Sayed Kashua

In Vermont I Realized How Different Life Is Without the Occupation

In Israel, every stranger is a threat; I take extra care to show that I'm not like all the other Arabs, in hope of avoiding violence. Things are different in the U.S.

Yesterday I celebrated my 42nd birthday, in a small, lovely town in the Vermont woods. At midday we drove to one of the magical lakes, not far from the inn we’d traveled to after visiting Niagara Falls. At the lake shore, the children wanted to rent a boat. I told them it’s dangerous, that I don’t know how to operate a motorboat – to say nothing of oars – that it would take me half an hour just to get us out of the small marina, that I would never be able to maneuver between rocks and sea monsters, that we would certainly collide with another boat, or a Jet Ski would ram us at full speed.

Luckily for the kids, we were accompanied on our outing by an Israeli university lecturer who was visiting one of the better known colleges in Vermont.

“Are you serious?” he asked when he heard me begging the boat-rental agent to refuse me a boat because I have no experience and would wreck the craft for sure. “I have experience,” our Israeli friend said. I really hoped that he did, that he’d served on some naval vessel or at least did some diving with frogmen somewhere.

Illustration: Sayed Kashua dressed in medieval British garb and holding a plane ticket.
Amos Biderman

The Israeli friend actually did know how to control the motorboat and got us to mid-lake. He taught the children how to navigate carefully with the rudder, and let them maneuver forward and backward and use the wheel, so that we would cruise close to land and pass between two small islands.

“What are you still doing on board?” a few Americans who had stopped their boat and were diving into the water shouted at us. “The water’s great, come on, jump in.”

“You’re not jumping anywhere!” I ordered the children.

“But Dad, why?”

“Because Arabs and the sea is a whole different thing – we’re not Americans,” I said with a determination that left them no room for squabbling. “When we get back to the shore, you can go swimming at the designated beach.”

“Things can be different.” Those four words resonated in my head as I sat on a beach chair afterward, watching the kids frolicking happily in the lake. “Things can be different,” and not necessarily because of the family road trip we’d embarked on a week ago. I know that things can be different, because I feel that that’s the case, even if I can’t explain it in words. Things can be different, because the constant fear of Israelis doesn’t exist. Every Israeli stranger is a threat until he proves otherwise. I will hide, take cover, be fearful and display friendship to show that I’m not like all the other Arabs, in the hope of avoiding trouble and violence that one must always be prepared for.

Things can be different when you go on a trip and aren’t apprehensive about the hotel’s policy on Arabs, when you’re not always trying to figure out how the others in the pool will look at Arabs. Things can be different when you sit by the lake and don’t need to look around to make sure that there’s no danger lurking for your children. Neither a security guard nor some kid with a knife.

Things can be different, I know, even when I can’t really explain it. Not, heaven forbid, that there’s any lack of troubles here in the United States. The president acts like a character in a telenovela, the people who control the economy are suffocating the workers, poverty can be found everywhere and regular people have to work very hard to survive in reasonable living conditions. Things can be different when the existential threats, racial separation, political violence and rule over another nation that always generate brutality are not part of life’s routine. Things can be different, and that’s such a great relief that I’m afraid to say it out loud, out of superstition and concern that the devil is listening.

Things can be different – now I know it. And once you understand that things can be different, you can only feel a sense of tremendous fear anticipating the day when we’ll be forced to bring the kids back to a place where things still cannot be different. Things can be different: without the fear, the feeling of humiliation, the overbearing and patronizing attitudes, and the policies aimed at perpetuating disparities. Things can be different, when you don’t feel that you’re numbered among the conquered.

No, the United States is not a paradise, but life here – our life, at least – is a lot better.

I have no doubt that things can be different. I’m certain that it will be a great relief for the Jews, too, when they no longer have to play the role of lords and masters, the soldiers, the police, the uprooting oppressors – whether they do so because they have no choice or they are incapable of imagining that things can be different, with the occupation being an existential phenomenon, integral to life as such.

From Vermont we drove to Lebanon, the one in New Hampshire. And a guy in the gas station, who noticed our Illinois plates, waved and shouted to us, “Welcome to New Hampshire.” We waved back, “Thank you, sir.” In the evening we went to nearby Hanover for dinner with Israeli friends who, after eight years, are leaving a job in one of the more prestigious universities in the United States. Family reasons, parents, siblings, longings.

“I’m so afraid,” said the Israeli friend, who’s already dispatched the contents of his adult life in a shipping container and whose children will enter Israeli schools this September. “I’m so afraid,” he added, but he didn’t have to say that, because you could see in his eyes how afraid he is.

“Do you ever think of going back?” he asks me, maybe trying to rationalize his own decision.

“I will go back, because I’m only a guest,” I replied, “and my contract runs out in another year.”

“But if you get a position here, would you still consider going back?”

“No,” I replied. “If I find a job here, I won’t go back.”

“Yes, ahh. You don’t know how afraid I am, and the girls, God, how will they get along there, they’ll be eaten up alive; they’re not used to it. Okay, well, we’ll see, we’ll see, what can I tell you? And does your wife want to go back?”

“Definitely not. It’s a lot more obvious to her than it is to me.”

“And the kids?”

“No. They miss family and friends, but they prefer being here. Except for the little one, who doesn’t know what here and there means. But the big ones say it explicitly.”

“Do you know what’s hardest about going back?” asked my friend, and my lips mimed his answer: “What’s hardest is that you understand that things can be different.”