Contexts by jennyyingdi



                  Dancing Arabs

                 by Sayed Kashua

                Created by Ariel Kahn

Kashua was born in 1975 in Tira, a small village in the Galilee. At the age of 15
he left home to attend a somewhat exclusive boarding school, the Israel Arts and
Science Academy in Jerusalem, where he was one of very few Arab students,
and where he experienced harassment and discrimination. He majored in
philosophy and sociology at Hebrew University and later worked as a staff writer
and columnist for the Israeli magazine Kol Ha’ir. His columns attracted notice,
and he was offered a position at the newspaper Yedioth Aharonot, although the
offer was later withdrawn. Today he writes for Ha’aretz and lives in Jerusalem.

Kashua’s first novel, Dancing Arabs, was published when Kashua was just 26
years old; it became a best seller in Israel and was translated into seven
languages (Italian, German, French, Dutch, Polish, Spanish, and English), with
more on the way. His second, Let It Be Morning, which was released in the
United States in late May, has been translated into six languages so far. But
neither of these novels has been translated into Arabic. In other words, Kashua’s
novels are not immediately accessible to the people he writes about.

The issue of who—or, rather, which language—owns the narrative is important to
the understanding of Sayed Kashua’s work. Just as readers claim a particular
language as their own (e.g.: “My language is Arabic”), languages may also claim
some writers as their own (e.g.: “Naguib Mahfouz is a legend of Arabic
literature”). Library shelves are organized by language, and so when one speaks
of Arabic literature, the assumption is that it is a literature written in Arabic, about
Arab characters. This is the larger theme of Kashua’s work: how language and
identity are intimately related, and how this narrow definition can serve to include
or exclude portions of society. In both of Kashua’s novels, the main character’s
sense of alienation from his world is tied to his use of language. Language is
perhaps Kashua’s way of exploring the no man’s land that the writer himself

Mr. Kashua currently lives in Beit Safafa, an Arab neighborhood in southeast
Jerusalem that straddles the boundary with the West Bank.

In real life, his daughter, a second grader, studies at the Max Rayne Hand in
Hand School for Bilingual Education. The school, situated in predominantly
Jewish West Jerusalem, is a haven of coexistence where Jewish and Arab
Israelis learn and play together, and where each class has two teachers, one
Arab and one Jewish, who repeat everything in Arabic and Hebrew.

Mr. Kashua says it offers the best education at the best price. But here, too, the
staff struggles with the dominance of Hebrew, the language of power and
advancement in Israel. If one Jewish child joins nine Arabs in the yard, everyone
switches into Hebrew, the Jewish and Arab co-principals say.

Away from the school, the outlook is bleaker. A recent survey of 500 Jewish
Israelis found that 55 percent of respondents who watch “Avoda Aravit” would
agree to have Arabs like Amjad and Bushra as neighbors. Of those who do not
watch the series, only 38 percent said they would agree to live next door to
Arabs. (The survey’s margin of sampling error was plus or minus four percentage

Mr. Kashua, typically deadpan, was happy to hear that so many Jews would live
near an Arab. “I told my wife we can start looking for an apartment in West
Jerusalem,” he said.

What is less clear is how many Arabs would now be happy to live next door to
Mr. Kashua.

Extracts from Reviews of Dancing Arabs:
Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Wntr-Spring, 2005 by Magid Shihade

Published first in Hebrew in 2002, the novel is divided into five parts, each
containing different stories. Each story features the protagonist speaking through
a different character and focuses on a certain person, event, incident, or time

Dancing Arabs is dancing between identities and within history. It is dancing
through the bitter history of one's self, one's community, and one's people. It is
about how things turned out for the Palestinians and how it is to live as a
Palestinian under a hostile political system and Jewish Zionist culture. It is written
with humor and without self-righteousness.
The novel is worth reading because it is written in a local native voice about the
1948 Palestinians, which is something we rarely hear. When such novels exist,
often it is not Palestinians who have written them. Thus, the Palestinians remain
mostly voiceless. In general, such novels often deal with personal and family
issues and hardly take on the task of speaking about an entire community or
people. This is what distinguishes this work from many others.

Native Speaker:
The narrator repeatedly goes through the same cycle of feelings: an
overwhelming sense of being out of place, a longing to escape, and then a
realization that there is nowhere else to go. The action takes place mostly within
the home—a home at once desired and despised. “I hate my father,” the narrator
says. “Because of him, I can’t leave this country, because he taught us that there
was no other place for us, and we must never give up; it would be better to die
for the land. I picture him and tell him everything that’s on my mind. I say that if it
weren’t for all the nonsense he drummed into us I would have left long ago.” So
the narrator stays, his resentment grows, and he is forced to navigate constantly
between two identities. Kashua provides not a single, sustained moment of

comfort in this book. There are no heroes or villains. Nearly every anecdote that
might give one hope is followed by another that will destroy it. The overall effect
is to leave the reader, like the narrator, confused, stuck between two worlds and
two identities.

