Who exactly is Sayed Kashua? I organized and took part in a conversation with him three months ago at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). The discussion we had was thought-provoking, humorous, and irreverent. We discussed, among other topics, his literary influences, the trajectory of his career, the reasons for his departure from Israel and his move to Champaign.
We shared a few beers at a nearby bar prior to the event and, again, it was a real pleasure to converse with him. We talked about our families, our experiences, our travels, our hopes for the future, and, as clichéd as it sounds, the state of the world.
Later after the event, a small group of professors and doctoral students from CUNY went out to dinner with Sayed Kashua, a friend of his, and his editor. Again, the discussion was fascinating and ranged from the American presidential primaries to veganism and animal-rights activism in Israel.
But I am still not sure I know who Sayed Kashua is. Why? Because he is truly a man of many masks. It is so hard to pin him down because every other utterance he makes is couched in varying layers of intention. Not only his written works, but his public interventions and, on occasion, his off-hand remarks in the company of a few, are like an onion – they have to be pealed to get to the center. Only, sometimes when one gets to the center, one finds another onion and a laughing Sayed Kashua.
When I first sent him a message inviting him to the Graduate Center, I did not receive a reply. Soon after I read his most recent column, which I understood as conveying a sense of disappointment during his latest visit to New York City. He notably evoked “huddled masses” and his anxiety as he found himself “crushed by masses of people who were looking at large Christmas trees erected in the middle of some street or plaza or whatever.”
I read those lines and told myself “well, there goes my invitation.” I could not fathom that he would come back to New York. Still, I wrote him another message, a much longer one, describing in more detail the type of discussion I had in mind, conveying as best I could that New York was more than huddled masses and that the Graduate Center, being the “life of the mind in the heart of the city,” as the official refrain goes, would be the ideal place for him to go beyond the “empty slogans” he decried at the December 2015 Haaretz conference in New York and to come and engage in serious intellectual discussion, in the company of academics and other interested parties, of his work and the themes it tackles.
In short, I acknowledged what I thought was his dislike of New York, while trying to convey that New York is not just stress, raucousness and “huddled masses.” He wrote back to me the next day and told me, “don’t listen to newspapers.” He is apparently quite fond of New York City. Classic Sayed Kashua.
So who is Sayed Kashua? The official answer, of course, is that he is a Palestinian citizen of Israel, an award-winning novelist, columnist at Haaretz, and creator of the hit TV show Avoda Aravit (or Arab Labor). But if one seeks to go further than merely describing Sayed Kashua the brand-name, one quickly realizes that who he is and what he seemingly represents depends greatly on who is being asked in the first place.
In the build-up to the event, I received a number of concerns regarding the choice of inviting Sayed Kashua to the Graduate Center. One person told me that Sayed Kashua is anti-Israel and “continues to deny Palestinian leadership failure to move towards peace while placing the blame on Jewish youth (note not Israeli).” Of course, Kashua has never said such a thing!
Meanwhile, another told me that “the primary issue […] is his TV show […] and the way it depicts and portrays Palestinians and the narrative it offers of assimilation and such. […]” This person also took issue with Sayed’s appointment to the Israel Studies Project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, especially after the Salaita fiasco. To sum it up, the problem with Sayed Kashua, I was told, was that “he ends up being the acceptable dissent from the status quo of Israeli politics – someone embedded within a discourse and not ruffling too many feathers.” Similarly, in a Haaretz article from last year, Gideon Levy called Sayed Kashua “a good Arab.”
One last anecdotal example: the morning before the event, I received an email congratulating me for having organized “a very safe event.” “Every Zionist loves a Zionist Palestinian,” I was told, “and Kashua is nothing if not a Zionist, Israel’s ‘good’ self-hating Palestinian.” As a side note, this is the same person who would later accuse me of being a “Muslim Zionist,” among other things, for speaking out against a blanket boycott of Israeli academics.
Now, the thing is, if one is even just remotely familiar with the work of Sayed Kashua, it is clear that none of the above, from either “side,” is accurate. How then does he generate so much misunderstanding?
First, of course, one would have to read him and not allow one’s politics and a priori judgments create texts that the author himself never wrote. But the other issue is that there are so many layers in Sayed Kashua’s work that it does lend itself to misreading. Those familiar with his weekly Haaretz columns know his humor and what, at times, lies beneath it – i.e. biting critique.
But sometimes what is written in second degree ends up being read in first degree. Humor, however, can be a powerful tool for social critique. Humor lends to reflection as the laughter subsides and we ask what exactly just made us laugh. And it is through humor that Sayed Kashua compels us to reflect upon social and political issues with regards to Israel.
But despite his humor, there is also in his work a deeply embedded sense of urgency and hopelessness, which comes across more strongly in his novels, but is nevertheless present in many of his articles (for example, those in the selection in his recent book Native: Dispatches from an Israeli-Palestinian Life).
But why all these layers? Why the recourse to humor? He offered one response during our event, according to which he began using humor as a shield, as a way to protect himself when he felt threatened and under attack.
Humor was a way to proactively take control of a situation and attempt to turn it around discursively. In any case, even if I am still not sure I know who Sayed Kashua is – and, perhaps, there is no need to –, I know that I have greatly appreciated peeling the onions of his works and will continue to do so as long as he carries on writing.