Indian Summer: An Open Letter to Sayed Kashua on the occasion of his piece in the New Yorker

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Dear Sayed,

Congratulations! You have made the pages of the New Yorker. That is major. I think it is a first for a contemporary Palestinian voice, even if it is originally in Hebrew and in the company of a ‘real’ Israeli writer.

Though we have never met in person, I am a fellow countryman and a big fan of yours. I have read all your three translated books in English and every article I have run across in the English issue of Haaretz. Once or twice I have even taken the unusual step of watching “Arab Labor” though I had stopped seeing Israeli TV. Long before you I had given up and defected to the American side even if physically I have stayed on my little plot of land in my Galilee village, Arrabeh. It is a matter of fidelity to my inheritance.

Let me hasten to add that, like you, I am a half-breed, an Arab struggling to make sense of our conundrum to speakers of a foreign language, English in my case. But I enlisted for the cause late in the game, in retirement. In the introduction to her English poetry collection, My Voice Sought The Wind, Susan Abulhawa says she feels phantom pains deep in her heart where her Arabic once dwelled. Does estrangement from Hebrew hurt at such a deep level? I am curious if it did send such roots in your soul? To this day English hasn’t in mine.

As to your friend, Etgar Keret, we have never met before in person or on the page. I guess one local cynic is enough for me. But let me be frank and register my discomfort with his first name “Challenge.” What parents want to burden their child with such a load of Chutzpah from birth! Still, Just for your sake, I will read his short story collection before I decide if he is allowed in my living room or is to join my list of boycotted Israeli authors, the likes of Amos Oz and A. B. Yehoshua. No liberal Zionists on my father’s piece of land, I have long decided.

Now let me address the central point I want to communicate to you regarding your published correspondence with Keret in the New Yorker: Stick with Haaretz my friend! They know the facts on the ground a little better though I often catch them cheating a little on those facts especially when I compare the full original Hebrew with the contracted English version. It all is relative, I guess. But let us stay away from conspiracy theories and look closely at their editors’ note about your exchange of letters with Keret:

On July 19th, just days after Israel launched a ground invasion of Gaza, the Israeli-Palestinian writer Sayed Kashua published a piece in the Guardian, titled “Why I Have to Leave Israel.”

Well, well! To the folks it was just “a ground invasion.” What about air raids and bombardment from the sea? Had the editors placed their empathetic conscience where your thoughts and heart had been in those days, Mr. Kashua, they would have stated it a little more realistically. It was the heaviest testing run of modern weaponry from air land and sea. What about drones, smart bombs, Apaches and F-16s? Readers are left high and dry, thirsting for a taste of Gaza’s bitter reality, the physical and mental suffering that lasted an eternity of over seven weeks. They deserve a little more telling line than just “a ground invasion.” It is like referring to the Vietnam War as America’s South East Asian skirmish. It feels insulting to all involved especially to the memory of those targeted kids on the beach.

Or take the following innocent-sounding neutral piece of information.

Kashua, who was born in the predominantly Arab town of Tira, spent most of his life in Jerusalem.

“Predominantly” as in ‘one hundred percent.’ An essential element of truth is missing here that doesn’t even occur to the American reader. The smoke screen is so heavy one doesn’t even know it is there. You and I know better. I am a regular reader of the New Yorker. For the sake of maintaining my one-sided love affair with the iconic weekly I will blame this on pure ignorance. The reader is left with the impression that Arabs and Jews in Israel mix at will in their residential choices. But Mr. Keret, you and I know that Arabs and Jews in Israel live in segregated communities. And the racial exclusion mechanism on the Jewish side has just been given the blessing of the Supreme Court of Israel. In so-called mixed cities like Lod and Ramla, Arab slums are separated from Jewish neighborhoods by concrete walls and barbed wire. And Tira, if it has any Jews at all, has only the errant Jewish women who had married Arabs and had so far escaped the outreach of Lehava, the NGO dedicated to saving their souls and to returning them, by force if need be, to the warm bosom of their tribe. Correct me if I am wrong Mr. Kashua, but I am wagering that members of the said genre in Tira do not exceed the fingers of one hand. In Arrabeh we had five at one time. Only two have not returned to the fold.

