An Arab Novelist Opens Israelis' Eyes

Though Jews and Arabs have been sharing Israel for more than 60 years, most Jewish Israelis tend to know little about the lives of Arabs, who make up 20 percent of the population. So when Arab Israeli novelist Sayed Kashua showed up at a trendy Tel Aviv bookstore for a reading recently, the crowd peppered him with questions. In person and in print, the 35-year-old writer has the self-deprecating wit Israelis often associate with Jewish humor. His irreverence—he drank beer straight from the bottle throughout the event—goes over well with secular Israelis. And he's willing to indulge their curiosity. "Now's your chance to find out everything you've always wanted to know about Arabs but were too afraid to ask," he told the audience. Among other things, they asked why he decided to write in Hebrew, something few Arabs have endeavored (because it felt right), what Arabs make of his sometimes unflattering portrayal of them (some get angry but many love his work), and what language his children, ages 10 and 5, speak at home (Arabic to their parents, Hebrew to each other).

At a time when Israeli attitudes toward Arabs seem to be hardening, Kashua's popularity is especially noteworthy. Thanks largely to Jewish readers, his third book, Second Person, which will be published in English later this year, has been a bestseller since it appeared in stores last summer. A satirical column he writes weekly in Haaretz reflecting on his experiences as an Arab in Israel regularly generates more feedback than just about anything else in the newspaper. And this fall, Israeli television will air a third season of the sitcom Kashua pens, titled Arab Labor, about an Arab Israeli family trying to negotiate life in a mostly Jewish environment. Kashua's protagonists struggle, often comically, with the tension of being both citizens of Israel and the kin of Israel's enemies. They usually end up encountering ignorance and bigotry on both sides of the divide, making his narratives more nuanced than some of the other Arabs writing about the conflict.

To a large extent, Kashua is the product of both cultures. Raised in Tira, an Arab Israeli city of about 20,000, he moved to Jerusalem at 15 to attend a prestigious boarding school with mostly Jewish Israelis. Kashua's father had been active in anti-Israeli politics and spent two years in prison as a terrorist suspect, though he was never tried. But the acceptance letter his son received from the Jewish school filled him with pride. For the younger Kashua, mingling suddenly with Jews had the opposite effect. "I became ashamed of everything I came with—my music, my culture, all the books I hadn't read," he says. Kashua recalls consciously setting out to perfect his Hebrew, which had been much weaker than his Arabic. When the Army drafted his Jewish friends (most Arabs don't serve), he began writing for a local weekly in Jerusalem and working on a semiautobiographical novel, Dancing Arabs, which was published when he was 27. A second book, Let It Be Morning, about an Arab journalist who returns to the village of his birth and discovers dramatic changes underway, followed two years later.

In his columns, Kashua can be caustic about Israel's treatment of Arabs. In the past month alone, he has heaped scorn on a Jewish campaign to prevent Arab men from dating the "daughters of Israel," and on a trend to hold Arabs responsible for a massive forest fire (investigators have ruled out arson). But he resists the temptation to blame Jews for all the Arabs' woes. "I'd like to be an Arab college graduate who works as a garbage collector so I can badmouth the State. But I never did make it through college, and the truth is that my job isn't that bad. I'm not really suffering at work," he wrote in Dancing Arabs.

That tone makes some Arabs bristle. In a talk Kashua gave recently at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, a few Arab students accused him of abandoning his culture. They complained that his Arab characters lack national pride and are almost always weak.

Kashua remains unapologetic. Two and a half years ago, he moved his family from an Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem to a Jewish one. Among other things, the Kashuas liked the fact that on the Jewish side, workers collect the trash regularly, unlike in Arab parts of the city where municipal services tend to be inferior. He reprises the experience in his sitcom, in a scene in which Jewish neighbors greet the Arab newcomers with awkward liberal overcompensation. "We always vote for Meretz," one neighbor announces, referring to the main political party of the Israeli left.

In real life, about half of Jewish Israelis tell pollsters they don't want Arabs as neighbors. Just last month some 50 prominent rabbis issued a ruling barring Jews from renting apartments to non-Jews. For Kashua, the decree was another occasion for satire. He wrote a column about two Jewish women he overheard talking at the doctor's office who were ruing the takeover of the neighborhood by a dreaded minority group. By the end of their conversation, he realized they were talking not about Arabs but about ultra-Orthodox Jews.

For all his toiling with questions of identity, Kashua believes Jewish Israelis have come to see him not as an Arab Israeli writer but simply as one worth reading. In Second Person, the protagonist is Arab Israeli, but his obsessions transcend local factionalism; mainly he worries that his wife has betrayed him. "I want to think people are reading it because it's just a good story," he says. Kashua's novels have been translated into 10 languages including Vietnamese and Turkish, but not Arabic. A Lebanese publisher bought the rights to Let It Be Morning but is moving slowly. Kashua says the publisher began translating the book only after it appeared in France, so that the Arabic edition could say "translated from the French." Presumably, a reference to the original Hebrew would have turned away readers. "It's problematic being an Arab who writes in Hebrew," Kashua says. Except, it turns out, in Israel.