Sayed Kashua Gets a Lesson in Identity Politics - in Catalan

Sayed Kashua
Sayed Kashua
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Sayed Kashua
Sayed Kashua

I’m writing this column from my seat in the middle of the rear section of an El Al Boeing 737 en route home from Barcelona. The flight attendant will soon arrive with the beverage cart. I’d be happy to have a beer, but El Al stopped offering beer and any other alcoholic drinks years ago, other than a red wine that doesn’t give the impression of being an especially high-quality product.

But maybe I’ll ask the hostess for a beer anyway; sometimes, if they’re nice and have time, they bring me one from business class. Business class has everything. The truth is, as the years go by, the whole thing about passengers in business class bugs me more and more. Not because of the business people of one kind or another, and the other people I don’t recognize, who are sitting comfortably in their spacious seats and sipping their bubbly champagne there. No, what really gets me is the performing artists I spot among the affluent types sitting in the front of the plane.

How am I supposed to feel, for example, when I discover that singer David D’Or is in business class while I have to squeeze my way into economy? I wouldn’t say a word if it were a Mizrahi singer – that I could understand – but Yardena Arazi in business and not me? Didi Harari in business and me next to the toilet?

There’s something totally askew here. For Pete’s sake, how much do they make, these artists? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge them, I’m not saying it’s not coming to them, heaven forbid. I just sometimes have the feeling that I’m not getting paid the same as Jewish journalists, screenwriters or artists. That there’s a conspiracy of silence between my agent, the producers and the moderators at cultural events – a kind of agreement among everyone involved that an Arab can make do with a lot less. One time I actually saw the actor Sasi Keshet sitting in business class. Jeez.

Still, even though I didn’t fly business, the hotel room that was reserved for me in Barcelona was heavenly. A spacious suite in a truly classy hotel opposite the cathedral, right at the entrance to the Old City. But that view, which I saw from the window in my room and when I went out to smoke at the entrance to the hotel, was all I managed to see of the city’s wonders. It was my first visit to Barcelona – my latest book was published in Catalan this week – and I had been invited by the publisher for two days of interviews, readings and public relations events.

I arrived in the city three days ago, got to the hotel close to midnight, had a sandwich and went to sleep. In the next two days, I went from one interview to another and from one journalist to the next, nonstop, from 9:30 A.M. until almost 10 P.M. True, the itinerary I’d received in advance promised two hours of rest each day, but some of the interviews went on longer than planned, and photography sessions hadn’t been taken into account.

The result was that I found myself with half an hour of leisure time a day, in which I showered and changed my clothes. “It’s not really considered being in Barcelona,” I replied to a friend from Israel who texted me. “What’s it like in Barcelona?”

Not that I suffered – far from it. This is my profession, and I was pleased at the great interest shown by the local journalists. It’s the first time a book of mine has been translated into Catalan. The truth is I hadn’t known that there is such a language; I was certain that what’s spoken in Spain is Spanish. And that is actually true: Spanish is spoken in Barcelona.

“The people on the streets of Barcelona speak Spanish,” I was told by Miguel, the publisher’s PR man. “The small villages of Catalonia speak Catalan. The whole issue of language is very complex and sensitive for us.”

“Yes, for us, too,” I replied.

“I’m sure,” Miguel said, adding that he thought the reason local journalists were intrigued by the book is that it deals with identities, “and then, when they realized that you write in Hebrew, they all really wanted to interview you.”

One young journalist, who didn’t ask a thing about the book but focused exclusively on the issue of language and identity of Israel’s Palestinian citizens, told me that he too once took my approach and wrote in Spanish, until he understood that the Spaniards weren’t listening to him and didn’t even want to listen. He got fed up and now writes only in Catalan.

“Do you think there’s a chance you will also get fed up one day, and will simply decide that you are no longer going to write in Hebrew?” he asked me.

“Hmmmm,” I hemmed and hawed. “Maybe, I don’t know, could be, it depends. But tell me,” I shot back in an attempt to evade a discussion of my language problems, “is there a big difference between Catalan and Spanish?”

“Of course,” the young journalist replied in an aggressive tone of voice, which suggested that my question had insulted him. “The difference between Catalan and Spanish is like the difference between French and Italian.”

“Yes, yes,” I nodded in agreement, even though, even when I tried with all my might, I couldn’t figure out when people spoke Catalan and when they spoke Spanish.

After two days in Catalonia and meetings with more than a dozen different journalists, I grasped that the situation there is pretty awful. The people are very worried about the future and are certain that the worst is yet to come. The Catalan leadership has decided to hold a referendum on Catalonian independence, but the Spanish government is preventing it from being held.

“Do you understand?” one of the older journalists said. “This is how the civil war here started at the time. It’s terrible. It’s frightening.”

“Tell me,” I asked Miguel, the PR guy, “how do you know who is Catalonian and who is Spanish?”

“What do you mean?” he replied. “A Catalonian is anyone who can speak Catalan, even if he is Spanish.”

“What?” I asked, and Miguel explained that there are many people of Spanish origin in Barcelona, and also many immigrants, and that as far as he is concerned, everyone who wants to learn the Catalan language is enough of a Catalonian for him.

“All the Catalonians speak Spanish,” he went on, “but definitely not everyone who is Spanish speaks Catalonian. It’s easier for a Catalonian writer to be translated into German or French than into Spanish, do you see? They look down on us culturally.”

“Just a minute,” I said, trying to understand. “There are Catalonian writers who write in Spanish?”

“Of course,” he said. He then explained that there had been a big to-do a few years ago at the Frankfurt Book Fair when Catalonian culture was the “guest of honor” – that is, the focus of interest – and Catalonian writers who write in Spanish weren’t even invited.

Besides the language and culture question, I learned that there is also an issue over the tax that the residents of Catalonia, whether of Spanish or Catalonian descent, pay, which they are told is earmarked to help poorer regions in Spain. It makes them feel that the right-wing government in Madrid is milking them for all they’re worth while treating them with contempt and arrogance.

“Excuse the question,” I said to Miguel, trying to figure out how closely their identity problems resemble ours, “but do Spanish and Catalonian people mix – can they marry one other?”

Miguel, who is in favor of an independent Catalonia and is zealous about Catalan language and Catalonian culture, laughed long and heartily before answering. “Of course, we live together, that’s not a problem, do you see?” But try as I might, I couldn’t see.

“What would you like to drink, sir?” the flight attendant asked.

“Water, please.” I decided to forgo the beer from business class and avoid more identity confusion. The guy in the window seat asked for tomato juice.

Illustration by Amos Biderman.