'Language Is My Anchor'

He's 26, lives in Jaffa and considers himself part of the 'insolent third generation of the Nakba.' Ayman Sikseck says Hebrew literature is not necessarily Jewish - and he has written a novel to prove it.

Doron Halutz
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Doron Halutz

"Not long after Mahmoud Darwish died, I was talking with a friend of mine from a village in Galilee," Ayman Sikseck recalls. "I think we spoke about longing for people. He quoted a verse from a poem and asked if I knew it. I didn't. It was a Darwish poem and I was terribly ashamed. It wasn't some godforsaken Jordanian poet - it was Darwish! If he had quoted Leah Goldberg, I would have identified it for sure; if not the poem itself, at least I would have guessed the style."

Sikseck, 26, a columnist and literary critic, who lives in Jaffa and is studying for a master's degree in comparative and English literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has only started reading Arabic literature recently - a little more than two years ago.

"I decided to forgo Arabic studies in junior high, because it marks you as being different, emphasizes your otherness - though at the time my main reason was that Arabic grammar is terribly difficult - yet another reason to develop a grudge against the language. I also did not live my life in Arabic: The only place I spoke it was with my parents at home.

"During the period of the suicide bombing attacks, if my mother called when I was on a bus, I tried not to answer. Otherwise, people immediately gave you frightened looks and labeled you as an 'other,' in the worst sense of the word. So I felt guilty because instead of being familiar with Arabic, I had a love affair with Hebrew."

The "offspring" of that love affair is "To Jaffa," Sikseck's debut work of fiction. Written in Hebrew, this is a novel about the experiences of a literature student at the Hebrew University who divides his time between Jaffa and Jerusalem, and between a secret affair with his beloved Sherihan, a Muslim woman who is engaged to someone else, and a relationship with Nitzan, a Jewish woman.

Because the book is written in the first person, and in a restrained, reportorial, diary-like tone, and makes frequent reference to a notebook that the protagonist keeps; and because the protagonist is never named; and because Sikseck himself is a Jaffan who is studying literature at the Hebrew University, commutes between the two cities and is preoccupied with issues of identity in his writing - the obvious question is where the autobiography stops and the fiction begins.

"The reason I didn't give the hero a name is that I wanted to create a feeling of a young Palestinian-Israeli and prefered not to identify him specifically," Sikseck explains. "I invented 95 percent of the plot, but when it comes to the political aspects of it, and also the way the hero's thoughts run around in his head and how he formulates them - that's where I give myself away."

Sikseck's real life story is more dramatic than the plot of the book. In recent years his family has been swept up in a maelstrom of tragedies. His older brother, Khalil, a supermarket clerk, is in jail for the second time for breaking into a car. "My parents visit him. I don't," Sikseck says. "I don't know why he did it, I don't ask those questions, we don't have that kind of relationship."

Sikseck's brother-in-law - husband of his sister Tahiya - was murdered 12 years ago by shots fired from a passing car while sitting in front of his house, during what he calls a complicated blood feud between rival clans in the city.

"It's a long story that engulfed the families for many years," Sikseck relates, adding that two of the murdered man's brothers were also killed. The brother-in-law ran a vegetable store, but was described by the press as "a known criminal from the world of drugs."

"I don't know about that," Sikseck says. "He wasn't a bum, but an excellent person and a wonderful father, who was involved in things that were far from wonderful. For me it was awful. When I tried to dig into the story with my sister, I saw it hurt her to talk about it, so I stopped."

Are you concerned about the fate of the family?

Sikseck: "I am fearful for the life of my nephews - his and my sister's sons. These things never end."

The murder strengthened the religious faith of Sikseck's parents, Ibrahim, 70, and Tamam, 60: "My father always prayed and obeyed the precepts, and the feeling of mourning also drew my mother closer. She started to wear a hijab and long dresses that cover the whole body down to the wrist. Maybe that was a solution for the terrible place she was thrust into."

Sikseck has 19 aunts and uncles - 11 from his father's side and 8 from his mother's. His father, a former building contractor, is descended from a magnificent Jaffa dynasty, notes his son, "which owned a lot of property before Israel's establishment. There is also a Sikseck Mosque in Jaffa, in one of the alleys leading off the flea market. There are many academics on this side of the family - physicians, lawyers - but no one who is culturally active."

His mother's family, in contrast, was "hardscrabble," he says. "No one on that side finished 12 years of school. My mother does not speak English to this day. I think that is why it was important to her for me to acquire an education and realize things she was deprived of. Around 1948, my grandfather promised my grandmother that they would leave on the last ship [out of Palestine]. But he deliberately made them miss it and stay here. My grandmother was devastated: She remained here without her own family."

