The Born Identity: An Interview with Sayed Kashua


At Work

Portrait of the Arab-Israeli author Sayed Kashua.My Skype chat with Arab Israeli author Sayed Kashua started off on a promising note when we bonded over our ineptitude for all things mathematical. Except he, in typical fashion, was being facetious, while I had tried in vain to figure out Israeli time zones. The author—who also happens to be a columnist for the newspaper Ha’aretz and the writer of the popular Israeli-aired TV show Arab Labor—has an intimate relationship with the complexity of what it means to be an enigma in Israeli society. His most recent novel, Second Person Singular, is a delicately interwoven narrative, stitched together by instances of jealously, raw relationships, and the deeply embedded dogma of identity. Sayed’s cautionary tale doesn’t presume an intimate familiarity with the intractable Gordian Knot of Israeli society in order to understand human nature, willful dignity, and self-destructive tendencies. And therein lies the point.

I caught up with Kashua over the audible sounds of his young children shrieking in the background, and we spoke about the paradoxes of being an Arab Israeli columnist who lives in a prominently Jewish neighborhood, and whose daughter shares a schoolyard with the Israeli Prime Minister’s son.

I was just playing with my little boy.

How old is he?

I don’t know exactly…

I think maybe we’re both equally bad at math.

No, no, he is a year and eight months.

Just me then. You just came back from a book tour, which you’ve capped off by saying you want both sides to go to hell. So it sounds like it went well. Did you learn anything new in the interim?

Yes, that the real Jewish state is the Upper West Bank, in New York, and that Montreal can be very cold. I don’t know what I learned this time around, because it’s not my first time, but I think that this feeling that I can run away from dealing with identity, or not to feel like a persecuted minority will not go away if I move to Canada or the U.S. Because most people I met were dealing with issues of identity, language, belonging, and what does home mean. But most of the people that I met were Israeli, or Arab, or Palestinians. I think that identity doesn’t deserve so much thinking, to be honest. I think [from the tour] I have earned my confusion in a very honest way. Being a Palestinian citizen of Israel, it’s okay. We can be confused. I hear criticisms from both sides, but the majority of both sides really listen and like my work, so the tour was great.

At several points in your writing you have alluded to the phrase “He who has no past has no future.” Is that something you personally believe?

I don’t agree with it, or at least I hope it’s not true. It’s just something I mention in the book to discuss the issue of identity and create a discussion around identity, but it’s not something I want to believe in.

Your daughter goes to the same school as Bibi’s [Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu] son. How has that experience (I assume the school doesn’t have much of a Palestinian narrative) contribute to her understanding of her own cultural background, as an Arab Israeli?  

She is the only Arab in the school and she is in seventh grade, and there is no Palestinian narrative at all. Not even in Arab schools does that narrative exist. Most of them, except for maybe one, don’t teach about the Nakbah, for instance. So there is not much of a narrative. At my daughter’s school, they call the narrative historical facts, so it’s not even called a Zionist narrative. But both sides know what happened, and both sides have their myths about it.

You are giving a speech in a Jewish high school in Hod HaSharon next week. What will you be lecturing on?

I will tell my story. I will tell them about the fact that we became refugees inside this country. I will tell them a little bit about the experience of the stories that I heard from my grandmother, about her husband.

How do Israeli high school students respond to your lectures?

I don’t know what it will look like in Hod HaSharon, but sometimes it is really very difficult. Teenagers can be the worst audience ever, and young people, according to researchers, are much more extreme, and don’t really have much hope—much more so than my generation, even. So it’s very tough.

Are students receptive to the topics you address?

It depends. It’s happened before that someone would shout something like, “You Arab murderers,” or something like that, in the middle of the lecture. But, when I talk to high school students it’s very different, and I use a lot of humor when I tell my personal story, my family story. I try not to give a lot of chances for them to shout. I have a lot of experience now, so I know how to handle it.

Does the humor help in mitigating the issues, in making them more relatable?

Yes. During the lectures I would use a lot of humor, but there are also difficult parts, or painful ones. But, yes, the humor is always the ticket. I always start with a joke or a humoristic thing to say—and when I realize they are listening, then I can make them cry. ‬

Second Person Singular tells the story of how fluid identity is. I read that during an appearance on stage with [Israeli author] Etgar Keret, one audience member stood up and asked, “Who is the Arab writer and who is the Israeli writer?” to which you stood up and answered, “I am Etgar Keret, the Israeli writer.” Did you do that to prove a point?

