and two guys I recognized from the neighborhood were walking in front of me, and they turned around, stared straight at me and charged, and I thought they were attacking me or something. Until I realized that they were trying to flag down a truck that goes around the neighborhood delivering natural gas canisters. You know, it’s one of those trucks you have to aggressively flag down.

Things were getting out of hand. The staring was driving me crazy, and I had to keep my cool. In order to do that, I had to understand where I fit in in my new community.

On my street, I was “Wilyaaaamz” to the people who knew me, with four as and a z. But to Jordanians who didn’t know me, I could be many things: a foreigner (ajnabi), stranger (gharib), neighbor (jar) or guest (def). In Arab society, the guest is protected and a source of the host’s honor. Hosts defend guests with their lives and increase their honor by hosting them. And in Islam, like in Judaism and Christianity, the neighbor is sacred.

If neighbor and guest have positive connotations, stranger and foreigner don’t, not even in English. The word “stranger” in Arabic is etymologically related to the words for “wonder,” “astonishment,” “odd,” “West” and “violence,” so you can imagine how Jordanians might regard strangers with a measure of suspicion. Similarly, the word “foreigner” is related to words for “ritually impure,” “avoid,” and “not belonging to the tribe.”

Of course there were always people who called me other things that they thought described me based on the assumptions they made about me given my external appearance, like Westerner (gharbi), Christian (nasrani), infidel (kafir), Jew (yahudi), gentleman (sayyid), etc. But these four words–foreigner, stranger, neighbor, guest–were what most told me about where I fit in.

Arab culture has its roots in the desert, or so goes Jordanian street wisdom, and the attitude toward the stranger really came home to me when I read about an old Bedouin practice regarding strangers. If a Bedouin saw a passing stranger from afar, he would ride out after him and offer him a cup of coffee. If the stranger accepted the cup, he would become a guest. If the stranger denied the cup of coffee, he would become an enemy, and his refusal would be tantamount to a declaration of war. You’re either with us or against us. We will either host you or treat you as hostile. (Interestingly, host and hostile come from the same Proto-Indo-European root. The ideas run together in Greek too, where the word for host, guest and stranger are all the same.)

So, in this new cultural milieu where I was and had to be different, the cause of my anxiety was that I could never really become an Arab or a Jordanian the way a foreigner could become American by working hard, getting lucky, trying to assimilate, maybe failing, having kids, having them assimilate, having them be president (here’s looking at you, Barack Obama Sr.). It’s disquieting to feel like you could never belong no matter how hard you try. So I stopped trying to belong and got comfortable as a guest when I got called a guest and a stranger when I got called a stranger.


At the end of my time in Jordan, I was still more than a little fed up with not belonging, of not being able to just exist as me, on my own terms.

I got an idea.

If the little kids were going to throw rocks at me, I was going to say “shalom” back. If people stared at me like I was an alien, I was going to show them that I was an alien, at least according to their educational curricula. If people were going to look at me funny, I was going to smile at them and intone in the heartiest voice I could muster a kind and welcoming “shalom!” If they weren’t going to accept me as I was, then I would challenge them to make sure they wouldn’t accept me. No more half measures.

To be fair, most people in the neighborhood knew me by that time and probably thought I was crazy. What is Wilyaaaamz doing speaking Hebrew in Amman and acting like he’s Jewish? And why is he grinning like a fool?

I’m happy to report that not once did my saying “shalom” get me a beating. It got me some “strange” glances and some “wonder” and “astonishment”–“Did he say ‘shalom?!’” I would hear some people marvel after I passed.

Once on a trip with some friends to Wadi Dana, we went to an overlook to enjoy the view of Wadi ‘Arabah and southern Israel. Two Jordanian guys who were enjoying the view started staring at us as soon as we arrived, so I gave them a big “shalom.” They both smiled and said shalom back.

Sayed Kashua comes to Wellesley…Arabs in Israel…When you’re not there, they don’t notice you…

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.

Kashua’s remarks

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.