Ayman's parents' marriage was arranged; his mother was 14 when she wed: "My mother's parents told her, 'That man asked for your hand and we agreed. You will marry him.' These days I no longer hear about 14-year-old girls getting married." His older brother was born a year later, and by the time his mother was 20 she already had three children: Khalil, Tahiya and Amira. His parents intended to stop there, but 14 years later Ayman was born - "by mistake."

Literary forays

Sikseck earns a living today as a news analyst for a U.S.-based financial services company ("the farthest thing from what I thought I would do when I studied English literature, but English lit won't buy you a grocery store") and as a book reviewer (including for Haaretz), but has always lived at home and is very close to his parents. They share a modest three-room apartment, comprising a master bedroom; Ayman's room, with a Mac and a piano (half a year ago he realized a childhood dream by learning to play); and a living room full of decorative Arabic objects.

"It drives me crazy," he admits, "but my parents need me, economically and emotionally. I am the last of the children at home and we get along well, even if I need my own space sometimes. Fortunately, I work 10 hours a day outside the house."

From childhood his parents enrolled him in Jewish or mixed educational institutions. He never attended Arab schools, "because in those days they were in a really bad state," he says. He attended a Jewish kindergarten, made decorations for Sukkot booths and loved matza with chocolate spread ("fabulous"). His parents were delighted: "That was the proof of their success: that their son integrated into the Israeli milieu."

From there he moved to the College des Freres (popularly known as the "French school") in Jaffa, a private Catholic institution where the language of instruction is French. "We had religious lessons in which the class was divided: the Christians went with the teacher of Christianity, the Muslims studied the Koran and the Jews took a break, because everyone had to study the Old Testament in any case."

In ninth grade Sikseck decided he wanted an Israeli matriculation certificate, so he switched to a vocational high school, which closed two years after he graduated. "The official reason [for the closure] is that not enough students enrolled there," he says. "The unofficial reason is that over the years, more and more Arabs enrolled, until the Jews stopped coming."

Sikseck rather unhappily pursued the dental-technician track, which pleased his parents "because it was a profession and you could make a living from it. But it's a boring, thankless occupation in which you're stuck in a laboratory all day. By that time I also knew that my true interest lay in literature. My literature teacher started to take note of my exams and said I should try to publish things."

At the age of 18, he published a short story in the daily Maariv, followed by stories in literary journals. In 2004, when he was 20, he took part in the annual short story competition sponsored by Haaretz and won a commendation. In the wake of this, he started to publish a series of "Jaffa-Tel Aviv" vignettes in the paper, which caught the attention of the publishing house of the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth. In return for a modest advance, Sikseck promised to deliver a novel, but before starting it he blew the whole advance on a trip to Berlin to celebrate the agreement.

Sikseck was courted by others, too. A year later, Prof. Hannan Hever, head of the department of Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University, suggested that he publish his Jaffa stories as a book with Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House. Already under contract with Yedioth, the young writer had to turn down the offer, but found a compromise: Instead of writing an entirely new novel, Sikseck rewrote the short stories, added new ones and used them as a basis for his book. Hever agreed to co-edit the manuscript with Rina Verbin from Yedioth, and added an afterword. The result, "To Jaffa," is a good read.

"He is an excellent writer with rare ability," Hever says. "The genre he developed, which oscillates between story and essay, is overlaid with a subtly ironic tone and has no beginning, middle or end. What it does have is a flexible viewpoint that shifts in and out, entering and exiting the Arab experience - so as to observe it from the outside. His storytelling is very sophisticated; he uses physical space to encase the layers of history. By wandering around Jaffa, he raises questions relating to history and time, critically describing what the Jews are doing to the city and have done to it."

As for Sikseck's style of writing, Hever notes that "as a Palestinian writing in Hebrew, he continues a tradition that began with two extremely important writers who challenge the ethnocentricity of Hebrew literature: Anton Shammas and Salman Masalha. That's a big accomplishment, part of an entire process in which the idea that Israeliness belongs to the Ashkenazi Jews is crumbling."

"Language is my anchor," Sikseck notes. "I am not producing Palestinian literature: it's in Hebrew. I find myself within Hebrew and carve out my place through it. Maybe I am distancing myself from my Palestinian identity like this, but I am also returning to it from a different direction, through the mediation of Hebrew. It's like getting lost and then finding your way."