Differences between Hebrew and Arabic are brought up frequently in Dancing
Arabs, but they tend to remain on a superficial level. For instance, when the
narrator takes part in Seeds of Peace, he meets a Jewish boy named Nadav
Epstein and observes, “Nadav was okay. I didn’t know much Hebrew, but he was
okay. Nice. What I didn’t understand was why he called our loaves of bread pitta.
In Tira, pitta is what you call a roll. The bread that the Jews call pitta we call
bread.” Kashua sharpens those differences, to greater dramatic effect, in Let It
Be Morning. In Tira, where he speaks Palestinian Arabic, the narrator
consciously uses certain words to signal that he belongs. When the roadblock is
installed outside the village, a young man rushing by asks the narrator whether it
is true that the place has been sealed off: “I don’t know how to react. I try not to
laugh in his face, try not to seem like a know-it-all. ‘We’ll find out soon enough,’ I
say, and add, ‘Allah yustur’ to make sure I sound like I belong.” But those
formulas aren’t always enough. There is also crucial terminology to master.
When the customers at the grocery store debate whether the Israeli tanks are
here to hunt down a terrorist, someone immediately objects: “Shame on you,
calling them terrorists. Say istishhadi, say fida’i. What’s become of us? Are we
going to start calling them terrorists too?” A terrorist in one language and a
martyr in another: this is a good example of the wide schism between the two
languages, the two life experiences, and the bridge that the narrator must cross if
he is to belong in one world or the other.

Hebrew and Arabic come together—and apart—in other contexts as well. At
school, where the narrator’s wife teaches fourth-grade geography, she uses the
word halutzim to describe the pioneers’ work in Palestine, their inventions and
resourcefulness in building lives in the desert. But the narrator doubts whether
his wife or the children know that the halutzim were Jewish, because “it was
never stated in so many words” in the books. Both the narrator and his father are
devoted watchers of Hebrew-language television channels, even though the
shocking events in their village are not covered. Both distrust Al Jazeera and
Arab radio stations, which do not report on the events in Tira either. “Why would I
expect an Arab radio station or an international one to discuss Israeli Arabs?
Who are they anyhow?” the narrator asks. When he comes across an Arabic-
language religious channel on TV, he says he hates “the look of the announcers .
. . the way they stress their k’s when they talk.” The irony here, of course, is that
Arabic and Hebrew are both Semitic languages, with similar word order,
morphology, vocabulary, and yes, even fricative sounds.

In an interview with Ha’aretz in 2004, Kashua said, “To write in Arabic the way I
speak it, in a Palestinian-Israeli dialect, just isn’t possible. Only literary Arabic is
used for writing and I don’t know it well enough. The Arab [sic] books that I read

are in Hebrew translation.” This is a condition that is familiar to other writers from
the Middle East and North Africa, a region where vernaculars are not considered
“proper” languages, and where they are often and mistakenly referred to as
“dialects.” Only the fusha (literally, “the eloquent language”) is used for writing—
whether poetry, fiction, journalism, or memoir.

But the fusha is not a native language for Arabs; it is learned in schools, and
mastering it is a skill that requires some practice. And while it has given us Taha
Hussein, Adonis, Naguib Mahfouz, Hanan Al-Shaykh, Ghassan Kanafani, and
many other brilliant writers, the veneration of this form is, in some sense,
depriving Arab countries of national literatures in vernacular languages. Writers
like Driss Chraïbi in Morocco, Rachid Mimouni in Algeria, Amin Maalouf in
Lebanon, Ahdaf Soueif in Egypt, and Sayed Kashua in Israel, people who could
conceivably have written their novels in their native vernaculars, but not in fusha,
have turned to French, English, and now Hebrew as a mode of expression. As
we have seen with Sayed Kashua’s work, the decision to write in another
language may suggest a political statement. But given the alternatives of silence
and creative expression, this artist has, wisely, chosen to speak. That may be the
most subversive act of all.

His Fiction to date:

SECOND PERSON (Fiction) 2010

The novel’s protagonist is an ambitious lawyer who is considered to be the best
Arab criminal attorney in Jerusalem. He has a thriving practice in the Western
Jerusalem, the Jewish part of the city, a big house, speaks perfect Hebrew,
frequents neighborhood cafés, and enjoys an altogether satisfying lifestyle. He is
in love with his wife, Leila and his two children. In his favorite bookstore one day
he picks up a used copy of The Kreutzer Sonata, a book that his wife, Leila, has
casually mentioned. Inside, he finds a note, in Arabic, in his wife’s handwriting: “I
waited for you and you didn’t arrive. I hope everything is all right with you. I
wanted to thank you for last night, it was wonderful. Call me tomorrow?” The
lawyer becomes consumed with suspicion and jealousy. Humiliated and
obsessed, he follows his wife around Jerusalem attempting to decipher the

Kashua deftly spins a tale of love and betrayal, faith and disloyalty, honesty and

For this novel the author has won the 2011 Bernstein Prize.


