Sayed Kashua’s Strained Relationship With Israel

Novelist Sayed Kashua has become Israel's most prominent Arab Muslim author. He talks to Eric Herschthal about living on the fault line.

Even in America, the Arab-Israeli writer Sayed Kashua cannot escape his critics back home. In April, Kashua was on a book tour in Boston promoting the new translation of his best-selling Hebrew novel, Second Person Singular, when pro-Palestinian activists got wind of the event. A Jewish student group at Tufts, where Kashua was reading, had listed his talk as part of a celebration of Israeli Independence Day on Facebook—an act that would have been treasonous to the Palestinian activists if it were true. It wasn’t. But Kashua spent hours fielding calls from activists and Palestinian journalists, explaining the mishap.

The activists recanted their denunciation of Kashua on its website, but Kashua said few Palestinian papers printed a correction. If Kashua is used to this kind of thing, it still grates. “Even such a small event, this feeling that you always have to be careful and protect yourself, it’s always there. It’s very scary,” Kashua said, sitting in a Manhattan hotel lobby, looking exhausted. “I really just want to be a writer.”

When you are the Jewish state’s most prominent Arab Muslim author, being “just a writer” is an impossible task. At 36, Kashua has quickly become a cultural phenomenon. He’s the author of a weekly column in Haaretz, Israel’s most prominent liberal paper; the creator of the country’s first prime-time TV sitcom featuring an Arab family; and author of three best-selling novels. All of his work is suffused with his satirical wit, and primarily takes aim at Jewish bigotry toward Arabs in Israel. (They account for roughly 20 percent of the population.) Yet he also skewers Palestinians’ strident nationalism, saying things that, to a dejected and stateless people, are often perceived as blasphemous.

“Israeli independence—what we Arabs call al-Naqba, ‘The Catastrophe’—it created Palestinian identity more than anything else,” Kashua said. “When Israelis say that, they mean that Palestinians don’t exist. But it’s true. There was no national identity in the [Arab] villages before then. Israel defines Palestinians more than anything else.”

Kashua knows that might sound like grist for right-wing Jews—the kind of thing Newt Gingrich recently milked to many conservatives’ delight. But he’s too savvy a writer, too subtle a social critic, to lose control of his language. “It’s all in the context, it’s how you say it,” Kashua said, adding that many Palestinians would agree with the statement that Palestinian nationalism didn’t exist before Israel, if it were stated properly.

He knows extremely well the pain Israeli independence caused Arabs. His grandfather was killed by Jewish soldiers in Israel’s War of Independence, and his father, a Palestinian nationalist, was imprisoned for two years without trial for links to terrorism. One of his first pieces of writing, a column for a small Israeli paper that put him on the map more than a decade ago, was about how, in his predominantly Jewish high school, he’d run to the bathroom every year during Israel’s Independence Day celebration. A conservative Jewish talk-show host responded by saying that it was like a Jew writing “he’d wipe his ass with a piece of the Quran.”

Arabs were outraged, and suddenly, they were looking to Kashua, then a little-known journalist and recent graduate of Hebrew University, to respond in kind. Kashua’s paper gave him the full front page to reply, and he published a scathing satire of Israeli’s self-professed toleration of Arab citizens, titled “A Good Arab: Manual for the Reader.” Arab Israelis, particularly young ones, responded with glee. “It was brilliant, brilliant,” said Muhammad Jabali, a 32-year-old Arab journalist, who lives in the Israeli city of Jaffa. “Lots of eyes were looking up to him because he knew how to respond to Israeli racism in a smart way, in a funny way, in a courageous way.”

But Kashua writes in Hebrew—the language he was educated in—and his two first novels were only recently translated into Arabic. (Second Person Singular has not yet been.) So his main audience is Jewish. This might give the impression that Israel is a fully tolerant society, but that is not the case, said Hannan Hever, a Jewish Israeli professor and chair of the Department of Hebrew Literature at Hebrew University. Among both lay Hebrew readers as well as scholars, Hever said, there’s still a question as to where Muslims writers fit into the modern Hebrew canon. “There’s an impression that he’s undermining Hebrew literature because at the very heart of it, it is Jewish literature … Many believe that Hebrew canon cannot accept that.”

It is in large part because Kashua is a writer, not a politician, that allows him to cut through both sides’ posturing and pretension. Israeli and Palestinians both view their national identities as sacrosanct and more important than anything else. Perhaps that is why peace has been so elusive. “I don’t like identity,” he said. “We accept identities in Israel. We make them holy. But what does identity really mean?”

Being an Arab with Israeli citizenship—not an Arab living in the occupied territories, who are simply called Palestinians—and having an elite Israeli education, mean that Kashua lives on the fault line between Palestinian and Israeli identities. His new novel addresses that problem head on. It follows two Arab Israelis, one a successful lawyer living in a tiny Arab Jerusalem neighborhood. The other is a young Arab striver, Amir Lahab, who fakes his identity to get into an elite Israeli art school, claiming to be a Jewish Israeli named Yonatan Forschmidt. The lawyer and Amir’s stories cross when the lawyer finds a love letter written in his wife’s handwriting to a man named Yonatan.

Both characters let Kashua question the merits of a Palestinian national identity. While the lawyer is at a dinner party with his friends, all successful young Arab professionals, they start debating how to teach their kids Palestinian history and culture. The lawyer defies their assumptions that such an education is even necessary. “You know what,” the lawyer says, “I don’t buy catchphrases like, He who has no past, has no future.” The wife of his friend, a gynecologist, is aghast: “How can we raise a proud generation if we don’t teach them to be proud of their forefathers, their history, their people? I don’t get it.”

“I don’t know,” the lawyer responds coyly. “It just seems to me sometimes that we—not just Arabs, but all of us—don’t have that much to be proud of in terms of our pasts.”

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But Kashua is just as skeptical of Jews’ willingness to accept Arabs as equals. Through his character Amir, he shows that acceptance in Israeli society—even at liberal bastions like the prestigious Bezalel art school—is merely an illusion. In one of the novel’s most caustic scenes, Amir—who has successfully hidden his identity by posing as a Jew—describes Jewish stereotypes about Arabs he’s overheard at school:

At Bezalel, I, a left-wing liberal like most of the students, learned that Arabs are horny, that they only think with their dicks—mostly about pussy and mostly about preserving the honor of their sisters’ pussies…They’re unpredictable and can be aggressive…Show respect and avoid dishonoring them, and you’re on safe ground. Even the ones that seem the most enlightened are still, in some very basic ways, primitive…The only thing they really understand is force, and when they sense weakness, they attack. Like hyenas. It does not mean we should be occupying them, that is not what it means, but it’s a shame that there’s no one you can talk to, such a shame they don’t really change, that they really can’t be trusted.

Kashua said that these are the types of stereotypes he himself learned while at his Jewish high school, and later at Hebrew University. “I was told that I have to stop listening to Arab music—not explicitly, but it was implied—that you had to dress like them, look like them, talk like them. And still I was not accepted.”

Of course, he doesn’t feel rejected anymore—after all, his biggest audience, the ones who’ve made him wildly successful, are mostly Jewish Israelis. But like Amir and the lawyer, who he writes are like “immigrants in their own land,” he still feels lost, that at any moment it can all be taken away. “My work is accepted, yes,” he said. “But I still feel like a stranger. One of the scariest things is that I don’t know what home is.”