Palestinian writer Sayed Kashua: "I am scared too"

Headshot of Palestinian writer Sayed Kashua wearing an open-necked shirt and jacket against a dark background
"No one talks about how scary it is to be Palestinian right now. It can cost you your job," says Boston-based Kashua (image: picture-alliance/Effigie/Leemage)

Sayed Kashua talks about the Palestinians' fear of speaking out about the war, the precarious situation of Arab Israelis and the limits of writing

Interview by Lena Bopp

Mr. Kashua, the war between Israel and Hamas is also a conflict between two very different perspectives: the Arabs accuse the West of disregarding the lives of Palestinians. In the West, they take offence at anti-Semitic outbursts. You are a Palestinian citizen of Israel. What is your take on this conflict?

Sayed Kashua: Basically, I'm speechless, really sad and frustrated and more hopeless than ever. I thought the 2014 Gaza war was the most hopeless I could ever feel, but once again I have been surprised by how ugly reality can get. I switch between Al Jazeera and Israeli newspapers, I watch CNN and MSNBC and read the New York Times, with my family and children telling me to stop because it's just frustrating.

You once complained that Palestinian voices are no longer heard. Why do you think that is?

Kashua: I am not sure. There are amazing academics, politicians and activists, Palestinians with perfect English who would love to speak. But Palestinian voices are rarely heard. I watch television today and events are explained by military spokesmen and politicians, as well as by American war experts and analysts who have served in the Middle East. They see it through their own prism. It's just unbelievable.

A defence mechanism

To be honest, we have tried very hard to get in touch with Palestinians, but they either don't get back to us or don't want to talk. It is thought they are afraid because they think the Western view of the conflict is biased.

Kashua: I'm scared too! I've been asked to write articles for newspapers and that scares me, but I've decided it's the least I can do. The thing is, here in the United States, where I live, there is a lot of talk about the fear of the Israeli community. But no one talks about how scary it is to be Palestinian right now. It can cost you your job. I have friends who have attended minor protests here in Boston and they came wearing COVID masks and hoods for fear that the universities might fire them - because they were participating in a demonstration calling for a ceasefire. For Palestinians in Israel, the situation is even more complicated. They are afraid to speak their minds.

I think one big problem is that although the massacre of 7 October has often been condemned, it has also been immediately explained or justified. Why is it not possible to call the massacre a massacre without qualification?

Kashua: There is no justification for killing civilians. There is no justification for killing a human being. But honestly, when I heard the very first report on 7 October, which was still talking about 22 Israelis killed, I thought: Oh my God, they are going to kill at least 5,000 Palestinians. And when I learnt that hundreds of Israelis had been killed . . . I don't know. Watching the convoys of tens of thousands of Palestinians leaving the northern Gaza Strip, I thought that they won't ever come back. Some Israeli media are already referring to it as the "Nakba 2023". Just like that.

But we must not forget what it means for Palestinians to see tens of thousands of refugees, some of whom are fleeing for the second or third time. In my mind, the Palestinians who committed this terrible act on 7 October were probably born around the year 2000. For them, Israel is the army, the settlers who imprison them – because that is Gaza for Palestinians. From the Palestinian point of view, it's seems to be a kind of defence mechanism to want to put the massacre into context.

Lost all hope

You are an Arab Israeli. You were born on the border with the West Bank and attended a Hebrew boarding school. Where do you position yourself in society?

Kashua: I am a Palestinian citizen of Israel, but now I 'position myself' in Boston. My last TV project was about the bilingual school in Jerusalem: Palestinians and Israelis living together and trying to understand each other's suffering, each other's pain and trying to find a common language. They actually speak a mixture of Arabic and Hebrew. I always thought that was the task – to foster some kind of understanding. But that's irrational. It's science fiction.

As a writer and journalist, you have actually always tried to tell the stories of the Palestinians and write them down in Hebrew so that the Jews could understand the Palestinian side.

Kashua: Yes, that's true. But now in my academic work I am focusing on the question of how to maintain hope. I'm looking at hope in Palestinian literature after the Nakba. There is a marvellous book on this entitled "Hope without Optimism". But this work is becoming increasingly difficult.

Doubts about the power of writing

In your columns for "Haaretz", you have often used humour, irony and sarcasm to express the humiliations you and other Palestinians have been subjected to in Israel. Can you explain your experiences in more detail? And what finally made you leave the country?

Kashua: First of all: at some point, I became a well-known writer, so it was a bit easier for me, I think. But I completely lost hope. I didn't want my children to grow up in Jerusalem. In 2014, I accepted this defeat.

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But what happened? Why didn't it work?

Kashua: I stopped believing in the power of writing. I had neither the money, means, nor armies to change anything. Writing was the only thing I could do. But again, I have to admit that I was very scared. I wrote within the framework that I knew was acceptable to the – shall we say – left-wing readers and writers of Haaretz. I always knew I could lose my job if I went too far. Like all Palestinians in Israel, I had no other source of income. We have no Palestinian capital in Israel. We don't have the money, we don't have the institutions. For a writer, that's always risky. And it was very humiliating because I was constantly aware of the risk. 

I wrote in fear. The challenge was to somehow find a way of capturing the terrible reality, but in a way that was still acceptable to the Israeli reader. This is the story of my writing and my life. The devastating and humiliating thing was being aware of this fearSometimes I would even apologise for working this way. The humour was actually there to humanise my characters, myself and the stories. I used humour to attract attention. And then to tell a sad story about our present. Humour was the ticket, not the destination. It was the ticket to survival.

How was your decision to write exclusively in Hebrew received by the Palestinian community?

Kashua: Sometimes I was criticised: I understand that because language is linked to identity and nationality. I was criticised for using Hebrew, but not for the content of my stories. Was it legitimate to write in Hebrew as an Arab Israeli? Did that necessarily mean that I was addressing Israelis? What was the price I would pay for this? How much did I automatically, even unconsciously, censor myself by using Hebrew? These were the questions I was constantly asking.

And the answers?

Kashua: At some point, I discovered that I was writing in a kind of resistance to the language itself, I was challenging the language. People always said I was writing Hebrew with a Palestinian accent. And that was my hope – that my voice as a Palestinian and my accent as a Palestinian would appear in my Hebrew writing.

Do you have any political hopes for the future? Some say the war could at least open the way for new thoughts and talks about a two-state solution.

Kashua: Yes, there are voices in Palestine that say that after what is happening now, the Western world will pay attention to the Palestinian issue, that there will be some kind of solution after a ceasefire and that the Palestinian people deserve to have a say. But no, no, nothing will change. No Western voice and no Arab voice is supporting us – I'm not talking about the people, I'm talking about the governments. There is no Israeli voice to count on, or to work with to end the humiliation of being Palestinian.

Above all, I believe Israel is targeting Palestinian hope. It is killing Palestinian hope for a better future. And to come back to your question: this is not to say that I seek to justify a crime as horrific as the one committed on 7 October, not at all. I just don't think that someone who can buy food and has electricity and Internet is going to have the same ethical take on the situation as someone in Gaza who doesn't even know how to buy a kilo of tomatoes for their family. These are simply two different ways of looking at the world.

Interview conducted by Lena Bopp

© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung/ 2023