”The appearance of Second Person Singular is a joyful event…[a] fascinating
and daring novel. Kashua…offers an intriguing outlook on Israeli society and on
the hybrid identity of its Arab citizens.”
Professor Michael Gluzman, Chair, Dep. Of Literature, Tel Aviv University

”Second Person Singular, Sayed Kashua’s new book, proves once and for all
that he is the best Hebrew writer working today.” Walla!

”This is one of those books that with each chapter you realize that the book is
even better than what you thought is was in the last chapter in which you thought
is was already very good.” E-mago

LET IT BE MORNING (Fiction) 2004

After a series of disappointments in the Jewish city where he lives, the hero, an
Arab journalist, returns to the village of his birth in order to rebuild his life with his
wife and daughter. To his amazement he discovers that Arab society has
completely changed and that he finds himself unable to avoid confrontations with
its new order and customs. One morning the Israeli Army enforces a total curfew
for no apparent reason and the hero and his family have to decide what it means
to be human beings in an obviously inhuman situation.
In LET IT BE MORNING, Sayed Kashua looks on Arab society within the Green
Line with a very realistic and impartial eye, examining its identity, ideas and the
radical changes that had occurred in its relations to the state of Israel. LET IT BE
MORNING is not a political book but a novel about people who live in an
impossible era with all the sorrow, joy of life, laughter and pain, cruelty and
compassion that these times bring with them. Sayed Kashua tells their story in an
amusing and heartwarming manner.


”Let It Be Morning offers a riveting study of human values collapsing under
inhuman conditions…” Guardian

”Kashua’s story is justifiably overwrought and claustrophobic…Kashua, himself
an Arab journalist working in Israel, explores the unenviable status of Arab
Israelis.” Financial Times

”…a provocative and memorable novel… Mr. Kashua’s pacy narrative keeps the
story moving to a clever and blackly humorous climax.” Economist

”Let It Be Morning is not only a revealing exploration of the relationship between
Arabs and Jews in Israel, but also a thumping good yarn…Kashua juxtaposes
the story of a loving father who wants to save his family against a background of
increasingly absurdist politics, with a final ironic denouement which turns
everything upside down.” The Big Issue – London

”Sayed Kashua belongs to the new generation of writers who refuse to be a
mouthpiece for any ideology.” Pages des libraires

”Sayed Kashua illustrates impressively the dilemma between loyalty,
disappointment and fear of Israeli Palestinians. He depicts artfully simple how
history prevents human beings to develop an autonomous personality.” Neue
Zuericher Zeitung

”A tense and uneasy novel that pulls the reader along to a foreign land.”
Frankfurter Rundschau

“One of the most potent and impressive novels that have been written in Hebrew
in the last several years.” Ha’aretz

“If you read just two books a year, LET IT BE MORNING should be one of them.”
Israel Radio

DANCING ARABS (Fiction) 2002

Sayed Kashua gives Israeli literature one of its most moving moments: a hero
who is totally Palestinian and equally Israeli; entirely Hebrew and entirely Arab;
raised in an Arab village and growing up in a Jewish boarding school in
Jerusalem, a city both liberated and occupied. Along the way, the hero meanders
between two strong women, one called “grandma”, the other “my wife”. Each one
teaches him a chapter in love, loyalty, and honesty. They are the anchor that
allows him to run from himself, to follow his passions, and most important, to
practice his most unusual talent - “to disappear” - the talent that allows him to
unveil and to map out the cracks in his soul, and the wild void in the heart of
Israeli society. This is Sayed Kashua’s first novel. Recipient of the Grinzane
Cavour Award 2004 for First Novel (Italy).


”Gritty and agile...On any given day, Kashua’s narrator may daydream of
becoming the first Arab prime minister, bringing ’peace and love to the region,’ or
embracing militant Islam and blowing up Israeli soldiers at a local intersection--
only to do neither. As a portrait of a young man’s drift into emotional no man’s

land, this novel has the feel of grim truth.”--The New York Times Book Review

“I think it is an amazing work of fiction. It has integrity and beauty. It rises above
the polemics of that searing conflict and renders the life of that land with a touch
of humanity.” Fouad Ajami

”Kashua goes beyond the front-page headlines and horrific newspaper photos of
Middle East violence to show a different view of what being an Arab is all about.”-
-The San Francisco Chronicle

