The Public Face of Sayed Kashua

"I have nothing to hide. What you see in front of you is me: This is my true face. As far as I am concerned, the issues of Hebrew, Arabic, Judaism and Islam are superficial, cosmetic matters."

"How can I leave the house like this?" I cried out in alarm as I gazed into the mirror on Sunday morning and examined the pimples that dotted my face. "How can I shave like this?" I shouted, as I examined the week-old stubble I had planned to get rid of that morning.

"You can't see a thing," my wife, who had rushed to the bathroom, said reassuringly. "It's just you, because you examine yourself so carefully, and so close to the mirror. "No one will notice."

Illustration by Amos Biderman
Amos Biderman

"You swear?"

"Bihyat Allah," she replied in a friendly tone. "But you really do need a haircut."

I had deliberately put off the haircut until Sunday, too. I wanted to look my best on the day I had been invited to speak to students at the university. My wife's comments calmed me and I was genuinely persuaded that it was only me and that people couldn't actually see. The feeling of reassurance lasted only a few seconds before it was abruptly shattered by my daughter's outcry.

"Yuck, Daddy," she said, placing a surprised hand over her gaping mouth, "What happened to your face?"

That's it, my world is in ruins. I'll call the lecturer who invited me and say I am sick. I'll cough a little on the phone and apologize from the bottom of my heart. "I'm not leaving the house," I announced to my wife, "and I'm fed up with you lying to me all the time."

"What did you want me to say?" She faced me squarely and examined my face. "That you look like an especially lousy shakshuka? All right, you have pretty ugly pimples, but so what? You're a writer. They didn't invite you as a model."

I sat down on the sofa, put my head in my hands and sobbed as only a model can.

"Calm down," my wife said, her heart apparently melting at the sight of the tears running down my cheeks. "Don't worry, we'll fix you up," she promised. She went to the bedroom and came back with a few ointments and creams. "Hold your face up," she said and squeezed something onto a special cotton swab.

"What's that?"

"Moisturizer, I'll put a little on and then a layer of makeup to cover the zits." She worked on my face vigorously for a long time, and then sent me to the mirror. "Like new," she said, as I contemplated the strange shine that was reflected back at me.

"What's the matter with you? I look like a 1960s bride from Tira."

"No one will see," my wife replied. "It's just you, because you examine yourself so carefully and so close to the mirror," she added and managed to persuade me again that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Equipped with a bag containing books, short stories and CDs, along with a kit of ointments and cosmetics, I got to the Hebrew University campus early. I went to the men's room, waited until I was alone and made some last-minute repairs, all the while looking in the mirror and convincing myself that it was only me, because I knew, because I look so closely, because I am the only one who notices the thick makeup covering my face. The lecturer shook my hand, did a brief double-take as he examined my face but said not a word and led me to the room where I was going to meet with a dozen students from a human rights project or something. I tried to sit as far as I could from the students, who introduced themselves and their project and seemed to be a quality group who cared deeply about society. Half of them were Arab - Arab women, to be exact. I opened my bag, took out the books and the notebooks and nonchalantly placed the mirror from the kit in the open bag at an angle that allowed me to check my makeup from time to time.

No introduction was needed. The Arab students had been waiting for this opportunity, and as soon as they got it they let me have it. There's no doubt that they are proud, politically aware students, ambitious, patriotic heroes who consider the very use of Hebrew as a writing tool to be a cardinal act of treason. Without getting upset, and aware of the delicacy of my situation and my inability to use my facial muscles to express anger, panic or terror, I tried to protect myself from the assault of the mega-heroes and to explain gently, almost in a whisper - for fear my lip movements would crack the layer of makeup - that language is not sacred, that sometimes language is only a communication tool; an important tool, but only a tool.

I tried to explain to them that they were right, that the characters I deal with, despite their disappointment, are not heroes bursting with national pride, that they are confused, split, quite neurotic. That I don't believe in national pride or in heroes riding swift stallions. That I too am confused, that I'm just a writer and that it's a mistake to place national missions on a writer's shoulders, a mistake to look only for political views in an author's books.

I didn't always get the drift of the Arab students' questions, or their attempts to articulate their criticism of my writing. It wasn't always clear to me how familiar they were with my work, if at all. I had the feeling they expected an Arab journalist to represent them faithfully, simply because he is Arab. I had the feeling that they were far more knowledgeable than I about the road a writer must walk.

I was a bit offended. A few heretical thoughts, compounded by revulsion and a deep sense of helplessness crossed my mind. Never mind the government, the surging hatred on the Israeli street, the race laws that are passed every week - do I really deserve to be attacked by young Arabs who think they know what's going on around them?

The thought of remote New Zealand came to me again as a place of refuge. Oy, New Zealand, New Zealand, where 40 percent of the inhabitants are considered secular and without religious affiliation. On top of which, the New Zealand air will undoubtedly do wonders for my complexion.

But now I am here, replying mechanically and unable to adjust facial expressions to my remarks. Occasionally I took advantage of the fact that one of the students voiced yet another accusation patronizingly, over-critically and contrary to Arab culture, and glanced at my reflection in the mirror in the bag. The situation had started to deteriorate: the colors were starting to change. My forehead shone brightly, while my cheeks were fading. "Ladies and gentlemen," I said, forced to end the conversation with the students and hightail it to the nearest men's room, "what I am actually trying to tell you is that I have nothing to hide. What you see in front of you is me: This is my true face. As far as I am concerned, the issues of Hebrew, Arabic, Judaism and Islam are superficial, cosmetic matters."