A Conversation With Sayed Kashua on Arab-Israeli Identity
At Georgetown University, where Sayed Kashua is speaking about his dual identity as a Palestinian living in Israel, a clean-cut student stands up and introduces himself as an Israeli Jew. “So, on one hand I agree with you, Israeli society is very racist towards Arabs,” he says into the microphone.” But on the other hand, you really succeeded within a secular Israeli Jewish elite. Aren’t you being a little unfair towards us?” Despite murmuring in the crowd, he continues, “If Israeli Jewish society was as racist and as bad and unfair as you make it seem, maybe you wouldn’t have gotten where you are. So don’t you think you should appreciate it a little more?”
Kashua leans back slightly in his chair, “I think that’s one of the things I wanted to escape from [in] Israel—not being considered as a citizen,” he says. “That the ‘be thankful despite your position’ is such a humiliating issue when it comes to minorities. ‘Be thankful because you can’t compare yourself to the people in Syria or Jordan or whatever.’ It’s one of the things I think I was so painful for someone who thought he was a citizen.”
Kashua, an Arab-Israeli author, was introduced to the Georgetown audience as the “creator of a revolutionary tongue-and-cheek style that addresses not just the dual identity of Israeli Arabs, but their tragic life in general.” He was born in the small, impoverished village of Tira—an Arab Palestinian village within the borders of Israel—where he was raised and where he still thinks of as “home,” even after immigrating to the United States three years ago. He has published several books, an essay collection, and created a TV series that have become a well-known part of Hebrew literature and pop culture. However, his relationship to Israel and his Israeli Jewish readership has been tumultuous.
“I cannot behave as an individual in Israel,” he says. “There’s no room for that, unless we have a liberal society in a good way and all citizens are equal. I cannot ignore the fact that this group of Palestinians is my future and my kid’s future.”
He remarks that doesn’t want to lecture about the West Bank or Gaza, the occupied territories, but simply tell his own stories. However, he takes issue with the statistic that defines the Palestinian minority as 20 percent of the Israeli population. He claims it is a biased statistic that includes 300,000 people who are not citizens and who are carrying temporary residency (meaning they’re not allowed to vote). “It’s so difficult to disconnect the situation of being a Palestinian Israeli with Israeli citizenship from the general Palestinian problems—especially the occupation in West Bank and Gaza…I’m only talking about myself, but you can think that [my stories] belong to this group of Israeli Palestinians.”
He colors his childhood as happy, spending his evenings with his grandmother as she told him stories including fairy tales and stories about prophets from the Quran that blurred the lines between fantasy and reality. It was only when he became a teenager that Kashua began to realize his status as a minority. From his grandmother, he learned that his grandfather was shot by Israeli soldiers during the war, leaving his grandmother alone with her newborn baby, Kashua’s father. After the war, his grandmother rejoiced thinking that she would be able to return to the family fields as a fruit picker, but an Israeli soldier told her she no longer owns property. “She lost everything. Her dream was at least to buried in those fields. That was the source of life for a villager. That’s the nakba (literally means ‘catastrophe’ in Arabic; also, refers to a historic event in which there was a mass expulsion of Palestinian Arabs during Israel’s creation) for me.” Kashua describes the nakba as alive as a part of the Palestinian narrative, although the act of nakba is now illegal in Israel.
At 14, Kashua attended a prestigious Jewish boarding school in Jerusalem, where he began to realize the discrepancy between his family’s stories about the war and the education he was receiving—and where the word “Palestinian” was never mentioned. In one instance, he describes getting stopped on the bus by a soldier. “This was the first time I was marked as an ‘Arab’ by a soldier, and I couldn’t sit back down in my seat because I was ‘less.’”
It was incidents like these that convinced Kashua to devote himself to his studies and perfect his Hebrew in order to assimilate quickly to Israeli society. “Hebrew became the language of the educated and the elite—and the enemy. I remember reading classical books and reading about the war from the Israeli perspective and I was thinking to myself, but I know a different story from my grandmother.”
But after the war in Gaza broke out in 2008, Kashua decided to hastily leave the country, taking his wife and children with him. He describes this period as a dark time when he realized that the democratic state had collapsed, and he could no longer lie to his children about having a better future as equal citizens in Israel. “After that, I couldn’t write humor,” he says, “but I think I’m recovering.” He moved to the rustic town of Champagne, Illinois where he has a three-year contract as a writer in residence. He says on coming to the United States, “My daughter, she’s 17, so three years ago, she was thinking Beyoncé or something, but then we were driving through cornfields from Chicago to Champagne…And I wanted the kids to be happy so I pointed at the very first cornfield I saw and said ‘Look, there’s a cornfield’ because I knew it was going to be cornfields the whole way.”
In America, he puzzled over what to put down for his daughter’s race on her school forms. He laughs, saying, “I thought I was running away from the race problem. I was looking for the Arabs in the list of the races, but there were no Arabs. And I was so confused…I almost registered them as Asians because I can easily, scientifically, prove that [Israelis] are disposed of Asia, but I knew that that’s not what they mean.”
It’s moments like these that expose how Kashua’s natural humor translates to his written work. He describes the humor he uses in his sitcom and his weekly column in Haaretz as a tool to protect himself. “Humor makes life worth living, but it’s also easing the pain. I use humor the way minorities use humor—to protect themselves from the majority—sometimes also to attack and criticize.” He explains, “I’m always a hostage—that feeling is always there. I have to make the audience laugh in order to make them listen to me, because then I can say something that you wouldn’t like. It’s so sad to say that I need to humanize my characters in order to introduce them to the public in Israel, but that’s the only way to do it. Of course, we writers can take the humor as a tool to subvert and a tool to address, and satire as a tool to change the culture, but it’s so difficult when there are no other economic, political powers working with you.”
With his contract with University of Illinois completed in August, he is indecisive about his next move with his family. “I have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen—the future is a frustrating thing.” In his jocular manner, he says, “Ideally, I would like to follow news from the Middle East from my very fancy apartment on my large-screen TV in the Upper East Side and feel so sad for what’s happening there—and maybe donate something. That’s all I want.”
His new novel was released this week in Israel. It is written in Hebrew and translated into English. However, it has a conversation in Arabic between Kashua and his father that he found impossible to translate into Hebrew—so it is also, he says, his first book for bilingual readers.