This Circassian-Muslim Author Knows What It Means to Be a Minority in Israel

In her first book, written in Hebrew, Nadia Tahauka Bushnak allows her character to deal with the subject of rape, which is silenced in her community

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Nadia Tahauka Bushnak, author of 'The Undershirt Wearers.'
Nadia Tahauka Bushnak, author of 'The Undershirt Wearers.'Credit: Gil Eliahu
Ronen Tal
Ronen Tal

When Nadia Tahauka Bushnak was a little girl, she didn’t understand why everyone expected her to know Arabic. “Arab friends of my father would call him and when I picked up the receiver they automatically spoke Arabic to me, and I would answer them in Hebrew,” she recalls. “But they would insist, even get annoyed, and I would continue with Hebrew. I felt that they were forcing me to be something I’m not.”

Tahauka Bushnak, 32, is a Circassian, a member of a community numbering some 5,000 in Israel, concentrated mainly in two villages in the Galilee, Rehaniya and Kafr Kama. But the tendency to automatically identify her with a group to which she doesn’t belong is not exclusive to one side. “My mother wears a scarf on her head, like Muslim women, and when I go out with her on errands and we’re in Jewish company, the attitude towards us changes immediately,” she says. “It’s mainly evident in their tone of voice – they speak more slowly, in simpler language, as though to explain to us so we’ll understand. We’re not an exception. Every Circassian has a similar story.”

Within the tangled thicket of Israeli demography, the Circassians – whose origin is in the Caucasus region and who are scattered all over the Middle East – fill a unique slot between different ethnic groups. “We’re Muslims, but not Arabs,” Tahauka Bushnak says. “We’re a little like the Druze, our men serve in the army, and that determines a great deal of the attitude towards us.

Almond tree blossom in Circassian village of Kafr Kama.Credit: Gil Eliyahu

“But as opposed to the Druze, some of whom see themselves as Arabs, the issue of Palestinian identity doesn’t exist for us. It means being a minority within a minority. I actually see the positive sides – the ability to listen neutrally to both sides and to conduct a discussion, without being biased ahead of time, without immediately being told what you should feel and think. I believe that that can be found in my writing, too.”

She is now releasing her first novel, “The Undershirt Wearers,” in Hebrew (English title: "The Nature of Dunya"). The book is written as the personal diary of a medical student named Dunya, an Arab woman from a Galilee village, who lives in student dorms in Jerusalem and works as a waitress in a café at the mall mall. One night she finds herself in the hospital, after slipping and being injured.

Slowly she reconstructs the sexual assault she experienced before her fall. The main part of the story is her struggle to accept what happened to her, to peel away the shame and guilt that she feels – like almost every rape survivor – and be able to accept help as a primary condition for healing.

Nadia Thawho Boshnak's book cover.Credit: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, Sifriat Hapoalim

It’s a courageous choice to deal openly with a subject still considered taboo in the conservative society she comes from, and the writing was accompanied by much hesitation. “I’ve been writing from a very young age, nine or 10. Journal writing,” she says. “But at about the age of 22 I started to write passages through which I try to understand situations that I encountered. And then, one Saturday, I sat down and read all the passages and I began to connect them, and it felt to me like a book.

“Afterwards I simply completed what was missing – I wrote a plot, I remember that I was watching television and there was a report about a girl who was attacked, and I tried to understand how she felt,” she recalls. “Even earlier, when I would read about rape, I didn’t understand exactly what it is, what effect it has. It was important to me to write about this subject, even for the young girl I was.”

And yet you decided to publish the book. Were you afraid?

“Very. I originally wrote it for myself, and before I decided to publish it I was afraid about how it would be received in my surroundings, in the family. Such personal writing could project this act onto me, people could think that it happened to me. Usually I’m a very private person, and even people close to me don’t know many things about me. As a rule, I’m a person who listens more than she speaks. And now I come and publish a book that’s written in a personal style on this subject, exposing myself to the world.”

What helped you overcome your fear?

“First of all, the main character Dunya isn’t Circassian. She’s an Arab from a religious Muslim family. That was meant to distance her from me, and along with that I didn’t want the book to deal with her Arab identity. I wanted her confrontation with the rape to be more universal.”

Sexual violence against women in Muslim society, how serious is it?

“I personally haven’t met any woman it’s happened to, but I believe that it exists just as it exists in every other society. They simply don’t talk about it, it’s kept secret. That’s also one of the reasons that I wrote about the subject – to allow people to talk about it. In recent years the #MeToo issue has entered Muslim society as well, and that affects women’s perception in such situations, dealing with the shame. But still there’s no unrestricted talk about it, not in my community and not in the surrounding community – Muslims in general.”

