A Conversation with Sayed Kashua

Margaret Litvin and Simon Rabinovitch with Sayed Kashua

kashuaIn Emile Habibi’s satirical novel The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist (1974), the Arab protagonist ardently seeks to appease the Jewish state that has conquered him. So intense is his loyalty that after the June War of 1967, when Israeli radio calls on Arabs in the defeated territories to raise a white flag of surrender, Saeed hoists a bedsheet on a broomstick on his roof — not in the West Bank, but in the heart of Haifa! His submission is misread as a protest and lands him in an Israeli prison, where he is brutalized and recruited as a (remarkably incompetent) informer for the state. Later he tries and fails to join the Palestinian resistance. The only solution is to disappear. The novel’s end finds Saeed in outer space, a stylite balanced on a thin pillar with only extraterrestrials for company. Habibi’s wry prose mimics the comic genres of medieval Arabic literature, mixing in snatches of Israel’s other tongues. Hilarious and heartbreaking, The Pessoptimist remains the classic literary statement of the Palestinian-Israeli predicament.

What have 40 years changed? Born in 1975 in the village of Tira, in the Muthalath (Triangle) region of Israel, Arab Israeli writer Sayed Kashua mines the same tragicomic vein. But he writes in Hebrew. “My most recent book sold 80,000 copies,” he says. “What do Arabic books in Israel sell? 200? 500?” His three novels (the first was Dancing Arabs, 2002, trans. 2004) have met with critical and some commercial success, but Kashua is even better known as the creator and writer of the satirical Israeli TV series Avoda Aravit (Arab Labor), the first non-news show to include Arabic dialogue in prime-time. In a polyglot mix of Palestinian Colloquial Arabic and Hebrew, with other languages sprinkled in (English, literary Arabic, even a scene where Palestinian grandparents switch to Yiddish for privacy), Arab Labor follows an Arab Israeli family and their friends through adventures with work, school, family, and doomed attempts at belonging. The hapless protagonist, a journalist named Amjad, wants nothing more than to be accepted into Israeli society. Like Habibi’s work, the series is at once hilarious and heartbreaking. Season by season, its situations become more and more exaggeratedly absurd, more and more lifelike. In the third season opener, when Amjad is tasked to impersonate a Jew on the Israeli reality TV show “Ha’akh Ha’gadol” (Big Brother), he succeeds so well that he can give a Mizrachi Jewish co-resident some advice. Here’s how to avoid being eliminated from the show, he offers: “You just have to … disappear.” The show-within-a-show is, of course, an allegorical microcosm of Israeli society.

Asked in public why he made Amjad such a spineless assimilationist, Kashua winces hard, then smiles. “I wanted to criticize my own way,” he says. His novels do the same, washing some Arab Israeli laundry in the process. Second Person Singular (2010, trans Mitch Ginsburg 2012) intercuts two stories: a sophisticated Arab Israeli lawyer is seized with marital jealousy, jeopardizing his pretentious shell of a life, while an Arab Israeli home care nurse, Amir, swaps identities with his terminally ill Jewish Israeli patient, Yonatan. His earlier Let It Be Morning (2004, trans. 2006), written at the height of the Second Intifada, is a dystopia of Arab Israeli non-belonging: an unnamed village suffers a multi-day siege; lack of municipal services and food supplies reduces the Arab villagers to abject and squabbling bare life; finally, when the closure lifts, the village finds itself in a new status — at the time, Kashua says, the worst outcome he could imagine.

The next novel may be set in the Midwest rather than the Mideast. Last July, during the war in Gaza and amid anti-Arab racist violence in Jerusalem, where they lived, Kashua decided that his family needed to leave Israel. Their planned one-year sabbatical in the United States (specifically Champaign, Illinois) would become an exile. Announced publicly in his weekly Haaretz column, his decision resonated internationally, irking Israel’s defenders and critics alike. To the former: Hadn’t Israel given him everything, education, an audience, success? To the latter: What, was Kashua belatedly waking up, after serving for so long as the Arab poster boy for so-called Israeli tolerance? Of course, no one understands these conflicting critiques more acutely than Kashua himself. Meanwhile many in Israel, for whom Kashua has become a part of their lives through his column, his books, and his television series, simply hope the prodigal son one day returns.

kashua interview

MRB contributing editor Margaret Litvin (ML) and senior editor Simon Rabinovich (SR) sat down for a freewheeling conversation with Kashua (SK) during his recent visit to Boston University. Here is part of it:

“Would you like to hear a good joke about Ebola?”