”Sayed Kashua’s affecting...debut novel...evokes the conditions, political and
personal, that forge his narrator’s disaffected identity...Kashua can be equally
unsparing when it comes to the anti-semitism that pervades the Muslim
community and the inequities that plague Arab Israeli culture...[and] succeeds
admirably in creating a protagonist adrift between two worlds, neither of which,
tragically, can sustain him.”--The Miami Herald

”An impressive debut novel...[that] stares unflinchingly at the many ugly realities
on both sides of an eternal national crisis, and the result is a bracingly candid
lamentation.”--The Baltimore Sun

“Sayed Kashua’s frankness and his detailed descriptions give the book the
dimensions of a striking satire.” Die Welt

“Kashua elevates his dancing Arabs into symbols of his won existence: a life
between, where everybody dances with himself.” Die Tageszeitung

“…captivating … Sayed Kashua delivers a testimony of an Israeli society plagued
by prejudice…” Le Monde des Livres

“…a shocking book … a novel without complacency or wordiness narrate the hell
of anguished cohabitation and prejudice that foment fears.” La Liberte

Don’t Tag Him: Daphna Baram

He came up with a coming of age novel. The papers have already titled him "the
new Arab voice," and it seems like he earned this title honestly. But my
recommendation is different. This book is worth reading not only as a chronicle of
a young Arab's life in hostile Israel, but also as a biography of Sayed Kashu'a the
man: The one that's afraid his grandmother would die; the one who faints at
people who don't wash their hands when they come out of the toilet; the one who
dreams of being a respectable man, who drinks wine out of thin glasses, instead
of Goldstar beer straight from the bottle; the one who gets lost in the thick web of
Polish obligations.

Such a dual reading promises not only a fuller private experience. It also reminds
us of the faint hope, that maybe some day, this piece of land will be a place
where not Arabs and Jews live, but simply people.

Daphna Baram is a Senior Associate Member of St. Antony's College, Oxford.

A typical Kashua Column for Haaretz – his Rosh Hashana New Year
It's a wonderful life
By Sayed Kashua
Haaretz October 05, 2006 Tishrei 13, 5767

I think the time has come to go on vacation. Rosh Hashanah sounds like an
excellent occasion to take a little time out, to think, and most of all, to start the
new Hebrew year with all these plans I've been putting off for the past five years.
I need a drastic change in my lifestyle and I can't put it off any longer.

I'm not that young anymore, you see, and if I don't take the matter of my health in
hand in the coming year, I don't know what will become of me. First of all, the
cigarettes. Smoking is killing me, I know it. It's really doing me in. This year I
must quit. Everyone's quitting, but like a little kid I just keep on going, keep on
chain-smoking. I have no fitness to speak of. Just so you understand, I recently
brought a chair into the tub because I couldn't stand under the shower for five
minutes without getting wobbly. This has to stop. Last week I discovered I pant
when I go up the steps at the mall, and I'm talking about the moving ones, the

Alcohol, now there's a serious problem. No, I'm not addicted, nor am I in denial.
But every so often I feel a powerful need to drink to the point of
unconsciousness. My body can't take it anymore, though. After a night of
drinking, I need two days of physical rest and a whole week to recover mentally.

This has to stop, completely. Not another drop. Well, maybe just wine, just a
glass or two with Saturday lunch.

I can't go on like this. I'm not a kid anymore, and me dancing alone in the middle
of a restaurant to the sounds of "Badad Elekh" ("Alone I Shall Go") may have
been an amusing scene ten years ago. Now it only draws pitying, scornful looks.
This year I must start behaving like a responsible person. If I don't act now,
things could deteriorate to the point where my daughter walks into a pub with her
friends and sees her father making out with a chair.

I have to find another way to achieve the release I still need. Maybe folk-dancing,
I don't know. This year I'm going to throw out the television, and not so it can be
replaced with a flat-screen, as the rest of the family has been asking for, but so I
can concentrate on reading books. This can't go on. My great fantasy of the
epitome of joy is getting to sprawl on the couch in front of the TV and zap away
with the remote until I find the program that requires the least intellectual effort to

Horniness. I thought that the passage of time would be of some help here.
Wrong. They promised that boys are at their peak at age 18 and that the decline
sets in from then on. But out there in the field I've found this is not so accurate,
and I don't have a whole lot of ideas as to how to improve the situation. All I can
think of is castration.

And one more thing - vulgarity. I'm counting on kicking this habit, too, once I take
care of all the aforementioned items.

So that's it. As you've probably noticed, I'm too tired and don't have much to tell.
I'll take a vacation and come back raring to go like a lion. According to the plan,
the first thing I must do is join a gym. Yes, I've already done so several times in
the past, but this time I also intend to go there. I'll need comfortable sneakers and
a sweat suit, maybe two, because I intend to go so often that one won't have
enough time to dry after being washed.

