Between Two Worlds: Native: Dispatches from a Palestinian-Israeli Life
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Native: Dispatches from a Palestinian-Israeli Life (2016) is neither memoir nor fiction. A collection of Sayed Kashua’s columns from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz from 2007 to 2014, it’s not strictly political commentary either.
Though each article was published independently, as a collection the dozens of essays carry a different resonance. Perhaps most striking is Kashua’s narrative voice; the way he tells stories becomes as important as the stories themselves.
The book begins with a “Letter to The Editor” from Kashua’s wife; she’s furious at Haaretz and writes, “Your correspondent, my husband, is a chronic liar, gossip, and cheat who unfortunately makes a living by distorting the truth and creating a highly unreliable picture of reality.”
Whether or not we believe that the letter has been written by his wife, Kashua intentionally and strategically establishes himself as an unreliable narrator from the first page. The fine line between truth and fiction is an inescapable theme of the book. One minute the story seems painfully and piercingly real, like when he teaches his daughter she can speak Arabic anytime, besides entering a mall, and the next moment it’s a hilarious figment of Kashua’s imagination, like when he meets a levitating Palestinian Superman.
This push-pull is Kashua’s iconic voice as a humorist, but these stories ultimately illustrate the illogical, jarring, frustrating, and disillusioning impossibility a Palestinian faces living within the borders and the language of a Jewish state.
In column after column, Kashua writes about everyday scenarios like quarrels with his family, moving to a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem, and getting a Facebook account so he doesn’t miss the next Arab Spring.
Yet, for Kashua, writing the column is as much about escaping it, and the lengths to which he’s willing to go to do so. In one story, Kashua interviews his wife because, he claims, he does not have another story to tell. In another, a Palestinian calls Kashua, criticizing him for not being political enough: “Finally there’s a platform for an Arab in an Israeli paper and this is what he writes?” Filled with shame, Kashua agrees completely, and asks the man what to write about, and if he may call again next week for more news.
He constantly takes the narrative authority away from himself. He describes himself as clueless, absent, lazy, a hopeless romantic who believes that all he needs is the perfect room to write in.
At the same time, Kashua makes countless references to himself writing the column, not wanting to write, thinking about what to write, avoiding writing, what others have written about him, and what others think about his writing. Truth and fiction blur. The space between words on the page and reality extends.
Within these essays, Kashua grapples with the immense power and devastating failure of the written word to illustrate political and social reality. In one essay, “The Stories that I Don’t Dare Tell,” Kashua writes a letter to his grandmother, telling her how he could never share her harshest, most grim stories of the Nakba with his children, or with Israelis. “People here aren’t ready to believe your stories, Grandma, or mine.”
Rather than approaching political topics head on, he sidles up to them. Often the full gravity of his claims are only felt once Kashua has masterfully carried us through the story. In “What’s in a Name,” he illustrates how he’s unable to book a reservation at a hotel called Maagan Eden, because of his Arab name. His Jewish Israeli friends laugh it off, claiming Kashua is simply paranoid, only to discover upon calling themselves, that he was right.
Through documenting his everyday life experiences, ridiculous, satirical, disillusioning situations emerge. Yet, in many ways, the political reality of a Palestinian living in Israel is the book’s antithesis.
Kashua is not interested in telling the reader about this directly, most of the time he’s trying to figure out how to paint the walls of his office, get in shape, or how to hide that he’s just ripped his pants at a bar. He laughs at all of these things, but he also laughs at anyone who attempts to assign a larger political significance to his personal experience.
For example, in “My Investment Advice” he gets a call from a journalist:
“So, to begin with, I really wanted to ask you how Independence Day makes you feel, as an Arab and a citizen of the country.”
“Could you, um, maybe elaborate a bit?”
“Yeah, sure. Independence Day makes me, as an Arab and a citizen, feel like shit.”
Painfully aware of this unchosen position of the spokesman, he turns to satire. Other times, he despairs about the inevitably harsh criticism from every angle, both from Arabs and Jews. The impossibility of being understood causes him to ultimately trust his reader to discern meaning from his unreliability, irony, and fiction, more, rather than less.
Native is as concerned with the telling of stories, both true and false, as about the stories themselves. In one essay, Kashua writes, “I’m concluding the story with an ending that’s fictional. Partly.” He then proceeds to do so, fully trusting that the reader will follow.