Empty Slogans and Huddled Masses: Sayed Kashua Is Not in a New York State of Mind

As soon as I entered the hotel where the Haaretz conference was being held, I realized that it was a multiple-casualty event.

Sayed Kashua
Sayed Kashua
An illustration showing Sayed Kashua walking down a crowded street in New York City.
Illustration. Credit: Amos Biderman
Sayed Kashua
Sayed Kashua

It was too much for me, much too much for me. True, I was in New York for less than a day and a half, but it was the busiest, most raucous and stressful time I’ve experienced since arriving in the cornfields of the United States of America.

I arrived very late because of heavy fog that blanketed the airport in our town in Illinois. After we’d sat for something like two hours in the small plane at the regional airport, waiting to take off for Chicago, the pilot announced that there was no sign of improvement in the weather and that he was bringing the plane back to the terminal.

“Flights are often canceled at this time of year because of snow,” a lecturer in German literature whom I knew and was on the same flight told me, “and not because of fog, which is caused by warmth.” He decided to forgo his flight, explaining that it was a bad day for flying and that he preferred a clear day; in case one of the engines burned out, it would be possible to make an emergency landing. That really scared me, but I went on to Chicago after a new ticket was issued.

Manhattan was warm. I could have left my coat at home. I got into a taxi and was stuck in a traffic jam on the way to the hotel. After an hour of stopping and starting, I checked out the maps app on my phone and discovered that although I was half an hour away from the hotel by car, it would take me three minutes to walk there. I paid and got out of the taxi. Cars honked nonstop, and I tried to remember when I last, if ever, had heard the blaring horns of frazzled drivers.

Like the streets, the sidewalks in downtown New York were packed. It was too much for me, and for some reason I was sure that the Haaretz conference in the city, which I was invited to participate in, would be an intimate affair and that the paper wanted me to take part because of the tax-deductible cost of a domestic flight.

As soon as I entered the hotel that evening I realized that it was a multiple-casualty event. Even before getting to the reception desk I met a large number of acquaintances from Israel, Jews and Arabs. At first I was delighted – after all, these were dear people, some of them old friends I wanted to see so I could ask how they were doing, get updated and talk about this and that. It had been a long time since I heard so much Arabic.

The participants were about to head off for a pre-conference reception in a local art gallery. I passed up that event in favor of dinner with one of my editors in New York. My host had chosen a restaurant that was a short walk from my hotel. After a quick shower I left and walked according to the phone’s instructions toward my destination. After a few minutes, I discovered that I was walking in the opposite direction – I couldn’t differentiate between right and left.

I’m still not sure where I ended up, but I do know that I found myself crushed by masses of people who were looking at large Christmas trees erected in the middle of some street or plaza or whatever. I couldn’t move, and drops of sweat cascaded down my forehead. I tried to carve out a path, partly with the aid of pushing and apologizing. At some point I felt I didn’t have enough air. The streets were so crowded, I knew I would be late for my meeting.

“Relax,” my editor told me on the phone after I’d missed the appointed time. I’m pretty sure he sensed the lump in my throat from the impending tears. “Everything is fine. Tell me exactly where you are and I’ll guide you out of the mob.”

I drank that evening as I hadn’t drunk for two years, but instead of this guaranteeing a good night’s rest, I woke up in a pre-dawn panic, and was unable to get back to sleep. On television they were talking about the weather and the unseasonably warm temperatures just before Christmas, then about global warming and the ice floes and other dangers facing humanity.

When I ordered coffee, I saw Merav Michaeli, and when I went out for a smoke I saw dozens of bodyguards in suits and with white earpieces scattered around the hotel. In the dining room I saw Tzipi Livni. Quickly the hotel filled up with conference-goers who stood in a long line for a thorough security check. I didn’t want to miss the presentations of the main speakers. I wanted to hear what they had to say, what had changed and what the prognosis was.

The main conference hall was packed. Someone greeted the audience, someone explained how committedly Zionist the paper I work for is. President Reuven Rivlin took the podium and talked about the Israel Defense Forces as the most moral army in the world. I wanted to leave, so I did. Saeb Erekat said the same things he usually said. I remembered the “it is essential,” “there is no choice,” “two,” “alongside.” Applause, and then there was Livni, who for the millionth time uttered “Jewish and democratic.” People spoke in slogans, the same old slogans. The audience heard what it knows, applauded, felt encouraged or disappointed, drank coffee, nibbled on cookies.

The politicians didn’t say anything meaningful, the directors of the funds spoke about the need for change and proposed various activities. Some of them delivered with revolutionary fervor speeches they could declaim by heart; some left the impression that what they saw in the audience was mainly wallets that could help underwrite their diverse projects. That’s how it is with American Jews, they have money, they just don’t know whom to give it to.

Good, nice people I hadn’t met before wanted to say nice things to me, to encourage and compliment, to take part in something. I couldn’t hear what they were saying. I smiled, I thanked them, in some cases I wondered whether I’d heard a compliment or criticism, it made no difference.

It was too much for me, I felt I was wandering around in a daze. “Are you coming to the closing party?” a friend from the old days asked me. On a different day I would certainly have had a cup of coffee or a beer with him and asked him if he was married already and had children – but not at this conference, not on this day. There was barely time to exchange two sentences before someone interrupted me or my interlocutor.

“No, what party?”

“It’s at the home of some millionaire – what, you’re not coming?”

I didn’t manage to reply, because someone was already asking my friend if he was going by taxi or walking. I skipped the event and went up to my room. I ordered a sandwich from room service and turned on the TV. A senior American politician said that all American citizens without exception are under threat, that there are those who are trying to wipe us out, that the country is at war – and he promised that in this war we are going to be the victors.

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