Asset 14

Briefwisseling met Sayed Kashua I

We kregen post. Een briefwisseling tussen de Israëlische schrijver Etgar Keret (1967) en de Arabisch-Israëlische schrijver Sayed Kashua (1975) over de escalerende situatie in Israël en Palestina. Kashua besloot het Israël afgelopen oorlog definitief te ontvluchten. Voor Etgar en Sayed maken we met plezier een uitzondering: deze brieven verschijnen in het Engels.

Hi Etgar,

How are you, Shira and Lev?

It’s so weird to be writing to you, you know. Just this week I was thinking about you. I talked about you in my Hebrew class, and in the end, I brought the students one of your short stories, “Hope They Die.” It took us one hour to read half of it. They’re nice, my students, but their Hebrew leaves a lot to be desired. But that wasn’t why I thought about you. I thought about you because of the winter that’s starting to show itself here. I mean, it’s not that winter has started, maybe it’s just the beginning of autumn, but it’s already like the coldest days of a Jerusalem winter. It’s cold in central Illinois, and almost everyone who meets me and knows that I just arrived feels obligated to warn me about the cruel winter that’s in store for us here.

This week we had to buy warm clothes. As you know, we arrived here in summer, or maybe more accurately, we ran away to this place in summer, and except for a few short-sleeve shirts and a couple of pairs of pants, we took almost nothing from home, and winter is almost here and the kids have nothing warm to wear. “Go to T.J. Max,” some very helpful new acquaintances, who are making our acclimatization easier, told us. “They have good things there and they’re pretty cheap.”

“Don’t buy in the mall,” the parents of an Israeli kid my son met in elementary school told us, “there’s a huge outlet half an hour away by car, terrific clothes at great prices.”
We listened to our new friends’ advice and bought the kids clothes from the outlets, until it came to coats. “On coats we don’t compromise,” I told my wife. “Not in central Illinois, not for the kind of winter they promised we’d have.”
And you know, it’s because of you that I’m not being stingy about coats. You probably don’t remember, but when we once shared a taxi from Leipzig to Berlin, maybe 15 years ago, you told me a story about your father, and one sentence is engraved in my mind, “He survived because he took a coat.”
“On coats we don’t compromise,” I told my wife, “we have to buy the best, the most expensive.”

In any case, we’re in Champaign, Illinois. There’s not a lot to do here, there’s a university and endless corn fields, and except for that, I don’t know very much. Would you believe that a few months have passed and I haven’t gone out for a beer even once? I don’t know if they even have any decent bars here. I’ll have to find one really soon. Meantime, we’ve been busy getting the house organized, finding schools for the kids, finding my way around the university and knowing where to buy tahini and cucumbers.

Somehow the kids have adjusted faster than I thought, and even though the language is new and completely foreign to them, despite the weather and the food, and even though they had to leave their friends, they seem happy on the whole. I know because I see how they hurry me to start the car in the morning and leave the house early because they don’t want to be late for school. Somehow my wife has settled in here, even though I was afraid she’d go crazy with boredom because she’s taking a vacation from school and work for the first time in 20 years.

And I, who was so happy that I left, that I took my family far away from that terrible place called Israel, that I removed them from the smell of gunpowder and blood, I sometimes feel that I’m the most miserable of all of us. I’m afraid to stay here, and I’m so afraid of the day I have to go back home, to Jerusalem, to Israel, to Palestine. Leaving was traumatic. I felt like a refugee running for his life, and the decision to leave quickly was made even before the war with Gaza began. On the day the Palestinian boy was burned to death in Jerusalem, I realized that I couldn’t let my kids leave the house anymore. That day, I called the travel agent and asked her to get us out as soon as possible. Unfortunately, it took a few days, and that damn war, another damn war, had already started, and the racism that I’d seen taking off at the end of 2000 was reaching terrifying heights. I was so afraid, and I felt really persecuted. You know, I’m a kind of star at the zenith of my success, a film is scheduled to come out this summer, and a new series is being shot during those first days of the war, and all of a sudden, I’ve been turned into the enemy. All of a sudden, every runny-nosed journalist thinks they can vent their anger on me, all of a sudden I’m afraid of the water girl on the set, Etgar, all of a sudden, even the production assistant I never met thinks he can stand in front of me when I come in for the day’s shooting and tell me with a clear sense of superiority, “We have to bomb the hell out of them one by one,” and I’m afraid. I’m afraid of my kind-hearted next door neighbors because they have a new look in their eyes that I never saw before the war, I’m afraid of the barman who’s been pouring me beers for more than 20 years.