Then the editors drop another silent smoke bomb. They casually use “Jerusalem” without any comment, reservation or explanation as if it were the most normal of places. Did you actually live in West or East Jerusalem? Within the original city boundaries or within the massively expanded borders nibbling at the edges of Ramallah? Within or outside the wall? The Old fortress wall or the new apartheid one?

Then this:

He devoted his weekly column in Haaretz to telling “the Palestinian story,” and he is the creator of “Arab Labor,” a popular sitcom that is a sendup of problems experienced by Israel’s Arab citizens.

I don’t object to this characterization of your literary contribution. But it lacks the needed emphasis on the one nuance that I consistently find in your writing: mocking the image of the Arab as seen by Jews in Israel. That tongue-in-cheek flare is what endears your style to my heart. That, my friend, would be the greatest gift I would emphasize for your American and international readers.

For whatever it is worth, here are a few comments about your exchange of letters, starting with the most objectionable:

You and your friend, Mr. Challenge, seem to feel at liberty to grab all the Mid-West prairies, fold them neatly and lug them away in your luggage. How many Native Americans have you consulted before deciding on that? Have you even met any members of the indigenous Illinois tribe? They had given their name and color to the physical space you so covet. They are the Azazmi, the Turshan and the Jahaleen of the Midwest. Haven’t you yourself been at the losing end of land theft practices? Now you turn around and want to do unto others what you don’t want done unto you! For shame’s sake, Sayed! I am going to tell on you! I will go to Tira and tell your parents. And, while at it, I will find out how many Jews live in your “predominantly Arab” town.

Now, about those kernels of corn you worry Obama might spill on your balcony: You have every reason to object. I have it on good authority that he is a neat and careful person. His parents and I attended the same university at the same time and I was aware of their presence on campus, especially Hussein’s. I spoke to a good friend who remembers pushing little Barak in his stroller around the lush campus of the University of Hawaii. She assured me that, contrary to the impression the wild flare of his ears gave the toddler, he was not messy. So any kernels he drops are intentional and targeted. Look around you from Yemen to Iraq to Afghanistan to Syria!

In your second letter to your friend you go off the deep end to discuss such trivia as ISIS, Israel’s legitimacy and the setting of its borders and apartheid and distinguishing the system from the people behind it. Believe me that all is sick.

But take it from a health professional and an intrepid practitioner of the art of psychic fencing: Your wife is wrong. You are not “a coward with a paranoid-personality disorder.” You are just another serial survivor adept at walking between raindrops and at interpreting the new looks in the eyes of kindhearted neighbors. We all develop the acute wariness and sensibility. How else did Keret’s father know that he needed to take a coat?

That little story about him having “survived because he took a coat,” is a true gem. I am going to take your advice and invest in coats for all the members of the Kanaaneh clan. It is getting so chilly for us here in Israel that we may freeze on the way to the mall. Pray for warmer weather. In America they call it Indian summer.

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Once again you have taught me, Dr. Hatim Kanaaneh.

It’s always a distinct pleasure.

Thank you, Dr. I wonder how many Zionist Israelis (and non-Israeli Zionists*) really understand Kashua’s writing. If they did, I doubt they’d be quite so fond of him or get shocked every time he tries to drive home a truth in a way that even they can’t ignore. *I was a little surprised (but not very) to see Kashua’s books in translation, in a local institutional Jewish bookshop. I was just reading a review of… Read more »

“Stick with Haaretz my friend! They know the facts on the ground a little better”. Well, I’d say publish these two New Yorker stories everywhere! Americans will never know what the MSM refuses to tell them unless someone else tells them, and these two articles are funny, light, and a far better introduction to the (real) facts-on-the-ground (that too small ground they speak of) than a morose or legalistic (my awful style and viewpoint) discussion.… Read more »

Wonderful writing, Dr. Kanaaneh; I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially as it reminds us how easily false images are created by glossing over the facts, leaving not a fingerprint behind unless you’re shown where to look.

I enjoyed hearing your take on the Kashua/Keret letters. I read the letters in The New Yorker before reading your post and was similarly struck by the ludicrous characterization of Tira as “predominantly Arab.” This “mistake” so frequent in the US media leads one to the conclusion that many writers are just reluctant to point out the extent to which Israel is a segregated society. My favorite example of the refusal to acknowledge the homogeneity… Read more »