SR: How have you generally found the adjustment? To academic life as well as Midwestern life?
SK: I’m not really trying to adjust to any kind of academic life. I just go to my classes and that’s it. At the very first lesson I told my students — they had sent me an email that said, “Dear Professor Kashua”— I told them, “If you ever call me a professor again, you will fail the class.”
ML: Ha! So what do they call you?
SK: Sayed.
ML: It’s Advanced Hebrew?
SK: No. The advanced Hebrew is very nice. Because it’s Hebrew. It’s demanding sometimes because I ran out of materials, of short stories that can fit, but I mean the comedy writing class. That’s the one that was really very tough at the beginning.
ML: Sounds like fun.
SK: Yes, it’s supposed to be fun. But sometimes, comedy can be really very sad. And it was really very frustrating at the beginning. It took me a while to figure out and to make the students talk. Now I’m nervous and enthusiastic to see their work.
ML: Do you recognize their sense of humor?
SK: Sorry?
ML: Does their sense of humor make sense to you? Do you laugh at the same things?
SK: Yes, in most cases yes. I never had any trouble to understand American comedies. I don’t like the one-liner jokes, but you know, American sitcoms are standard, and I share my favorite ones with them. So it’s not a cultural thing. Well, sometimes it is embarrassing. One of my students told me a joke. It wasn’t an assignment or anything, but he just asked me, “Would you like to hear a good joke about Ebola?” And I said, “Yes.” And he says, “You’re probably not gonna get it,” and I said, “Why? Because of my English?” (Long pause) So that’s missing the joke, totally.
ML: Huh?
SK: So he says: “Would you like to hear a good joke about Ebola?”
ML: Oh. You’re probably not gonna get it. Duh! Sorry, I missed it, too.
SK: See, that was nasty, right?
SR: Take no offense. See, we didn’t get it either.
SK: Actually, he was like, “You’re probably not going to get it,” and I was like, “Why, because of my acc… Oh, right.”
SR: So what are your favorite shows to use? I’m curious.
SK: At the very beginning it was Louis C. K., the pilot to Louie. Sometimes short scenes from Chris Rock and Dave Chapelle and also a little bit of the Canadian Russell Peters. The Simpsons. Actually not The Simpsons, but what Banksy did with the introduction to The Simpsons, it’s really very powerful. The very beginning of Dr. Strangelove, the beginning of Modern Times. And I was a little surprised that…
ML: That they didn’t know it?
SK: No! They didn’t!

“It’s the whole atmosphere. I’m really sick of it.”

