Sayed Kashua Is Lost in a Fog of Xenophobia

In the U.S., Trump assails Muslims as such, while in Israel protesters assail Arabs who want to build their home in a predominantly Jewish town. Sometimes I wonder whether there’s a place that treats foreigners differently.

Illustration showing Sayed Kashua hunted by the smiling ghost of Donald Trump.
Amos Biderman

It was a short visit, too short, I realized when I said goodbye to my mother at the airport in Chicago. She had a long trip ahead of her, almost a full day. The moment I got into the car to drive back to my town, the pangs of guilt assaulted me with full force. Did she enjoy herself? Was I nice to her? Did I part with her properly?

Deep sadness and thick fog accompanied me all the way home. The fog was so dense you couldn’t see a meter ahead. Or, more precisely, visibility was limited to two-tenths of a mile, according to the radio, and drivers were urged to take extra precautions.

Americans don’t use fog lights, not a single one of them. Maybe they don’t know about them, or maybe there’s an tacit agreement not to use them even when they can’t see a thing on the expressway. Maybe it’s because fog lights, especially the ones in the rear of the car, are blinding, I thought to myself, and I wondered whether when in America I should drive like an American and turn mine off. Then I recalled, way back from my driving lessons, that fog lights are blinding only when there is no fog.

Sometimes it seems to me that other people have it simpler in life, that the other drivers on the expressway don’t attach such great importance to the thick fog, and that only I, a perpetual calculator of dangers, expect disaster at any moment. It’s only a matter of time.

I found a truck that seemed to me to be driving at a reasonable speed and tailed it closely. I’ll drive behind it, I thought, at a measured distance that allows me to see its taillights and also gives me enough space to brake suddenly. So I stuck with it and hoped it would light up my whole way home. I got uptight when another car insinuated itself between me and the truck, but I knew the car’s driver would soon beat it and my connection with the truck would resume.

“You have to come every summer,” my mother said when she saw how glum the children became when they understood that it was already time for her departure. “For two months at least. What do you have to do here? Ramadan will be in June. Spend Ramadan with us, stay in Tira until school starts. And if it’s a money problem, I’ll pay for the tickets.”

“We’ll see how it goes,” was the answer I gave my mother. “We’ll see” is the dominant sentiment that’s accompanied me for the past year and a half. Is it even legitimate not to know where I’m headed at my age? And is that fair when children are concerned?

But how can I anticipate the future when I can’t see one meter ahead of me? How will I know, when on the one hand, the leading Republican presidential candidate here assails Muslims as such, while on the other hand demonstrators in Israel assail Arabs who want to build their home in Jewish Afula? Sometimes I wonder whether there’s a place that treats foreigners differently. What about China – how are the Chinese with foreigners? Or Singapore?

On top of which the latest Muslim killer here was named Syed – not Sayed, but Syed. Just as I was finally starting to feel that I understood something about who’s against whom here, everything was threatening to blow up in my face again. It doesn’t take much: When it comes to hatred, people are primed to go.

The fog lifted a little when I got home. My daughter was already waiting with her flute. “There’s a game today,” she said.

“I know, just a minute, I have to go to the bathroom.”

“But we’re late!”

It took me time to grasp the significance that’s attached to sports here, even when it’s the local high school’s basketball team. At first the whole thing seemed completely off the wall to me, but gradually I started to enjoy the games, to exchange greetings with the regulars who come to the gym. Every school has three teams. The main team is called varsity, and hundreds of local folks come to their games to root for them. My daughter is in the school band, which plays at every home game. There’s also a group of female dancers and of course cheerleaders.

We got to the school on time. At the entrance to the gym there were two armed policemen who seemed just to be greeting fans. But I’m always scared by policemen, no matter what their ethnic origin – I grew up to be afraid of them. There’s definitely a visible police presence here. Who knows – maybe soon they’ll install bomb-detectors at the entrances to malls and station police in the doorways of restaurants?

Wonder what’s it like to live in the Philippines.

The gym was packed. The visitors, who always sit in the stands on the other side, came to cheer the team from the nearby town of Urbana. They brought their own cheerleaders.

Before the game the band played the same songs as always. The school’s mascot, a young man in a cloak and a funny hat, did a weird dance on the parquet. The first time I saw him I didn’t understand what he was doing there, but afterward my daughter told me that he’s a former student of the school who played on the football team and was disabled in a bus accident, and then adopted by the school and the community. He’s always there – the team’s biggest fan.

The teams came onto the court to the warm applause of the audience. My daughter was on the stage, and in the breaks between the musical numbers she conducted a lively conversation and laughed with her friends.

An older man next to me said he’d seen me a few times and asked whether I had a kid on the team. “My daughter is in the band,” I said, and hoped I hadn’t spoken in a prohibited accent. I nodded, looking straight ahead. The man didn’t relent: “What instrument does she play?

“Flute,” I responded curtly. He went on. “That makes less noise than a saxophone when they practice at home,” he laughed.

There’s always a large American flag in the gym. As before every game, the announcer thanked someone for his contribution to the community, and the audience applauded when a representative of the school presented a statuette to the man, who waved to the crowd. Now the national anthem, always the anthem, and I always stand. I don’t place a hand on my heart, but then few people do that. The referees always place a hand on their heart, and so do some of the players, but not all. If everyone were to put their hand on their heart during the playing of the national anthem, I would certainly do likewise.

When the anthem is being played, my daughter always searches me out with her gaze, to ensure that I’m standing respectfully together with everyone and not embarrassing her because of my attitude toward national anthems in general, with which she is quite familiar.

“This evening the national anthem will be sung by ...,” the announcer said and declared the name of the student who would sing it. The name left no room for doubt: This week the school chose a Muslim girl to sing the national anthem at the game. The applause she received, and my daughter’s wink from the audience at the end of it, made me feel for a moment that sometimes the world isn’t so terrible after all.