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Playing Wii with a Gun to His Head: An Interview with Sayed Kashua

By Meg Storey

Within two minutes of meeting the Israeli Arab writer Sayed Kashua, I realize that the questions I have prepared—about identity, and intifadas—are far too serious. In his first two novels (Dancing Arabs, Grove Press, 2004; and Let It Be Morning, Grove Press, 2006), Kashua uses stark, sometimes harrowing prose to depict young men struggling with the paradox of being Israeli and being Arab. The narrator of his short story “Cinderella” (published by WWB) lives with the fantastical nightmare of being a Jew who turns into an Arab at night. But his weekly columns in the Israeli paper Haaretz reveal a neurotic, irreverent, and very, very funny man. He has been called the Arab Woody Allen; he prefers to think of himself as Jerry Seinfeld. This is the person I met.

However, like the lives of his narrators, Kashua’s life is full of contradictions. Born in Tira, a Palestinian village in Israel, Kashua was educated in Jewish schools in Jerusalem. Though his novels are about Arabs, he writes in Hebrew, because he is not fluent in fusha (the formal, written Arabic language). His work has been translated into several languages and published in the United States, Europe, Indonesia, and Vietnam, but until recently, there were no Arabic editions. The sitcom Kashua writes, Avoda Aravit (Arab Labor), is the first prime-time show on Israeli TV to portray middle-class Israeli Arabs. It is immensely popular among Jews, but has been criticized by some Israeli Arabs who feel that it perpetuates negative stereotypes.

I spoke with Kashua and his foreign rights agent, Deborah Harris, last summer at a café in Jerusalem. Over lunch, we discussed everything from Kashua’s third novel, Second Person Singular, to his Wii technique (he plays tennis and Ping Pong, but has yet to try Guitar Hero), to his upcoming trip to the States to receive a Freedom of Expression Award from the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.


Meg Storey: Is your audience in the States different than here in Israel?

Sayed Kashua: It’s very similar, actually. It’s usually Israelis and Jewish people who come to see me. I wrote a column when I was in New York about how I now know where the real Jewish state is. I called it the “Upper West Bank.”

Deborah Harris: You have to understand who his readers are in America. It’s all of these middle-aged, high-powered, successful Jewish women who love Sayed. It’s great.

SK: The Zabars! No, really, the last time I was in San Francisco, I met only Jewish people, most of them Israelis, and Palestinians. When I was in Boston, I met with an Israeli book club and it was amazing. They followed all my columns. And in New York, it was the same: Israelis, Jews, and Arabs. That’s it.

DH: I think the issue is that most Americans don’t read foreign literature. They don’t read literature in translation from any language. Sayed sells a lot more books in Europe than in America, and there are a lot of countries where he sells books not just to Jews and Arabs.

SK: Yes, when I go to events and festivals in Europe, the audience is different.

MS: Is there a publication date for an English edition of the third novel?

DH: We’re still negotiating. It'll take six months, at least, for the translation. And it'll take a total of eighteen months to two years for the book to come out. But we just sold the rights to Dancing Arabs to Turkey, and we finally have an Arabic edition of Let It Be Morning coming out in Lebanon. Sayed just got the Arabic translation.

MS: What did you think?

SK: It was a little scary, first to discover how poorly I read written Arabic, and then to realize how a translation can be so far from the original language. I rarely read anything but Hebrew—I don’t read English—so translated literature usually looks fine to me.

DH: Doesn’t it make you wonder? Most of the literature published in Hebrew is translated, and you don’t know if it’s a good translation or not. Most of the work I read is translation, and there is a stiltedness that constantly reminds you that it is not the original language.

SK: Many times, it’s the rhythm. I like to think that rhythm is very important in my writing. Sometimes, my columns in Hebrew are in rhyme, but the English translations are not in rhyme.

DH: But your voice comes through, and that’s what’s most important.

SK: It’s not that I’m sad to be translated. I’m really very happy to be mistakenly translated. Maybe it’s even better than the original, who knows?

MS: How did you two meet?

SK: Through my Israeli agent. I am her biggest Zionist project: selling Sayed Kashua to the Jewish Americans.

DH: And it’s worked! We started selling him right away. I wish I could say we slaved, it was so hard. It wasn’t hard at all.

MS: Why do you think that is?

DH: Because it was a new voice that nobody had ever heard before. That’s what literature is about: finding a voice that says new things in a new way. Though, with this latest book, I had to put a gun to his head to get him to finish it.

SK: Yes, it’s true. But it’s nice to say that it took me six years to write this novel. I started in 2004, for two weeks.

DH: He was on page twelve for about five years, and then I put a gun to his head.

SK: That’s the way you deal with Arabs—thieves or writers.

