Is It a Problem That Sayed Kashua Is the Arab Israelis Love to Love?

After Gideon Levy dubbed me a 'good Arab,' I wonder if the only way to be a 'bad Arab' is to indulge in behavior that makes Jewish Israelis hate you.

Sayed Kashua
Sayed Kashua
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Sayed Kashua and Norman Issa. The 'good Arabs.' Illustration by Amos Biderman.
Sayed Kashua and Norman Issa. The 'good Arabs.' Illustration by Amos Biderman.
Sayed Kashua
Sayed Kashua

The truth is that I don’t really know where to start – with the soldiers in Jalazun, with the Israeli report that justifies the killing spree in Gaza last summer, or with the cabinet ministers and the culture situation. From over here, at least, it looks like a shedim tanz, a witches’ Sabbath.

Sometimes I wonder how I would feel if I were in Israel, at the heart of the events. Would I think I was seeing, as I do from here, the last gasps of a dying country? Or would I not see the forest for the trees? Was the condition always terminal, even when I lived in Jerusalem, or do you have to leave the building in order to see that the foundations are crumbling and the walls about to collapse?

And no, this doesn’t gladden me in the least: It pains me grievously. I want to hold onto the last remaining hope that resuscitation is still an option.

Does that hope, and whispering a silent prayer that has no chance of being answered, make me a good Arab? Since reading Gideon Levy’s op-ed last week about “the killing of the good Arab,” I’ve been thinking about what exactly constitutes a good Arab in Israel, according to the column, and in particular, about how an Arab is supposed to behave to rise to the level of bad Arab.

The op-ed focuses on the episode of the Elmina Theater and the actor Norman Issa, but I succeeded in being featured alongside Issa in a supporting role as a good Arab. I imagined myself standing on the stage, smiling nonstop, saying to the Israelis “Ahlan wasahlan, ahlan wasahlan” – welcome and greetings – helping them divest themselves of their uniforms and weapons, and serving them Arab coffee with hel (cardamom), or as the article puts it, “hummus, chips [French fries], salad.”

Levy writes: “Norman Issa did almost everything possible to be a good Arab. He was born a Christian (not a Muslim, like all the terrorists; Israelis love Christian Arabs); studied at the Beit Zvi School for the Performing Arts; married Gidona, a Jew; cooked a dumpling and added pomegranates for the refreshment on ‘Master Chef VIP’; acted on stage in Hebrew; played Amjad, a good Arab, of course, on the TV series ‘Arab Labor,’ which was written by another good Arab, Sayed Kashua, whom Israelis so love to love.”

Leave Christians aside for the moment – it wasn’t in Norman’s power to decide that he preferred to be born to a Jewish mother. Are we to understand that Norman married a Jewish woman so as to be a good Arab? Isn’t it possible for an Arab man to marry a Jewish woman simply because he loves her? Or are these the ways of the Arab who balks at nothing, and if a Jewish wife lands you a part in a theater production, then yallah udrub – let’s go for it, and we’ll even marry a Jew.

Norman chose to study acting at Beit Zvi, even though he could have gone to any one of the Arabic-language drama and art schools that are scattered across historic Palestine. In the name of the struggle for national identity, he should have stubbornly insisted on clinging to his mother tongue and never taken any parts other than those that call for speaking in Arabic, as this is the only way he can participate in the struggle for his national identity.

The Arab should have found Arabic-language productions and appeared in Arab dramas that are funded by Arab producers and broadcast in large numbers on the Arabic television channels in Israel. Alternatively, he could have appeared in dramas that exude seriousness and are broadcast in prime time on Israel’s commercial channels, and essentially consist of speeches condemning the occupation.

“If only we had a few more such Normans and Sayeds,” Levy writes – and if I didn’t know his opinions and view his work as holy, I would accuse him of condescension and racism for those generalizations – “then we certainly would already have had peace. That is how we like them, the Arabs, when they make us laugh in Hebrew. Hummus, chips, salad and comedy series on Channel 2.”

If so, the Arab shouldn’t even try to buck the system, to serve chips-salad with the aim of also serving up, as a main course, a steaming brew that will scald the guts of the hummus-joint frequenter who’s sitting opposite the screen. Only a kosher Jew is allowed to grasp the rules of the television game, subvert the system and take part in reality shows with the aim of critiquing apartheid.

Possibly “Arab Labor” was a mistake, but it took close to four years of work, correspondence and evasiveness before the first season was broadcast. No one gave “Arab Labor” a prize for good behavior; somehow I always saw it as more of a tragic than a comic series. Amjad, the good Arab in the series, does all he can to be accepted into white Israel, but in every episode he’s rejected and cast out, the door slammed in his face.

Should we really have guessed from the beginning that there’s no place for creating low-key art? Should we have abandoned the vision of partnership from the start, and ignored the importance of reaching out to the Hebrew-speaking audience, too, with the aim of trying to foment some sort of change?

And what about my writing in Hebrew for a newspaper that also publishes columns by Israel Harel and Benny Ziffer? Is that also an invalid act, causing its perpetrators to be considered good Arabs? Possibly. And exactly how should the Arab write so that his Israeli readers will prefer to hate him? And if it’s hatred the artist wants from his audience, what meaning does the stage have at all? Is it preferable to be like the writers of commissioned articles in the big papers, when the primary goal of those who commission them is to say, “Look what the Arabs think – exactly what you thought they do.”

And if the critique in Levy’s article was aimed precisely at those readers who so much love to love the Arabs, and through that very love feel that their conscience is clean and their path upright – won’t reading an op-ed by a Jew against the occupation salve their conscience just as well?

It’s the chronicle of an end foretold. Levy concludes his op-ed. “We are a Jewish state, there is no room here, not for Issa and not for Kashua. They should have known it from the start.”

Maybe we made mistakes and, being morally and intellectually inferior, could not have figured that out from the start. I apologize for trying to speak in the language of the majority, without ever compromising any opinion I hold.

Maybe I’m a good Arab who doesn’t know what’s good for him, but please, give us credit to arrive at conclusions by ourselves. For that, I don’t need instructions from a Jew.

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