The novel’s protagonist confronts the trauma of rape mainly through two Jewish characters: Tova, the social worker she meets in the hospital, and her daughter Noa, a liberated young Israeli, open and empathetic, who answers Dunya’s phone call one day. The relationship between the two young women, begun by coincidence, leads to a close, confusing friendship – and the boundary between that and romantic love becomes eroded.

“It really is somewhat confusing,” the author says. “Dunya receives so much support and caring from Noa, and when she asks herself what exactly she feels, she reaches the conclusion that perhaps it’s romantic love. There’s no sexual attraction in the book, but there is jealousy, a bit like among girlfriends in school. I don’t deny this possibility, because a person who doesn’t love doesn’t feel jealousy of this kind, so maybe it’s more than just friendship. I didn’t feel a need to lead the relationship between them there, but it doesn’t scare me, the possibility of lesbian love, not as a private person and not in a character that I create.”

No comfortable place

Tahuaka Bushnak, a married mother of a 3-month-old infant, lives in Kafr Kama, the community where she was born. After completing elementary school in the village she transferred to the Kadoorie Agricultural High School, where she learned firsthand about her unique status as a member of a minority within a Jewish society. “I had male and female friends, but I didn’t really feel that I was in a place where I was comfortable. In our village there’s no high school, land half the teenagers go to study at Kadoorie and half in an Arab school. I’m not sure I would have felt comfortable in a different place.”

Tahuaka Bushnak. 'Before I decided to publish it I was afraid about how it would be received in my surroundings.'Credit: Gil Eliahu

The challenge of identifying with the surrounding culture has been with her for as long as she can remember, but she thinks it hasn’t hurt her sense of identity. “Since an early age, when there’s a Jewish holiday and I hear all the songs, even if I don’t celebrate, there’s a special feeling in the air that I feel too,” she says. “On the other hand, I come from a religious family. From an early age I remember myself sitting with my mother, and we read the Koran together. It was important for dad to tell stories to us, to pray together, and of course we would fast on Ramadan. I remember all that as a positive experience.”

After high school, she studied chemical engineering in Jerusalem, lived there with a roommate and worked at the Mamilla mall – although unlike her protagonist, she worked not as as a waitress but as a salesperson at a clothing store. “In Jerusalem I started to feel comfortable within the surrounding society, both Arab and Jewish,” she says. “I had Jewish and Arab friends and we were all together, without tensions. In fact, my Arab friends didn’t even know at first that I’m Circassian. When Ramadan came and I told them that I was also fasting, they thought I was doing it out of solidarity with them. Only then did they realize that I’m a Muslim.”

After completing her chemical engineering studies, she changed direction. She registered to study psychology and life sciences at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, and since completing her degree she has been working as a researcher in a laboratory at the medical school run by Prof. Asya Rolls. “We’re studying the connection between the mind and the body, in particular the immune system, as it is reflected in various physiological and psychological situations. I really like it. I don’t see a situation where I’ll want to do anything else beyond science.”

What’s that expression “undershirt wearers,” which appears in the name of the book?

“It’s something that I noticed already as a child. Muslims don’t wear undershirts – certainly not when you’re a girl, and even for boys it’s not common. Every time I had a doubt as to whether another child was a Jew or an Arab, I would look at his clothing. In my mind as a little girl, if you’re wearing an undershirt, you’re Jewish.”

Although “The Undershirt Wearers” doesn’t deal directly with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the disparity between Jews and non-Jews hovers over the plot. The main character Dunya, for example, instinctively assumes that one of the young men who works with her – a religious man with a kippah and sandals – is a settler from whom she should keep her distance for the good of both sides.

Later she describes an unpleasant incident when she goes to pray the Ramadan prayer at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif complex and encountered a religious Jewish woman who airs her racism out loud. “To me she was the one who insists on controlling the territories because of some commandment of her religion, and to her I was the one who throws stones at her and dreams of a Muslim state in all the territory of the State of Israel. She stood opposite me and spoke about the doctrine of smell and its connection to Arabs. According to her, it’s hard to believe how much an Arab person can stink, and how intolerable it can be.”

“That really happened to me,” says Tahauka Bushnak. “I was part of a group that came to pray on the mountain and it was very crowded, and that woman was talking to the girl who was with her, and because it was very noisy she spoke to her in a loud voice. I passed by her and it was hard not to hear. I didn’t react, there was no point, and when I was far from there I didn’t even ask myself why I didn’t say anything, and at the same time, when I wrote the book I wanted the protagonist to deal with her own prejudices too – with the tendency to think that people with a kippah are racists. So it works for both sides, I’ve often heard the prejudices that exist both from the Arab side and from the Jewish side. That’s the entire business of being in the middle.”

What are the prejudices on the Arab side?

“I don’t want to get into that. That’s not my goal.”

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