My wife always said I was a coward with a paranoid personality disorder, said that the situation is frightening, but that I’m exaggerating. But I swear to you, Etgar, I saw the way my closest Jewish friends started looking at me differently. Sometimes they tried not to look me in the eye and sometimes their looks were accusing, condescending, hating.
You know, I never pictured myself wanting to be a teacher, and when I taught in Israel, I really hated it. But I’m so afraid of going back there that I’m thrilled to prepare and check lessons before every class here, hoping they’ll want me to stay another year, and maybe another year after that. I never thought before about living somewhere else when I was asked so often whether I was considering leaving Israel. I always rejected the possibility proudly, “What are you talking about? I have a war to fight here.” And you know, this summer, I realized that I’d lost. This summer, the last vestiges of hope in my heart were crushed. This summer, I realized that I couldn’t lie to my kids anymore and tell them that one day, they’d have equal rights in a democratic country. This summer, I realized that the Arab citizens of the country would never have a better future. Just the opposite, it would be worse, the ghettos they live in would only be more crowded, more violent and more indigent as the years passed. I realized this summer that I could no longer promise my kids a better future.

On the other hand, I’m so afraid to stay here, what’s here for me if I can’t write? And what will I do without the Hebrew that is the only language I can write in? At first, I thought I’d learn a new language, that I’d drop Hebrew for English, and believe it or not, the first book I bought here was yours. It hurts so much to know that, if I’m already looking for a new language, I don’t even consider Arabic, my mother tongue, a worthy option.

Here I am, a Palestinian Arab who only knows how to write in Hebrew, stuck in central Illinois.

Even though I know that you and your wife had some bad days because you dared to voice a different view, opposing violence and the war machines, I’m still writing to you, maybe because I want you to give me a little hope. You can lie, if you feel like. Please Etgar, tell me a short story with a happy ending, please.


Illustratie: Charlotte Peys

Hi Sayed,

I was really happy to get a letter from you, and really sad when I read it. I hate to say it, but I know the Illinois town you’re living in pretty well. A few years ago, when Lev was still in kindergarten, I was invited to lecture at the University of Illinois and went there with my family for a few weeks. When we came back to Israel, each of us weighed a few kilos more, and we were all thankful that the airlines charge money for overweight suitcases and not overweight people. That’s how it is when you live in a country where, instead of celebrating Yom Kippur and Holocaust Memorial Day, they celebrate Donut Day (there really is such a thing, I swear). To this day, Lev says that Rome and New York are fascinating cities, but no place in the world comes close to Urbana, Illinois, and all because of the bowling alley and video games arcade he remembers so fondly (the thing that impressed him the most there was the enormous number of soda vending machines). So I’m not surprised that your kids adjusted so easily (you have to limit their pancake and donut intake, or else it’ll end badly. When it comes to nutrition, American cuisine is worse than ISIS), and it’s easy for me to understand why you haven’t really found your place there. You asked me for an optimistic story with a happy end, so here goes, I’ll give it a try.

2015 was an historic year in the Middle East, and all because of a surprising, brilliant idea that an Arab-Israeli expatriate had. One evening, the writer was sitting on his front porch in Urbana Illinois looking at the endless corn fields that spread all the way to the horizon. Seeing that enormous expanse, he couldn’t escape the thought that maybe the troubles in the place he came from stemmed from the fact that there simply wasn’t enough room for everybody. “If I could just pack all those fields in my suitcase,” he said to himself, “fold them very very neatly, very very small, I could fly back to Israel with them. I’d pass through customs on the green line for people who have nothing to declare, because what did I really have? It wasn’t that I’d brought some subversive ideology in my suitcase or anything else that might interest a customs inspector. All I had were some huge corn fields that I folded up very very small, and when I got home, I’d open the suitcase, take them out, and shazam! all of a sudden there would be enough land for everyone, the Palestinians and the Israelis, and even some left over for a giant amusement park where both peoples would take all the knowledge and technology that they apply to developing weapons, and use it to build the most amazing roller coaster in the world instead.”