'Boomerang effect'

The mutual relationship between languages constitutes only a small part of Sikseck's identity crisis. "As a boy and a teenager I took it for granted that we live in Israel and was not aware of Palestine or the Nakba [or "catastrophe," referring to the impact of Israel's establishment on the Palestinians]," he explains.

"I always knew we had different holidays, a different language - after all, we were divided into groups during our religious lessons in elementary school. The initial 'buds' of my search [for identity] emerged during the period of the terrorist attacks. I recognized that my situation was problematic: On the one hand, I was afraid for my life; on the other hand, I noticed that the fear of my Jewish friends was different, and I began to wonder what we hadn't been told. I found it strange: Why were people being murdered? What's the reason? The history of the conflict was nonexistent from my point of view. I understood that the suicide bombers were Arabs, but it all looked completely foreign to me. I felt that I was a potential victim of the attacks.

"I was a teenager," he continues, "and the desire to be a part of the society I lived in and not be accused, mixed with my failure to understand the political situation - led me to identify with the Israeli situation. The older I got, the more I grasped the political and social complexity of things, the more I connected with my roots. We also have distant relatives in Gaza, refugees of 1948, my father's cousins, some of whom were killed in the past few years in all kinds of [Israeli military] operations. I remember that when I was little it was easier to get into Gaza, and we visited there quite a bit. Today it's totally impossible."

Sikseck says his political awareness continued to develop when he was studying for his B.A. in English literature and language at Hebrew University.

"We dealt with questions of identity, place, self-definition, and that sparked the process in an indirect way," he recalls. "I also heard that more Arabs were enrolling in Arab studies programs than in the past, returning to a systematic study of Arab literature. That is part of the nascent national awakening of my generation. People aspire to go back to speaking Arabic, even to send one another emails in Arabic: We used to write Arabic in Latin characters - bhibak [I love you], let's say - but now we are moving to Arabic characters. In the past few years I tried to revive my French, but then I started to feel guilty about giving French priority over Arabic."

Over time, he has made a series of interrelated decisions in an attempt to strike a balance between the different components of his identity. For example, he refuses to sing "Hatikva," the national anthem, but if he is in the company of Jews, he stands to attention when the siren sounds on Holocaust Memorial Day and on Remembrance Day for Israel's fallen soldiers.

"If my standing for a minute will prevent offending their sensitivities, then it's worth it to me," he explains. "Not to stand for a memorial siren is an empty provocation that says nothing. What, do I not care that six million Jews perished? I care, because they were human beings. But the Israeli flag does not hang in my room. Independence Day is a regular day for me. I do not celebrate; for the past several years I have taken part in Nakba Day activities in Galilee on that day."

So you stand for Israel's fallen soldiers and the next day go north to mark Nakba Day?

"That's what I've done for the past four years, and now the fifth is approaching. That's the Israeli-Palestinian paradox."

The Knesset recently passed on first reading the "Nakba law," which imposes a fine on public bodies that mark Independence Day as a day of mourning and denies them public funding.

"I hope the Nakba law is enacted," Sikseck says surprisingly. "It will invest Nakba Day with tremendous political force. Instead of some article on the inside pages of a newspaper about a few thousand people who held a procession in the north, the event will be the headline, because it will be against the law. The result will be that more institutions will mark the day out of spite and that the Nakba discourse will be a major news item. There will be a public debate, and young Palestinians and Israelis who never heard of it will have to deal with it. It's a piece of legislation which will have an insanely wild boomerang effect."

Nakba and Holocaust

The issue of loyalty to the state also arose recently when Scandar Copti, one of the directors of the film "Ajami," which was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign-language movie, declared that he was not representing Israel at the Academy Awards ceremony. One suggestion made during the resulting controversy was to make artists or other recipients of public funding sign a loyalty oath to the country.

"Saying that if he took money from a public body he is supposed to represent the country is an almost fascist remark," Sikseck explains. "Who really believes that true culture will flourish under such conditions? I also feel that the state does not represent me, with an anthem like that, and actions like that in the territories, and all kinds of statements by politicians who are also supposed to look after my interests as a citizen."

Can you understand why Culture Minister Limor Livnat and her colleagues were incensed over remarks like Copti's?

"It's because those remarks evoke the Arab-Israeli narrative, which is inextricably bound up with Palestinian history, and clashes with the lovely Zionist story at many points. It shows that terrible things were done and are being done today in the name of the Zionist enterprise - that there is a population here which feels discriminated against and alienated, and that the state doesn't know what to do with it. Those are things that aren't pleasant to hear."