ML: I was struck by the way people in your books relate to books. They want this culture so much. In Second Person Singular, it’s really like the library, the identity, are all part of the same thing, and your Palestinian lawyer goes to the bookstore. It’s just interesting how there’s this idea of a curriculum that other people have —
SK: Yes.
ML: — that the Arab character wants , wants to sort of absorb.
SK: Yes. Although I think it was the very first audience comment at the first reading of Second Person, I think it was a Jewish lawyer, who said, “I just wanted to tell you that you give way too much credit to Jewish lawyers. You think we’ve all read The Kreutzer Sonata. We haven’t read all those things.”
SR: No, it’s true. I know a lot of Jewish lawyers. I can tell you, I haven’t thought of that before, but that’s true.
SK: But when I read Amos Oz, for example. I do very much envy him because according to A Tale of Love and Darkness, his autobiography — to talk about books when he was a child, to talk about his father, about the library, and being in touch with S.Y. Agnon, and being in touch with the National Library and all the bookstores, it’s something that I never had when I was a boy. So it’s something. The first time actually that I saw a library was in high school. Yes. So I envied them very much. It is from there. I don’t have any – culture would be a sad word to say – but, yes, I had to make my way into literature without any background. Not Hebrew background. I didn’t arrive into writing with some kind of cultural fortune, I don’t know how to call it, osher tarbuti. I was very lucky that my grandmother was no worse a storyteller than S.Y. Agnon or Amos Oz. She was even a better storyteller than Amos Oz, a little bit. A competitor of Shai Agnon. So thank God I didn’t really miss anything from not reading Agnon.
ML: You didn’t read Yiddish classics either, right? You’re not sitting here reading Sholem Aleichem or something? Some of your village stories are kind of reminiscent, some of the village social comedy, maybe of Isaac Bashevis Singer.
SR: Also Sholem Aleichem.
SK: When I grew up I read them. My favorite thing by Singer was, I think, European-set, it was this love story that I think takes places in a ghetto. So I’m not sure how much it’s a Tira village story. Sholem Aleichem, yes, a little bit more.
SR: He’s a very funny comedian. I think of all Jewish writers, he’s the funniest in writing.
ML: Simon and I, sitting where we sit, we’re also both tempted to ask you about comparisons with Philip Roth. Do you hear that a lot?
SK: What?
ML: People asking you if you’re like Philip Roth in some way?
SK: Well, actually, I have a friend who said to me, “Oh, you didn’t read Philip Roth? You have to read Philip Roth!”
ML: No, you don’t have to read Philip Roth.
SK: “First of all because we are friends.”
ML: (Laughs) That might be a good reason.
SK: So two or three years ago, that’s the reason that I started reading Philip Roth, because I was going to meet him in New York. I had to prepare myself. So I read The Human Stain.
SR: Reading Second Person Singular, I obviously thought of The Human Stain, where you have an African-American who spends his life passing as a Jew.
SK: Oh, he was trying to pass as a Jew? I didn’t know – I thought he was just trying as a white man…
ML: …on the analogy that Palestinian-Israelis are the black people of Israel.
SR: No, specifically as a Jew. He’s actually trying to pass as a Jewish American because his hair is very frizzy. But he’s always afraid every time he has a kid, because he’s fooled his wife, who’s Jewish, into thinking that he is too.
ML: I thought of Roth more because of the political positioning. In 1969 when he came out with ‘Portnoy,’ he was attacked, people said he was washing the dirty laundry and so on.
SK: I know, I know, that’s the reason. My friend told me, “You have to meet him, because he’s had the same kind of experience,” and that was the very first question that I asked him when we met on Amsterdam Avenue, at this café for breakfast.
ML: Yeah, what’d you ask him?
SK: How did you manage with the criticism from the Jews?
ML: So did he say anything that made sense to you?
SK: Ehh, no. Because he told me, “Well, I didn’t do anything. They just died.”
SR: He outlived them!
SK: Yes. Unfortunately, the people who have attacked me the most are the youngest ones.
ML: No, its true. After Goodbye Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint, a panel of rabbis got together to denounce Roth and excommunicate him —
SR: Which is good for the career.
ML: And then 35 years later he goes and writes The Plot Against America. Which is not a good book, but it’s interesting. Do you know it?
SK: I haven’t read it.
ML: It’s this counterfactual history where he presumes that Americans really are anti-Semites, and “they did want to kill us all,” and “it could have been a Nazi-like situation here.” He basically concedes everything his paranoid critics had always been telling him: “Let’s imagine this is true.” Your Let It Be Morning reminded me of that move, because it’s also paranoid counterfactual history, right?
SK: Really? Isn’t it… just realistic?
ML: It’s…I don’t know.
SR: Were you imagining the worst-case scenario?
SK: I’m not sure it’s the worst-case scenario anymore. Maybe that’s what I thought before I started writing it. That that would be the end. But then, while writing it, I think that some of the characters, maybe the journalist himself, thinks maybe they actually have more future if they become…
ML: Part of Palestine?
SK: Yes.
SR: The protagonist benefits in the end, right? He needed to write for a newspaper.
SK: It’s so complicated, and I really don’t want to be misunderstood. When it comes to writing, they ask, “Can you still write in Hebrew?” Yes, I can, I can still earn a lot of money writing for Haaretz and Israeli TV and whatever. Already they wanted me to make another show about, you know, Amjad [from Arab Labor] coming to the Midwest. They can imagine it. But I don’t want to do that. It’s not the time for laughs.
And I truly really have wonderful people there, really, very supportive when this war thing happened, whatever, and my editors at Keter are really wonderful, not because they are left wing, but because they are really great people. But you know, this feeling that you have to say ‘Thank you,’ I mean the feeling among mainstream Israelis.
ML: Like, you should be grateful to us for giving you this space, for giving you whatever.
SK: Yes. Like you should be grateful for everything. That’s the thing I really don’t want. And also I don’t want to be monitored all the time — from both sides. From the Israeli side, “Let’s see when the Arab’s going to break out of him.” And from the Arab side, like, “Let’s see if he’s representing us in a proper way,” or, “Let’s see where the Zionist comes out of him,” And I’m sick of that! And one of the things, unfortunately, that I very much want to do is to be somehow economically independent from TV production and literature in Israel, which is very, very difficult, but I’m trying to work on it.

