“So, you’re a writer,” said the nice woman who greeted me in the driveway of her home.
“Yes,” I replied softly, thinking about what it really means to be a writer.
“Tell me what your name is again?” she asked politely. “The people at the library already told me, but I forgot.”
“Sayed Kashua,” I answered.
“Yes,” I answered impatiently.
“Where are you from?”
“I live in Jerusalem.”
“Jerusalem?” she asked.
“Yes,” I answered. In an attempt to reassure her, I decided to add that I live in West Jerusalem feeling like all those residents of Jabal Mukkaber who sometimes say that they’re from Armon Hanatziv.
“Were you born in Jerusalem?” she continued with her polite interrogation, as she led me to the zimmer where I would spend the night.
“No,” I said. “I was born in Tira.”
“I love Jerusalem,” she said. “Here’s the key to your cabin. Do you come from a big family?”
“Yes,” I said, not really sure if three siblings fit the definition or not.
“Are you married?” she kept on.
“Yes,” I said, “and I have three children.”
“But you’re here alone?”
“Yes,” I answered, starting to regret the hasty decision to stay for the night in Bnei Yehuda rather than make the drive home right after giving my talk in the library. I’d decided to stay over when I reached the southern Golan Heights. It had taken me three hours of driving to get there, and the steep climb up from Lake Kinneret had convinced me I was better off not risking the totally unfamiliar roads in the dark.
I’d made the whole trip with the uneasy feeling that my Arab and leftist friends would find out that I’d agreed to appear at a library in one of the settlements, even if that wasn’t quite accurate. It was already too late to cancel when I realized that Bnei Yehuda is a community in the Golan Heights.
“What are you talking about, settlements?” said the diligent woman at the agency that coordinates all my talks and readings, when I complained about it.
“I didn’t realize it before either,” I told her on the phone, “but it turns out it’s in the Golan Heights.”
“Exactly,” she said. “So what does that have to do with settlements?”
“You like pickled olives?” asked the zimmer owner as she showed me around the cabin and gave me a quick tutorial on the use of the air conditioner.
“Sure, I like olives.”
“I bet your mother makes olives at home, right?”
“No,” I said, and she was surprised by my answer.
“So I’ll bring you some,” she said. “We have 4,000 olive trees and an olive press.”
I was so tired and hungry that night. All I wanted was to finish with the library so I could eat a small dinner that the nice employees had prepared for me, knowing what a long trip it was; sip a little of the whiskey I’d bought at the little shopping center that contained a kiosk and a pizzeria; and get to bed.
“Here you go,” said the zimmer owner, coming in with a bowl of green olives.
“You know what?” I said as I took the bowl from her and pulled out a copy of my latest book, which I’d brought with me to the library. “This is for you. A gift.”
“Wow,” she said. She put on her glasses, which up to now had been hanging on a string around her neck. “You wrote it?”
“Yes,” I said, as she glanced at the back cover.”
“Ah, so you also work for Haaretz?”
“I don’t read that paper,” she said, before thanking me again for the book and wishing me good night.
“Please don’t forget to turn off the light outside when you go to sleep,” she reminded me.
For some reason, I didn’t feel like eating that night. It hadn’t been a good talk. I don’t know if it was because of the tension and unease I’d been unable to shake the whole way there, or if it was due to the malaise that’s come over me lately that I’m afraid will develop into a full-blown depression again. I had no patience for people that evening, even though they had certainly been polite. “Quality people,” said the woman from the library, “who are just looking for quality of life.”
“Quality of life,” I thought to myself as I walked out of the cabin with the bowl of olives, pack of cigarettes and bottle of whiskey, trying to replay the library talk in my mind to see where it had gone wrong.
“Why are the Arabs like that?” This is a question that recurs at nearly every encounter with readers. Not phrased that way, of course, but it’s obvious what the questioners mean. Why don’t the Arabs take some initiative? Why don’t they try to improve their lives? Why don’t they chase after a better quality of life, like we do?
I usually have set answers to these types of questions. I do a little survey of the Arab plight in order to attack the government’s policy. Then I talk about the failure to establish new Arab communities, about the rabbis’ letter preventing Arabs from moving out of the villages, about the communal yishuv law, and about all the barriers preventing ordinary Arabs from aspiring to quality of life, even if quality of life happens to mean 4,000 olive trees and an olive press, which is basically a return to the conditions in which the Arabs lived before the state was founded.
That evening, though, I just hadn’t felt like answering. “What for?” I thought, as I sipped some of the whiskey that burned my throat. There’s no point. It won’t help. It never helps. Not after another morning when I opened the newspaper to find one report after another about people being shut up, about the harassment of anyone who dares to express criticism. Why talk about discrimination on a day when the Education Ministry fired an inspector who had the gall to approve a textbook that could be considered insufficiently nationalistic? Is there any point in talking about equal rights on a day when the justice minister signs laws enacting racial segregation?
“Am I disturbing you?” asked the zimmer owner, who was probably just seeking quality of life. “Please take this,” she said, handing me a paper bag with a bottle of high-quality virgin olive oil in it. “Our olive oil,” she said. “A gift for you.”