How Sayed Kashua Became an Outsider in Israel — and in America

Sayed Kashua is a man of many contradictions. He’s Arab, but writes only in Hebrew (at age 14, he left his village to attend a boarding school for gifted students in Jerusalem). He’s a hugely successful writer in Israel — he’s written three novels, the popular sitcom “Arab Labor,” a weekly column in Haaretz, and the movie “The Writer,” which recently played at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival — but also doomed to perpetual outsider status in the country of his birth.

“Native,” Kashua’s latest book to be published in English, is a hard-to-classify collection of his Haaretz columns that dramatize more vividly, hilariously and heartbreakingly than anything I’ve ever read, what it’s like to be a Palestinian citizen of Israel. On the surface, the columns are about a well-intentioned, bumbling husband and father who stays out too late drinking and fumbles basic household tasks, but they’re also about the everyday humiliations Arabs endure in a country where Arabs belong to the permanent underclass. Whether it’s scrambling to conceal signs of his background from a just-hired Jewish housekeeper or watching police officers interrogate a young Arab boy about the provenance of his bicycle, Kashua brilliantly captures the pathos of being Palestinian in Israel And somehow, the sadder his stories, the funnier his writing.

In 2014, Kashua moved with his family to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, to teach advanced Hebrew and comedy writing at the University of Illinois. Initially, the plan was to stay for a year, but after the war in Gaza broke out that summer, he decided to leave Israel for good. In a widely circulated column announcing his departure, Kashua wrote, “Twenty-five years of writing in Hebrew, and nothing has changed. Twenty-five years clutching at the hope, believing it is not possible that people can be so blind. Twenty-five years during which I had few reasons to be optimistic but continued to believe that one day this place in which both Jews and Arabs live together would be the one story where the story of the other is not denied.”

Kashua spoke to me on the phone from Champaign about Israel, America and the connection between the two.

Laura Moser: First, since you write so brilliantly about the political situation in Israel, here’s a question about the presidential election here. At the Democratic debate in Brooklyn [on April 14], Bernie Sanders talked about the suffering of Palestinians — the first time any presidential candidate has mentioned that in any debate. What was your reaction to that?

Sayed Kashua: Only the obvious things. Bernie Sanders was great mentioning that. Hillary Clinton didn’t mention the Palestinian side at all. In that sense, yes, Bernie Sanders is a new, fresh kind of politician, and the fact that he is American and Jewish only adds to that — that makes it very important. I hope that Clinton is not going to ignore him, and maybe they can work together and maybe things will start to get better. But again, it’s so difficult to be optimistic. It’s so difficult to count on the White House. Listening back on that speech of President Obama in Cairo when he promised to ban the settlements — and then of course nothing happened. That’s sad. It just adds to the frustration.

So what about American Jews? What is their responsibility toward Palestinians?

Americans are connected to the situation in the West Bank and Gaza and Israel because, generally speaking, Jewish Americans were always there, and many American Jewish people connect their nationality to the Israeli one. Of course, when we talk about AIPAC and the not-always-clear situation of supporting the government of Israel, especially the right-wing one, that’s a little bit — well, it’s a shock because when you get to know something called “Jewish values,” it’s hard to understand how that means occupying another people and discrimination. Of course, there are wonderful groups and movements on campuses and universities that are meant to be some kind of a contrast to AIPAC — you know, the J Street people and Jewish Voice for Peace. I’m invited so often to congregations and synagogues, so I’m involved in the discussions, and I hear criticisms from academics and students and different groups. It’s a good start and very different from the years after the 1967 war, when there was this huge support for the state of Israel. I guess, yes, to be honest, the future of the Palestinians very much depends on the decisions and political views made here, and made here by the Jewish community. We’ll see.

There was a story in The New York Times about race in Chicago. It had a picture of this old man sitting on his front porch, and was quoted as saying, “They don’t fix the potholes in our streets and I live in a good neighborhood.” It reminded me of the small daily indignities you recount in your columns — not collecting trash in Arab neighborhoods, not letting Arabs book hotel rooms, that sort of thing.

Of course, I’m aware of that, but there is really no way to compare. Here it’s very sad, of course. But there, and I’m not talking about the West Bank and Gaza — people are not citizens there and they don’t have any civil rights at all, they can’t vote or leave their villages, that’s a different situation —when we talk about the 20 % of Palestinians who are citizens of Israel, the discrimination is built in and official by the law. By the definition of the state, as a Jewish state, and by some legislation that limits, for example, access to land to Jewish land, to state land, which is more than 90 % of the land in Israel. Of course, there’s the law of return, that’s only for Jewish people. I’m not even talking about the very obvious discrimination when it comes to budgets.

