Too Many Smiles, Too Much Cheese: Sayed Kashua Bids Farewell to the U.S.

After smoking cigarettes with the homeless and the downtrodden, encountering NBA players the height of God, the writer is ready to go home.

Sayed Kashua
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Illustration by Amos Biderman
Illustration by Amos Biderman
Sayed Kashua

After over a week of making the rounds in America, I’m glad to be heading home where there’s no ice in the water – or illusions about life

Ten days have passed since I arrived in the United States. I’ve taken three trains and three domestic flights. It’s 6 A.M. Eastern time, and I’m waiting for my flight from Reagan Airport in Washington, D.C. to Milwaukee. I’ll spend a night there, then fly back to New Jersey for another event at Princeton, and then start to make my way back to Israel.

That’s it, I’ve done the America thing and I can’t wait to get home. I’ve been suffering from constipation for a few days, and yesterday an irritating rash broke out on my stomach. I have a strong feeling that it has something to do with the Indian restaurant that my hosts in Washington insisted on taking me to last might. I asked the waitress explicitly for a non-spicy dish. She recommend the chicken and promised it wouldn’t be at all spicy. With the first bite my tongue caught fire – may God grant them health, those Indians.

I had a young Indian taxi driver a few days ago, who picked me up at JFK Airport and took me to Brooklyn. He asked me where I was from and I replied, as I customarily do when asked by strangers abroad, “I’m from Jerusalem.” The Indian fellow turned his head to me for a second and said, “What’s that?”

I tried to explain to him that it’s a city in Palestine, but he didn’t get it. He said he’d never heard of anything like that. I tried “Israel” and he said he’d never heard of that, either.

“Tell me,” he said, “is it hard to get an American visa in the place you’re coming from?”

“No,” I told him, “it takes about a month.”

“What do you say?” the Indian fellow shot back, and as eaters of tangy foods do, shook his head rapidly. “With us, it’s almost impossible, impossible. They didn’t give me a visa, they refused.”

“Then how can you live here?” I asked, and he replied with a smile, “I married an American woman, and now I have a Green Card and I’m waiting to get citizenship.”

The Indian fellow with the Green Card was nice. I gave him a tip when he dropped me off at the hotel in Brooklyn, and he gave me a tip back: “Watch out here at night, a lot of blacks, a lot of blacks.”

Well, I saw a lot of black people, may God grant them health. Indeed, I will never forget the ones I met in Los Angeles. In California my generous hosts did the California thing and put me up in a painfully ostentatious hotel next to the Lakers’ arena. It was one of those hotels with a parking lot full of luxury cars that I’ve never seen in Israel. A hotel where everyone who enters looks rich and dumb. Beautiful women in glittering gowns and men in suits and cuff links – I know, because I spent most of my time there outside in the smoking area, with the homeless and the downtrodden.

When I was there, lot of fans of the basketball team, which was housed at the hotel, were waiting outside. Never will I forget the humiliation when I got into the hotel elevator and encountered four NBA players the height of God. Never have I felt so puny. I was afraid, I sweated and I prayed that the elevator would be swift of ascent so I would be liberated from the human jungle. “Never mind,” I told myself, trying to console my whole 1.75 meters [5 feet, 9 inches] of height. “I’m sure none of them can write like me.”

I met some Israeli friends in Los Angeles, and they told me that Israelis were giving other Israelis a bad name, that everyone knows you have to stay away from them. “There’s a lot of builders and all kinds of locksmiths,” they said. “Cheats who give everyone a bad name.”

My friends there want to get into the local movie industry. “This is the place,” they’re sure, but in the meantime they aren’t doing much – mostly waiting for a break and living off savings and money their parents send.

“What is there in Israel?” they ask. “This is the real deal.”

“This is the real deal,” I was also told by a Jewish Agency emissary who was doing a three-year stint with his wife and young children in a sleepy Midwestern city. “Everything you need is here,” he said, “all within five minutes. A movie, a play, a restaurant, whatever you want. It’s so comfortable here, and the people? They’re unbelievably nice,” he said and took a deep breath to savor the moment. “Life is so simple, so comfortable.”

“Comfortable?” I thought to myself as I entered a toilet cubicle in Reagan Airport. I don’t understand how in the world it so hard for these Americans to realize that there has to be a complete separation between these cubicles – why they make do with a kind of curtain that brings to mind my grandmother’s stories about the latrines in Tira from 100 years ago. And besides the fact that I don’t like the way they laugh left and right, it can be confusing. Plus I also don’t like it that they drink only water with ice – even if it’s freezing outside they dump ice into the water. And everything comes with cheese – hamburgers, steaks, chicken, everything with cheese. It’s not that I keep kosher, heaven forbid ... but rabak!

Okay, they’ve announced that boarding has started. I have to go. As soon as I get on the plane, I’ll check off yet another event on my itinerary of public readings in the United States. I want to be home already, with my lack of comfort and with the water in Jerusalem, hard and without the ice.

I’ll soon hand my boarding pass to an American flight attendant, and he’ll smile broadly and say, “How are you today, sir,” and I will know that here, when they ask how I am, they don’t really care. It’s only a trick aimed at providing the illusion that life is comfortable here.