A Poignant Portrait of an Exiled Palestinian-Israeli Writer

In the last of a quartet of novels, Sayed Kashua grapples with identity, exile, lies, loneliness and longing – both his and his protagonist's

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Tira, Israel.
Tira, Israel.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Brett Ashley Kaplan
Brett Ashley Kaplan

“Track Changes,” by Sayed Kashua, translated from the Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg, Grove Press, 224 pages, $26 (forthcoming in January)

“Track Changes,” the most melancholy, and the final note, of what Sayed Kashua refers to as a quartet of novels, is also very beautiful, as its blue, swirling narrative unfolds and we learn more and more of the thickening story. The main character, Saeed, an intensely lonely ghost writer exiled from his family and his village (Tira) because he invented a woman named Palestine, travels back to Israel from Illinois, at the behest of his dying father.

The novel delves into exile, memory, lies, loneliness, unquenchable longing, regret and mourning. It also becomes an extended analogy for the dangers of forgetting or repressing aspects of history that do not fuel a proud national narrative. Its inventive plot line and typographical structure circle back to the moment of Saeed’s father’s sudden hospitalization and then death, and we only find out near the end why the son has been exiled.

The gentle side of ghost writing as it appears in “Track Changes” involves making elderly people feel that their stories are told, their voices heard, their memories preserved for their children and grandchildren. The insidious side of ghost writing surfaces as Saeed actually gives some of his memories to his clients in order to enhance them, to spark them; he occasionally loses his own memories, faltering like a seesaw between his reality and theirs. The clients, like the subjects in the memory experiment detailed in the film “Waltz with Bashir,” incorporate the ghost writer’s memories into their own pasts and do not notice the inserted false memories. Invention, it turns out, can be caustic.

Kashua is a prolific and internationally lauded Palestinian-Israeli novelist, journalist, screenwriter and former columnist at Haaretz. “Track Changes,” like its predecessors – “Dancing Arabs” (2002), “Let it Be Morning” (2004) and “Second Person Singular” (2010) – was written in Hebrew even though he is equally fluent in Arabic. Kashua explained to me that all four works feature characters who resonate with each other – who may be differently described in one as a lawyer, in another as a photographer, in another as a ghost writer, but who share a family resemblance.

An illustration of Sayed Kashua.Credit: Amos Biderman

At a formal level, “Second Person Singular” is the most complex of the books, bringing an aching sensibility to the story of a young man who adopts a borrowed (Jewish) identity and chooses to bury his Arab one in order to meld into Israeli society. With its fascinating plot twists, multiple perspectives and a subtle analysis of the larger questions at play, specifically the hierarchies between Palestinians and Israelis, the novel is brilliant. “Track Changes” takes up the structural inventiveness of the former and amplifies it through charting deleted text and the use of multiple languages.

After four years as a visiting professor in the Program in Jewish Culture & Society at the University of Illinois, Kashua and his family relocated in 2018 to Missouri, where he enrolled in the lauded Ph.D. program in creative writing at Washington University in St. Louis. Saeed in “Track Changes” shares some biographical details with Kashua: Both have lived in the same “micro-urban” Midwestern town (Champaign, Illinois), they share almost the same name, both are married, and both have a daughter and two younger sons. Both have had to undergo the excruciating experience of losing a father and feeling very distant from their families as their fathers lie ill in the hospital, and they cannot get back to Israel fast enough. Both have chosen to live away from the complex and often terrible situation in their native village. But there the overlaps stop: Saeed ekes out a modest but stalled career as a ghost writer mining and transforming other people’s memories while living off his estranged wife’s credit card, whereas Kashua is a highly successful and sought-after writer, with a career that’s included writing the hit TV series “Arab Labor,” and working on “Shtisel” (another Israeli series) as well as on a forthcoming David Simon HBO series about American Muslims and the FBI.

In contrast to Kashua, Saeed is cut off from his wife, lives apart from her and struggles with frightening loneliness. Kashua lives with his wife and children, and has many, many friends and fans all over the world. Which does not mean he fails to succumb to the deep loneliness of exile so keenly felt by the novel’s main character. Sometimes writers, Philip Roth, for example, construct characters who seem outwardly similar to them (Roth crafts several who are called, well, “Philip Roth”), but these similarities turn out to be launching pads to delve into profound differences or to explore less obvious aspects of the self.

The cover of the Hebrew version of "Track Changes."Credit: Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir Publishing

The cover of the Hebrew edition of “Track Changes” displays an old-fashioned cassette recorder that Saeed uses to tape his mostly Hebrew-speaking clients’ stories. Kashua places its accuracy in constant tension with the fallibility and falsification of an individual’s memory. Our memories of the past constantly shift; as we stare at them they morph before our very eyes so that we can reinvent ourselves along with the vicissitudes of various pasts.

