“Native” Sayed Kashua (SAQI Press) – book review

Native Sayed Kashua book coverSubtitled “Dispatches from a Palestinian-Israeli Life”, “Native” is a collection of articles from a column in “Haaretz” newspaper looking at life in modern Israel from the viewpoint of an Arab translated from the Hebrew.

These articles do mention the conflict but focus on every day family life: getting children to school, dealing with electrical emergencies, trying to find inspiration for his column, book tours and dealing with people asking about how he finds life in Israel or accusing him of not writing enough about the conflict that he doesn’t want to be defined by.

For example in “What’s in a Name,” Sayed Kashua has been told a hotel is fully booked. But when he asks a secretary to phone and ask, the hotel’s receptionists says there are vacancies. He asks the secretary to hand him the phone only to be told there are no rooms. So he asks to be put through to the manager who is forced to admit they have rooms. Sayed Kashua makes a booking and phones his wife to tell her they have a holiday. When she asks if it’s a good hotel, he replies “A terrific hotel… They don’t allow Arabs.”

Its wry, self-deprecating humour means “Native” could easily share shelf-space with Garrison Keillor’s “Lake Woebegon Days.” In “Bar-Side Banter” the writer finds himself sitting alongside a young, cocktail-drinking woman:

“‘And I remember as a girl in French Hill…,’ she continued, and I, like some Arab, interrupted her automatically: ‘You know that’s a settlement.’
‘What settlement?’ she asked.
And I was so angry at myself. Not only did I not want to talk about politics on this magical evening – I mean, that was true, too – but mainly this was all a result of my inability to listen. I’ve reminded myself a million times to try to listen to people, mainly to girls, when they talk. But I can’t. My wife is right when she claims that I consider myself the center of the universe and think the sun rises from my backside, and that I never, but never, attribute inportance to what people around me are saying. Like an idiot I had to come out with some wisecrack that would probably destroy a pleasant conversation that was clearly progressing in a promising manner.
‘Excuse me,’ I said, trying to assume the expression of a man listening all the way down to the roots of his hair. ‘Excuse me for interrupting you. Please continue.’
‘No,’ she said with a surprised look. ‘You said French Hill is a settlement?’
‘Yes,’ I said in a apologetic tone, ‘but that’s really not important. You know, geography, who cares. What’s important is what you feel. Please go on, it was fascinating.'”

Naturally, the conversation has been derailed and the mood lost. Elsewhere Sayed Kashua writes about teaching his children to speak Arabic and also teaching them when not to speak Arabic, comforting his daughter after a playground insult, “the Arab!” and at a literature event where an American writer was asked about his book, what inspires him to write, and literature in general whereas Sayed Kashua got asked about writing as an Arab in Israel, why he doesn’t write about the conflict and nothing about how he writers or what other writers influence him. He tries to explain he wants to focus on family life. In one column titled “Do you love me?” when the columnist and his wife are having a conversation that ends with the writer asking “What about love?”:

“‘I follow the head, not the heart.’
‘Is that what you did when you married me?’
‘It was a winning combination: head and heart.’
‘Liar.’
‘Don’t write Liar.’
‘Why?’
‘Why? Who are you to write that I’m a liar? I have to pay the price just because you can’t come with anything for your column?’
‘What do you think about the column?’
‘Don’t leave it, don’t give it up. I love your column.’
‘Really?’
‘Sure. You write rubbish, you work one hour a week, and you get double what a social worker who works her ass off gets for a whole month.’
‘That’s why you love me?’
‘No. I could have found someone who makes a lot more.'”

His wife and children are not named and the writer focuses on his reaction to their behaviour rather than their behaviour. Sadly, Sayed Kashua has since made the decision to leave Israel which gives this collection of humorous, observant columns an added poignancy. Recommended reading.

More details at SAQI Press.

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