Writers & Company

Sayed Kashua on drawing inspiration from his Israeli-Palestinian life

Arab-Israeli novelist and journalist Sayed Kashua talks about his new book, Native: Dispatches from an Israeli-Palestinian Life. It's a humorous, moving collection of essays on living between two cultures.
Sayed Kashua's new book, Native, is a humorous and at times painful collection of anecdotes about life as an Israeli-Palestinian. (Grove Press) (Grove Press)

Arab-Israeli novelist and essayist Sayed Kashua is an original. The acclaimed novelist, screenwriter and columnist is unusual not only for his exceptional talent, but also because he's an Israeli-born Palestinian who writes — and has had all this success — in Hebrew. His weekly personal essays in Israel's left-leaning newspaper Haaretz are witty, self-deprecating and incisive, and they're among the most popular pieces in the paper. Arab Labor, the television sitcom he co-created and wrote, has won top prizes and devoted audiences. His novel Second Person Singular was chosen by teachers in Israel's Ministry of Education as a set text in the school curriculum. The novel, like his Haaretz columns, reflects his own anguish and struggle to navigate the tensions within Israeli society.

These days, Kashua is exploring a new environment — he's moved from the Middle East to the Midwest, to Champaign, Illinois, where he's teaching Hebrew and creative writing. His latest book is Native: Dispatches from an Israeli-Palestinian Life. He spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from Illinois.

On growing up in his home village of Tira

I have only good memories, and sometimes I wonder about whether that's just nostalgia or whether it really was perfect the way I would like to remember it. I remember a very warm village, surrounded by my loving family. Now it's crowded and very violent, but my memories were very good. I never wanted to leave! For me it was the border of the world. I took it very hard when my parents decided to send me away to study in Jerusalem. 

On writing in Hebrew

I absolutely didn't like the way that the Palestinian characters were portrayed [in the Hebrew books in his school library]. I remember reading Israeli novelists in high school and I felt that I needed to tell a different story. I know that there's a different story. Back then I was naive enough to think that you can change reality with literature and books. I know very well how much I can be influenced by reading and by books and I thought, that's what I want to do. I want to tell the stories of my grandmother and to tell my own personal story and not to let an Israeli writer portray my character, or our character, and so it was Hebrew. It was Hebrew because that was the only language, the only tool that I could use in order to express myself and write my story. 

On writing humour in a conflict zone

The first season [of Arab Labor, a sitcom about an Arab family living in Jerusalem] was tough. I didn't expect that kind of success, especially since it was the first time I wrote scripts for TV. It was strange, because it's about humour and it's got antiheroes. The main character is doing his best to fit into this western Ashkenazi Jewish society in Jerusalem. He's not a national fighter or anything like that. So I think people didn't know what to do with it, especially the Palestinians who live in Israel. I was criticized for being a traitor. It took them some time to understand the satire. The most frustrating thing was that the political situation was just getting worse with the years. I felt like it wasn't the time to deal with racism when there is no kind of peace agreement. Sometimes I felt ridiculous to still believe in the ability of comedy and humour to change reality.

Sayed Kashua's comments have been edited and condensed
Special thanks this week to World Sales Ruth Diskin Films for providing the documentary Sayed Kashua: Forever Scared for research purposes.

Music to close the show: "Addeysh Kan Fi Nas," composed by Ziad Rahbani.