Those who write fiction in a language other than their own are often asked what motivates their decision, even though this literary choice has a long and rich history. Joseph Conrad, for instance, did not write in Polish, his mother tongue; instead, and after 20 years of world travel, he settled in England and embraced its language in his work. Milan Kundera chose French rather than Czech for his later books because he wanted to free himself of expectations and censorship. Elias Canetti, whose native language is Ladino, opted for German, though he lived most of his life in England and Switzerland. But for others, the decision to give up their mother tongue was not a choice at all. It was the inescapable result of colonial education—witness, for example, the vast literature in French that came out of Africa in the wake of France’s century of hegemony: Assia Djebbar, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Camara Laye, and Léopold Sedar Senghor, to name just a handful.
What is striking about these shifting linguistic allegiances is that they tend to favor the language that is culturally dominant on the international scene. Thus, despite the great diversity of reasons for writing in a foreign language, the writer’s choice is often interpreted as a political statement, and in particular as a form of capitulation. This was precisely what prompted the Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o to abandon English and return to Gikuyu, his native tongue, and what led him to argue, in Decolonizing the Mind, that other African writers should do the same.
But does creative expression in a foreign language always equal the rejection of native culture and the embrace of another? Or can it also be a way to challenge readers’ assumptions?
The work of the young novelist Sayed Kashua raises just these questions. An Arab citizen of Israel and a native speaker of Palestinian Arabic, Kashua writes in Hebrew. He is not the first to make that leap—Anton Shammas published Arabeskot (Arabesques) in 1986. But Kashua’s novels appear in a far more charged social and political context than Shammas’s. Indeed, with the advent of the second intifada, the situation of Israel’s Arab citizens has become even more precarious than it had been in decades past. A recent poll found that almost two thirds of Jewish Israelis consider their country’s Arab citizens a “security and demographic threat to the state” and that nearly half believe that “the state needs to support the emigration of Arab citizens.”
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 inhabits.
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Told in the first person in a series of brief chapters that sometimes seem like self-contained stories, Dancing Arabs chronicles the coming of age of a young Arab Israeli from the village of Tira. The story opens with the narrator—still a young child—sneaking into his grandmother’s bedroom to open a mysterious suitcase whose contents were intended to be used only after her death. Beneath burial shrouds and soaps from Mecca, the narrator finds newspaper clippings showing a passport-size photograph of his father. But the narrator cannot access this hidden history, this family secret, because all the newspapers are in Hebrew. “[In] class we were still plodding through ‘Who is this? This is Father. Who is this? This is Mother.’ I made up my mind: I’ve got to learn Hebrew. I’ve got to be able to read a Hebrew newspaper.” He does this over the next few years and slowly uncovers details of his father’s previous life. Back in the 1960s, his father was suspected of blowing up a cafeteria at Hebrew University and was held for several years without trial. The events broke the grandmother’s heart—she had worked hard for many years to enable her son to go to college and become a scientist, but after his stint in prison he ended up a fruit picker, like her.
Understandably, the narrator’s parents have invested all their hopes in him. He is an excellent student, and when he is granted a scholarship to study at an elite Jewish boarding school they hold a huge party for him. They want him to be a rocket scientist or a pilot, and the school in Jerusalem is his express ticket there. “Just don’t talk politics,” the grandmother advises. But once in the city, the narrator is mercilessly taunted by his Jewish classmates: they laugh at him when he says he doesn’t know who the Beatles are, they make fun of his pants and the pink sheets his mother bought for him, and they tease him for his pronunciation of Hebrew. “They laughed when I said bob music instead of pop music. They laughed when I threatened to complain to Principal Binhas—instead of Pinhas. ‘What did you say his name was?’ they asked, and like an idiot I repeated it.” The end of the first week at school coincides with Rosh Hashanah, and the narrator is sent back home for the holiday. On the bus he is harassed by a group of Jewish students and later pulled off by a soldier, who asks him for his papers and goes through his luggage. The narrator is so humiliated that he starts sobbing, and the soldier gets him a glass of water and says that it’s “just routine.”
Hoping to escape this treatment, the narrator decides to become a Jew. He perfects his Hebrew, getting rid of that pesky “b” and correctly pronouncing the “p.” (“The Bible teacher gave me a tip: ‘Hold a piece of paper up to your mouth. If the paper moves, you’ve said a p.’”) He shaves his mustache and listens to Hebrew music. Whenever he is on the bus or in a public space, he takes a book in Hebrew with him (Wittgenstein’s Nephew). “I look more Israeli than the average Israeli. I’m always pleased when Jews tell me this. ‘You don’t look like an Arab at all,’ they say. Some people claim it’s a racist thing to say, but I’ve always taken it as a compliment, a sign of success. That’s what I’ve always wanted to be, after all: a Jew. I’ve worked hard at it, and I’ve finally pulled it off.”
