Rereading Sayed Kashua's Columns, I Reached a Different Conclusion

Kashua's ostensibly lighthearted book is in fact a most strident indictment of Israeli society.

Olivier Fitoussi

“Ben Haaretz” (Son of the Land), by Sayed Kashua, Keter Publishing House (Hebrew), 281 pages, NIS 72

I wanted so badly to be the sophisticated reader, to write about the intensely personal New Journalism style. I wanted to read it as a tactic for introducing subversive messages in a palatable way to readers with bourgeois appetites. I wanted to write about domestication of critique by means of narcissistic writing, of intentional reduction of the self. Like this: “I want so badly to write something smart for a change, maybe a short story, with a dark atmosphere and an unclear ending,” but then, “For a story like that, a serious writer has to be drunk, but I don’t have anything in the house.”

I wanted to talk about the famous Kashua technique; the refusal to commit, the constant translation of the macro to the micro, the need to make everything ridiculous. As if, he says, forget it, it’s just my personal craziness, what do I know, anyway, you shouldn’t take me too seriously, I don’t read newspapers, and am drunk most of the time, ask even my wife (“Are you telling me that this time you managed to fire up your imagination and actually invented a character that is not me?”).

Here, for example, is what he wrote about the revolution in Egypt: “They are afraid of Arab democracy, which, as opposed to Mubarak, will not come to terms with Israel’s policy in Gaza and the West Bank.” But then, immediately, his wife's voice: “I take the children to after-school activities and you go ahead and make revolutions from the sofa. Just one request, please pay attention to where you spit the sunflower-seed shells.”

And here is what he has to say about the 1948 Palestinian Nakba (“catastrophe”). It starts with a bold educational observation: “So long as the school system, the government and the media continue to sell themselves a noble tale about pioneers who returned to the land of their forefathers, there will be no chance of understanding exactly who is truly prepared to make painful concessions here” – but ends up, of course, at a McDonald’s in a Jerusalem mall: “You have nothing to worry about, right now we are eating dinner on the ruins of the village of Malha.”

“What do you want?” Philip Roth asks him at a New York coffee shop, to which our hero plans to respond with a brazen, sharply worded answer (“I want to know how it feels to be an enemy of the people”), only to realize that he is being asked what he wants to order for breakfast. Kashua actually identifies closely with Roth. Particularly with Portnoy (“I identify with him so much that the descriptions of the constipation from which the storyteller’s father suffers caused my own intestines to block up.”) Goodness, how badly he wants to be an American Jew. Such a minority, what wonderful torments of identity.

I wanted to write about Kashua the joker (“Recently, my husband became utterly convinced that he is an Ashkenazi of Polish descent”), about how he is maintaining the tradition of Jewish Diasporic humor. And really, Tira and Beit Safafa seem so much like the shtetl. And how much we laughed, week after week, at the Arab’s futile attempts to play it as if he were one of us (“After I went to all this effort, they go and write about me that I am an Arab author? But why? Just because of my characters?”).

All of this is done in a harmless, homey tone (“And permit me to state here that I was in favor of the naval commandos [in the 2010 Mavi Marmara flotilla debacle] and opposed to the Turks, because, at the end of the day, Turks don’t buy books in Hebrew”). And here comes Tikva, the maid (“Really, I am going to take money out of my wallet and pay a Jewish woman”), for whom they clear the house of any hints of Arab-ness, including a bag of squash. And the mohel (ritual circumciser), Rabbi Yishai (“He came recommended. He’s cut for half of Jerusalem”). And the leftists, the ridiculous leftists.

I wanted to write about “Minor Literature,” like Deleuze and Guattari in their book about Kafka. A literary style that is political even when being entirely personal, by virtue of the fact that it is written in a “major” language that is not the mother tongue of the writer. The Hebrew of Tira, just like the German of Prague, nullifies the ability to distinguish between personal and political. This is what I wanted to write about.

No Arabs dancing

But then I read the book, and realized that all of the above is balderdash, nothing but wishful thinking. I had been fooled. The book is wholly political. And makes no attempt to hide it. You don’t need any Kafka here. Kashua simply narrates, column after column, the impossibility of living as an Arab in the Jewish state.

Sure, the columns are still clever and entertaining in their left-handed anti-heroism. They succeed in being symbolic without dissonance or figurative effort. They have an obvious screenplay quality to them (“So, first of all, I really wanted to ask you just how Israel Independence Day makes you feel as an Arab and a citizen of the country?’ ‘Shitty.’ ‘Could you, uh, could you elaborate?’ Yes, sure. Independence Day, speaking as an Arab who is a citizen of Israel, makes me feel shitty.’”)