I'll swim every morning. I'll leave the house early to go to the pool, at 5 A.M.
maybe, and I won't take the car. I'll run to the pool, it's healthier. So I'll also have
to buy some comfortable running shoes. Fitness goes hand in hand with fashion
awareness, after all. I'll swim at least two kilometers each morning. Okay, I might
not meet this challenge at the very beginning, but I'll build up to it before long.
After my swim I'll go to the sauna to sweat a little, then a shower and a run back
home - at a more leisurely pace now, not like in the morning when I was
zooming. Another shower at home - that reminds me, I'll have to get the boiler
fixed before winter - and then a yogurt and maybe some natural juice. Yes, I'll
have to buy a juicer. I'm telling you, I'm breathing easier already just from having
described it all.

After that, it'll be time to get down to work, and I'll be much more efficient, so I'll
get the assignments done in minimum time. With so much free time on my
hands, maybe I'll finally go back to school. Maybe even by correspondence,
though of course I'd prefer to bike to the university. It has occurred to me to take
up philosophy, now that with such a smooth blood flow to the brain I might
actually start to grasp what Spinoza was trying to say. I'll be such a standout that
all the other students will come to me for assistance, and I'll be magnanimous
and gladly sit with them in the cafeteria and slowly explain all about metaphysics
while citing earthly examples. These will mainly be beautiful female students who
will desire me, rely on me and know that they don't stand a chance with me - for
I'm clearly beyond all that. They'll know I'm helping them without the expectation
of anything in return. "Wow, you're so smart," they'll say, meaning really - "What
muscles!" and I'll say thank you and blush. Red, nicotine-free blood will swiftly
course to my lean cheeks.

I'll always find a fascinating lecture to attend at some cultural center or other, and
go there on my bike. I'll participate in the discussion and be the one who
accompanies the guest lecturer on his way out to the parking lot, and he'll be
very impressed with me and not think I'm a pest like the other people who usually
hang around at the end in order to talk to him. I'll even enlighten him a bit on
some matters related to his subject of expertise, and I'll do so very pleasantly, so
as not to cause him embarrassment.

"Hi everyone," I'll say cheerfully when I come home in the evening, bicycle
helmet in hand, only to find my wife doing yoga and my daughter playing the
piano while her little brother accompanies her on the cello. He's barely a year old,
but that's how it is in our family. The kids take an example from their father. I'll
keep quiet until they're done and then I'll applaud and give them kisses. After I
shower, I'll eat a green salad and only then will I check my messages, which will
usually be from the bank. "We just wanted to see how you are today, sir," my
personal banker will say, and then inform me of the profits I made that day.

So in the meantime, I wish you all a joyful holiday and I hope that in the coming
year, this column, like its writer, will undergo a drastic change. In the coming year
it will be a column about the good life, with tips and advice about health, proper
nutrition and philosophies for a happy life. Cheers!

Review of Arab Labour (Avoda Aravit), From America:
When Jerusalem landlord after Jerusalem landlord reads the Arabic name Sayed
Kashua on the lease application and reflexively says no, the flesh-and-blood
Sayed Kashua is hurt. And when he's flagged down by Israeli police on his ride
home, that's die coup de grace.

But the Israeli Arab journalist and writer can't be blamed if his lips curl into a wan
smile, even momentarily, during life's painful episodes. After all, it will make for
great television.

Kashua, 32, has made international headlines with the successful debut of his
Israeli TV series, Avoda Aravit or Arab Labor. For nine episodes this season
(and, inshallah, 13 more next year), prime time viewers of Israel's Channel 2
have tuned in to watch a show with more than 70 percent of its dialogue in
Arabic, and in which Arabs are portrayed as something other than terrorists, cab
drivers or vendors at the open-air market.

Getting Kashua's unconventional show on the air took four years of negotiating.

The show revolves around the life of Amjad, a young Israeli Arab journalist who
writes for a big Israeli newspaper like Kashua, who writes a satirical column for
Ha'aretz. Also like Kashua, Amjad lives with his wife and young family in an Arab
section of Jerusalem.

But Kashua shies away from calling Amjad his alter ego.

"My life is not so funny, to be honest. It's a lot more boring than the TV show," he
deadpanned in a phone interview from his flat in Beit Safafa.

It certainly wasn't funny when Kashua's daughter was rejected from a Jewish
kindergarten program. But it made for a painfully awkward, Fawlty Towers-style
comic moment when the same happened to Amjad. And when Amjad interviews
the leader of the We Are Here and They Are There political party (which
advocates the transfer of Arabs out of Israel) and ends up in therapy rehashing
his nightmares of being a refugee - that, too, makes for extremely black comedy.