Or so he thinks. In 12th grade, he is not allowed to take part in army training with his classmates. Instead, he is given a bus pass and a ticket to the Israel Museum. That’s when he understands that he can never be a pilot even if he wanted to be. “I sure had a good laugh at my father,” he says. His high-school girlfriend is told by her mother that she’d rather have a lesbian for a daughter than someone who dates Arabs, and the girlfriend makes it clear that they will break up after they graduate. The narrator falls into a deep depression and attempts suicide, an episode that Kashua handles with his trademark restraint and humor: “I really wanted to be an official depressive, like Nick Drake, like Kurt Cobain.”
After he flunks his final exams, the narrator ends up crashing on a friend’s dorm-room floor. He resents his family, their way of life, their music, their traditions, and he spends most of his time in the city. He manages to register at Hebrew University and supports himself with a low-paying job at a health clinic, and later as a barman. He dates an Arab girl named Samia, whom he marries more out of duty and boredom than love. At this point, the novel starts to lose focus, mirroring the narrator’s increasing confusion. Sometimes his musings verge on self-hatred. Other times, the narrator tries to find a shred of his old self; he even accompanies a friend on his pilgrimage to Mecca. Sometimes he daydreams about a perfect life in Israel, and other times he is angry and wants to take revenge on soldiers.
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.
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In his new novel, Let It Be Morning, Kashua again creates characters with hyphenated identities who are trying to find their place on the periphery of their societies, characters who use language to signal belonging or exclusion.
At the beginning of the novel the unnamed narrator has just returned with his wife and baby to his native village of Tira after ten years of living and working in Jerusalem. The primary reason for the move appears to be financial—he cannot afford the soaring rent any longer—but anti-Arab graffiti “calling for [his] deportation, for [his] death,” has also upset him. Racial tensions have escalated at the newspaper where he works as a reporter. After the second Intifada, his work is edited “beyond recognition,” and he gets fewer and fewer assignments, despite the fact that he is the only one able to cover Arab-related events. He loses his desk to a fashion writer. Still he comes to work, just in case his editor might decide to assign him a story. Desperate, he tries to accommodate the prevailing political mood in the hope it can help him fit in:
I smiled when the secretary asked, almost every morning: “So, did you throw any stones in the entrance?” . . . I said thank you every time someone told me that ‘Israeli Arabs really ought to say thank you.” I agreed with my roommates when they criticized the Arab leadership in Israel, I denounced the Islamic Movement when they did, I expressed my grief over every Jewish casualty after a terrorist attack, I felt guilty, I cursed the suicide bombers, I called them cold-blooded murderers. I cursed God, the virgins, Paradise and myself. Especially myself, for doing everything I could do to hold on to my job.
But the narrator’s wife does not share his feelings; she is willing to put up with the high rent, job discrimination, and anti-Arab graffiti for the sake of life in the big city. As they sit in line at a roadblock, waiting to move the rest of their belongings, Ashraf, the narrator’s brother-in law, warns him, “You don’t know what you’re coming back to.” The narrator’s younger brother, a student in Tel Aviv, makes it clear that he too would not want to return to Tira after college. In Let It Be Morning, every character who has had a taste of life in the city does not want to go back to the village. The narrator’s choice, therefore, casts him as an outsider. But he has come to believe that if he can live in a place where “everyone was like [him]” then things “would be easier.”
In Tira, however, he soon discovers that everyone is not like him. When he takes a tea tray to the workers polishing the floors of his new house, he strikes up a conversation with them, in Palestinian Arabic, and finds out that while the foreman is an Arab Israeli, the hired hand is a Palestinian from the West Bank named Mohammed. The foreman belittles the worker, and then,
Mohammed is standing there, and I hope he can’t hear any of what we’re saying. Maybe he’s deaf after all. Our eyes meet and he quickly lowers his gaze as if I were a Border Policeman or who knows what. And the boss, who must have picked up on my discomfort and our mutual glance smiles again and explains: “Don’t pay attention to the way I talked about him. Mohammed and I are like brothers, right, Mohammed?” He turns to him, and Mohammed smiles. “He’s been with me for two years now. An excellent worker. And I look after him, take care of everything he needs, food and drink, and my old clothes so they don’t stop him at the roadblocks. You know I could do time if they caught him in my car. I’m employing a ticking bomb, Brother, a terrorist.” He laughs. “Ask him. He can’t live without me. Isn’t that right, Mohammed?”
Besides the Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza—regularly referred to by the derogatory terms daffawiyya and gazzawiyya—there are plenty of “others”: the mayor and his cronies, who bequeath positions on the village council as though they were theirs to give; the Islamists, who ruin everyone’s fun at weddings by insisting on Koranic readings rather than music; the drug gangs, who go around shooting each other; the neighbor, who despite having lived in Tira for decades is still called Ramlawi after his native village of Ramla. Kashua paints a portrait of a village deeply divided by allegiances—to state, to religion, to family, and to groups. Like members of other multicultural societies around the world, these characters adhere to a number of identities at once and claim one or another according to the situation.
