"You have the honor of being the first subject of my new column, 'Tabula Rasa,' on the Al-Monitor website," I told him. "Now pick a restaurant."
"Because you succeeded where all your politicians pretty much failed. You brought the Israeli Arab right into the living room of the Israeli Jews, and you did it in primetime. You even managed to stir up empathy toward the Israeli Arab."
I’m not sure that author and journalist Sayed Kashua takes this as a compliment, but he really did do that with his weekly articles in the Haaretz supplement, his books and most recently, with the series he wrote for Israeli television’s Channel Two. Somehow, Kashua has managed to penetrate the barrier of utter apathy and bring the country’s Arab citizens back to the tribal hearth in Jewish homes across the country. "Avoda Aravit" (Arab Labor), which takes its title from a common term in Israel, expressing contempt for the quality of work, is an Arab-language series about an Arab family and the ordeals it faces in its attempts to integrate into an Israeli society plagued by stereotypes and racism.
This month, "Avoda Aravit" took home five Israeli Oscars from the Academy of Film and Television, earning Kashua, director Shai Kapon and actors Norman Issa and Clara Khoury the official recognition and regard of the local television industry. They would never have won had the audience not fallen in love with the authentic characters created by Kashua, which are the direct extension of his semi-autobiographical Israeli Arab characters appearing in his weekly column.
We meet at Machneyuda, a restaurant located in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market. The market is considered a stronghold of Beitar Jerusalem, a soccer team that is vividly associated with the Israeli right. The team recently made headlines when a group of fans started rioting over the signing of two Muslim players. To put it mildly, Beitar fans aren’t known for their fondness toward Arabs. But even here, in the market once a favorite target for terrorists, not a single person jeers or makes any derogatory comments to Kashua.
Kashua is right at home here in this restaurant, deep in the heart of Jerusalem, and the people there were excited to see him. It was further, tangible evidence that Sayed Kashua has become a celebrity, even in Mahane Yehuda.
We sat at the bar, where the waiters wouldn’t let us start our meal without some whiskey. For them, it was an opening shot with a regular. For me, it was still a little early, but I gave in to the pressure. So did Kashua.
So how does it feel to be the most successful Arab in Jewish society?
“Being a part of that society isn’t my goal. That’s not what interests me, though it is important to me that my work is successful. I don’t think about how many Jewish friends I have. I want readers, and I don’t care if they’re Arabs or Jews. My parents are happy about my success, but it’s not because the Jews love me.
“My father still wants me to move back to the Arab town of Tira, no matter how difficult things are there. He even built me a house next door to him. Listen, what can I say? My success helps my family. Someone once told my father, ‘The Jews are crazy about you,’ and that’s a problem.
"My aunts are very happy about it, too. I can spend a whole day wandering through the hospital corridors, signing books for free, just so that they get better treatment.”
Every so often, our meal is interrupted by the other diners. When they recognize Sayed, they come over to give him a warm handshake and tell him how much they love his writing. Kashua is happy to accept these compliments, but it’s hard not to notice the embarrassment on his face.
You’ll have to excuse me, but I want to talk to you as a “Jew.”
“You’ve earned that title honestly.”
It’s easy for us to love you because you’re different. You don’t have a beard.
“I get that a lot. My relatives always say, ‘You know about that Amjad [a character on the show]. He’s not a real Arab. Give us a real Arab.’ But those are the Arabs that I know. They aren’t any different from me. The Arabs I hang out with, whether in Beit Safafa, my friends or my relatives, including the ones who belong to the Islamist Movement, aren’t that different from me in their views. Sure, there are extremists, but that’s the way society is. Those are the Arabs that I know.”
Are you surprised that your series made it to Israel prime time?