“I like it when my son’s teacher talks very slow to me, saying, ‘I’m really really happy you could make it to the parents’ meeting.’”

SR: Would you not miss being genuinely popular and genuinely enthusiastically received?
SK: Not at all.
SR: I can tell you anecdotally, from my experience: my Israeli friends are coming tonight [to the event at BU] because they’re fans. You have a real following in Israel. You’re genuinely popular and loved. You’re a celebrity, right.
SK: No!
SR: You won’t miss that, cutting yourself off?
SK: No, I’m not actually, one of the things that I’m happy with is to be…anonymous?
ML: Anonymous.
SK: Yeah, anonymous. In Champaign. Which is great. Yeah, I like it when my son’s teacher talks very slow to me, saying, “I’m really really happy you could make it to the parents’ meeting. And he’s doing really fine, he works so hard. And I’m sure it’s something he learned from you guys at home.” So, no.
SR: No?
SK: No.
SR: No?
SK: I used to say, Look, if you are dancing naked and drunk in a bar – it’s better if no one knows who you are.
SR: But you do have an audience, though. I think of all those writers who went back to the Soviet Union because they had an audience. Writers who were in exile under the tsar, and maybe they didn’t even like the Bolsheviks, but that’s where their audience was.
ML: Dumb idea.
SR: OK, yes! Terrible idea. But I’m saying there is a compelling desire to write in your own language, to be near your audience.
SK: It’s true. That’s the reason I said it might be impossible to do from here. Not to write back there, but to find my way here might be really impossible. I’m not fooling myself that it’s going to be easy. I’m giving myself five years. Five years of really very hard work on English. Now I’m doing my best just to read English. Sometimes it’s really very frustrating. To read Jonathan Franzen in English was really very difficult.
SR: Here it is – The Corrections, on the shelf, right here.
SK: Yes. This is the book – I was like, Fuck off, I’m not taking this on the plane. So I took David Foster Wallace, Girl With Curious Hair. I was very happy – I understood most of it. I’ve been reading him and my friend, a wonderful writer, Aleksandar Hemon. His English is really very frustrating.

“I didn’t move to Jerusalem because I was trying to be in a kind of survival reality TV show.”