That was a little while ago. We were in the middle of the discussion, actually, and one French lady stood up and asked, “Who is the Palestinian and who is the Israeli?” It was just a joke. Most of the audience knew very well who Etgar Keret and who Sayed was. But as a joke I stood up and said “I am Etgar.” He told me he later published a story about that.‬

You wrote that your father used to tell you that there is no place for you except Tira. You live in a Jewish neighborhood and your daughter attends a well-known Israeli school. Do you think he is right? Is there right a thing as a natural place for raising people?

Sometimes we face major difficulties in raising our kids in our neighborhood and sending our daughter to a Jewish school. Sometimes I do think that maybe he was right. Maybe that was the easiest way. Maybe people like my kids and myself are not supposed to be confused—maybe it’s easier, even if it’s much more difficult in the physical sense. The education system would be worse, but maybe it’s less confusing for the kids that way. They are not facing easy times at all. My daughter struggles a lot. And I have a strong feeling that she will end up serving in the army, this little—‬I don’t want to curse. She is aware of the story, of the narrative, but she very much wants to hide her identity and to be part of her Israeli group of friends. And sometimes she yells at us when we listen to Arabic music in the car. It’s not easy. ‬

Do you think you were right in assimilating in a Jewish neighborhood, rather than going in what is often seen as “the natural” way?

No, I don’t think it’s the natural way, but anyone who is aware of the situation here, and what it means to live in an Arab village, even if it is the “natural” place, knows it’s not worth living there. Just last night an eighteen-year-old boy was shot in Tira. Shootings and crime are part of daily life in Tira, and I don’t want to live there, and I don’t think it’s the “natural” thing to live there. And I think the natural thing is to be able to move from that village. But here it’s moving to a Jewish town, which makes it very very difficult. But no, I don’t believe in natural places to raise kids. It’s about how you feel there, and whether you are going to be accepted in that neighborhood, and what would be the reaction of the neighbors. It’s happened many times before, that homes of Arabs in Acko or Tzfat were burned, so it can be scary. I live in a very nice neighborhood in Jerusalem and I really like my neighbors.

Your writing about identity is mostly through humor. Do you think identity should be taken less seriously?

Yes. It’s scary how deep issues of identity and nationality run. I don’t like it. I wish it was different than it is. Sometimes I do feel like your bank account can define your identity more than anything else. But I hope my stories make my readers think a little bit, because I also talk about how holy we make identity seem and look like, and how obsessive we are with identity when it comes to our kids, and how to deal with it. What are we supposed to do with it?

It seems like your writing points to identity as stemming from ego, or something of that sort.

Yes. Yes. You can see it especially if you live in a problematic place, and there are very clear signs, unfortunately. Sometimes it’s not very clear, but In Israel it’s very clear. You’re either Arab or Jewish in this conflict, and there is no place for individuality.

Your article about your talk in Montreal really captured something, that maybe there is no clean solution, maybe it’s okay to be confused or inconsistent. Do you think that’s a notion people can come to accept?

Yes, that was the thing I learned more than anything else during the tour. Usually I do listen to critics, and during this journey I discovered that I can be confused, and belonging to this community of Palestinian citizens of Israel, we don’t deserve to be blamed of being confused. Just the definition of being an Arab, Palestinian citizen of a Jewish state is enough to make you confused or make you have a different identity, some people call it problematic, and that is something I am trying to deal with. I think that if we’re looking for a solution it must be, unfortunately, logical. But meanwhile, while we aren’t coming to any solution, maybe time will make it less clear than it is now. Maybe time will just force us to live together, and then something will happen.

I read your translation of Second Person Singular in English, though I wish I’d read it in Hebrew. Is a major part of the narrative lost—in particularly when dissecting intimate and deeply rooted parts of a culture?

So your Hebrew is good enough to run this interview?

Yes, it is, but I would have to translate it back—from Hebrew, back to English … this seemed like it would just be easier.

Maybe it’s easier for you! Isn’t it about time that Jewish people work a little harder than Arabs? But back to the question, I’m quite sure that people who aren’t aware of the situation read the book differently from Israelis and maybe also from the Arabs that live in Israel. But I don’t really care. If I read a novel from South Dakota, or whatever—when I read a book from Chile, I don’t need to know the background or the history of Chile. I think that if I have a good story to tell, the more specific I can be and the closer I can get to portraying human feelings, the more universal the novel will be. So I’m not dealing with what people from Turkey or Germany or the U.S. will think about being a Palestinian Arab citizen of Israel. And that’s okay. They can read it without understanding. Maybe that will encourage them to Google and figure it out, but they don’t need to know a lot about the conflict, or the definitions, or different citizenships in Israel. It’s enough for me to give them the feeling. After all, it’s just a story. It’s about delivering the feelings more than understanding what it means, exactly. When I’m talking about an Arab village in Israel I’m not expecting readers to know the reality or what it looks like, but I’m sure that the feeling of being part of this Arab village, whether it’s Tira or Jaljulia, or other villages described in my novel, are clear enough for the reader in order to understand the story. I hope so, anyways.

