How Sayed Kashua Found Himself Identifying With a Dead Bird

It has no clear origins, this turkey, I thought. Thus I found myself identifying for the first time with the identity crisis of a dead bird – a refugee, like us.

An illustration depicting Sayed Kashua riding a turkey.
Amos Biderman

On Thanksgiving we rented a seven-seater minivan and went on a trip. My mother sat up front and the children fought over who would sit where. Our first stop was the home of a cousin of mine who’s been a doctor in the United States for a million years. He invited us for the holiday meal. “This is not a religious holiday,” he told me last year. “It’s all about family.” His appreciation for Thanksgiving was obvious.

“All this is farmland?” my mother asked, watching the endless flatlands of the State of Illinois go by. “Do people quarrel among themselves? You could make two countries here,” she said, reminding me that when we used to drive to Jerusalem my father would say to me, somewhere between Lod and Latrun, “Here alone you could make a country” – until they stuck Modi’in there.

Thanksgiving is the only day of the year when most of the stores here are closed during the day and reopen after midnight. Even restaurants shut down for the holiday, except for the fast-food chains.

“So, they only grow corn here?” my mother said when I told her that all this land, now covered with snow, looks like a vast green sea in the spring and summer, stretching all the way to Chicago.

“What can you do with so much corn?” she said in a fellah-like tone of sorrow, placing a hand on her cheek as a sign of mourning. “No tomatoes, cucumbers?”

“I haven’t seen tomatoes or cucumbers,” I told her. “Maybe that’s because of the weather.”

“They can’t build hothouses?” my mother insisted, like a political leader who’s already decided to establish a state for some nation or other, and the only barrier to realization of his vision is crops of tomatoes and cucumbers. Because there’s no way around it: They are the real vegetables for every Palestinian, and all the rest are colonialist imitations that can be dispensed with.

“No onions, either?”

“No,” I replied, and added, to console her, “Sometimes they grow soybeans.”

“Right,” she said, rejecting outright that national vision.

In the hotel, we had only a short time to get organized and head for the meal. Dressing well is compulsory – that I learned at last year’s holiday.

The dinner was delightful. Family, you know.

The thought occurred to me that if my cousin and I had stayed in Tira, we probably wouldn’t be on speaking terms because of an argument over a parking space. I experienced the taste of the roast turkey last year. It looks good, even very good, but it’s nothing like what I saw on American television for decades. If turkey it must be, then cold cuts are preferable.

And why is it called hodu in Hebrew – the word for India – while the Americans know it as turkey, like the eponymous country, and the Arabs sometimes call it a “Roman hen” or a “Habash hen” – the latter of which, if I’m not mistaken, is what Ethiopia used to be known as? It has no clear origins, this fowl, I found myself thinking, and identifying for the first time with the identity crisis of a dead bird – a refugee, like us.

“So why does your cousin say that he grows tomatoes and cucumbers in his small vegetable patch?” my mother asked as we drove back to the hotel.

“I don’t know, Mom. Maybe it’s only when it’s in season, maybe he brings in special soil, I don’t know.”

“He said he grows parsley and mint, too.”

The next morning we drove to Wisconsin Dells. “It’s like driving from Rosh Hanikra to Eilat,” my mother said when I told her it would take something like five hours to get there. “It’s different here,” I told her, but also tried to encourage myself. “Here in America people travel. They simply start the car and drive huge distances. Four-five hours is nothing.”

I get uptight on long trips, especially when the kids are in the car. We stopped three times along the way, and I drank vats of turbid coffee that I’ve learned to like, and Coke mixed with ice that I can no longer do without.

Everywhere we stopped, Christmas songs were playing. I didn’t recognize a single one, and I wondered whether it’s really possible to live in a country or to write in a language in which you don’t recognize even one children’s song. Are there new singers in the Arab world? Are there new hits in Israel? What songs are being played for my kids in their music classes in school? Does my little one recognize Christmas songs from kindergarten?

I will have to be sure to play Arab music in the house during the holiday season, I decided. My children don’t even know who Fairuz is – a horrifying thought. I mustn’t listen to music by myself in the den on my computer; I’ll pipe it through a sound system that I’ll hook up in all the rooms, like central air conditioning, like in an airport. But why, I reflected later, on the way to Wisconsin, am I appalled at the thought that the children won’t be familiar with the music I knew, the Egyptian comedies I grew up on, and won’t be able to quote, like me or their mother, punch lines from the cheap movies that shaped the people we grew up to be?

A sign directed us to the Kalahari resort. In the lobby was a two-story-tall, fully decorated Christmas tree, and Christmas songs greeted the guests.

“It’s bigger than Tira,” my mother pronounced as we walked around the huge hotel, with its covered, heated water parks and huge array of rides, games, restaurants and movie theaters. “The kids will absolutely love it,” friends who had been to the resort assured me. Usually, when I hear a promise that the kids are going to have a good time, I know I’m going to suffer. “You’re not hungry?” I asked the children, who wanted only to get into their bathing suits and run to the slides.

“No,” they claimed, even though a good few hours had gone by since breakfast.

“Do you think they have a vegetable salad here?” my mother asked.