And while Israel's Jewish audiences can't get enough Arab Labor, the Arabs
whose lives it dramatizes haven't reacted similarly. Just as some American
blacks objected to the 1970 series Good Times, Arab journalists have excoriated
Kashua for supposedly playing into Israeli stereotypes of Arabs.

Kashua saw this coming, predicting every complaint in a Ha'aretz column. And,
he admits, they've got a point. To a degree, he is stereotyping Arabs. But he's
stereotyping Jews, too.

Arabs' complaints started in the show's first episode. When Amjad fumes to his
Jewish best friend and co-worker Meir that he's endlessly being pulled over by
cops, Meir tells him that his beat up, old Subaru is "considered an Arab's car."

So, Amjad picks up a stolen Rover, "a Jewish car," from an Arab car thief ("Most
Israeli Jews think Arabs always buy stolen things and steal cars") and blissfully
sails through Israeli checkpoints - until his engine blows. Kashua, incidentally,
notes with a laugh that he drives "a very old Arab car, a Mitsubishi Galant made
in 1990."

The complaints continued when Amjad's father was given the honor of
ceremonially purchasing his neighborhood's chametz for one shekel - and
promptly sold the lot on the Internet.

In the upcoming second season of Arab Labor, Kashua hopes Amjad moves into
a Jerusalem flat in a predominately Jewish neighborhood. The near-certain
instances of being shunned by neighbors and harassed by cops - gold, comedy
gold! And, if Kashua lands a flat in a Jewish neighborhood himself, writing will be
all too easy.

And Kashua sees positive tilings in the show's future. Most Israelis have been
rooting for Meir and Amai, a beautiful Israeli Arab lawyer, to move ahead in their
nascent romance.

This is a good sign - though the writer is unsure he wants them "to marry each
other or kill each other."

"I have no idea yet."
by Joe Eskenazi Copyright Washington Jewish Week Jan 17, 2008

Meet the Palestinian Seinfeld (SF Chronicle 11/2008)

"I'm totally secular, but I'm scared like hell of God." Sayed Kashua says this with
the kind of neurotic, biting humor that has led many people - critics, fans and
others - to compare him to Woody Allen. A Palestinian Woody Allen?

Kashua says it's Jerry Seinfeld (not Allen) whose humor he relishes - a
connection that's more apt anyway since, like Seinfeld, Kashua has a wildly
popular TV series on his hands. "Arab Labor," which Kashua created and wrote,
takes a humorous look at a Kashua-like journalist and his Palestinian family as
they navigate modern life in Israel. The groundbreaking series, which screened
earlier this year at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and is the first in
Israeli prime time to feature Arabic-speaking characters,
Israel's "inside Arabs" make up about 20 percent of the country, but - before
"Arab Labor," which was green-lighted by Jewish Israeli TV executives - they
were virtually invisible on nightly dramas and comedies. Norman Issa, the
veteran Palestinian stage actor who portrays Amjad, says "Arab Labor" has
already had a demonstrable impact in Israel - on both Jews and Arabs. "Many
(Israeli Arabs) stop me on the street and say, 'You speak about me' and 'I am like
Amjad,' " says Issa in a phone interview from his home in Jaffa, the ancient port
city that's next to Tel Aviv.

A sign of the times: At Israel's Ben Gurion Airport, security now treats Issa as a
celebrity. Issa, who travels frequently outside the country for theater productions,
says, "When I come through (security), they say, 'Oh, hello.' They pass me
without many questions. It makes me laugh when I take photos with the security

guy. They say, 'Hey, you are from "Arab Labor" - come, come, come.' I find
myself hugging the security guy with guns."

Straddling Cultures, Irreverently, in Life and Art

By ISABEL KERSHNER NYT January 7, 2008

BEIT SAFAFA, Israel — Being an Arab Israeli has always been a complex affair,
at times almost a contradiction in terms. For Sayed Kashua, 32, an Israeli-born
Arab journalist and author, it just got more complicated.

His latest work, a prime-time situation comedy on Israel’s commercial Channel 2
television, deals with Israeli society’s prejudices and peccadilloes through the
eyes of a Muslim Arab family that bears an uncanny resemblance to Mr.
Kashua’s own. The series is popular with its mostly Jewish audience, which finds
it irreverent and funny. But many among the 1.4 million Palestinian citizens of
Israel — 20 percent of the population — say it borders on insulting.

The Arabic press reviews have been “deadly — the critics are attacking
everything I’ve done,” Mr. Kashua said. “They say that I work at a Zionist
newspaper” — he writes a satirical weekly column in the liberal Hebrew daily
Haaretz — “and that I supply stereotypes for the Jews.” The lavish praise by the
Hebrew-language critics has not helped.

Welcome to Mr. Kashua’s world, which, like the series, “Avoda Aravit,” or Arab
Labor, works on multiple, often paradoxical levels. The title is Hebrew slang for
second-rate work, and the one that Mr. Kashua chose.

