Profile: Sayed Kashua
Combining wit and humor with his perspective as a secular Israeli Arab has earned this writer well-deserved attention—and a loyal following of Jewish readers.
The protagonist of Sayed Kashua’s short story “Herzl Disappears at Midnight” suffers from a rare condition: He is a Jew by day and an Arab by night. As a Jew, Herzl Haliwa works in a law office in Jerusalem and has been seeing his Jewish girlfriend, Noga, for two years, but they have never spent a night together. The story opens as Noga is about to leave him, and Herzl decides to come clean and tell her “that he actually turns into an Arab after midnight, exactly like Cinderella, that is, not exactly, but you get the idea.”
To prove to Noga that he is telling the truth, Herzl brings her to one of his night haunts, where he introduces her to his Arab friends as a civil rights lawyer and ignores her for the rest of the evening as he speaks Arabic, drinks arak and smokes. The next morning, she asks him about “all that Arab business.” And Herzl, a Jew again, replies: “As far as I’m concerned they can all burn in hell.”
The character’s Kafkaesque metamorphosis is a parody of Kashua’s own plight as an Israeli Arab who writes in Hebrew and lives between the two worlds. The young novelist, columnist and screenwriter is emerging as a prominent voice in Israeli literature.
Kashua, 31, was born in the village of tira in central Israel and is a member of Israel’s roughly one-million-strong Arab minority. At the age of 15, he won a scholarship to the Israel Arts and Science Academy, a prestigious Jewish boarding school in Jerusalem. There he awakened to the reality of his lowly status in the Israeli social order, and from that awareness grew the experiences chronicled in the 2004 semiautobiographic Dancing Arabs (Grove), about a boy from Tira who attends a Jewish boarding school and tries to shake off his Arab identity and “pass.” Raised on the myth of a grandfather who died fighting the Jews in the 1948 war and burdened by his family’s hopes for him, the protagonist becomes ashamed of who he is. He eats Israeli food, learns the Hebrew songs sung on field trips and rejects his own culture. But, he observes, “my father says, once an Arab, always an Arab. And he’s got a point.”
A personable man of average build with cropped black hair and a bright gaze, Kashua lives in Beit Safafa, a Jerusalem neighborhood, with his wife, Najaat, 31, a social worker, and their two children—a daughter, Nai, 5, and son, Emil, 1. He began his writing career as a reporter for the Jerusalem weekly Kol Ha’ir, first writing culture features, then television reviews and then a column tracking his wife’s pregnancy with their first child. The humorous column quickly established an audience. Says Yosef Cohen, who was Kol Ha’ir’s editor at the time, “His writing is personal, and [normally] I don’t like personal writing. You have to do it really well for it to get past me.” For the last year and a half, Kashua has been writing a full-page column in the Ha’aretz weekly magazine, where the “Herzl” story first appeared. “I hope people identify with the person and forget for a moment that he is an Arab,” Kashua says during an interview at his home, where he speaks while cradling his baby son in his arms and feeding him a bottle. “For me, that is the ultimate goal of my column. I learned quickly it would be pointless to talk to the Israeli public about politics. My goal is to make people laugh and forget it was written by an Arab. Or cry and see that you can cry with an Arab, too.”
Though Kashua avoids politics in his writing, he has signed his name to a number of petitions by writers and intellectuals against government policy—most recently one to stop the fighting in Lebanon in the early stages of the July-August crisis.
Readers’ reactions—posted on the internet and published on the magazine’s letters to the editor page—reflect a loyal following of both fans and detractors. In a typical exchange on the magazine’s letters page, one writer advises Kashua to stop whining about security checks at malls and airports and squirming about speaking Arabic in public. “Remember: you are still in the risk group, and from the guard’s point of view, Arabic-speakers usually blow up in the mall and each one of them is a sign of disaster. Why play naïve?”
To which responds another reader: “Sayed Kashua is the only Jewish humorist living among us today. We lost our sense of humor. We do not have the ability to see ourselves as others see us. And we don’t have the ability to empathize with the other.”