Aren't your complaints the equivalent of rich people's troubles? In Arab countries the reaction to comments like Copti's would be far harsher. In those places they don't even talk about freedom of expression.

"Neither he nor I want that to become a convention, either in the Arab states or in Israel. Our aspiration is not to establish another Saudi Arabia here. I am not out to erase Israeliness, but I don't want Israeliness to erase me."

Sikseck blames not only the Zionist establishment but also his parents' generation for the present state of affairs. The older generation, he says, is responsible for "silencing both Palestinian history and the Nakba. Their generation felt that if they did not integrate into the Israeli space, the consequences would be truly disastrous," he says.

"It's just as important as putting food on the table, because otherwise how will you get admitted to university or find a job or just get along? They did nothing to make the Palestinian identity take root. It was not their grief but their parents'. From the viewpoint of my parents' generation, what happened happened, there is no going back and we have to do what we can in the present situation. There is tremendous repression, a desire to integrate as deeply as possible in what remains in Israel, even at the price of not raising the Palestinian flag if doing so bugs someone. That was the pragmatic conclusion they arrived at.

"The reaction of the Palestinians to the Nakba was the opposite of the Jews' reaction to the Holocaust," he continues. "Instead of an obsessive project of commemoration and keeping the memory alive, there is an implicit tradition of repression deriving from a need to integrate. And also perhaps internalizing that you are the losing side. We are starting to see allusions to this in art, in films - like those of Mohammed Bakri, for example - and in writing, including the work of [Haaretz columnist and writer] Sayed Kashua, even if he treats the subject ironically. I would like to think that this is a serious beginning of something."

Comparing the Nakba to the Holocaust will upset many people.

"I am not drawing a comparison between the events, but between the way each side copes with the national narrative. And if the Nakba was not a holocaust, then the occupation - the continuation of the Nakba - is a holocaust and the Israel Defense Forces is perhaps not the architect or initiator of it, but the implementer. The insane fencing in of people, the horrific regime, people who are separated by a wall from the orchard where they have earned a living their whole life - [Israel's] behavior in the territories is terrible and cruel. I go to the checkpoints to demonstrate and see what is going on."

You are undoubtedly familiar with the counter-argument for such actions: to make sure there will no Qassam rockets, and so on.

"The situation is far more complex than that description suggests. There is an insane cycle of victims and victimization on both sides, and it's impossible to say the next Qassam wasn't 'cooked up' inside the homes that were most recently destroyed in Gaza, or to argue that the recent destruction of the homes in Gaza was due to the Qassams."

If the situation is dialectical and complex, what is the basis for the comparison with the Holocaust?

"The Holocaust elements exist: keeping a population in impossible conditions, in a situation that makes it difficult for people to receive the essentials they need in order to survive, such as food and medical care. It's also a cultural holocaust, because the wall cuts across the route to school and to theaters, which is no less terrible than wiping out a city hall or a source of electricity."

The Arabs in Israel are perceived as a security threat; the Jews in Europe didn't threaten anyone.

"The Germans too felt an economic and cultural threat. Neither situation justifies what happened in Germany or what is happening here."

Insolent generation

Sikseck says he not concerned about the reactions his comments will stir.

"The third generation of the Nakba is an insolent generation, which can say that the Nakba and the occupation are equivalent to the Holocaust in many senses," he asserts. "The previous generation would never have said such a thing. In my generation I feel a clear, distinct move toward the Palestinian direction, a quest for roots - who was where before 1948. My generation feels committed to work for social change, to connect to the Palestine we were not told about. I find myself asking my parents, 'What happened? Tell me.' I feel a commitment to ensure that my nieces and nephews will not lose their Arabic, as happened to me. I switched the language of my 14-year-old niece's cellular phone from Hebrew to Arabic, and her reaction was, 'Oh no - I'll be a laughingstock at school.' And she goes to an Arab school! They see Arabic as an inferior language."

Despite his criticism of the Israeli establishment, Sikseck does not point an accusing finger at it in his new book: "That would have turned it into an 'engaged' work, one written to hurl accusations and further a political cause. It also would have been less interesting than addressing the disappearance of culture and identity, and our collaboration in that process, how we allowed it to happen."

Do you write in order to advance your personal career or to promote the political struggle?

"It's a combination. The political struggle motivates me to write, it's a catalyst for action, but it's clear that there is also an added value that I enjoy: namely, that people read my work and that it advances me personally to the career I want to pursue."