On one hand Mr. Kashua has managed to barge through cultural barriers and
bring an Arab point of view — mostly expressed in colloquial Arabic — into the
mainstream of Israeli entertainment. On the other, “Avoda Aravit” reflects a
society still grappling with fundamental issues of identity and belonging in a
Jewish state which, Mr. Kashua says, still largely relates to its Arab minority as “a
fifth column or a demographic problem.”

“I wanted to bring likable Arabs into the average Israeli living room,” Mr. Kashua

Israel’s Arab citizens are guaranteed full equality under the state’s 1948
Declaration of Independence, and they participate in Parliament. The current

government includes the country’s first Arab minister. But discrepancies in
budget and land allocations have resulted in yawning gaps between the state’s
Arabs and Jews, a disparity that is reflected in popular culture.

A study published in 2006 by the Second Authority for Television and Radio,
which regulates commercial broadcasts in Israel, showed that 50 percent of the
characters appearing on prime-time commercial television were secular Jewish
Israeli males with standard accents. Arabs accounted for 2 percent of the
remaining 50 percent and were portrayed negatively.

In a refreshing departure, “Avoda Aravit” focuses on a young professional Arab
couple, Amjad and Bushra, and their way-too-smart, eye-rolling, preschool-age
daughter, who live in an Arab village on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Amjad is a
journalist working for a Hebrew newspaper. His best friend, Meir, is a Jewish
photographer there.

Mr. Kashua resorts to some unflattering stereotypes on both sides for the sake of
comedy, but he is also a master of subtle nuance in dealing with both Arab and
Jewish society, and is self-deprecating enough for the borscht belt.

Mr. Kashua’s alter ego, Amjad, sometimes goes to ridiculous lengths to fit in with
what he views as Israel’s Ashkenazi elite. He sends his daughter to a Reform
synagogue kindergarten after lampooning the local religious Islamic Movement

For Passover, Amjad and his family are invited to participate in a Seder, when
Jewish families traditionally gather to read the story of the Children of Israel’s
exodus from ancient Egypt. Amjad joins in with gusto, having memorized the
classical Hebrew text, and gobbles down his gefilte fish, after which Bushra
refuses to go near him.

By an accident of fortune, Amjad’s father has been given the annual Passover
responsibility of buying the Jewish state’s leftover chametz, or leavened bread,
from the chief rabbinate for the duration of the holiday, when Jews are meant to
clear their homes of it, for the symbolic price of one shekel. He promptly sells it
on eBay.

Some Arab viewers took particular exception to Amjad’s father, a wily character
who does not hesitate to cheat his own son out of a few shekels and who has
taught his granddaughter that eight plus three equals a Jack.

Samih al-Qassem, a renowned Arab poet from the Galilee and former editor of
Kul al-Arab, an Arabic weekly newspaper, said that he applauded Mr. Kashua’s
courage and good intentions but that Arabs were “insulted by the tendency to
ridicule the victim.”

With 70 percent of the dialogue of “Avoda Aravit” in Arabic with Hebrew subtitles,
going for prime time was a risk. Arabic-language programming on Channel 2 is
usually confined to news and current affairs broadcasts at siesta time on Friday

“Of course we had to think of the ratings,” said Avi Nir, the chief executive of
Keshet, the company that has the concession for half the air time on Channel 2
and invested in the series. “We weighed up the risks against having something
original, different and interesting.”

In late December, after five episodes, the ratings stood at a respectable 20
percent, putting “Avoda Aravit” among Keshet’s 10 most popular programs.

The idea for the series came from Danny Paran, a successful Israeli television
producer and an observant Jew. He called Mr. Kashua in 2004, and the two met
in a cafe. “He kept adjusting his skullcap,” Mr. Kashua recalled, “but when he
paid for my beers I realized he was for real.”

Mr. Kashua’s work is better known in Jewish circles than in Arab ones, since he
usually writes in Hebrew. That, he says, is because he is not capable of writing
literary Arabic. Mr. Kashua was born in the Arab town of Tira in central Israel. He
was accepted at age 15 to a prestigious boarding school in Jerusalem where
everything was in Hebrew.

“Arabic was something I had to get rid of, quick,” Mr. Kashua said.

His two novels, “Dancing Arabs” (2004) and “Let it be Morning” (2006), were
written in Hebrew and were also published in the United States.

Mr. Kashua currently lives in Beit Safafa, an Arab neighborhood in southeast
Jerusalem that straddles the boundary with the West Bank.

In real life, his daughter, a second grader, studies at the Max Rayne Hand in
Hand School for Bilingual Education. The school, situated in predominantly
Jewish West Jerusalem, is a haven of coexistence where Jewish and Arab
Israelis learn and play together, and where each class has two teachers, one
Arab and one Jewish, who repeat everything in Arabic and Hebrew.