Kashua breaks new ground and shatters taboos of the Arab community. In his column, he is self-deprecating to the extreme, portraying himself as a lazy, hard-drinking, smoking slob whose wife is always furious with him and who grudgingly drags himself to endless public appearances and award ceremonies where he has to strain to masquerade as a mensch. Associates say that image is far from accurate—Kashua is a hard worker who never misses a deadline. He does, however, drink and smoke.
Although his parents, three brothers and in-laws still live in Tira, and Kashua loves to visit, he is unsparing in his criticism of the Israeli Arab community, denouncing its narrow-mindedness. For one thing, he is not translated into Arabic, though his two novels—Let It Be Morning (Grove) was published earlier this year—have been translated into seven languages. “There were no inquiries about translation into Arabic,” he says, shrugging. “Maybe they don’t think my books are fit to print,” even though his novels were reviewed positively in Arab newspapers outside Israel, for instance in Al-Hayat in London and A-Nahar in Beirut.
Kashua has been compared to Anton Shammas, author of the novel Arabesques, first published 20 years ago. Kashua says he is honored by the mention, but “the only comparison is that he too is an Arab who wrote in Hebrew. I should be compared to writers of my generation, such as Etgar Keret or Dorit Rabinyan.”
Keret, one of today’s hottest young Israeli writers, has shared the stage with Kashua at international reading events. Before a presentation in Paris, Keret recounts, he told Kashua of his anxiety over the anti-Israeli sentiment he often encounters in that city.
“Before the event I peeked at the audience through the curtain and said: ‘These people are going to give it to me,’” Keret begins. “And Sayed said: ‘No, they’re Jewish rightist fascists. It’s me who is going to get it.’ I picked up a woman in the audience with a sharp chin and knew it was going to come from her. I said: ‘See her? She’s a human rights activist.’ He said, ‘No, she’s a rightist Jew.’ Then we got on the stage and we each read a story and then we talked about our writing and we both talked about our mothers. When it was time for questions the woman with the pointy chin was the first to raise her hand. We both held our breaths, and she said: ‘I’ve been here for an hour and I don’t understand: Which one of you is the Jew and which is the Arab?’”
Kashua’s second novel, Let It Be Morning, also semiautobiographical, is the story of an Israeli Arab journalist who returns with his wife and young daughter to the village of his birth—an experience Kashua had, and which ended five months later with his family’s return to Jerusalem. In the book, the narrator finds himself unable to reconnect with his hometown. When one morning the Israeli Army enforces a curfew on the village for no apparent reason, the extreme reality they already live in is taken to a whole new level.
Kashua says he struggled to finish the book, which he is now turning into a screenplay—as he is doing for Dancing Arabs—before its scenario came true. “If the state views me as a ‘demographic problem,’” he says, “and a ‘cancer in the heart of the nation,’ there is a chance that one day it will try to surgically intervene to rescue the country.” It is that rationale that stops him from taking part in any Israeli election, having only voted once, years ago. “I don’t feel like a citizen,” he explains. “I don’t feel like anyone is asking my opinion.”
Kashua has received numerous literary awards, including the Grinzane Cavour Award for First Novel 2004 (Italy); a citation as one of the Best Books of 2004 by The San Francisco Chronicle; The Prime Minister’s Prize 2005 (Israel); and, most recently, a secondary honor attached to the Lessing Prize for Criticism, awarded in Germany. The Lessing Prize committee named Professor Moshe Zimmermann of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem as the primary recipient and asked him to choose a promising writer to receive an encouragement award. He chose Kashua because “he has a sharp eye for Israeli society,” he says, “and he doesn’t write out of bitterness or flattery but out of a clear view and great witticism. He writes about the questions of discrimination and assimilation and acculturation. He represents that complex so that Jews too have to think what they have learned from history.”
From his position as a member of Israel’s Arab minority, Kashua has struck a surprising chord in the hearts of readers in Israel and beyond.