But all this becomes secondary when you read the columns in their aggregate form. Something else appears, loud and clear: a narrative of an unending effort to be assimilated. To get through security at the airport, at the entrance to the mall, at the hospital, in the elevator. To belong, even if only in the ironic and self-aware sense of the author. But no. There isn’t a single moment in the book in which he is not marked. What was laughing about, week after week, when I read the individual columns in the paper? How did he fool me? This allegedly lighthearted, amusing book is one of the most strident indictments of Israeli society to be written in many years.

In his columns, Kashua is typically depicted as a prevaricator (“Your reporter, my husband, is a chronic liar, gossip and cheat”). But in the book’s introduction, the tone changes: “I have tried to be sincere, to tell the truth as I understand it.” Suddenly, it doesn’t seem like artificial innocence, but like the bare truth, a glimpse beyond the jokester image.

This is among the most justified collections of newspaper columns ever published in Israel. The illusion of normalcy that pervades the columns no longer exists in the book. The folksy prose has become a thin veneer, and the sense of failure becomes more obvious; more than that, when you read the pieces one after the other, it becomes the central theme. Like watching a television series through a second time, knowing where it is leading. Suddenly, you cannot understand how you didn’t notice that everything was actually leading to that ending.

Now I see all the things that are not funny. The children, for instance. “Why did you lie to me,” asks his son, when a new friend at the playground leaves abruptly after hearing him speak Arabic. Or the daughter who inadvertently touched someone at school, leading to a “Yuck, the Arab touched me,” and who in response to her father’s soothing words, hurls back at him: “You’re scared, too, and you also smile at them all the time.” Or his grandmother, who lost her whole world in 1948: “People here aren’t prepared to hear your stories, Grandmother, and not mine, either.” All of a sudden, this is the only thing I can see in the stories. This and nothing else.

“And I said nothing and I knew that my attempt to live a shared life had ended. That the lie I told my children about a future in which Arabs and Jews share the same land equitably – was over.” The column “It’s Over,” which was written during the first week of Operation Protective Edge, last summer, is not included in this book, which ends in early 2014. But the ending is hinted at in the introduction: “This is why I continued to write it, so long as I still had a hope that everything would eventually work itself out, that all that was needed to do was to write about life as a story and to find a good ending for it.”

Whether or not Kashua returns from his exile, his project failed. It failed because an Arab cannot play an integral part of the story of contemporary Israel. Not even a hesitant, partial, self-aware, wise-guy part. Irony, reduction or any other literary devices and ruses no longer work. Arabs will not dance here anymore. Not in our school.

I find myself checking dates. There have been four wars since Kashua writing his column, in 2006. When precisely did Operation Summer Rains start? Operation Cast Lead? And Pillar of Defense? Interestingly, his columns that directly relate to these wars are largely absent from the book. And in those that were selected, the wars appear perfunctorily (“It’s not because of me, it’s that [Haaretz columnist] Gideon Levy, the bastard”) at the edges of the homey prose.

The column “Your Honor,” about Kashua’s experiences at the Jerusalem Festival, ran on July 14, 2006, two weeks after the start of the “operation” in Gaza, and two days after the start of the Second Lebanon War. These are its concluding lines, which come after he has described in detail, his meetings, largely in his imagination, with Hollywood actor Debra Winger: “I raise my head from the pillow and look at the crying woman. ‘There was a baby there. They showed it on Al Jazeera.’ ‘Oh please, Debra,’ I say to my wife in English, ‘Let me dream.’”

The editor of the collection, Dror Mishani, did well. There is no need for the columns that explicitly refer to the wars, no need to shout and rant. The story about the failure to play the citizen – in a country in which an Arab will forever be something between an alien resident and an enemy – does not have to be articulated explicitly. This is the story of the entire book. As Kashua writes in “Pride and Prejudice,” perhaps the most disturbing column in the book: “I wanted to her to know that, yes, I may seem like a coward, it may seem like I avoid confrontation ... But I wanted her to know ... that I never let anyone step on me. But I didn’t know how.”

And we still keep on laughing.

Prof. Ishay Rosen-Zvi heads the Jewish philosophy section of the Department of Hebrew Culture Studies at Tel Aviv University.