And Then the Kentucky Radio Presenter Said, 'What’s Palestine, Anyway?'

I couldn't believe that there's a place called Louisville, and the radio presenter couldn't believe that Palestinians are a people. To each his own.

Sayed Kashua
Sayed Kashua
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Illustration: Sayed Kashua stands between a Christmas tree and a Hanukkah menorah.
Illustration.Credit: Amos Biderman
Sayed Kashua
Sayed Kashua

The long winter vacation – you can’t call it “Christmas vacation,” because of the separation between church and state, at least for now. For the sake of correctness, you wish people here “Happy Holidays” in official and not-so-official emails, and that’s what the salespeople in the stores do too. And if they slip up and say “Merry Christmas,” they immediately compensate with a “Happy Hanukkah.”

Almost all Americans have heard about Hanukkah, and bar mitzvahs, and a lot of them are familiar with Rosh Hashanah too. You see it in the press and on television. But in two-and-a-half years here, I’ve yet to hear any tidings for the Muslim holidays. In the movies and TV shows I watch with the kids, Muslims don’t exist at all. It’s probably better that way, because when they do appear, you know from the start who the bad guys are, and that ruins the whole thing.

The vacation feels endless, and after 10 days at home with the kids, we realized we had to take them somewhere lest we end up breaking some major laws. Everybody here travels somewhere for Christmas, it seems, and when my daughter told me she was sad because all her friends went to visit family and we were the only ones who didn’t have anyone here – I knew we had to do something, in the hope that a hotel lobby would make up for the absence of family.

“But where will we take them?” my wife asked, as we started packing a suitcase for the kids even before we’d decided on a destination.

“I was thinking Chicago,” I said, because I really was thinking Chicago. Where else? We don’t have the money for airfare to a warmer destination, not when our daughter is due to go off to college in a year.

“But Chicago is frozen and we’ve been there a million times,” my wife said. “How about somewhere else? What else is around here?”

How am I supposed to know what’s around here – and about something that’s also a reasonable driving distance? We’ve already been to St. Louis, which is about a three-hour trip; the kids went up in that arch they have there and went to the children’s museum. Plus, we’ve already been to the children’s museum in Indianapolis, two-and-a-half hours away, too.

“Maybe Loowieville?” my wife suggested. “A friend told me it’s nice there – they have a children’s museum and another one that’s like a factory where they make baseball bats.”

“Where is that?” I asked, trying without success to find some information on the computer. “Are you sure that’s the name of the place? I’m not finding anything like that.”

“Yes, I’m sure,” said my wife. “One-million percent. Maybe I’m not pronouncing it correctly,” she said as she called our daughter over.

“She’s right, it exists,” said our daughter, without taking Drake out of her ears. “But that’s not how you write it, move over a second,” she said. Then she typed in “Louisville” – which really did exist, in Kentucky, four hours away.

That’s not too bad, I told myself. Americans make drives like that all the time, it’s not like in Israel where a one-hour drive is considered a big deal. That’s how they do it here, I told myself, as we loaded the kids into the car and set off.

Four hours, that’s not so bad, like driving to Eilat – although whenever I drove down there I knew just what I’d find at the end of the road, and here I was driving to a town in Kentucky and the only thing I knew about it was that you write it totally different than you pronounce it.

How I missed Eilat, even though I always suffered there. But still. I thought about the trip we made there once a year, and how we would stop every half-hour for a half-hour break, and how the radio would change and the stations weren’t the same and how I enjoyed hearing Jordanian radio shows, even when they praised the king every half hour.

The radio stations got messed up on the way to Kentucky too, and I let the scanner run between stations and choose what I was going to hear, like on the way to Eilat. And on the way to Kentucky a guy on the radio was talking about the UN Security Council resolution and about Kerry’s speech, and he was irate and couldn’t understand how the Americans were supporting Hamas – after all, Israel left the Gaza Strip and look what happened: It didn’t turn into a resort like Hawaii. And the guy on the radio shouted that he didn’t get why Jews weren’t being allowed to build in Jerusalem for God’s sake, not in the west, not in the east. That, as far as he could tell, Obama and Kerry don’t want the Jews to build in Jerusalem. And Christians, he shouted, aren’t allowed to enter Bethlehem, and they aren’t allowed to go to Nazareth. And what’s this Palestine anyway? – he wondered. It was Jordan, where are the Jordanians in this? And so on

On the radio and on a lot of the TV programs, a lot of lies are being said about the Palestinians and there’s no one to correct them. And in the discussions on the more serious programs, the ones that aren’t clearly affiliated with the right, about the resolution and the Kerry speech, there were debates between Jews from left and right, including some Israelis.

But of all the many hours I spent watching TV or reading the papers about the issue, I did not come across a single article written by a Palestinian about the resolution, or hear a single Palestinian interviewee talk about what life is really like. Somehow, this week, even here, it felt like the discussion about Palestinian life was an internal Israeli discussion.

“There is no such people,” as the agitated radio guy said as we crossed through Indiana on the way south to Kentucky.

The kids were thrilled to be in a hotel, like always, and during an early dinner, the TV on the wall of the hotel restaurant was showing scenes from Times Square in New York, with lots of police officers and heavy security. Just don’t let anything happen, I privately prayed as I took a bite of my cheeseburger without cheese, as I’d requested from the waitress.

Being four hours to the south didn’t help much – Louisville was cold on New Year’s Eve, but it was still a holiday, so we walked through the downtown to a colorful ice-cream shop. The muted TV there was showing scenes from Istanbul, with captions at the bottom of the screen saying that many people had probably been killed.

“Happy New Year!” said the salesgirl as she handed the cones to the kids.

Early on New Year’s Day I noticed a missed call from my mother. Careful not to wake the children, I hurried out of the room to call her back.

“No, nothing’s happened, everything’s fine, don’t worry,” my mother said first thing, knowing me and my anxiety attacks. “I just wanted to make sure that all is well with you, and to see how the kids are doing.”

“Yes,” I told her. “We’re all fine, thanks. Now tell me what’s up.”

And then she told me that a young girl, just out of high school, had been killed as she celebrated the New Year’s in Istanbul. That all of Tira was in mourning and awaiting the return of the body.

I lit a cigarette outside, and I shuddered. It must be the cold, I told myself. It’s this goddamn winter.