Fish out of water: An evening with Arab-Israeli writer Sayed Kashua

Last night, UCLA’s Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies hosted Arab-Israeli (or Israeli-Arab, or Palestinian-Israeli, or quite simply) writer, Sayed Kashua to discuss his unusual career as “an Israeli Arab who writes in Hebrew.”

Kashua is the author of three novels—“Dancing Arabs,” “Let It Be Morning” and his latest, “Second Person Singular,” the creator of a popular Israeli TV series “Avodah Aravit” (or “Arab Labor”) which will soon enter its fourth season, and the author of a weekly column for the liberal Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz.

While Kashua said he simply wants to be known as a writer, his interviewer—Arieh Saposnik, director of the Nazarian Center—was much more interested in his identity politics.

Introducing the author, UCLA’s Gil Hochberg, associate professor of Comparative Literature spoke about the “schizophrenic” experience of being an Arab citizen of Israel. Kashua, she said, has been “the target of political and literary praise and accusation”; his protagonists are called to “negotiate two seemingly incompatible identities”; and quoting Kashua, bolstered the idea that “simply by being an Israeli-Arab, one is considered a traitor.”

According to Hochberg, Kashua’s work lends itself to “manufacturing tension,” “reappropriating conditions of exclusion,” “reworking and restaging ethnographic and national othering” and ultimately forces the reader to “rethink our notion of the Arab Israeli.” Now, if you can get around the academic lingo, which is useful when prancing around polemics, you’ll empathize with Kashua’s plight: to let the work speak for itself and not an entire populace.

When Kashua finally got to talk, he said that even his recent appearance at an East Coast university was co-opted as part of a Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration. “I don’t know how to come out of this clean, and not be a hypocrite,” he said, highlighting the ever-present tension he lives with. “I just want to write.”

As an Arab-Israeli, Kashua is not only a minority within greater Israel, he is part of an ethnic group in constant conflict with the Jewish State and thus in a very awkward position. As Jews well know, it is not easy to live among one’s “enemies.” Kashua’s citizenship in Israel, along with his incredible success, also makes him an object of scorn among his own people. His work reflects this torment. 

“Is this just a tension in your work or does this reality make your life impossible and miserable?” Saposnik, an associate professor of Near Eastern Language and Culture asked.

Again, Kashua said, “I really just want to be a writer and a storyteller. But maybe pain is one of the things you have to feel in order to be creative.”

“[This condition] is very problematic,” he added, “I’m not representing anyone—not Israelis, not Palestinians—I’m just a storyteller trying to raise more questions than give answers. I wish I could be proud of being an Israeli citizen, but how can I do that when I’m not really recognized as a full citizen?”

Still, Kashua was careful not to overstate his dilemma. He is a person first, a Palestinian second: “I don’t really wake up in the morning and say, ‘Ohmigod, I’m a Palestinian in a Jewish state’; I wake up in the morning and say, ‘Ohmigod I have to make sandwiches for my kids.’”

What saddens him even more than living uncomfortably as an outsider is that peace talks have stalled. “I still remember the morning after the Oslo agreements,” he said wistfully. “It was real once – talk about peace. It would be easier for me if there were a solution, a way or hope.”

Long before the Arab Spring, Kashua said he remembers a time when Palestinian national aspiration included plans to demonstrate democracy. “In the 50s and 60s, there was hope that the PLO will create a state that will show the Arab world what a real democracy could be.”

The night before The Second Intifada broke out, Kashua remembers being at a jazz club, dancing and drinking with his “Israeli Jewish friends.”

“Now it’s just getting worse,” he lamented. “The feeling now in Israel is that it’s impossible to make an agreement and the situation will never be different.”

In person, Kashua has an easy, friendly, often very funny manner. He was never unkind in speaking about Israel, but he was sarcastic: When a woman from the audience said, “I’m right wing and I admire you!” He replied, “I admire you that you don’t live in Israel!”

His awkward status as a sorta citizen in a segregated society is not only burdened with losses, but with an anxious sense of loyalty to both sides: “I’m always very worried, ‘Is there going to be an attack on Gaza? Is there going to be an attack on Sderot?’”

The irony of Kashua’s experience, whether he realizes this or not, is that it is precisely the same experience as the historically alienated Jew.

“To be a minority is part of your daily life,” he said. “There is pain calling you always to be aware of being different and to teach this to your kids.”

Kashua’s own parents imbued him with a worldview that emphasized both national aspirations and personal ones. They were not too proud to send him away to an Israeli boarding school that offered a superior education than the one in their village. There, he read Kafka (“I couldn’t believe when I discovered he was Jewish!”) and “The Catcher in the Rye” (“I was shocked that you could have doubts like that, and think like that, and write like that”). Even with all the guilt, Kashua enjoys a level of success most Israeli Jews have not experienced; so much so, that he said he often finds himself apologizing for his success.

I asked Kashua if he ever wonders what his life might have looked like had he lived in the Palestinian territories. Would he have had a hit television series? Published three novels? Gotten a lucrative contract at a major national newspaper?

He didn’t really answer: “I would have grown up to be the same screwed up person.”

I also asked if he felt camaraderie with any of Israel’s leading writers.

“Israeli writers are really very supportive of me,” he said, naming Amos Oz and Etgar Keret.

He said Oz once called him in the car when he was driving his family to Eilat “for Passover vacation” to tell him how much he liked “Avodah Aravit”. Oz also wrote him a letter praising his novel, “Second Personal Singular” and counseled him that even with a column and a TV show on his plate, he should always set aside one or two days of the week for writing literature.

“Literature is like a very proud woman,” Kashua said Oz told him. “You can cheat her once or twice but more than that and she’ll never forgive you.”

Kashua said that although he is heeding Oz’s advice, “I’m sorry to say, my main goal is to earn enough money so I can sit down very early and watch TV.”