The narrator has barely had time to settle in Tira when Israeli tanks surround the village and install a roadblock. No one is allowed to come or go. The phones are jammed immediately, the electricity is cut off a day later, and the water soon after that. Is it a siege, a military operation to hunt down a terrorist cell, or is it something altogether more sinister? In this environment à huis-clos, tempers rise quickly. Villagers scramble at the grocery store to buy all the food and water they can get their hands on, and then fight over what remains. Armed gangs take whatever they want, comfortable in the knowledge that no one can stop them. It is a situation that tests the characters’ already divided loyalties. The narrator quickly stocks up on supplies for his family, but when a neighbor spots a can of baby formula in the hands of the narrator’s wife, a riot ensues. Customers yell at the grocer for selling to people from a different neighborhood, telling him he should keep them for “his faithful clientele.”
The most significant allegiance to be tested, however, is between Tira and Israel. The narrator’s father, who was a Labor Party member, thinks that the siege must be some sort of mistake, and that it will be corrected soon. But many on the village council see it differently: they think that the state could not possibly want to seal them off, that it must be after the other Palestinians—the ones from the West Bank and Gaza. They refuse to believe that the state would hold its own citizens at gunpoint. The mayor makes a shocking decision that only underlines the desperation of individuals who will do anything to prove that they belong. It is in this section of the novel that Kashua’s otherwise plain prose is most effective, highlighting these nightmarish circumstances by stating them in unadorned sentences. The absurdity of the events he describes so unflinchingly brings to mind Kafka—another writer caught in a linguistic and national crossfire. Indeed, as a Jewish inhabitant of Prague, Kafka experienced anti-Semitism from fellow citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And although he was a native speaker of Czech, he wrote in German, the language of the elite. The worlds Kafka created often portrayed the hopelessness of confrontation, setting the protagonist against an anonymous and authoritarian system. The Kafka hero fights for survival in spite of being convinced of failure. In Let It Be Morning, when the narrator realizes that he has stocked enough food to last him for a week, he observes, “The thought that I’ve saved my family, so to speak, gives me a sense of victory. I quickly curb the feeling.”
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The unnamed narrator of Let It Be Morning, much like the unnamed narrator of Dancing Arabs, is an observer of the conflicts around him but rarely a party to them. He is reserved; he does not confide in his wife or share his feelings with his family. Instead, he focuses on how best to survive under whatever conditions are imposed upon him. When he hears reports that a group of Israeli Arabs has been arrested on suspicion of aiding a Palestinian suicide bomber, he thinks, quite pragmatically, of the newspaper article he may get to write: “I’m glad that cell got caught. Maybe it’ll earn me something this month.” He is also brimming with resentment—for Israel, which refuses to grant him the same rights as a Jewish citizen; for his fellow Israeli Arabs, because of their horrible treatment of West Bank workers; for the Islamists, because they are changing the village’s way of life; for his father, because of his blind faith in the government; for his wife, because she doesn’t wake him up with kisses, and so on.
Arguably, the root of the narrator’s resentment is his alienation. In negotiating his place within Israeli society, he must often make a choice between silence and speech. At work he notes that “some of the journalists in the Hebrew press—non-Zionist left-wingers—allowed themselves to lash out against the occupation and against the restrictions imposed on the Palestinian inhabitants, but I no longer dared. The privilege of criticizing government policy was an exclusively Jewish prerogative.” It is the narrator’s very silence that enables him to belong within Israeli society—he is a part of it so long as he is willing to never criticize it. Kashua, by writing a novel in Hebrew, turns that tacit requirement on its head, actively using the language to reclaim his place, and his rights, within society. Similarly, the narrator of Dancing Arabs chooses silence in order to signal belonging. When his Jewish boarding-school class goes on a field trip to Wadi Qilt, they come across another class—the one from Tira—and even though his old classmates call out to him, he says nothing, and passes by them quickly. “Later, when some of the kids asked me if I knew them, I said I didn’t.”
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.
The American editions of Let It Be Morning and Dancing Arabs are available to us thanks to the work of the Israeli academic and translator Miriam Shlesinger. In her capable hands, Kashua’s prose is rendered idiomatically in English, and the text flows smoothly. There are some missteps when she transliterates Arabic words (e.g. la samakh Allah instead of la samah Allah), but otherwise the text is rendered quite beautifully in both books. (Shlesinger’s name does not appear on the cover of either novel; this is part of an unfortunate trend to hide from the American reader the fact that a book was originally published in another language. Less than three percent of the books published in this country were originally written in another language; must we hide even this measly number behind a mask?)
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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.
Laila Lalami is the authror of Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. Her work has appeared in The Baltimore Review, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, and The Nation.