If you live in Montreal and have not heard of “pastagate”, you must’ve been under a giant meatball for the past month. If you have not heard of Sayed Kashua, however, Israel’s Arab version of Seinfeld, well, get out from under that falafel! That is not to say that the plight of Montreal’s minority anglos is in any way comparable to that of Arab Israelis. For example, my decision to send my daughter to a French kindergarten next year doesn’t induce whiskey drinking and cigarette smoking, or even therapy – even if my mother thinks I am a traitor by giving up her granddaughter’s birthright of an English education. I am just making sure that she will have choices and more doors to open in the future. We do live in a province where the official language is French, after all. Wouldn’t you do everything you could to give your kid a fighting chance to be on equal footing with the others?
Well Sayed Kashua, an Arab Israeli novelist, columnist for the Hebrew daily Ha’aretz and tv-sitcom writer, is not quite sure if he was blessed or cursed to have been given the same fighting chance when he was a kid. His parents probably had the best intentions when they sent him packing at 15 from his Arab hometown, Tira, to an elite boarding school in Jerusalem where everything was in Hebrew. He was one of only a handful of Arab kids to get in. Little did they know they were sending in a Trojan horse. Though the war is not over, Sayed Kashua is winning over the hearts and minds of every-day Israelis one laugh at a time, but at a cost. He is often perceived as pandering to the Jews or taken as the token Arab. Some would even argue that he has taken on the language of the oppressor. Don’t get me wrong : he loves Hebrew, “To write in Arabic the way I speak it, in a Palestinian-Israeli dialect, just isn’t possible. Only literary Arabic is used for writing and I don’t know it well enough. The Arab books that I read are in Hebrew translation.” And honestly, how many Israeli minds would know his work, and therefore be closer to knowing the other, if it were written in Arabic?
Kashua now has three novels to his credit, Dancing Arabs, Let It Be Morning, and, his latest, Second Person Singular. Recurring themes in is his work are those of alienation, assimilation, and at times resentment at having to choose between silence and speech. Like many before him who chose to write in a language other than their mother tongue, perhaps to avoid censorship or due to their colonial education, Sayed Kashua’s titles have been translated into at least six languages, not including Arabic. “In other words,” explains Laila Lalami in the Boston Review, “Kashua’s novels are not immediately accessible to the people he writes about.” For this reason, he is viewed by many as a sell-out or traitor, which causes much whiskey drinking and general anxiety for the 38-year old father of two.
In Dorit Zimbalist’s documentary about his life, Sayed Kashua – Forever Scared, Kashua comes across as a semi-neurotic, self-deprecating, apologetic, satirical, angry, and genuinely funny guy. He is forever scared of everything from dogs, to tanks, to Jews, to Arabs. Wherever he goes, he’s an outsider. “I write about my fucked up life,” he says with a laugh, cigarette dangling from his mouth, holding his half empty glass of whiskey.
In his weekly Ha’aretz column, Kashua takes on contentious topics, with satire, never truly pouring salt into open wounds, but making clear for his readers the conditions that inform reality for many Arabs. In one column, he writes about how relieved he is that life will be getting back to normal, as he and his family can now move back into their home after several weeks of renovations. The article, brazenly entitled, Sayed Kashua’s Right of Return, implies how annoying it is to be mistaken for the cleaning crew by the Israeli contractor, and yet how strange, sad, embarassing, uncomfortable it can be when the actual Arab cleaner comments on how ‘good his Arabic is,’ mistaking him for the Hebrew-speaking owner of the house. In another column he relates how when asked where he gets his optimism, he replies with a standard joke, “Oh, I get my optimism from whiskey, and as always the audience laughed…” He concludes that, sadly, he has indeed finally lost hope.
Is he worried about assimilation and loss of identity? Yes, but he flips the seriousness of it all on its head with his most successful, yet most controversial work : Avoda Aravit, the tv sitcom he writes for. The title literally means Arab Labour, but is closer to ‘botched job’, alluding to the commonly held belief that you get what you pay for, and Arabs do second-rate work. So if the title alone didn’t make him enemies, his parodies and send up of an Arab Israeli family, much like his own, get him slammed by the Arab press every time. Though some journalists commend his intentions, most feel that he is fueling the age-old stereotypes that Isrealis hold for Arabs. In a recent interview with Shlomi Eldar of Al-Monitor Israel Pulse, Kashua says, “the reviews in all the Arab papers killed me. They ground me up and spat me out. They wrote that the way that I present them is ridiculous, which really, really hurt my feelings. What didn’t they say about me? They said that I want to win the approval of the Jews and that I want to connect with them. Then gradually, they stepped back and started to realize that the message really penetrated. We managed to transform the Israeli Arab into a person, and to burst all of the pervasive stereotypes.”
Because he straddles both worlds, Sayed Kashua has conflicting loyalties, which also gives him the right to poke fun at everything, and everyone, regardless of which semitic gene pool they stem from. Kashua’s satire spares no one, and though he claims that his motive is not to make ‘peace in the Middle East’, he might just do it…after his next whiskey, of course.
Sayed Kashua’s new novel is Second Person Singular is available at The Jewish Public Library in Montreal or at Amazon.com
Deborah Kramer is a writer, translator, mother, and aspiring urban beekeeper.