Israeli-Arab author Sayed Kashua, who writes in Hebrew, considers himself a man in between — an Israeli citizen who cares about making Israel a better place for both Jewish and Arab children.
Kashua, 39, a columnist for the Ha’aretz newspaper and the creator of the award-winning TV show Arab Labor, spoke to a gathering of over 40 at Princeton University on April 10, at a program sponsored by the Judaic Studies program.
In journalism, novels, and his wildly popular sitcom, Kashua is probably Israel’s best-known interpreter between the country’s Jewish and Arab citizens.
Kashua spoke of the irony of being an Arab living in West Jerusalem. His youngest child’s teacher told Kashua that he was “the best ‘abba shel Shabbat [Sabbath father]’ in the kindergarten.” And the same child, who at 18 months would not speak in Arabic, spontaneously thanked his father in Hebrew when he brought him a toy car.
He recalled growing up in the Arab village of Tira — close to Kfar Saba in Israel’s Central District — his identity at one with his surroundings. One of the formative influences in Kashua’s life was his grandmother, an illiterate woman and master storyteller, who told him of his grandfather’s being killed during the 1948 war. She would also recall being told by an Israeli soldier, after the war was over, that her fields were no longer hers.
“Since that story, I can’t relate to home as something I can trust, as a secure place,” he said. This fear stays with him, he said, even in his “nice, Ashkenazi, middle-class, secular neighborhood in Jerusalem,” where his tight grasp on his son’s hand causes the boy to ask, “Why are you holding my hand so tight? We’re near home.” Considering this episode, Kashua said, “That is the meaning of being a refugee: You have to be ready for the worst and you can lose your home any minute.”
For Israeli Arabs, said Kashua, “any town is the homeland. We don’t really move.” But although they did not become refugees like other Palestinians, Kashua said, “We are refugees within our state.”
Identity became more of a question for Kashua when he stepped at age 15 into Israeli society via a boarding school for the gifted and talented, having previously had almost no contact with Jewish Israelis. Teased for his clothes and his provincialism, he left the school and refused to return unless his father bought him “Jewish” clothes and a Walkman.
Despite what he recalls as three years of suffering at the school, he learned Hebrew, was exposed to his first library (there was none in Tira), and fell in love with literature. After reading stories about Israeli fighters, he said, “I had a feeling I had different stories to tell, from a different perspective.”
But the classical Arabic used for writing was completely different from the colloquial language he grew up with, and at first he felt his Hebrew was not up to the task. Then he discovered the work of author Etgar Keret, both lauded and criticized for his slangy Hebrew, and decided he could write stories in Hebrew.
His novel Second Person Singular (2010) — which explores the identity of Arabs who are assimilated in Israeli culture — won Israel’s Bernstein Prize for literary achievement for writers 50 years and younger.
Kashua’s choice to write in Hebrew, however, has estranged him from Israeli Arabs who struggle to keep the Arabic language alive, knowing it is one of the few tools to preserve their identity within the State of Israel. Kashua said, “It is painful to know that because of my writing, I burnt the only shelter I have, in Tira.”
Kashua does have serious concerns about Israel, including “racism” toward Arabs. “I am worried about racism that considers you a more primitive person…, that talk[s] about mental difference and cultural difference, meaning that an Arab has a different logic,” he said.
At the same time, he has no desire to move to a Palestinian state; he said he simply wants totally equal treatment in Israel. The only qualm he has, he said, has to do with his treatment as an outsider. “The definitions and symbols for us mean discrimination — the fact that we can never belong, that we are still considered a fifth column and demographic problem in Israel.”
Kashua said he has been attacked by Palestinians, who ask, “How dare you use their language — the people who killed your people?”
“I didn’t know how to answer,” he said. “I almost cried.”