“The truth is that I didn’t expect it to be that successful. I thought the series would fill a particular niche, but I also wanted high ratings. I wanted to personalize the Arab characters and eliminate stereotypes. I wanted to appeal to the Israeli mainstream, the people in the middle of the living room, and force them to see an Arab Israeli family. I said to them, ‘I’m about to tell you about the Arabs you think you know,' and by doing that, to start dealing gradually with the difficult issues. I used a lot of stereotypes and a lot of humor, too. I spoke to Israelis about Arabs in a language that they understand, but it cost me a lot.”
How did it cost you a lot?
“The reviews in all the Arab papers killed me. They ground me up and spat me out. They wrote that the way that I present them is ridiculous, which really, really hurt my feelings. What didn’t they say about me? They said that I want to win the approval of the Jews and that I want to connect with them. Then gradually, they stepped back and started to realize that the message really penetrated. We managed to transform the Israeli Arab into a person, and to burst all of the pervasive stereotypes.”
Where do you feel more comfortable, among Jews or among Arabs from the territories?
“I know what you mean. It’s been a long time since I worked as a reporter for the Ha’Ir newspaper, covering the territories. I didn’t have any problems when I wandered around Gaza or Jenin, but I’d be lying if I told you that I don’t have any worries about going back there now, after the horrible reviews that my books and "Avoda Aravit" got. The last article they wrote about me in the Palestinian Arab press had to do with my participation in the International Festival of Authors in Mishkenot Shaananim. Anyone who reads that article would think that I climbed up on stage waving two Israeli flags. Now, someone living in the territories has no idea what I write in Haaretz every week. He could well think that I’m the ultimate Arab traitor, and that’s sad."
The rift between these two worlds, the dual identity with which he lives and the dissonance between Arab and Jew that refuses to be resolved can all be seen in Kashua’s face and in the things he says. His speech is apologetic, no matter how much he tries to avoid it. It is as if he is making a constant effort to respond to the accusations being hurled at him, and not necessarily from the outside, either.
“But I argue with the Arabs,” he tells me. “For example, I was in Tira yesterday, and we were talking about Egypt. My cousin, who is the leader of the Islamist Movement, was sitting with us, so I said to him, ‘Look at what’s happening over there. The Muslims are appalling. Look at what you did to Egypt,’ and it was okay. When I’m with my religious friends who aren’t suspicious about my motives, I can do whatever I want, even curse them out. When I’m sitting with the Muslim Brotherhood, I can even drink whiskey. It’s fine. But the real question is, where do you want to live? That’s already more complicated.”
You chose to live among Jews, in the Ramat Dania neighborhood of Jerusalem.
“I’m not sure that I made the right choice.”
Why? Because your Jewish neighbors are a little …
“No, my Jewish neighbors are absolutely wonderful. It’s because I don’t want to be the poster boy of some theory that says that we have to live together in a single state. I don’t know what will happen to my children and their fears about our identity, about what will be, how it will happen and the degree to which we sanctify the concept of identity. All of that frightens me.
“I lived in Beit Safafa [an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem]. Do you know how hard it is to buy a house there? Dania is considered a good neighborhood, but apartments in Dania cost half of what a house in an Arab neighborhood would cost me, because of overcrowding, and you can’t even register the property in the tabu [Land Registry office]. That’s the situation of real estate in the Arab sector. Prices are sky-high. I’d go back to Beit Safafa if I had the money, but I have no interest in buying a house where some Palestinian might show up one day and say, ‘This is my land,’ because I can’t register the property in the tabu. Besides, Beit Safafa may be a pretty, pastoral neighborhood now, but it is about to become a bustling place. They’re cutting the village in two. They’re paving a six-lane highway right through the middle of the village to connect the settlements to the Begin Interchange."
How much of the series is autobiographical? For example, there’s a hysterical scene in which you wonder what kind of car to buy so that you can get through the checkpoints easily. You also write about that in your column.
“Say what you will about the Arabs, they know what car to buy. I have a Citroen, so no one thinks that I’m an Arab and arrests me. You won’t find a Muslim rosary hanging over my dashboard, but you won’t find a sticker saying ‘The people are with the Golan’ either.”
