Sayed Kashua - Amos Biderman - April 20, 2012
Illustrations by Amos Biderman.
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I had to finish the 0.3-liter bottle I’d bought in Duty Free before boarding the plane. You’re not allowed to bring liquids on flights to the United States and very soon they were going to make the final boarding announcement over the loudspeakers. I took another sip and shook my head, an action that only added to the haziness that enveloped me in the airport smokers’ lounge.

“I’m scared,” I said, feeling a need to explain myself.

“Me, too,” said the woman across from me in Eastern European-accented Arabic, lighting another cigarette with shaky hands. “I’m terrified of flying,” she added, taking a long drag and then rubbing her hands together forcefully. “But I have to: I haven’t seen my daughters for a year. They don’t even know I’m coming.” She took a break from her anxieties and smiled. “It’s a surprise. I spoke to my oldest just a half-hour ago and didn’t mention a thing about coming to visit them.”

Her older daughter is fine, the woman went on; she’s studying economics and working a little at a bank in Romania. It’s a problem now with Romania and economics, but she’s fine. It’s the younger one who is the worry: She got excellent grades, she was always a good girl, but now she’s gone off to study theater. Whatever the mother tried to do, it didn’t help. The girl just loves theater and wants to be an actress. But how and where is she going to find that kind of work?

“It’s hard, it’s very hard,” the woman said. “And you? Where are you going?”
“To America,” I said, and the woman crossed herself and said she would never be able to sit in a plane for so many hours, then hastened to add apologetically, “It’ll be okay.”

Then she asked, “What are you going there for?”

“I don’t know,” I blurted, and took another sip from the bottle. Just a minute ago finishing it had posed a challenge, but now that it was almost empty, I was sorry I hadn’t bought another one. The foreign worker put her cigarette out in the ashtray, wished me luck, crossed herself again and walked out of the smoking lounge.

I could have told her that I was going on a two-week trip to give readings all over the United States. That I wasn’t going to stay in any city for more than one day, that in the next two weeks I would not sleep in the same hotel for more than one night, that I had 12 different flights to take, plus two train trips − and all to promote my book, which was now being published in America.

But I myself am not really sure anymore why I’m going. In my inbox a few days ago, I found a petition calling upon me to cancel one of the readings in Boston. I woke up that morning, made coffee, turned on the computer and discovered that, according to the petition, I was going to be taking part in the Israel Independence Day celebration at one of the universities in Boston.

“There must be a mistake,” was the first thought that came to my mind as I read the text of the petition, which had already been signed by more than 50 university students and faculty members. Before I had a chance to read it over carefully, I got a phone call from the Radio A-Shams station in Nazareth, asking if I was willing to come on the air for a discussion of my participation in the Independence Day celebrations in Boston.

“Um, okay,” I stammered. “When?”

“Now,” said the radio producer. “Stay on the line, Zohair Bahloul will start talking to you in just a moment.”

Bahloul, the host, was speaking on the other line with a girl who was described as the political activist behind the petition. She told of how she’d received an invitation from a group called Friends of Israel, from a university in Boston, that showed that I was among the participants in “a week of celebrations of Israel’s independence,” and that she and her friends were calling on me to cancel my appearance there.
“We have Sayed Kashua on the line with us,” said Bahloul, and I snapped to attention upon hearing my name.

“I have no idea what this is all about,” I said. “I never heard of Friends of Israel, I never received an invitation from them and I’m only now hearing for the first time that I’m taking part in any kind of Independence Day celebrations.”

The activist said she was holding the aforementioned invitation in her hand. I said I wanted to look into the matter, that I would be glad to see what this was about, and that I would wait until it was morning in New York and contact the publisher and the person who organized the readings. And I promised that as far as I knew, I was going on a promotional reading tour that was planned months ago and that it had nothing to do with any independence festivities.

“And if you find out that you are in fact participating in Independence Day celebrations?” Bahloul asked.

“I won’t take part,” I said. “I don’t like to be used.”

It was a very long morning. I sent messages and waited for responses. Meanwhile I started to get e-mails from friends in Israel and elsewhere demanding answers from me. “I swear, this is the first I’ve heard of this,” was my standard reply.

Meanwhile, on Facebook I was being barraged with curses and accusations of betrayal. I managed to contact the woman who’d authored the petition and she directed me to the Friends of Israel Facebook page, which has 184 friends. It said I was coming to celebrate Israel Independence Day at the university and invited the public to join.

Before I got any answers from the organizers of the readings − who were also hearing about Friends of Israel and any connection to Israel Independence Day for the first time − that same young political activist realized she’d made a mistake by basing herself on a Facebook page she knew nothing about. She took the petition off the boycott sites and apologized. But it was already too late. The accusations and vitriol continued to run rampant online, and I sank into a depression.

One site said that while I apparently wasn’t going to be part of the Independence Day celebrations, I was still collaborating with Hillel House, which is known for its Zionist extremism. Another said I was going to represent Israel, that I was a fig leaf, that I was serving the country abroad to ostensibly prove its liberalism.

Why am I going on this trip? The question echoed in my mind as I emptied the bottle in front of me and lit another cigarette in the hope that I’d have enough time to finish it. For what? Will all the precautions I take when it comes to traveling, readings and events be of any help at all? Is there any way to come out of this unscathed? And what does this all mean exactly?

Does the newspaper also see me as a fig leaf? Does the publisher? The television network? Should we demand equality from the government institutions or should we boycott them? And what about Arab university professors in Israel, when there are calls around the world for a boycott? Are they also traitors, guilty of collaboration? And lawyers in the Israeli courts, and teachers in the Israeli education system? And equal rights organizations, and the Arab MKs − aren’t they the biggest fig leaf of them all?

I don’t know how to come out of this clean and at the same time not be a hypocrite. I just want to write, I whispered to a man who didn’t understand Hebrew and sat down opposite me to smoke. “Last call for Delta passengers to New York,” the announcement echoed in the terminal. I decided I still had some time.