“Track Changes” begins in a bar at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, where Saeed is in transit. We doubt our narrator early on when he tells us that the bartender is “young and beautiful, or at least that’s how I want to remember her.” Underscoring his unreliability, we witness him lying to his kids: Saeed has told them not that he has been summoned to Israel because of his father’s hospitalization but rather that “a rich customer had offered me a serious sum of money to write his autobiography.” His wife and daughter mystify him – he longs for them but never manages to reach out to them, so they remain achingly distant; he almost never tells them the thoughts and desires he reveals to the reader. His wife, Palestine, knows that he has gone to Israel to visit his father in the hospital but he tells the reader, not her, how he feels about his father, and especially, he does not reveal his love for her, perhaps thinking like William Blake, “Never seek to tell thy love.”

Kashua unveils details glacially, bit by bit, a slow drip like one of the American coffee machines to which he must acclimatize.

Kashua unveils details glacially, bit by bit, a slow drip like one of the American coffee machines to which he must acclimatize. Smoking as much as he can during his layover in Paris, for example, crammed into a glass cage “shared with the other similarly condemned passengers, whose Arabic came in an array of dialects,” is the first time we learn that the narrator and main character is Palestinian Israeli.

All of Kashua’s writing foregrounds the precarity of Israeli Palestinians, but he renders this political context through moments such as these rather than forcing the issue into a central role. In this scene, he describes the Arabic-speaking passengers as “condemned”; ostensibly, their condemnation stems from their choice to smoke, which forces them into a cage, but the scene can also be read metaphorically in terms of the larger restrictions placed on Arabs in Israel.

In another moment in the novel, a secretary in the newsroom in Jerusalem greets Saeed by “swishing spit around her mouth and then hurl[ing] it into the garbage” and he reads but does not change the journalist’s “barbed anti-Arab prose” that has been exacerbated because, he assumes, he shows up for work after three Israeli boys have been kidnapped and killed after hitchhiking in Gush Etzion in the West Bank. Moments such as these encourage the reader to cultivate a strong emotional attachment to these characters and thus heightens a profound understanding of the untenability of the marginalized position of Palestinian Israelis.

The novel is richly metaphorical. Saeed’s perpetually thirsty father represents both literal and figurative longing, and simultaneously this thirst signifies the desert. Kashua renders the Israeli landscape as parched, the formerly fulsome fruit trees now only growing “thorny branches to be used for whipping little children.” Snow also plays a recurring role in the novel: In Illinois, it is a huge source of anxiety for Saeed, who fears for the safety of his children when driving them on the unfamiliar black ice of local roads. But Saeed hopes for snow on his uncomfortable wedding day in Jerusalem when he longed for his “Arab bride” Palestine, for her love, for her forgiveness. She “on her wedding day, was behaving as though she were grieving.” Saeed constructed a fictional “Palestine,” a saucy character in one of his early short stories, who the townsfolk took to be the actual Palestine. Thus, the unwanted wedding. On the wedding day, even as Saeed feels ambivalent about this unexpected bride, her beauty makes him understand what “takes your breath away” means; he wants to trust that “the snow, which may or may not stick, would abolish the sin and the humiliation.”

Skipping back to the present, Saeed speaks with Palestine on the phone, he wants to tell her “that I missed her, that I was sorry and that I loved her; but all I asked was: ‘Did it snow?’” A little later on, with the signature strike-through that marks the typographical changes, the narrator adds: “On the morning after the wedding, Jerusalem was blanketed in white.” These turns to snow remind me of an arresting image in “Diaspora” – Frédéric Brenner’s magisterial collection of photographs – of a rare Jerusalem snow falling gently on a little illuminated angel, a child in costume. It also reminds me of the close of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” in which “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

Scent of home

Echoing and reinforcing the sense throughout “Track Changes” that one makes indelible changes, and, in counterpoint, that unreliable memories shift, are the typographical deletions that distinguish this text from what we normally encounter in printed books. We see visually Saeed’s struggle with how to represent, and in what language, this experience of his father’s death, and his suppressed love for his wife. Indeed, the first strike-through appears after a miscommunication with an exhausted nurse who accuses Saeed of trying to kill his father by giving him a glass of water without a straw. When an angry Saeed informs her he was not in fact trying to kill the elder as he lies in bed, begging for water, he imagines his father whispering, “You’ve already killed me anyway.”

