There’s Nothing for Me in Chicago, Sayed Kashua Thinks, but Stays

I think about asking to have my books from home sent to me, but right away decide to wait, because I’m sure I’ll soon be going back.

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

School ended here last week, and the children are on summer vacation. It’s hard to get used to the summer here – it’s hot and humid like in Israel, but sometimes there are downpours, and too often there are hailstorms and thunderstorms in this area. Summer for me is usually something completely different. It doesn’t rain, and if it does, someone will always shout, “It’s raining! It’s raining!” and everyone will rush out to see the rain coming down in the middle of the summer and will hope that this augurs well for the winter.

After the school year ended, we packed up our few belongings and left our town for an apartment in Chicago. The contract for the place we were renting ends this week, but we can’t enter the new apartment we took for next year until early July. According to the original plan, we were now supposed to undertake a farewell trip in the United States before heading home.

A year ago, I never imagined that I would stay even one day past what we had planned. We came for what was supposed to be a sabbatical, a time-out, a vacation to work on a book, and maybe more than anything, “so the children will learn English.”

The place we’ll be staying at in Chicago for now is on a high story in a tall building. The picture windows in the living room look out across Lake Michigan, and the windows in the dining area reveal the skyscrapers of the city center. It’s a lovely furnished apartment, whose owners, whom we never met, are away on a brief vacation. They attached a sheet of instructions and explanations to the refrigerator – how to operate various electrical appliances, how many shelves in the clothes cupboards are for our use, recommendations for neighborhood restaurants and stores.

The children were thrilled by the apartment, mostly because of its size, and argued over who would get which room and who would sleep in what bed. The owners have a rich, impressive library. Books on philosophy, art, psychology, and above all literature.

Serious guilt seized me because it seemed to me that all the books I’d wanted to read, but hadn’t had the time for, were here. A feeling of nostalgia mixed with pain came over me when I remembered my own modest library. The books I’d acquired over the years, which always accompanied me wherever I went. I’d taken only four books from home, and I’m not sure why I chose them specifically, leaving all the others behind. They are in cartons, somewhere in Tira, for sure.

Occasionally, I think about calling home and asking one of my brothers to organize the cartons and send me the books, but I immediately decide to hold off a bit, because I’m sure I’ll be going back soon.

“Daddy,” my daughter called from one of the rooms. “What?” I asked as I entered the room she’d taken over, and rightly so, because it looked like the room of a girl her age.

“Are they Israelis?” she asked, pointing to a bookshelf in the room. I looked at it, but all I saw were books for children and adolescents in English. I spotted Harry Potter and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and other series that I knew. “Down there,” my daughter said, and I bent down and examined the books on the bottom shelf. “A Louse Named Thelma,” “The Lion Who Loved Strawberries” – a whole stack of children’s books in Hebrew.

“I guess they’re Israelis,” I said to my daughter. “I don’t know.” Excitedly, I took a few of the children’s books that we’d also had at home and went to find my younger son. “Look,” I said with a big smile, and showed him “The Tractor in the Sandbox,” which he knows by heart. A small smile crossed his face, he stretched out his hand and then pulled it back, not touching the book. Very quickly the smile turned into a grimace of anger and a shrug of the shoulders.

“What’s wrong, sweetie?” I asked, but my son fled to his mother.

I so much wanted to read my son a story like we used to. I so much wanted him to ask me to read the same story again and again, pointing to the pictures and declaring, each time anew, “tractor” and “boy,” and asking, “Daddy, what happened to lion?” These days I can’t read my little boy a bedtime story. In fact, I have no idea what the Americans read to their children. I go into bookstores and the only thing I recognize is Dr. Seuss.

Sometimes, embarrassed, I ask a saleswoman to recommend a classic children’s book. I bought my younger son a few books in English, but I don’t dare read them to him, so as not to spoil the language for him, not to ruin his accent. Instead of reading, I download apps that read stories automatically.

Occasionally I think about calling one of my brothers and asking him to look for the children’s books in the cartons, and to send me mainly the ones in Arabic, but just as quickly I abandon the idea.

It started to rain that evening. I stood at the window and watched as Lake Michigan faded into the distance. There’s nothing for me here, I thought to myself, and then, instantly reminded myself: I have nowhere to go back to.

“Daddy,” my younger son called in English. “What, sweetie?” I replied in Arabic and watched as he, in pajamas after his shower, handed me David Grossman’s “Uri’s Special Language.” I got into bed with him and read him the story like I used to, playacting, as I do when I tell stories to children, sometimes elevating my voice, sometimes lowering it. I read fast and then slowly, exactly the way I’d read him the story a year ago. But from the silence I understood that in the meantime, everything has changed.

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