Your writing in the Israeli newspaper Ha’artez revolves around your daily life. How does your family feel about starring in your columns?

My column is based on real life, but I’m not trying to tell the truth. At least not the truth about my daily life. I am just using my daily life, my family, in order to tell a story. My wife got used to it. With the kids it’s more of a problem. My oldest kid is thirteen years old, and she started reading Ha’aretz, so I’m not really allowed to write about her anymore.

Does she think you’re funny?

No. No, she thinks that I’m really embarrassing, and before every meeting with her teachers at school she asks me to be quiet and shut up. They don’t think I’m funny at all. It’s awful. I have a very strong feeling that she’s right, and maybe I’m just becoming old and pathetic more than funny.

I think your book sales are quite to the contrary…

Yes, but I have a teenager around here, so she knows better than my readers! Sometimes it seems important to write for the newspaper or TV, but sometimes I want to take a break and focus on my fourth novel. I’ve been writing in newspapers for maybe seventeen years. It’s very difficult, because right now we are editing the fourth season of the TV sitcom that I’m writing, [Arab Labor], and I keep writing for Ha’aretz as well. In Israel it’s not enough to be a best-seller or a good writer to survive economically. But on the other hand I do feel very lucky that I have the opportunity to make money from TV or journalism, because I don’t want to be the kind of novelist who has to write a book a year, or a book every two years, in order to make it economically. I want to write novels only if the idea or the story is so disturbing that I could not forgive myself if I did not write that novel.

Your last book took you six years to write. What forced you to finish it?

I signed a contract! I wrote the first chapter in 2004, and I started only with the story of Amir and Yonatan, and I wrote the first chapter almost as it appears in the book. And then I didn’t like the story of Amir and Yonatan, and then I started to write the story of the lawyers, which to me had nothing to do with the story of Amir and Yonatan, and then it became very clear to me that it was the same story. But it’s not that I was just writing it for six years, but meanwhile I wrote three seasons of my TV show and I wrote a script that just finished shooting now, and I was writing for Ha’aretz. So I was writing my novel on the weekends…

You must have no spare time.

Believe it or not I still sleep something like twelve hours a day.

Between the naps and your column and novels and your TV show, you said you’re following in [journalist] Yair Lapid’s footsteps, and running for Knesset in the next election. Was that serious?

Not really, but sometimes I’m so sick and tired of writing a weekly column, it’s a nightmare! Sometimes I really have nothing to say, and I have a blank page and I have to deliver it, so I figured maybe that’s why Yair Lapid quit writing his column for Yediot Aharonot. It was just to find another job. But it was a joke. And no, I have no intention at all to be a politician, but only for economical reasons. I tell people that if one day I go to the Knesset it will be because I really want to be a really corrupt politician and spend public money.

I think it would be refreshing to have someone with a sense of humor in the Knesset.

I think they are terribly funny! Sometimes they are so funny it’s a little bit sad.

During your home renovations, one of your workers, upon hearing your name, mistook you for a contractor. Later on, another one of the workers, asked you in Hebrew if he could have the pair of Nikes you had just thrown out, for his kids. I imagine these instances happen a lot to you—do they still confuse you, or have you gotten used to how to react to them?

I am used to it. I wish it would happen more because I wish I could use it for my column! But yes, the Jewish worker thought I was working there, and the Arab thought it was strange that I was the homeowner. But at the end of the day, identity is not a problem that two shots of whiskey can’t solve, after all.

Is your fourth novel a secret, or can I ask you about it?

If I knew what it was about, I would tell you! It has changed so many times. I am in the very early stages. To be honest, stories start with this feeling, I call it a “smell.” It’s like my third novel. I had no idea what each story will bring in the lives of the lawyer or Amir and Yonatan, I was just following the characters and let them lead me. So I just started this journey and I know a little bit, I’m trying to figure out the main character and I know the smell or the feeling, the fear, that I’m trying to deal with, but it’s too early to tell what it’s going to be about.

I look forward to reading it in six years.

I hope it will take less!

One last question. Do you ever get hate mail?

Yes, sometimes it’s really very awful. “What are you looking for here?” “Why don’t you leave the country?” I’m used to it now, but the talk-back can be really very nasty sometimes. Sometimes they are lovely, but most of the time not. I am doing my best not to read them.