Mr. Kashua says it offers the best education at the best price. But here, too, the
staff struggles with the dominance of Hebrew, the language of power and
advancement in Israel. If one Jewish child joins nine Arabs in the yard, everyone
switches into Hebrew, the Jewish and Arab co-principals say.

Away from the school, the outlook is bleaker. A recent survey of 500 Jewish
Israelis found that 55 percent of respondents who watch “Avoda Aravit” would
agree to have Arabs like Amjad and Bushra as neighbors. Of those who do not

watch the series, only 38 percent said they would agree to live next door to Arabs.
(The survey’s margin of sampling error was plus or minus four percentage points.)

Mr. Kashua, typically deadpan, was happy to hear that so many Jews would live
near an Arab. “I told my wife we can start looking for an apartment in West
Jerusalem,” he said.

What is less clear is how many Arabs would now be happy to live next door to Mr.

Inside and outside Israel
By Paul Adams Diplomatic correspondent, BBC News

Spend a day with Sayed Kashua and the complex, uncomfortable status of
Israel's Arab population comes crackling to life.

"I'm an Arab, a Palestinian and an Israeli citizen," he says, deliberately resisting a
single definition.

In Kashua's hands, the predicament of Arabs living in the Jewish state is the stuff
of rich, mordant comedy, with a prime-time slot on Israeli TV. But the humour of
this 32-year-old writer is fuelled by deep uncertainty about the future. In Beit
Safafa, an Arab village marooned in Jewish Jerusalem, I join him as he takes his
feisty daughter to one of only three schools in the country where students are
taught in Hebrew and Arabic.

Kashua admits his belief in this unusual model of coexistence may be naive.

"I'm sometimes scared that my daughter thinks that this is real life," he tells me.
"But actually, no, she's not equal and she's still an Arab in a Jewish country."

Uncertain welcome
It's the inequalities, and the absurdities of this existence that Kashua has chosen
to depict on TV. Avoda Aravit, or Arab Labour (Hebrew slang for a botched job),
depicts a hapless Israeli-Arab journalist, Amjad, going to sometimes absurd
lengths to gain acceptance in Israel.

"He's trying to do all his best to feel welcomed in Israeli society," he says of his
anti-hero, "and he fails all the time."

We drive to Tel Aviv, where the final touches are being put to a special show to
coincide with Israel's 60th anniversary. In it, Amjad's wife, Bushra, gives birth to a

child just after midnight on Independence Day, thus qualifying for a million-shekel
reward from a Russian-Israeli tycoon. Horrified, the tycoon changes the rules,
declaring that the child must be called Israel to qualify. Amjad's first instinct is to
agree, while his grasping father is prepared to go even further and name the
baby after the founder of Zionism, Theodore Herzl.

Sayed Kashua takes inspiration from what he sees around him. In a move that
sounds like an episode from the show, villagers in one Israeli-Arab town in the
Galilee recently painted the dome of their mosque in Israel's blue and white
national colours.

Daily problems
Israeli Arabs, descendants of those Palestinians who did not leave their homes
or were not driven from them when Israel came into being in 1948, now make up
more than 20% of the population. Some have found success, in business and
even in politics.

But Arab unemployment levels are much higher than the national average and
even for those who succeed, there is the feeling that Israel, founded by and for
Jews on the land once called Palestine, is not for them.

“ Everybody is so sure that the other just wants to kill him. Nobody is facing the
real problems ”

Kashua's show, which lampoons Israeli attitudes almost as much as Amjad's
foibles, is popular with Jewish viewers, but Kashua has been criticised by fellow
Arabs for allegedly pandering to popular stereotypes.

It's a charge Kashua rejects, even though he understands where it comes from.
He says he simply wants to show Israelis "we're talking here about human beings
that struggle with daily life problems like anyone else".

He says people are simply not asking the right questions.

"We don't have doubts," he says. "Everybody is so sure about the other.
Everybody is so sure that the other just wants to kill him. Nobody is facing the
real problems."

Painful recognition
Back in Beit Safafa - part of which lies in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem and
part in Israel's 1948 territory - Kashua shows the latest episode to a private
gathering of well-to-do Arab professionals. Judging by the raucous laughter, it's a
hit. Afterwards, Shafiq Masalha, a clinical psychologist, says the laughter comes
from a dark, confused place.

"The painful part of ourselves is being without identity," he says, "being without a
clear sense of who we are."

And, with Israel's 60th birthday festivities just around the corner, Masalha says
his five-year-old son is distressed.

"This morning, my little son... came home crying because he didn't have a flag."
forever scared, a documentary on Kashua (extract)

Arab Labour - extract


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