Dutch Treat. Or Not.

Ahead of the translation of his book into Dutch, Sayed Kashua is invited to appear on TV in Holland alongside - to his surprise - Paul Auster.

I arrived in Amsterdam that evening in a jet-lag stupor that I acquired in Los Angeles. I couldn’t allow myself to sleep on the plane despite the vast quantities of alcohol that were surging through my bloodstream. Still, I clutched the armrests of my seat with all my might, knowing I had to be prepared, because otherwise who would save the plane if, heaven forbid, something went wrong up there.

“Welcome,” a tall, flaxen-haired Dutch woman, who was holding a sign bearing my name said to me in the arrivals lounge.

Sayed Kashua - Amos Biderman - May 11, 2012
Illustration by Amos Biderman.

“Thank you very much,” I replied to the woman, my editor. I shook her hand and followed her to the parking area.

“How was the flight?” she asked. I told her it was fine and that I was happy to be here in Amsterdam, and thanked her and the Dutch people for the translation of my book, “even though the cover was a little odd for my taste,” I noted politely. I then asked, “Why do you think they chose a cover like that in Holland?”

“I don’t know,” she said, taking the car keys out of her suit pocket. “I haven’t seen your book, sir.”

The answer baffled me − until that same tall, flaxen-haired young woman opened the truck of her taxi and asked if I needed help with the suitcase.

I arrived at the hotel late at night. According to the timetable I received at the reception desk, representatives of the publisher would be waiting for me in the lobby at 9 A.M. From there I would be taken to be interviewed for a culture program at a local television station.

I couldn’t get to sleep in the hotel room: My body was behaving like early afternoon in Los Angeles. I stared at a Dutch TV channel for hours and my eyes remained as wide open as an owl’s.

The clock showed 5 A.M. when I woke up and knew there was no chance I would get back to sleep. At 6 I went out for a walk in chilly Amsterdam. I wandered around the city center, strolled along the canals and observed the beautiful buildings, making sure I looked down occasionally, to avoid stepping into the piles of garbage that littered the sidewalks. Endless quantities of Heineken beer cans, cigarette butts, paper cups and dishes, and remainders of food accompanied me throughout the walk. I started to wonder where the rumor that Europe is a clean continent originated.

“I apologize for the condition of the city,” a PR man for the publishers said after we had exchanged the usual polite greetings. “Yesterday we celebrated the queen’s birthday,” he said, explaining that everyone had been drunk in the streets from the morning until the wee hours.

“Too bad you didn’t invite me a day earlier,” I replied with genuine regret at having missed the debauchery. “I’ve always wanted to celebrate something related to a queen.”

I thought I saw Paul Auster sitting in the hotel lobby, but didn’t dare say a word to my host. What if I’m wrong? What if it’s not the writer but just another tall European in sunglasses? After all, the night before I had mistaken a taxi driver for a serious editor. I kept mum and followed the PR man to the taxi that was waiting outside the hotel.

Tall, flaxen-haired Dutch people greeted me at the TV station. The moderator of the program shook my hand, praised my book and promised a relaxed, cordial conversation. A polite makeup woman worked a long time to erase the black bags from under my eyes and to obscure the signs of sleeplessness as well as she could. When she was done she smiled and wished me good luck.

In the waiting room my host told me there was a large minority of Moroccans in Holland. He also mentioned the names of some important, first-rate Moroccan writers who wrote in Dutch and whose books sold well in the country. What a country, I thought to myself, and immediately started to consider Holland as an immigration option instead of the United States. They have Moroccans who are considered good writers and are also probably considered full-fledged citizens. It must be great to be a Moroccan citizen of Holland. A smile crossed my face as the man with the sunglasses from the hotel lobby entered the waiting room together with the moderator of the culture show.

“Mr. Auster,” the host said, “I want to introduce you to Mr. Kashua, who is also a guest on our program today.”

“I like your work very much,” I found myself telling Paul Auster and hoping that the makeup was hiding the flush that spread across my cheeks. Me and Paul on the same program, I can’t believe it. In Israel they would have probably brought me David Grossman at most. Holland, that’s the place! I will integrate beautifully, I will be a highly regarded author without any connection to my origin. There you go: I’ve only been here one day, the book hasn’t yet reached the stores, and Paul and I are already having a coffee together and the two of us are completely equal, being interviewed about our new books.

Auster was asked about his latest book, which is about memory. His replies were intelligent and filled with inspiration. “Writing is actually remembering,” the charming moderator intoned, and Auster shot back, “Actually, it’s remembering mostly things that never happened.”

I nodded in assent, impressed by his brilliant comments and promising myself that I would read the memoir as soon as it appears in Israel.

It will soon be my turn. I tried to take in some air, focus on my book and prepare for the moderator’s questions; he seemed to have read the books thoroughly.
“Mr. Kashua,” the moderator asked in English, after an introduction in Dutch, which I didn’t understand, of course. “Tell us where you were born.” The question took me by surprise − he hadn’t asked Auster where he’d been born. “In Tira,” I replied, and the moderator insisted that I describe my childhood in the village. How hard were things there, he asked. What kind of childhood did you have? Did you have a library in the village when you were little? When did you start reading? When did you start writing? What’s it like to be a foreign minority?

I almost choked. I felt bad for Auster, who sat there listening to the moderator’s questions, which had nothing to do with the book but were aimed most of all at showing that a wretched Arab kid had learned how to read and write a book pretty well. It was an interview that recalled interviews in Israel from 20 years ago. Nothing about literature, no questions of the kind Auster had been asked, which might begin with, “Writing is the music of the body,” but only anthropological stuff derived from the finest colonial tradition.

“Thank you very much,” the moderator said, shaking my hand warmly at the conclusion of the interview, his flaxen hair waving on his head, and a tear of solidarity with the downtrodden almost cascading down his cheek.
“It was a good interview,” the PR man from the publishing house said in the taxi on the way back to the hotel.

Sanitation workers had been deployed in droves on the streets to clean up. I looked at them and tried to find one worker, just one, who was tall and flaxen-haired. No such luck. Some were black, others looked a little more like me, but all of them I could swear, had black bags under their eyes.