The settlers have their own models, too.
“Yeah, they drive all sorts of vans and station wagons. It’s just like that episode in the series, where Amjad buys a van. His friend says, ‘Are you crazy? That’s a settler car.’”
If we’re already on the subject of stereotypes …
“It’s obvious to me that when you see the individual, when you see the Arab doctor in the hospital, it’s not the same as associating him with some larger concept: ‘Arab.’ You were taught that you’re the 'Chosen People,' and I was taught to hate Jews. But the difference between us isn’t that we agree with you and think that you’re better than everyone else. It’s because the Israelis killed my grandfather in 1948. My father spent three years in administrative detention, they took all of my grandmother’s lands and my whole family lives in a shitty place. The Israelis have a kernel of hatred, too, but it comes from a sense of superiority and condescension.”
Do you think you’ve managed to shatter a stereotype or two?
“Are you suggesting that the left won more seats because of my writing? If only I could believe that. On the other hand, what is clear from the last elections is that Israel really isn’t moving to the right, and that’s a relief. I thought that the Habayit Hayehudi party and the Likud would take 80% of the vote. Not that there’s anything particularly reassuring about someone like [Yesh Atid Chairperson] Yair Lapid, who came out and called the Arabs ‘Zoabis.’ He made a broad generalization about the Arabs and called them all ‘Zoabis.’" [The day after his stunning electoral success, the chairman of the Yesh Atid party shunned the possibility of forming a center-left coalition with the support of the Arab parties, saying, "We won’t sit with the Zoabis."]
Explain what makes you so angry about that.
“What does he mean, ‘Zoabis’? I’m willing to bet that Yair Lapid has no idea who [Knesset Member] Haneen Zoabi even is or what she thinks. People have no idea. Lapid got 19 seats in the election and that’s what he says? It tells me that he is an idiot. He is a racist who feeds off the Israeli media just like all the others.
“This time I almost didn’t vote.”
What convinced you?
“Lots of phone calls and articles, especially by Hisham Naffa’a, who wrote, 'I can understand boycotting the elections out of some philosophical imperative, but not voting out of desperation? That’s not the solution.’ Once I realized that I didn’t want to be someone who refused to vote out of desperation, I went out and voted. The thing is that the party I voted for won’t have any power to influence what happens. I voted for Hadash.”
In your column, you wrote about how you got all dressed up and went to vote.
“The things that I write about myself don’t exactly correspond one-to-one with my real life. I’m just a character in my writing. I didn’t really put on a suit for the elections. We put on our regular clothes and my whole family went to vote, right near our house. I didn’t have an argument with my wife over how to vote, either. But I wrote about how I also decided to run for election, so I picked up a baby at the polling station and kissed it, just like Yair Lapid. Then, when I went inside, they said to me, ‘Oh, it’s you.’ That scared me. I was afraid to vote, in case they found a ballot for Balad and thought that it was from me, which would mean that I’m an extremist. What is true about all that is that the person in charge of the polling station really did recognize me.
“I also attribute statements to my father, but my family knows that they are all just characters in my writing. I share my pain with my readers, along with the pain of my family, along the conundrums we face over how to raise our children in a Jewish society and the meaning of identity. I write about what I’m doing in a Jewish neighborhood and how it impacts my life.”
We finished our meal and stepped out into the Mahane Yehuda market. Sayed was in a hurry to get to the TV studio, and I drove home. All along the way, I couldn’t stop thinking about how self-deprecating humor is the sanctuary of the oppressed, and how well Sayed Kashua, who lives in two worlds, knows how to keep holding his mirror up to Israeli society and make us laugh till it hurts.
Shlomi Eldar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, and has reported on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work. He has published two books: Eyeless in Gaza (2005), which anticipated the Hamas victory in the subsequent Palestinian elections, and Getting to Know Hamas (2012).