Sayed Kashua’s Dancing Arabs

Although the theme of dual identity has been explored countless times in fiction, one would be hard pressed to find a more poignant account of it than that in Sayed Kashua’s debut novel, Dancing Arabs.

Kashua’s narrator was born in Tira, a small Palestinian village in the Galilee, which became a part of Israel in 1948. (He is a citizen of the Jewish state, albeit one whose blue ID card identifies him as different, somehow.) He is a sheltered, fearful child who tiptoes to his grandmother’s room at night to sleep in her bed. An excellent student, his grades win him the approval of his teachers even if he doesn’t always escape the corporal punishment they dole out with disturbing frequency. The narrator’s grandmother puts him in charge of a secret key, the key to a blue suitcase she keeps in her closet, and which, she says, should only be opened and used after she’s dead. Curiosity gets the better of him and, one day, he opens the suitcase. Under the immaculate towels and shroud that the grandmother wants used for her burial, the narrator finds newspaper clippings, pictures, and postcards dating back to the 1960s. He learns that his father was once suspected of blowing up a cafeteria at the Hebrew University, and was held for several years in administrative detention, without trial. The events broke the grandmother’s heart; she had high hopes that her son, who was also the smartest student in his class, would someday become a scientist.

Unsurprisingly, the narrator, too, grows up with his family’s expectations that he’ll become a successful scientist, maybe even a rocket scientist. He is plucked from his village to go a Jewish boarding school, where he is one of only two Arab students. His Jewish classmates laugh at him when he says he doesn’t know who the Beatles are, they tease him for his pronunciation, and they make fun of the pink sheets his mother bought specially for his stay. The end of the first week at school coincides with Rosh Hashanah, and the narrator is sent back home for the holiday. On the bus, he is harassed by a group of Jewish students and later pulled off the bus by a soldier, who asks him for his papers and goes through his luggage. The narrator is so humiliated that he starts sobbing, and the soldier, feeling sorry for him, gets him a glass of water and says that it’s “just routine.”

One might think that this kind of treatment would have made the narrator cling to his roots, but instead he consciously decides to become a Jew. He perfects his Hebrew, getting rid of that pesky ‘b’ and correctly pronouncing his ‘p’. He shaves his mustache, listens to Hebrew music, never carries a khamsa. Whenever he is on the bus or in a public space, he takes a book in Hebrew with him. (His pick? Wittgenstein’s Nephew.)

I look more Israeli than the average Israeli. I’m always pleased when Jews tell me this. “You don’t look like an Arab at all,” they say. Some people claim it’s a racist thing to say, but I’ve always taken it as a compliment, a sign of success. That’s what I’ve always wanted to be, after all: a Jew. I’ve worked hard at it, and I’ve finally pulled it off.

But despite his efforts, he isn’t a Jew. His girlfriend’s mother tells her that she’d rather have a lesbian for a daughter than someone who dates Arabs.

After flunking his final exams in high school, he escapes to Jerusalem, crashing on a friend’s dorm room floor. He resents his family and their way of life. Their music gives him headaches. Their traditions strike him as prehistorical. He manages to register at Hebrew University, and supports himself with a low-paying job at a health clinic, and later as a barman. He dates an Arab girl named Samia, whom he marries more out of duty and boredom than out of love. Now that she’s slept with him, he says, she’s “damaged goods” and if he doesn’t marry her, no one else will.

Samia’s parents agree because they have no choice. The rumors have finished them off already. Her mother had gone to pay a condolence call and overheard people discussing her promiscuous daughter who was studying in Jerusalem. In the mosque where her father prays every Friday, they mentioned her in the sermon. Not by name, but they spoke of parents who send their daughters off to university, where they turn into prostitutes.

At this point, the novel starts to lose focus. The narrator’s baby daughter is mentioned almost as an afterthought, as are some other major life events. Increasingly, his musings verge on self-hate. He isn’t alone, though. Shadia, a fellow Arab Israeli who works with him at the night club, agrees with him. Sometimes, he tries to find a shred of his old self, even accompanies a friend on his pilgrimage to Mecca. Sometimes, he daydreams about a perfect life in Israel. Other times, he is angry and wants to take revenge on soldiers. Above all, he seems to hate his father.

I hate my father. Because of him, I can’t leave this country, because he taught us that there was no other place for us, and we must never give up; it would be better to die for the land. I picture him and tell him everything that’s on my mind. I say that if it weren’t for all the nonsense he drummed into us I would have left long ago.

Kashua provides not a single, sustained moment of comfort in this book. There are no heroes, no bad guys. Nearly every anecdote that might make one have hope is followed by another that will destroy it. The overall effect is that the book leaves the reader, like the narrator, feeling confused, stuck between two worlds, two identities.

Dancing Arabs is a difficult book for both Arabs and Jews to read–neither group is shown in a particularly good light, and, no doubt, people on either side will be angered by the mirror that the writer holds up– yet Kashua’s unsparing account is a necessary read for both.