DH: It’s getting spectacular reviews. It sold 20,000 copies in one month. That’s amazing. To sell 20,000 copies of a book in Israel in one month is really an achievement.

SK: If I were Jewish, it would be 50,000. Don’t tell anybody.

MS: This book differs from your first two in that it is two stories: one told in the first person and one set in third person. Did you have only twelve pages for so long because you weren’t sure how to pull that off?

SK: I never plan novels; I just follow the characters. When I started—and I did write eighty pages—it was the story of a student. And then I stopped. Then I started to write the story of a lawyer, and then I stopped. So it was two stories that I started and really, at one point, wanted to get rid of. And then I discovered that they were the same story, and it worked. But I might be lazy, as well.

MS: When you’re writing, do you think in Hebrew or do you think in Arabic and translate? Which language do you speak to yourself in?

SK: Yiddish! That’s a tricky question, because I believe there is a first step to thinking, which has no language but is about the smell or the feeling that I want to convey. And then I translate those thoughts into Hebrew, because I am writing in Hebrew. When it comes to the dialogue—say, when the lawyer is fighting with his wife—I write in Arabic. I’ve heard that when you dream or when you have a mental crisis, you always revert to your mother tongue. I’m not sure about that, but since I am writing in Hebrew, I am translating my thoughts into Hebrew. But it’s a very natural process.

DH: It’s also really good for your brain, knowing different languages.

SK: Yes. Juggling from Arabic to Hebrew and sometimes English is keeping me aware of space and time. Otherwise, the alcohol would kill every cell in my mind!

MS: You are very funny, and your columns are very funny, but your novels are not. How do you decide when to use humor?

SK: I don’t have any intelligent answer for that, except that when I sit down to write a short story or continue writing a novel, my mood is very different than the mood I must be in when writing a screenplay or a column. My columns are based on humor because I discovered very quickly, writing for newspapers, that people will always read me as the Arab, and I am not going to make any influence on them because they will read my political views as those of an Arab and not those of a human being. So if you are left wing, you might think, Okay, and if you are right wing, then you might think, Okay, he is an Arab and that is what I expect an Arab to say. So I found this humoristic ticket that allows me to enter the Israeli mainstream. And when it comes to TV, it must be humorous, because it’s not documentary. It’s prime-time, commercial TV that I am working with, and that I choose to work with. I want to enter the mainstream Israeli living room. And we’re doing that, and we are talking about very heavy things with a lot of humor.

But when it comes to literature, it’s a very different mood. I like to think that it’s a little deeper, and that it’s not about punch lines. And that I have space—there are many levels. I don’t know how to explain why I don’t feel that I need to be funny when I am writing novels. But it doesn’t mean that I won’t do it one day if I feel it’s the story I want to tell.

MS: Are there any contemporary Jewish writers you admire?

SK: I like Etgar Keret, and his writing, very much.

DH: The two of them together on stage is fantastic. They pretend to be each other.

SK: Just once, at our first event. He was the Israeli writer; I was the Palestinian writer. And the moderator was asking about being a Palestinian writer, and being an Israeli writer, and we were discussing things, and after fifteen minutes or so, this lady from the audience raised her hand and asked, “Could you please tell me who’s the Israeli and who’s the Palestinian here?” And so I said, “My name is Etgar Keret, I’m the Israeli writer.” Later, Etgar wrote about it. He set it up so that I was the Arab reporter, worried about the Mossad agent who would be there, and he was the Jew, worried about the Nazi who would be there.

MS: Do you worry about security agents—for instance, when you travel?

SK: When I go to the U.S., I have to shave, because I am randomly selected everywhere in the States. “Randomly” selected, of course.

DH: I traveled with him, and they took him away, and he said, “Oh, they’re taking me to business class,” and I believed him.

SK: Deborah thinks that I’m a real writer!

DH: You have to understand that when we flew out of Israel, everyone was saying, “Oh, it’s Sayed Kashua!” So it made a lot of sense that he’d been made a VIP, because on the previous flight, he certainly was.

MS: Do they take you into a screening room?

SK: Sometimes. Not always. It depends on the security guys. If it’s with El Al, in New York, they have to escort you to the airplane; you are not supposed to walk free.

MS: The last time I came to Israel, I was prepared for immigration to be very strict, to want to know why I was here. I was not prepared when I left for security to ask, “Who are your friends in Israel?” “What are their names?” “Are they here with you now?” This time, I want to be prepared. When I leave, can I tell them I know Sayed Kashua?

DH: Oh, don’t mention him.

SK: No, I think it would be okay. I’m okay now.

Published Sep 20, 2010   Copyright 2010 Meg Storey

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