He was very excited when he went into the house and tried to share his thrilling insight with his wife, but she refused to get excited. “Forget it,” she said in a cold voice, “it’ll never work.” The writer admitted that he still had to figure out a number of logistic issues, like convincing the farmers in Illinois to give him all those corn fields, not to mention finding the right method of folding that would allow him to squeeze all those fields into one large suitcase. “But,” he rebuked his wife, “those minor problems are no reason to abandon an idea that might bring peace to our region.”
“That’s not the problem, dummy,” his wife said, “even if you managed to squeeze all the land in the world into that battered suitcase of yours, you’d never succeed in bringing peace to the region. On one hand, the radical ultra-orthodox would say that God promised all those corn fields to them, and on the other, the messianic racists would say that those corn fields were their birthright. There’s no getting away from it, husband,” she said, shrugging, “we were born in a place where, even though a lot of people want to live side by side in peace, there are still enough people on both sides who don’t want to, and they’ll never let it happen.”

That night, the writer had a strange dream, and in it, there was an endless corn field, and from that corn field, missiles were being launched and shot down by anti-missile missiles as jet fighters flew past, dropping bombs from the heavens. The field went up in flames and the writer found himself wondering, still in his dream, who the hell was fighting whom? Because there were no people at all in the dream, just missiles, bombs and burning corn cobs.

The next morning, the writer drank his disgusting American coffee quietly, without even saying good morning to his wife (he was highly insulted that she had called him a dummy the day before), and after dropping the kids off at school and kindergarten, he sat down at his computer and tried to write a story. Something sad, with a lot of self-pity, about an honest, good man whose life and wife had both been cruel to him for no reason. But as he labored over the story, a brilliant idea popped into his head, a hundred times better than the previous one, about how to solve the problems of the Middle East. If the issue wasn’t territory but people, all they had to do was update the “two state solution” to a “three state solution,” so that the Palestinians would live in the first, the Israelis in the second, and the radical fundamentalists, the rascists and all those who just got their kicks fighting would live in the third. His wife was less scornful of this plan than she had been of his folding-up-the-corn-fields idea, not to mention that Barak Obama, who the writer bumped into in a diner at a gas station on the outskirts of Urbana Illinois, simply loved it.

In less than a decade, there were three countries side by side in that tiny corner of the Middle East: the State of Israel, the State of Palestine, and the Republic of Force-is-the-Only-Language-They-Understand, a place where civil war raged constantly and which only arms dealers news broadcasters liked. The writer (who, in the story, is quite modest) politely refused the Nobel Peace Prize he was offered, packed his suitcase and went back with his family to his old house in Israel. And every time Barak Obama came to the Middle East in another one of his unsuccessful efforts to bring peace to the Republic of Force-is-the-Only-Language-They-Understand, he’d stop in for a visit to the writer who had managed, with his own hands, to bring peace to his people. They’d sit together in silence on the writer’s balcony, which overlooked a terraced valley, and eat heartily of the ears of corn resting on the plates in front of them.

That’s the story. I’m not sure it’s really a story, and I don’t know if it’s really optimistic, but it’s the best I could do. Take care of yourself, and whatever happens, don’t cut corners when it comes to coats. A coat is an important thing.


P.S. Be careful. A common occurrence among Israelis who immigrate to the U.S. is that they begin speaking Yiddish, and in the case of Arabs, it might sound comical!

Volgende week het tweede deel van deze briefwisseling.



Charlotte Peys is cultuurwetenschapper en illustrator en woont en werkt in Gent (België). Haar werk is steeds gebaseerd op observatie en onderzoek. Ze illustreert om te onthouden, te verzamelen, te vertellen, te ordenen en te onderzoeken.

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