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Don't Tag Him

After winning both audience and critics in Israel and in Europe, Sayed Kashua's novel, Dancing Arabs, is finally out in the US. Here's what colleague Daphna Baram had to say at his book release party in Jerusalem, two years ago

Daphna Baram

18 Jan. 2002

Four years ago I met Sayed Kashu'a in the grubby smokers' room in Kol Ha'ir old offices. That smokers' room was a kind of refugee camp, where mostly new reporters huddled, scared of the old reporters, of the editors, of themseves, and of the magnitude of the occasion. Sayed was the most scared, the most confused, and the most creative of them all. It

took me about two weeks to understand that within a few years he was to publish a short story collection and become a kind of media phenomena: a cover story in 7 Days Magazine, talk show interviews, the works.

Being a professional Pole *, I immediately began to worry. How will the child cope with fame? Will he discern, in the treacherous media forest, his well wishers and ill wishers? Will the people around him, at that time, understand his infinite sensitivity, his peeled skin, his forty five different moods on an average day? Will they tag him as an Arab that takes a crap when the national anthem is played, or also see the catcher in the rye, which is what I began calling him in my mind, even before he told me it was the first book he read. Will they see the guy that, anxious before his daughter is born, drives himself crazy in asking "Whether, when she will be twelve, and go to the mall with her friends, she'll touch the display windows with her hands?"

I have been following his growth as a writer and journalist for four years, in the short lived writing workshop we had established, and in the paper. I think Sayed was more surprised than I was, when he found out that one of the rights one is deprived of as an Arab citizen in Israel, is the right to just be a sensitive neurotic youngster, who likes Nick Cave, and wants to be an author. Family, the situation, journalistic demands, friends in the paper, enemies in the paper, readers, fans as well as hostile, all these pushed him to the charged volatile encounter with national identity. He doesn't carry this identity like a flag, but like a cross that weighs him down, and keeps vampires away as well.

The horrible days of October 2000, and the Al-Aqsa Intifada, sharpenned things. "It's hard for me to read Sayed," writers in the paper told me then. "It's not that he ain't right, it just gives me the chills." Sayed had it much harder. He placed a mirror in fron of his readers and friends, and that which was reflectedc there pushed him into alienation. He did not understand why readers are more interested in his funny-bitter experiences of pregnancy, than in his heart wrenching reportages on Ramalla and Jenin. He saw that his pungent criticism on Arab society is favorably accepted, while his criticism on racist Israeli spirit of statehud meets hatred and a deaf ear. Publisher Modan's offer to sit at home for some months, chill, and write a book, came at exactly the right time.

He came up with a coming of age novel. The papers have already titled him "the new Arab voice," and it seems like he earned this title honestly. But my recommendation is different. This book is worth reading not only as a chronicle of a young Arab's life in hostile Israel, but also as a biography of Sayed Kashu'a the man: The one that's afraid his grandmother would die; the one who faints at people who don't wash their hands when they come out of the toilet; the one who dreams of being a respectable man, who drinks wine out of thin glasses, instead of Goldstar beer straight from the bottle; the one who gets lost in the thick web of Polish obligations.

Such a dual reading promises not only a fuller private experience. It also reminds us of the faint hope, that maybe some day, this piece of land will be a place where not Arabs and Jews live, but simply people.


Daphna Baram is a Senior Associate Member of St. Antony's College, Oxford. She was a fellow of the Reuters Foundation Program in Oxford University, and News Editor of Jerusalem weekly Kol Ha'ir. Her book Disenchantment: The Guardian and Israel (buy from Amazon UK) was published by Guardian Books, in July 2004.