Here, when you read such a story in the news, some people in the media and politicians would declare that it’s completely wrong, but in Israel, they would support it. They are fully aware of the discrimination: “Yes, that’s the situation because you’re not real citizens. You’re not supposed to compare yourselves to citizens. You’re supposed to compare yourself to refugee camps in Lebanon and to poor neighborhoods in Egypt and be thankful that you are discriminated against here in a modern country.” That’s the difference.

For example, I was watching the news in St. Louis [about Michael Brown being shot in Ferguson] and thinking it happens all the time that Israeli police shoot Arabs, even if they are citizens of Israel, not in the West Bank. Usually the first thing, even before the investigation, is that the prime minister will support the police. Here at least, they are trying to cover it somehow — some people feel bad about it; some talk about the need to fix it. There, they will blame it on us, officially, on our mentality, on our culture. Here at least racism is less official, let’s say. Here, to some extent you can choose where you want to live if you’ve got the credit history. It’s small things, like the fact that we go to schools and people are so many different colors and from so many different backgrounds. It’s not an issue. You can register your kids for any [public] school you want. That’s not the case in Israel. People are separated. There are Jewish towns and Arab towns, and it’s almost impossible to move by law.

You’re still writing your column every week. How is your writing about America greeted now — do people care as much?

I don’t know, because I don’t live there. I thought at the beginning I wanted to quit my column, and my editor somehow convinced me that it’s very important to keep writing it. I was asked to write, to keep writing the same things that I’m writing. And I do have a contract to write for an Israeli production company about a Muslim immigrant family who gets to the Midwest to teach in the Hebrew department. I still have so many things, so many funny sad stories that I’m facing here.

[Continuing the column] has connected me there. I write more directly about political issues, I don’t feel as threatened by the political situation. There is something about the use of humor — sometimes if you feel threatened, it’s easier to make people laugh first, and then tell them the sad, problematic reality— and from far away, I don’t feel like I have to protect myself with the shield of humor. It’s a feeling that sometimes I miss very much.

What about your kids — are they happy here? Fully Americanized yet?

I was a little bit surprised, especially with my daughter, who’s soon to be 16. When we arrived here, she was 14 and she just started high school, and of course she started crying on the first day. Then, it was amazing — after just one month, she asked if we can stay here and she liked it very much. My little son here, he’s four, now he responds only in English. After one year, all three of them — my older son is 11 today — have perfect English. They didn’t need the ESL program anymore, and they very much like cheddar cheese and the Buffalo wings. They’re completely American. When I served my son falafel in a pita the other day, he said, “Daddy, this taco is very good.” And mac and cheese — oh my God, yes.

So is the plan to stay indefinitely?

I’m not sure about plans. Yes, that’s the idea, but it depends on the political situation there, and it also depends on the situation here. While I have a job for the next three years at the wonderful University of Illinois, we will see what happens. When we left, I just wanted to raise my kids in a different place. That doesn’t mean that once in a while I don’t miss Jerusalem and home and my parents and my family and my friends and my job so very much that I wonder if I made the right decision. Rationally, I want to stay, but sometimes it’s very difficult. When we moved, I just collapsed. I completely lost hope. It was traumatic. Again, as someone who always believed in people, and in the Israelis and the Palestinians — I was always sure that people could not be so blind, until the summer of 2014. But now I’m not sure that I can give up hope. I’m trying to recover. It’s very tough to say that there is no hope. It’s still the only place that we have to be; the Israeli passport is the only passport I have. My wife and I worked very hard to achieve the things we achieved in our careers there. My wife is doing her Ph.D. here and she is trying to make it here in the States.

How is she doing?

The first year was a nightmare for her, but now she is very happy. She absolutely likes her teachers, and she works very hard. Her English was not good at all when we got here, and she needed it to deal with Ph.D. studies. It wasn’t easy, but now she’s absolutely happy with her studies. I’m still doing my best to keep her miserable, because that’s my duty. She absolutely doesn’t want to go back home. Sometimes I have doubts.

Was she with you in the decision to move?

She was talking about leaving for years and years before I was convinced that maybe she was right and I have to look for something else. She didn’t see a lot of hope….When we had our first baby, she wanted to leave. It’s not easy. I was lucky. Well, you can’t say you are lucky to live in Champaign, but I was lucky to be at the University of Illinois. It’s a very international cosmopolitan community. That’s very helpful. People from the university, from the department, knew that I was coming here and did their best. That was just a great thing, the friends absolutely from all over the world. It’s the friends that make you survive this flat place called the Midwest.

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