Doesn't renewed identification with the ethos of the Nakba generate a desire for revenge?

"There is grief, but not a desire for revenge: The struggle is for recognition, for the trauma of Palestine to be recognized as the Holocaust is recognized. And also for the Palestinian side to recognize the Holocaust as a Jewish trauma."

Maybe your parents were right and it's best to leave things alone? Ignorance is bliss, you know.

"Of course that makes things easier, but it also exacts a steep price: It led me to forgo many things that I lack now."

Sikseck has written in Hebrew from the outset of his career: "I love the music of the language, and the fact that I led my life in Hebrew made it accessible, natural. For many years, that experience came at the expense of Arabic, and now I am trying to prove to myself that it doesn't have to be like that. Still, I do not write literature in Arabic; I only use it for communication."

He's already at work on his next novel, though his main focus is his master's thesis, which is about the representation of masculinity in the works of Cormac McCarthy: "I am curious about how one goes about constructing a character that will convey masculinity, what the process is, the manipulation the author uses so you feel the character is truly masculine, not only in terms of gender."

The protagonist of "To Jaffa" is not exactly a man's man.

"Hannan Hever said that one of the expressions of the narrator's hybrid nature is an absence of confident masculinity, such as in his inability to move things along with Sherihan, even though she wants that, or in his inability to stand up to his father. He is very hesitant and a bit of a coward. He doesn't stand up for his rights and is focused only on his notebook. His masculinity is weakened. It's because the waves of the national and civic identity crisis wash over everyone. These are aftershocks that have a widening impact: on the family, on sleep, on studies."

Your own masculinity could also perhaps be described as weak, or even "feminine." You're slightly built, a little nasal, well groomed, delicate.

"I am aware that I am not your typical macho Arab. I've been thin, small and weak since childhood."

The descriptions of the hidden youthful love in the book allow it to be read also as a novel about latent homosexuality.

"That's an interesting interpretation, but it's not what I intended when writing the book. I did not try to create a homosexual dimension for the protagonist. That would be too many conflicts for a first book. It was important for me to give national identity center stage. The fact that the protagonist hides his relationship with Sherihan stems from social reasons: Society would have a very negative opinion of her if it were known she had a partner before marriage."

As to the timing of the book's publication, Sikseck says that when the publisher sent it to a group of test readers, some of them thought he was trying to ride the wave of success generated by the film "Ajami": "They said the reason the book was being published now was because of the success of the movie, that I wrote it because it's a hot subject," he says. "Come on! I started writing the Jaffa stories seven years ago, plus the publisher worked on the book for a year and a half."

A true bookworm, Sikseck devours at least three books a week. "My longest love affair is with Latino [sic] writers, such as Saramago, Erri de Luca, Elena Ferrante and Laura Restrepo. There is a wild passion in Latino literature that I haven't encountered anywhere else, combined with warmth and human compassion."

He has only recently started to read Arabic literature - "a lot of Elias Khoury, Darwish, Ghassan Kanafani. The language barrier was tough at first, but it's getting easier. I am already able to read Mahfouz with little difficulty and great enjoyment."

What about an Arabic translation of "To Jaffa"?

"I hope it will happen, but I will not be the translator; my Arabic isn't good enough. I'd be interested to know how it's received by Arabs in other societies - if they understand and feel there is really a difficulty here, or would see it as treason, because they wonder, 'What is the significance of the fact that it's not clear which side he belongs to?' When I speak Arabic, I find that every second word is Hebrew or English. It gives me an inferiority complex."

If Hebrew has taken root among the local Palestinians, maybe the Zionist cultural project can be declared the winner?

"Not necessarily: I experience it as a counter-move. If I have integrated so well into Hebrew, have internalized it and now am also working creatively in the language, that defies the viewpoint that Hebrew literature is truly Jewish, and shows that it can also be something other than the Jewish roots that drove the project from the outset. Things become more complex."

In the end, people will say: "We have published a book by a Palestinian, so you can't say there is inequality here."

"Internalizing the rules of the game means taking advantage of the desire the Israeli media have to show that the 'other' is also accepted. It's a bear hug, because the moment you are given the stage, you unavoidably become a pet. It's something that's built in and also blurs the inequality. It's another paradox, like everything about being an Arab Israeli. Even if I try, I will never be a 100-percent Israeli, and I don't intend to try to be one. So if one is destined to be an 'other,' at least know your otherness, why you are that way and what made you an 'other' - and love it even with all its inherent difficulties." W