This sense of betrayal from the father, who whispered that he “never wanted to see me again” to Saaed on his wedding day, comes from the accidental scripting in fiction of a life – Palestine’s – who he conjured only to realize that a girl with the same name existed. He had nearly killed his father, he imagines, through the disgrace and humiliation of showing teenagers from Tira engaging in forbidden fruits including alcohol and sexual play. This perfectly exemplifies the deep danger of invention and circles back to the series of invented or borrowed memories that Saeed inserts into his clients’ lives.

Like shifting memories, the languages switch rapidly throughout. At one point he texts his daughter in English, then a beat later phones her and asks her a question in Arabic, and she responds in Hebrew and then in English. The linguistic alteration and a long conversation at the end in Arabic in both the English and the Hebrew editions (translated in the postscript), underscore the multiple meanings of exile and the overlap between geographical displacements and emotional and political displacements with the distance that grows between family members.

Deciding to take upon himself, unbidden, the ghost writing of his own father’s life, Saeed cannot decide what language to use and the story remains unwritten. This unwritten life haunts “Track Changes.” “I wanted to tell my father how the power to shape the story at first was scary to me, nearly paralyzing. From the moment the client decided that I would write his story, he in essence put his tale in my hands, in my imagination, my memory, as though he’d put his actual life in my hands.” “Track Changes” demonstrates that false memories are ubiquitous but also that danger lurks in fabrication and invention, that fiction is never innocent. “And with every pleasant memory that I relinquished, Tira was emptied of its good people. The warmth was replaced with violence, the smiles with threatening grimaces.”

Our memories of the past constantly shift; as we stare at them they morph before our very eyes so that we can reinvent ourselves.

As he travels from Ben-Gurion International Airport to the hospital, Saeed confronts his inability to detect any special scent of Tira; his longing, he affirms, but his sense of the smell of home just won’t embrace him. He resists the pull of the Proustian involuntary sense memory. The experience of both exile with its inherent thirst for home and the perpetual sense that one’s longing for home is insufficient resonates with much of Kashua’s writings – both in his novels and in the columns he wrote for Haaretz for over a decade (many of which were gathered in the 2017 nonfiction collection “Native”). When Saeed reaches the hospital, one of his brothers accuses him of smelling death, thus putting an even bluer tinge on the sadness of not finding the scent of home.

The name of Saeed’s wife, “Palestine,” deepens the resonance between the personal and the political. Saeed alone calls her this, although she may not be aware of this as he utters Palestine “mostly in my mind because I rarely say her name aloud,” and, similarly, Saeed personifies (as he does the place Palestine by constructing this as a character in his boyhood fiction) his home village: “Oh, Tira, Tira, I will have to return, I must right that which I once wronged.” At one point, Saeed remembers his father’s teenage memory, which becomes the kernel of his fiction, on the eve of Independence Day. On the roof of the school, a beautiful girl takes down the Israeli flag and replaces it with a hand-drawn Palestinian flag, an act of resistance, a replacement of one national symbol with another.

IllustrationCredit: Amos Biderman

Sometimes one might have wished that these symbolic acts would be thickened with more of Saeed’s and the other characters’ internal consciousness – they are slightly thinly developed, for all we feel for his longing.

In trying to determine whether the confused dreams and memories that haunt the autobiographical protagonist in Ari Folman’s 2009 film “Waltz with Bashir” are real, Folman goes to his friend and fellow filmmaker Ori Sivan and asks about the nature of false memories. Sivan recounts a psychological experiment in which subjects were shown falsified photographs of themselves as children – he says that 80 percent of them recognized themselves in the false images: “Memory is dynamic,” he explains, “it’s alive, if we suddenly find some detail missing, our memory helps us out by filling in the holes with things that never happened.”

It turns out that the memories in “Waltz with Bashir” are not invented: Folman’s character had been a bystander at the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila camps in Beirut. The massacre took place in 1982 during the Lebanese civil war, and was perpetrated against Palestinian refugees by members of the Phalange Christian militia. The Israeli forces then in command of Beirut silently stood by and did not stop the killing. Like the tension between the accurate recordings of the old cassette player and the metamorphoses of the past through memory, Israeli cultural memory has chosen to forget many aspects of its history. In “Track Changes” Saeed reflects that “There are no longer processions on Sabra and Shatila Day, and no one remembers.” This lack of memory, the inability to allow the traumas of the past to impact the present, and to shape a new story, fuels the well of Saeed’s anxiety.

Ultimately, “Track Changes” offers a potent metaphor for the repression of Israeli cultural memory through the exploration of this ghost writer’s re- or un-written past.

Prof. Brett Ashley Kaplan is the director of the Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, Memory Studies and professor of comparative and world literature at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is a former colleague of Sayed Kashua.

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