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Advanced Hebrew with an Arabic Accent

Sayed Kashua, interviewed by Matt Seaton

On August 7, 2021, we published Sayed Kashua’s essay “My Palestinian Diaspora,” a reflection on living as a Hebrew-speaking, Muslim Israeli Arab in the American Midwest, with the sadness and guilt of voluntary exile and the alienation of a deracinated immigrant. Kashua is keenly aware of a particular, bitter irony in what has become his rootless cosmopolitan predicament: “the figure of ‘the wandering Jew,’” he notes, “has been replaced by that of ‘the wandering Palestinian.’”

Karl Gabor

Sayed Kashua, 2021

It might be a lament, yet it is laced with the humor characteristic of his writing: these days, when someone in St. Louis asks him where he’s from—his Mediterranean appearance and unusual accent make him hard to place—he says he’s Albanian. “Unlike the Middle East, very few Americans know anything about Albania; they don’t know if it’s good or bad,” he writes. “It sounds sufficiently European, and almost no one knows how an average Albanian is supposed to look or sound.”

Kashua was raised in Tira, a Palestinian village at the time of Israel’s founding in 1948, now a busy Arab town. His grandfather was killed in the fighting of 1948, but somehow his grandmother’s family managed to stay put and not lose their home and land, then within the borders of the new Jewish state. Kashua’s family background was Muslim, but his father—like many Palestinians of that more secular generation—was a Communist. As Kashua told Ruth Margalit in her 2015 profile (not long after he had arrived in the US) for The New Yorker: “He [his father] thought that Lenin, Trotsky, and Marx were all the literature you needed. So I tried. I read all of that shit.”

There is certainly a keen political intelligence behind Kashua’s writing, but fortunately for his readers, and for his career, he found his style in an idiom far from the dialectic and the theory of surplus value: conversational, informal, deceptively light. “I have often been told what I do—or what I am accused of doing—is ‘social’ writing,” he told me via e-mail this week. “I was even described by Etgar Keret as the ‘last Jewish writer in Israel,’ for the sardonic—I would add, survivor’s—humor.”

Keret’s observation is pertinent in more ways than one, for a crucial fact about Kashua is that he writes in Hebrew. Even though Israel’s Arab citizens grow up learning the language of necessity, it still seems counterintuitive that it would become a Palestinian’s literary medium. Not only that, but in his first American job, at the University of Illinois, he taught it, too. “I used to call my Hebrew classes ‘Advanced Hebrew with an Arabic Accent’—and to warn my students not to speak it if they joined the Birthright trips to Israel, so they won’t be mistaken for Arabs.” The mordant humor, again; but how did it all come about, his adoption of Hebrew for his craft?

I do have a complicated relationship with languages, especially the Hebrew language, which, in my case as a Palestinian, is considered by some as the language of the “enemy.” When I was fifteen, I was accepted into a Jewish/Hebrew boarding school in Jerusalem, and moved from my Palestinian town to seek better education. I was not supposed to become a writer—as my father told me when I was accepted to that prestigious high school, “You go and study science and physics in the best school in Israel, and one day you’ll be the first Palestinian to build an atomic bomb.”

In the new school, there was a library the like of which we had never had in our school or town, but there were no books in Arabic. There, in West Jerusalem, I experienced as a teenager the meaning of being a minority, a stranger with heavy accent: a threat, a primitive Arab, a Palestinian in a Jewish state. As a teenager (not yet familiar with Frantz Fanon’s writing), I really wanted to belong, or at least to prove to my friends and maybe to myself that I was no less than them. To prove their assumptions about me wrong, I had to work on my language, my accent, my taste in music, art, and literature. Even as I internalized my “primitivity” as the Arab Other, I wanted to adopt the “superior” Western/Hebrew culture.

But my Hebrew was always different, accented even while writing, trying to challenge the “legitimate” Hebrew writers. This complicated relationship—struggling with the language, hating it, loving it, trying to make room for myself in it while fighting it—became essential to my writing. At times, I wonder how writers can write at all in their mother tongues. It makes no sense to me when people write in languages they already understand.    

“Trying to make room for oneself in it while fighting it” could be a broader metaphor for any Arab citizen of Israel—indeed, that drama was the basis for the hit TV sitcom Arab Labor Kashua wrote, which ran for four seasons from 2007 to 2013 on Israel’s Channel 2. The “sit” of the “com” revolved around the struggle of the main protagonist, a journalist, to integrate and succeed in Israel society while not abandoning his Arab identity.

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The title in Hebrew, Avoda Aravit, is barbed in a way that the English version is not obviously, carrying the implication of shoddy or slipshod work—and that made me wonder what we may miss of Kashua’s meaning, those of us whose access to his writing is through English only. His translator here is the peerless Jessica Cohen (who has also translated Etgar Keret, David Grossman, Amos Oz, and many other Israeli writers). I asked Cohen this week how she, as a transplanted Briton and Israeli now living in Denver, approaches the challenge:

While I can’t pretend to fully understand the experience of living as a Palestinian citizen of Israel, I do know something about being in exile and having multiple identities and cultures to navigate. And Sayed’s take on these thorny issues is always refreshing, disarmingly honest, raising more questions than answers—as good writing should. Perhaps the way I grapple with translating uniquely Israeli concepts for a non-Israeli readership offers a parallel to Sayed’s struggle to explain himself in a radically different context from the one he comes from.

Beside his four novels (the last, Track Changes, appeared in 2017), Kashua was a long-time columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, including for a period after he and his wife left Israel following the 2014 Gaza conflict, essentially out of political despair and a wish to provide a better future for their three children. Today, he still has one foot in academia, continuing studies at Washington University, but his writing time is taken up with more TV work—“a bilingual drama comedy about a Jewish-Palestinian bilingual school in Jerusalem” for an Israeli channel, and a pilot show for Sony Pictures in the US—even as he waits in hope for permanent resident status from the USCIS. “I truly believe in American democracy,” he said, before slipping into ironic register:

I have no doubt that this nation, the greatest on Earth, will be guided by the American spirit to overcome these troubling times of divide and find a common language that will unite it. I have no doubt that neoliberal capitalism will prove once again to be the needed economic and political order to bring peace and equality to all people!

On a serious note: it is much better for a Middle Easterner to be a resident of the United States than to suffer from its destructive policies in the Middle East.

And on that note, my final question to him was about the persistent ambivalence and pessimism in those late Haaretz columns, about leaving and returning.

“It is not easy, to lose hope,” he said. “I cannot really—like all Palestinians—afford to lose hope, for it will be an ultimate defeat. But it’s very difficult to leave home, family, friends, and a promising career at the age of forty, and start almost all over again in a new, foreign place.”

And he signed off: Long live Albania!

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