NL editie / World edition

Sarcasm as a Last Resort

by Guus Valk

The Palestinian-Israeli writer and journalist Sayed Kashua has created a television series in which the characters try to survive in the no-man’s land between two completely separate worlds. The script’s often cynical humour has endeared him to Israelis – but is mostly designed to quiet his own fears. “I foresee a huge catastrophe.”

Sarcasm as a Last Resort You would like to grant him a peaceful, easy life. Observing Sayed Kashua one is struck by his bent back, his darting eyes, his restless hands constantly looking for something to keep them occupied. You listen to his sarcastic jokes, sometimes cruel and sharp as a razor, sparing no one – not even his wife. This is a tortured man, who sleeps badly and makes no effort to hide his drinking. “Happiness, what is happiness?” he says. “Drinking two beers in my café, that is happiness in my experience. The rest is pure survival.”
Worlds apart
The Palestinian-Israeli Sayed Kashua (35) does not look anything like the celebrated writer and television maker I imagined. His weekly column in the left-leaning liberal newspaper Ha’aretz, his novels and his immensely successful sitcom Avoda Aravit (Arabic Labour) on Israeli television have catapulted him to fame. The protagonists in his work are split personalities who strikingly resemble their author. Kashua was born in an Islamic family in the Palestinian-Israeli town Tira. He attended a Jewish school in Jerusalem and remained there to study at the Hebrew University. His work tackles the incompatibility of the two worlds he knows so well: one inhabited by Palestinians and the other by Jewish-Israelis.
For Jewish-Israelis, Kashua offers a rare glimpse of life on the Palestinian side, something they seldom encounter in their daily lives. Avoda Aravit’s second season was broadcast in prime time last year. The title of the show is a Hebrew pun. It resembles Avoda Ivrit (Jewish Labour), a famous Zionist slogan from the founding years of the Israeli state. The sitcom is defiatly politically incorrect, and its main language is Arabic. 
The protagonist, Palestinian-Israeli journalist Amjad, is clearly modelled on Kashua himself. Amjad lives in a Palestinian village, associates with the left-liberal elite in Israel and tries to establish connections in both worlds. He fails miserably. Kashua: “Amjad is a tragic figure. He wants to lead a normal, peaceful life with his wife and his daughter. Like me, he leaves East-Jerusalem for West-Jerusalem. He attempts tirelessly to gain the respect of his Jewish friends. He celebrates the Israeli Independence Day Yom Ha’atsmaut – a dark day for Palestinians, who speak of Al Nakba (the catastrophe). He joins a civilian guard in his neighbourhood, but only encounters misunderstanding and adversity. His father sometimes accuses him of treason, and his Jewish friends drop him from their lives. 

Laughing in the dark
In the first episode of Avoda Aravit, Amjad exchanges his Subaru for a Rover. Subarus, as is well known, are ramshackle vehicles driven by Palestinians. Driving one causes nothing but trouble at military checkpoints. But in his Rover, Amjad is immediately allowed to pass – and even gets a graceful bow from the Israeli soldier. However, after a day the Rover comes to a sputtering halt.  Kashua: “In my television work I am always searching for the joke that saves the day.”
The writer talks about an episode to be aired soon. The photographer Meir, a Jewish friend of Amjad, has to go fight in the Gaza Strip. But he conceals this from his Palestinian-Israeli girlfriend, saying he is being sent to take pictures. “In that episode there will also be pictures of Palestinian children killed in the fighting. That is unprecedented in Israel. I’m also worried that people will say: He is making jokes about the war in Gaza. Due to the series’ success the jokes are scrutinised more heavily.”

Universal truths
Fear lurks behind Kashua’s laughter, something that becomes apparent as we talk. “My characters are only afraid. They are searching for security and a safe existence. That that goal is an illusion is something they are not willing to accept. They keep trying.”
Fear, says Kashua, is a taboo among Israelis and Palestinians alike. “My father does the same [and he puts on a deep voice]: ‘We have to be strong, Sayed! If we show our fear we will never win!’” His alter ego Amjad becomes nervous in Avoda Aravit when he approaches Israeli checkpoints. He hides his Arabic CDs and tells his daughter that she should greet the officer in Hebrew. The girl only half understands and greets the Israeli soldier with the Arabic expression sabah al khair (good morning). Kashua: “By making it a joke, I neutralise my own fear. In reality I find places like that so frightening that I always avoid them.”
The author is aware of his unique place in Israeli society. Readers and viewers adore him for his self-deprecating humour and sarcasm. But the paradox of Kashua is that his voluntary isolation makes him a universal mouthpiece.

Castle in the air
“My character Amjad,” say Kashua, “is experiencing the same process that I am going through now. He is invited more and more frequently to participate in talk shows; he becomes the Arabic darling of the Israeli media elite. [In a pompous voice]: ‘Amjad, tell us again about the discrimination against the Palestinians.’ He has become a star, but feels he has nothing to say. That is why I have now written an episode in which he participates in Big Brother, the ultimate symbol of meaningless celebrity.
The question that remains, says Kashua, is how much his stories matter. He can express his solitude and helps disarm prejudices by presenting them in an over the top manner. But Kashua is not eager to assume the role he is being pushed into: the human voice of an inhumane conflict. In the end, all Kashua wants to do is escape. “We will not be able to solve this; I foresee a large catastrophe for the Palestinians. As for external events, Israel will attack Iran, I’m afraid. I only see catastrophe. I wrote the other day: What I would like to do most is buy an island and build a castle there for my family. Emigration is a second, perhaps more feasible, option.”

Translated by Fernande van Tets
Image: Yanai Yechiel


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Guus Valk

Guus Valk

Guus Valk has been working as a correspondent in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip since 2008 for Dutch daily newspaper NRC Handelsblad and its sister newspaper Before that he was a political editor in The Hague.


“The hopelessness of this conflict zone - Israel, the Gazastrip and the Westbank - sometimes gets compensated for with fantastic stories and people who enrich the area. I could have chosen many people, but I picked Sayed Kashua, who does not care about the hopeless situation he is living in. It actually inspires him. I wonder if Sayed Kashua would have been as good a writer if he had not lived in Jerusalem but in a suburban area of a Western country. The questions he asks are related to the foundations of his life."