Sayed Kashua: Building Bridges in the Middle East, One Story At a Time
Issue   |   Tue, 05/05/2015 - 23:48

For peace to arrive in the Middle East, it must be preceded by humanization. Nobody is doing more on that front than Sayed Kashua.

I recently had the opportunity to hear Kashua speak at Smith College about the creative challenge of writing between worlds. Kashua related his life story to the audience in the context of the political turmoil in the Middle East, injecting bits of humor along the way. The audience — which filled an entire library room and then some — was at times captivated by Kashua’s masterful storytelling and at times in stitches of laughter.

Kashua was born in 1975 in the Arab village of Tira, Israel. His latest book, “Dancing Arabs,” is comprised of short stories about his adolescence, focusing on the time he was accepted to a prestigious Israeli boarding school and faced the struggle of defining his identity. Kasha recalled being assigned to read “Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger at the boarding school.

“I realized that I loved reading — the way [Holden] was kicked out of school, the way he cursed — I didn’t realize you could write that way, be angry that way,” Kashua told the audience.

On the subject of storytelling, Kashua noted that his greatest influence was his grandmother. He remembered how, when his parents went to bed, he would sneak over to his grandmother’s room, where she would be waiting for him.

“Here was an uneducated woman, who had never been taught about what scholars call ‘narratives,’” he said. Kashua said that despite her lack of formal education, his grandmother’s artful storytelling rivaled that of any great storyteller.

Kashua’s grandmother instilled in him a love of storytelling. Later, when he began reading the Israeli history books at his boarding school, Kashua realized that he had a different story to tell.

“I realized that all I needed to do was to translate stories I heard from my grandmother,” he said.

He started writing at a young age.

“It happened very fast,” he said. “By 1996, when I was 21, I was already writing for Israeli magazines.”

In 2007, Kashua created the hit sitcom “Arab Labor,” now in its fourth season, which pokes fun at Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis alike. The show, which is the only bilingual dramatic comedy show on Israeli television, was received with stellar ratings.

“People loved it. Some of the critics even came out and apologized for their previous remarks. The newspapers were not matching what the people thought,” Kashua aid. When asked about his preferred media outlet, though, he said, “Literature is deeper than T.V.”

On writing, Kashua said that it “is a really horrible, difficult job.” However, he also said that if he won the lottery, he would still keep writing. He made a joke about needing to ask a psychologist why he should write if he doesn’t need the money.
Kashua is a journalist for Haaretz, Israel’s leading progressive newspaper, where he has been writing a weekly satirical column for 12 years.

“The worst part is that it’s every week!” He joked. But on a more serious note, he said, “It creates some order in my life. It made me sharpen my sensibilities and emotions.”

The politics of language remain a fraught subject for Kashua.He related an incident in which an Arab-Israeli woman, whose parents were killed in one of the wars, told him that she would never read his books because they are written in Hebrew. That gave him pause. Hebrew was the language in which he connected to his audience, in which he related the Arab experience to his Israeli readers. But was he being disloyal by doing so? These are questions with which he continues to grapple, as well as with the larger philosophical question of whether or not it is possible to separate a language from the ethnicity or nationality that spawned it.

In the end, Kashua sidesteps geopolitics in favor of humanization. His is a unique brand of cross-cultural humor in an arena in which cultures are increasingly seen as being separate. For many in the Middle East, Sayed Kashua is a much-needed bridge. As he put it, “At the end of the day, identity is not a problem that two shots of whiskey can’t solve, after all.”