Just as Jews in Eastern Europe used humor as an antidote to their frustrations and sense of otherness (and still do in North America), so Israeli writer Sayed Kashua uses barbs—most aimed at himself—to ease the tension of being an Arab in a state that now defines itself as Jewish.
In a weekly column in Ha’aretz, in novels, and in his TV sitcom Arab Labor, now in its second season, Kashua manages to capture the essence of that painful, and often absurd, situation.
Before launching into a talk at the recent International Writers Festival in Jerusalem earlier this month he dropped a comment about the setting. The talk was in a large tent with its eastern side open, so that the walls of the Old City became the backdrop.
“This landscape is ours, make no mistake,” he let fly, only half joking. His seemingly offhand remark alluded, I think, to the hubbub in Israel that week over memorials marking the losses Palestinians had suffered in the Nakba (catastrophe), following Israel’s Declaration of Independence, and perhaps also to the celebration planned for Jerusalem Day, the following week, marking the so-called reuniting of the divided city.
Kashua, 37, is an Israeli citizen who writes in Hebrew. When someone in the audience asked him to move back a little from the microphone, he quipped, “You have a problem with my accent? In my writing, there’s no accent.”
Writing in Hebrew complicates his life even further. “I’m attacked all the time by Arab writers and also by Israelis who think Hebrew is their national language,” he said. And it’s hard to write in Hebrew and still feel loyal to something.”
The protagonist of Kashua’s TV series is an Arab citizen of Israel, like himself, trying to maneuver between Israeli-Jewish society and his Arab background. Like Kashua, the protagonist moves into a Jewish neighborhood; it is a move fraught by anxiety. In one segment the TV character wonders why the neighbors’ dog barks so much whenever he opens the door. He scrubs and scrubs himself to get rid of what he assumes is “the Arab smell” that is setting off the dog, but nothing helps. Finally, he dons a yarmulke and the dog becomes his best friend.
Identity is at the heart of Kashua’s writing. “I hear from both Arabs and Jews, he said, “that ‘If you leave your community, where is your shelter when you are under attack?’ ” Always, the Nakba-engendered fear is in the background. “People don’t understand the extent to which the fear of losing your home and land shapes your identity.”
His goal in the TV sitcom is to break down stereotypes, Kashua said. But not everyone can avoid knee-jerk reactions. A woman in the audience muttered to the person sitting next to her, “Why does he keep blaming us?” Clearly she was not capable of substituting the word “Jew” or any other minority where Kashua uses the word “Arab.”
Put yourself in his place; remember when you were the stranger in the land (even the land you were born in). It’s what we constantly demand of others. Can it be so difficult?
The polyps removed in my recent colonoscopy were benign. I have a five-year break until the next test. Thanks to those who asked.
Text copyright 2012 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.