Sayed Kashua Talks Back: Maybe I Learned Hebrew Just for This Moment

As he wins a French prize, this Haaretz columnist does not pardon his French.

I was so pleased when I received a letter last week from the French publisher, informing me my latest book had been selected as one of three candidates for a readers’ prize in France.

“Is there money in it?” my father asked.

“So, are we going to France?” my wife asked.

The French asked me to send them a picture and gave me a day to provide three-line answers to two short questions: “What does language mean to you?” and “Since your book also deals with identity, what does it mean to be an Arab in a Jewish state?”

Edith Piaf was playing in the car the morning after I got the letter, as I drove my son to the bilingual school and my daughter to the Jewish school. They fought in Hebrew in the back seat and I had to deal with them with threats, in Arabic. Eventually I had to separate them; they left me no choice. My daughter would sit up front, she’s big enough, and my son would remain in back.

“Dad,” whispered my daughter when she sat down next to me, after she turned the music down a little. “What’s an ethnic group?”


“The kid in class asked me what ethnic group I’m from,” she said, “and I didn’t really know what they meant.”

“So what did you tell them?”

“I said that I’m Arab,” she said. “And then they asked which religion, and I said Muslim, and then they asked if I’m Sunni or Shi’ite. We’re Sunnis, right, Dad?”

“Right,” I replied. “And remind me that we need to find you a private tutor for Arabic, okay?”

“But Dad,” she started complaining. “I already have so much homework and music and...” “Language is identity,” I found myself shouting in a whisper. “Language is belonging.”

“So why do you...,” she began. “Never mind.”

“Why do I what?”

“Why do you write in Hebrew?”

“What does language mean to you?”

In my office I stared at this French riddle for a long time and couldn’t come up with a good answer.

Meanwhile two radio broadcasters whose names I don’t feel like mentioning were vying to see who could claim to be the more enlightened, with each line coming out of their mouths dripping with condescension and an air of superiority that divided humanity into morally lofty nations and inferior ones. The one who wanted to criticize the recent lynching in Jerusalem accused the perpetrators of being inspired by the spirit of the eastern part of the city, and was essentially trashing the Israeli attackers by calling them Arabs.

For his part, the other quoted a newspaper report saying thousands of shots had been fired at a wedding in Umm al-Fahm, and called for Border Police buses to encircle such weddings and search all the participants until no weapons are left in the Arab villages. The main reason for this, said the broadcaster, is that one day these weapons will be directed at us, that is, at Jews, who truly understand the value of life and have lofty souls. It’s one thing − the bitter lives of the Arabs in the weapons-filled villages, that goes with their culture, and violence is part of their way of thinking − but the authorities must act because this behavior pattern of the Arab shows that there’s no knowing when he will abruptly train his weapons upon the civilized folk that only want to bring light. For instead of the winds of Givat Ram bringing salvation to Shuafat, Ras al-Amud “and ana ’aref,” as he put it, the opposite has happened and this eastern wind has led to lynchings in the heart of united Jerusalem.

“Kif halak, ya zalameh,” exclaimed a production assistant who came into my office, in a terrible accent that left no doubt that this was about the only nice sentence he learned during his military service. “Get out of here!” I found myself shouting at him, as his expression rapidly shifted from surprise to indignation.

I may be an Arab, but my role in the production is important. He shut the door and left, and then, since I am considered a polite person, I wanted to run after him and ask him to forgive me. I was certain, after all, that he was just trying to be nice. I’m sure he only meant to make me feel good or make me laugh.

But I won’t ask forgiveness, and for a moment I even enjoyed that fact that an Arab could shout at a Jew in the workplace. But that pleasurable feeling soon evaporated as I started to fear that my yelling at the production assistant could get me fired. Always, wherever I have worked, I’ve had that same feeling: that I could be fired at any moment because of my views.

I’ve learned to be wary of my Jewish bosses, not to trust them, and to be ready to lose my job at any time. I won’t ask forgiveness, and if I’m asked by the producer to explain my behavior, before leaving, I’ll expound at length about how much I’ve sacrificed and how hard I’ve worked to be able to get to this position where neither a junior nor senior employee can address me in Arabic as if I’m just the janitor who cleans the offices.

I learned your language at the expense of my mother tongue so I could address you in a language I thought you could understand. So I don’t want someone who isn’t fluent in the language to speak to me in flawed and slow Arabic. I’m at work, I’m not standing at some checkpoint. And maybe I learned Hebrew just for this moment, when I could use it to shout eloquently at a worker who tried to slight me and remind me of my place. So, “Get out of my office!” I shouted. “And I don’t ever want to see your face again!”

Time went by and no one came into my office to request an explanation for my behavior. I went back to the questions for the French prize and answered the one about language: For me, language is merely a tool for writing stories. Hebrew for me is a bridge between cultures.

And as to the second question, about what it means to be an Arab in a Jewish state, I wrote: This question should be referred to Jews, they’re the ones who decide.