SR: I wanted to ask you about Jerusalem. In your writing, your first novel is set in Jerusalem and Tira, and then the second one’s in Tira and then the third one’s in Jerusalem. You’ve always talked, basically, about those two places.
SK: Yes.
SR: Jerusalem obviously has a lot of problems. So what makes it so special?
SK: I really need to live in a place in order to write about it. That was my life over the last 25 years, it was in Jerusalem. Yes it’s the only two places that I ever lived in. Although in Let it Be Morning, the village is not named, but it’s obvious it’s Tira. Also in Second Person Singular, again, I used it, because this is Tira, he moved from there to Jaljulia.
SR: Would you consider living somewhere else in Israel?
SK: Sorry?
ML: Simon is groping towards some kind of sentence like: “And Haifa you don’t like?”
SR: Right, yeah. There are places that are easier to live in, I think. No?
SK: Yes, I’ve had this thought that I have nothing to look for in Jerusalem, it’s just my wife’s work and studies and my kids’ school, and probably if we go back, we may try Haifa this time. But I’m not sure I can do that. One of the things about Jerusalem is to be — In Hebrew we say, “To… put your finger on the pulse?” I don’t know how to —
ML: Just like that. Same expression in English.
SK: So you feel it in the —
ML: Well, a little bit too much, maybe.
SK: Yes. I really didn’t want to say this, but I think [the patient] was dead, when we decided to move.
SR: It’s the pulse of the most bipolar body ever. Jerusalem obviously attracts extremes.
SK: Extremes? Yeah.
SR: You don’t feel that way or-
SK: I didn’t move to Jerusalem because I was, you know, trying to be in a kind of survival reality TV show. It just happened. As a teenager, for me it was, Wow! I left Tira, and Jerusalem, actually, it was the city of sins, for me.
SR: Freedom.
ML: Even the wife in Let It Be Morning really wants to move to the city, right? She wants to stay in the city.
SK: So, yes, the Sin City. Sin City or the City of Sins?
ML: City of Sins. It’s hard to imagine-
SK: You can’t do a lot of sins in Jerusalem. Because there are like, three bars. Maybe less, now. Open on Friday nights? I don’t know.
ML: Right. At least go to Tel Aviv.

“And again it was a national problem to decide, is she Arab, is she Jewish? I need to know.”

ML: You just wrote a novel that pivots on a Tolstoy novella.
SR: Why did you choose The Kreutzer Sonata to drive the plot, of all books?
SK: Because it was there on my shelf, and my wife, for her master’s degree she used to study psychotherapy, and she said they talked a lot about The Kreutzer Sonata. So I took it and I started, and then it fit.
ML: It’s about jealousy, and it’s not Arab.
SK: Yes. At the beginning it was not The Kreutzer Sonata.
SR: Now we’re getting the outtake. We’re going to reveal…
MK: What was it?
SK: I don’t know. It was just a book, a novel.
ML: I’m curious where the plot of your novel came from, because it’s so nicely put together.
SK: Took me a long time, really. At the beginning the thought was just a love story: he’s sick of his marriage, he’s bored, and now he falls in love with the handwriting of a lady who signs her name, and he leaves his wife and kids in order to look for this lady. That was the original. Then I had trouble: was she Arab, was she Jewish?
ML: The mystery lady.
SK: The one he’ll never meet. And again it was a national problem to decide, is she Arab, is she Jewish? I need to know. So she wrote her name in English because it was really better. Then I felt that something was really very wrong and until I realized that actually the love that he is trying to find is his own wife. But it took a while. And the Yonatan story, the Amir-Jonathan story, I had that one already. I started writing that it in 2004. I had written the same chapter, like it is. And then I said, “That’s a very bad story.” Again the same, identity, switching. Because I thought, it’s not that I didn’t like it, but I was worried that people would say, “He’s dealing with the same things. Dancing Arabs, Let it be Morning, and now this again?” So I was scared that the people would say —
ML: “He’s repeating himself.”
SK: Which is true. Let’s tell the same story again, but in a different way. And then I started writing that, and I discovered, or decided because I was lazy, that it was sent to Amir. And then, really, I went back to my old computer, and took the Amir-Yonatan story as it is. Some people say, “So why would you choose…
ML: “One has a first-person narrator, and the other has a third-person…”
SK: Yes. And then, I called it Second Person Singular, because… I was lazy.
SR: I don’t believe you.
ML: I believe you.