Despite his light, jokey manner, Arab-Israeli writer Sayed Kashua conveyed deep cynicism at an event hosted by the New Israel Fund of Canada (NIFC) on June 14, about the policies of the Israeli government and the challenges of living as an Arab in Israel.
The talk, called “Laughing while Crying: A Conversation with Authors Sayed Kashua and Nancy Richler,” was held at the Al Green Theatre at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and drew about 300 people.
It featured Montreal Jewish novelist Richler interviewing Kashua, the author of three novels, a Haaretz columnist and the creator of popular Israeli television sitcom Arab Labour.
Richler asked Kashua about his background, his work and the ways his books and television show explore the difficulties seemingly inherent to the Arab-Israeli experience – of straddling two worlds and consistently being seen as an other within Israeli society.
Though Arab Labour is very much a comedy, of the show’s protagonist, Kashua said: “He’s constantly trying to fit into Jewish society and he’s constantly rejected – every single episode.”
Originally written in Hebrew, Kashua’s novels: Dancing Arabs (2002), which was later adapted to a film; Let it be Morning (2006) and Second Person Singular (2010) depict the complexities and ambivalences of life as an Arab in Israel; Kashua’s characters often yearn to fit into mainstream Israeli society while navigating identity issues, discrimination and outright racism from their Jewish counterparts.
Raised by Palestinian parents in the predominantly Arab town of Tira, in Israel, Kashua was sent to Jewish boarding school in Jerusalem at age 14.
He later studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and eventually moved with his wife and children to a Jewish neighbourhood in Jerusalem.
He and his family currently live in Illinois, where Kashua is teaching at the University of Chicago for what was intended as a year’s sabbatical but, as he indicated in a piece in the Guardian last July, Israel’s war with Gaza last summer and the ensuing anti-Arab sentiment and violence dissolved his sense of hope that Jews and Arabs could one day share the land equally.
“I was so mad in the summer, I felt so betrayed by the government. There was so much racism – especially in Jerusalem – it was scary. I couldn’t let my daughter take the bus alone into the city.”
After spending decades trying to tell Israelis, through his writing, of the suffering and humanity of Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel, he said he is deeply disillusioned.
“I’m a citizen of Israel. I always tried to act as a citizen, though I disagree with so many of the Israeli government’s policies…I sent my kids to bilingual school. I didn’t accept the rules of Jewish-Arab segregation. It wasn’t easy, but I thought there was a chance of better relations because of some of the wonderful Jewish people I knew. But at a certain point, I realized I was telling my kids lies. Because they’ll always be Arabs, they’ll always be considered fifth column citizens,” he said.
He described the refreshing ease of living in the United States, where his family “can rent a house in any neighbourhood we want” and his daughter is no longer the sole Arab, or the only person of colour, in her class.
He said that he fears freedom of speech is increasingly under threat in Israel, and that left-wing voices even among the Jewish community are suppressed.
“My friends and editors in Israel tell me I’m lucky not to be there, but I feel sad about it,” he said.
Richler concluded the interview by asking Kashua what changes he would like to see in Israel.
“I think what would give me and so many Palestinians hope would be to hear, ‘We acknowledge your suffering, we hear your story. Let’s try to make things better.’ I'm not even talking right now about a two-state solution or the occupied territories, but that our suffering be acknowledged and that we get an apology for what was done to us.”