Native, the funny, tragic, illuminating new book by Sayed Kashua, was originally published in Hebrew as Ben Ha’aretz, a title that contains an untranslatable pun. Literally, it means “son of the land,” and coming from Kashua, an Arab Israeli who writes in Hebrew, it implies a claim to nativeness that carries a distinct political charge. At the same time, it can be read as meaning “son of Ha’aretz,” the Israeli newspaper, for which Kashua is a columnist; since the book is a collection of Kashua’s columns, the pun is fitting. On a deeper level, however, to be a son of Ha’aretz is also a political identity. The newspaper famously embodies a certain left-wing, secular Israeliness. Like the New York Times, it is cherished by its readers and despised by its right-wing opponents. For Kashua, being a son of Ha’aretz means wagering on the possibility of a liberal Israeli identity that has room for Jews and Palestinians equally.
But the arc traced by Native, as it follows developments in Israel between 2006 and 2014, is toward pessimism, even despair. Indeed, the book ends with Kashua leaving Israel, possibly for good, to take up a teaching job at a university in Illinois. (His expatriation was the subject of a profile in The New Yorker.) “Twenty-five years of writing in Hebrew, and nothing has changed,” he writes in the book’s final section. “Twenty-five years when I had few reasons to be optimistic but continued to believe that it was still possible, that one day this place in which both Jews and Arabs live together would be the one story where the story of the other is not denied. … Twenty-five years of writing and knowing bitter criticism from both sides, but last week I gave up.”
Could it have turned out otherwise? That is the question posed, either explicitly or just under the surface, in almost all of the columns in Native. Which is not to say that Kashua is a pundit: He seldom writes directly about elections or peace plans. On the contrary, his usual stance is more like Etgar Keret, or Dave Barry—he is a humorist, writing about the small change of everyday life in a spirit of amused resignation. He frequently strikes the pose of the sitcom dad, genially incompetent, bossed around by his much more capable wife. If he tries to start a conversation with a pretty girl at a bar, he’ll end up ripping the seat of his pants; if he sets out to assemble a simple shoe rack, he’ll end up having to hire a carpenter to do it.
Yet Kashua’s petty humiliations often turn out to have a political dimension, whether he wants them to or not. Indeed, the striking thing about Native for an American reader is how easily Kashua’s grievances can be transposed to an American context, by using a racial analogy. Though the geopolitical background is of course very different, it seems that an Israeli Arab faces many of the same ordeals as an African-American. Kashua tries to make a hotel reservation and is told there are no rooms available, only to see his Jewish colleague call the same hotel and get a room easily. He notices that trash piles up on the streets in Arab parts of Jerusalem, while Jewish neighborhoods get regular pick-ups. He sees a young Arab boy riding a bicycle who is accosted by a policeman sure he must have stolen it.
Most painfully, he sees how his children are subjected to the same kind of insults. At the pool, his shy son tries to befriend another boy, who asks him, “What language are you speaking?” When he replies “Arabic,” the boy—who is presumably Jewish—replies “Ichsa”: the Israeli version of “gross,” or “disgusting.” Yet even in this story, Kashua emphasizes the ambiguity of Arab-Jewish relationships. After all, the reason his son likes to go to the pool in the first place is because of his love for his swimming teacher, who is a Russian Jew.
The possibility of real intimacy between Arabs and Jews, combined with the fact of frequent hostility, breeds a kind of paranoia, from which Kashua wrings a dark comedy. In one column, he writes about how his many Ashkenazi friends don’t seem to visit him much anymore. Is it because they are all busy, or because he has stopped hosting barbecues, and they only ever liked him for his cooking? When his daughter comes home crying from school because she was not placed in the advanced class, is this because of her abilities or discrimination? Kashua finds a vein of humor in his own exaggerated reaction: Progressive education, he rants, is a conspiracy to keep Arab children from learning. “It’s preplanned, all the way back from Basel”—referring to the First Zionist Congress, back in 1897.
Sometimes the complicated dance between Arab and Jew turns into outright farce, as when Kashua hires a Jewish maid and then tries to conceal from her all evidence that he is really an Arab. When she finds some Arabic texts in his house, she whispers that his secret is safe with her: She knows that he really must be an undercover Shin Bet agent! Whether this episode really happened is open to question. Kashua acknowledges that his columns are part fiction, and sometimes he must heighten the facts to make a point or to get a laugh. What counts is his observation of the power dynamic at play: “When all is said and done, I wonder how many Arabs have been in a position to pay a Jew for work,” Kashua observes.
But then, few Arabs can be as intimately familiar with Jewish society as Kashua. Over the course of the book, we learn about his unusual upbringing. Born in 1975 in the Arab town of Tira, he attended a Jewish high school, fell in love with literature in Hebrew translation, and as an adult moved to a Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem. A successful writer of fiction, journalism, and screenplays, he worked for state TV and film companies. In one column, he notes with a mixture of pride and embarrassment that he is included in a newspaper’s list of rich Israeli personalities—indeed, at the top of the list, though he claims it is only because he lied about his income.
For a minority to be so conspicuously successful in a majority culture brings its own kind of discomfort, which Kashua writes about candidly, if always humorously. He refuses to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day, calling it Nakba Day instead. But then, he admits, he spends the whole day trying to get cable installed, instead of taking his children on an educational tour of Palestinian villages. In another column, about buying an apartment, he observes that “a mortgage is a Nakba.” Making jokes like this in Hebrew, for a Jewish readership, can be read as a kind of ingratiation. Kashua seems to be reassuring his readers that while he is anti-Zionist, he is not anti-Semitic, or violently angry, or dangerous.
On the contrary, his comedy is a kind of humanism, based on the principle that people all basically have the same weaknesses and foibles. In the rare columns where he addresses politics directly, he calls for a single state between the river and the sea, with equal citizenship for Jews and Arabs: “All the flags will be abolished. In official ceremonies and at sports competitions, white flags will be flown,” he prescribes. This is a fragile kind of liberalism, beautiful as an ideal but not very useful when it comes to actual politics. And as Kashua acknowledges toward the end of the book, it becomes less relevant as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes more polarized and intransigent.
One of Kashua’s most telling columns concerns a visit he paid to a police station. At first, we don’t know why is there, only that he is forced to wait and wait while Jewish visitors are attended to immediately. Then, when a policeman finally hears him out—after he pointedly mentions his connection with Ha’aretz—we learn that he is there to complain about a racist incident—someone has thrown eggs at his house. Now the policeman is all solicitude: “I want you to know that whoever did it is scum,” he says, and the reader begins to feel that perhaps some Jewish-Arab solidarity is possible despite it all. Then comes the ending: The TV in the station is playing a soccer match, and the fans of the winning team start chanting, “Death to the Arabs! Death to the Arabs!” The situation is so absurd, and so frightening, that all you can do is laugh—until, like Kashua, you can’t anymore.
To read more of Adam Kirsch’s book reviews for Tablet magazine, click here.