Patterns of Culture

With pathetic characters like these, every beginning Arab journalist will make mincemeat out of me and become a national hero himself.

"We have to leave the country," I informed my wife as I went over the final proofs. "We won't be able to stay here after this book is published."

"Don't exaggerate," my wife said. "You're not the only one - there are a lot of bad writers and none of them is thinking about escaping from the country because of another embarrassing book."

"No, it's not that," I tried to explain. "The problem is the characters in the book."

"What, are you trying to tell me that this time you managed to use your imagination and create a character who isn't me?"

"Terrific, terrific, keep hounding me. You don't have a clue about how serious the situation is, and now that I think about it, I want you to know that it's all your fault."

"Me? You're blaming me? You know that without me you wouldn't manage to write one sentence."

"Because of that, it's too bad you're not a little different."

"What do you want from my life now?"

"Nothing, not a thing." I wanted to end the conversation, but couldn't stop myself.

"Couldn't you be a little more militant?" I hurled at the main character, who was lying next to me. "Couldn't you be a little more activist? Go to demonstrations, go to marches, get arrested?"


"Why not?" I snapped. "Yes, get arrested for nationalist motives. What's the problem? A nation under occupation, and you're busy with twaddle like studies, work, home and children?"

"Fine," she retorted and turned her back on me. "Do me a favor and let me get some sleep now. Unlike you, I have to get up for work tomorrow."

Ya'Allah, what I am going to do? That's it, the book is going to press, there's nothing left to save. Where was I all these years? Only now, six years after I wrote the first sentence, only now, just before it goes to press, do I grasp the gravity of what I've done. What exactly was I thinking when I started to write this thing? What, am I an idiot? Where exactly did I think I was living? Switzerland?

"Tell me," I shook my wife.

"Do me a favor, let me sleep."

"Who do you vote for, anyway?"

"For whichever party promises to get you out of here," she said, and went back to sleep.

Again I had come up with heroes ... heroes, I call them - what kind of heroes? Nothings, I came up with nonentities, afraid of their own shadow. And I promised my father that my next book would make me a national hero. Palestinian, I mean. With pathetic characters like these, every beginning Arab journalist will make mincemeat out of me and become a national hero himself. Once more I had fallen asleep on the watch, once more I had entered into my story to the point where I forgot the reaction of those around me.

But there's nothing that can be done now. It's too late. Only to escape, just to pack my bags and hightail it out of here. To find a place where a writer doesn't have to bear on his shoulders any heavier burden than the story he's trying to tell; a place where writers don't feel a need to be national symbols.

Oy, how I would like to be like Mahmoud Darwish. And I'm not talking here only about outward appearance. I know, I just know that at this moment some readers are cursing inwardly and saying - how does this wretch who has no talent, and above all, has no values, dare dream of even getting close to the shoes of the national poet? They're right, he didn't even write in Hebrew.

Only now, as I go over the proofs, am I starting to think about the Arab readers. Not that the Jews are a people apart in this area. If the Arab reader looks for a punching bag that will make him feel more congenial about the political impotence, the Jew will for sure look for a book that will give him an anthropological experience, a rare look into the mind of an Arab, or a book that is a journey into the very heart of Arab society. It's an undeniable fact that every time I am invited to an Israeli literary event I find myself sharing the stage with two belly dancers, an unemployed Arab academic and a darbuka player.

Just this week I got a call inviting me to some cultural festival. "Have I reached Mr. Kashua?" asked the polite girl who called, and announced: "We are very proud to invite you to talk about your new book to an audience of readers."

"I would be delighted," I replied.

"Could you please just tell me in a few sentences what the book is about - for the program?"

"Of course. The book is about a Jerusalem lawyer who is married and has children. One day the lawyer goes into a used-book store ... "

"Just a minute, excuse me," she said, interrupting. "It's not about the conflict?"

"No, not really."

"But it's a book about the condition of the Arab minority in the Land of Israel?"

"No, not exactly."

"About identity problems, maybe?"

"I wouldn't say that. It's a story about a lawyer."

"Then, I ... I'm sorry ... I have to check with my supervisor ... Because we thought ..."

"Just a minute, just a minute," I shouted before she hung up. "The lawyer is an Arab."

"Ah, okay, go on."

"So the book is about an Arab lawyer with identity problems that have to do with the status of the Arab public in the shadow of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

"That sounds good," she said with an audible sigh of relief. "Please, go on."

"He has a wife, who is also an Arab, and she certainly has serious problems deriving from the status of Palestinian women within the Arab society in Israel."

"And how would you sum up the plot in one sentence?"

"In one sentence," I said, taking a moment to articulate my thoughts, "I would say that the book is undoubtedly a rare look into the very heart of Arab society."