Dancing Arabsby Sayed Kashua Translated from Hebrew by Miriam Shlesinger
“Gritty and agile. . . . As a portrait of a young man’s drift into emotional no man’s land, [Dancing Arabs] has the feel of grim truth.” –The New York Times Book Review
A stunning tragicomic novel by a young Arab Israeli who “rises above the wretchedness of the broken mirrors, and the ills of stereotypes, prejudices and divided identities, and creates a wonderfully complex drama out of simple domestic ingredients.” (Yediot Acharonot, Israel)
A story born out of the tensions between Jewish and Arab Israelis, the debut novel by twenty-eight-year-old Arab-Israeli Sayed Kashua has been praised around the world for its honesty, irony, humor, and its uniquely human portrayal of a young man who moves between two societies, becoming a stranger to both.
Kashua’s nameless antihero has big shoes to fill, having grown up with the myth of a grandfather who died fighting the Zionists in 1948, and with a father who was jailed for blowing up a school cafeteria in the name of freedom. When he is granted a scholarship to an elite Jewish boarding school, his family rejoices, dreaming that he will grow up to be the first Arab to build an atom bomb. But to their dismay, he turns out to be a coward devoid of any national pride; his only ambition is to fit in with his Jewish peers who reject him. He changes his clothes, his accent, his eating habits, and becomes an expert at faking identities, sliding between different cultures, different schools, different languages, and eventually a Jewish lover and an Arab wife.
With refreshing candor and self-deprecating wit, Kashua brings us a protagonist whose greatest accomplishment is his ability to disappear. In a land where personal and national identities are synonymous, Dancing Arabs brilliantly maps one man’s struggle to disentangle the two, only to tragically and inevitably forfeit both.
“Gritty and agile. . . . As a portrait of a young man’s drift into emotional no man’s land, [Dancing Arabs] has the feel of grim truth.” –Charles Wilson, The New York Times Book Review
“Books like this one, books that tell the stories of war through the eyes of children, are the textbooks for future generations. They carry the cultural information, those memes that are missing from conventional, nonfiction accounts.” –Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times Book Review
“[A] fascinating first novel. . . . Snide, sly, quick, mournful, doubting, darting, dancing, this lively self-portrait offers a long, deep glimpse into the present pathology of unhinged Arab existence.” –Alan Cheuse, NPR, All Things Considered
“Kashua’s fallible, nameless antihero (and alter ego) presents a deeply personal view of an intractable conflict. B+” –Carolyn Juris, The Washington Post
“Nearly absurdist at moments, this is a chilling, convincing tale. . . . With refreshing candour and self-deprecating wit, Dancing Arabs brilliantly maps one man’s struggle to disentangle his personal and national identities. . . . The author does a stunning job.” –This Week in Palestine
“This literary jewel of a debut novel from an Arab-Israeli expresses what it means to be a hyphenated citizen in Israel today. . . . The story takes many twists and turns, with some surprises, and makes an interesting, delightful summertime read.” –Aharon Ben Anshel, Jewish Press
“[Kashua’s] deadpan innocence makes Dancing Arabs–a personal take on the endless divide between Jews and Arabs in Israel–both hugely entertaining and unexpectedly disturbing.” –Jade Chang, LA Weekly
“His portraits stay with you long after the book is finished.” –Jewish Currents
“In his first novel, Arab-Israeli author Sayed Kashua goes beyond the front-page headlines and horrific newspaper photos of Middle East violence to show a different view of what being an Arab is all about.” –Miriam Shlesinger, The San Francisco Chronicle
“This sly and caustic novel by an Arab-Israeli who works as a journalist in Jerusalem reveals cultural divides within cultural divides . . . . Kashua’s prose (translated from the Hebrew with great panache by Miriam Schlesinger) has a manic verve to it, as if his narrator can’t vent his fears and neuroses fast enough. . . . Dancing Arabs delivers an on-the-ground sense of being an Arab in Israel that you couldn’t get from any news report.” –Michael Upchurch, Seattle Times & Seattle Post-Intelligencer
“An impressive debut novel. . . . [Dancing Arabs] stares unflinchingly at the many ugly realities on both sides of an eternal national crisis, and the result is a bracingly candid lamentation.” –The Baltimore Sun
“[The novelist’s] job is to evoke the consciousness of a protagonist, one worthy of their evocation one hopes. On this score, Kashua succeeds admirably in creating a protagonist adrift between two worlds, neither of which, tragically, can sustain him.” –Andrew Furman, The Miami Herald
“Kashua looks courageously at harsh realities in blunt, sardonic prose whose nuances are rendered perfectly by Miriam Shlesinger. . . . The story stands out for its courage and originality.” –P. David Hornik, Jerusalem Post
“Dancing Arabs is a book that will make you cry. It is honest and funny and unbearably believable.” –Esther Cohen, Na’amat Woman
“While [Dancing Arabs] has clear political overtones, it is no mere polemic. In its moving and mordantly funny depiction of a life lived on the margins of a fundamentally inhospitable society, Arabs introduces humanity where politics has failed.” –Gabriel Saunders, Time Out New York
“Readers . . . will find humor and pathos in his unnamed hero’s (or should I say anti-hero’s) story. . . . Reading Dancing Arabs is an eye-opening experience. . . . And while this sounds very serious, Kashua writes in a light, easy style, tempered by a great sense of the absurd.” –Rabbi Rachel Esserman, The Reporter
“As a novel, Dancing Arabs expertly chews through the details of place. Tira, Jerusalem, Palestine, Israel: Kashua breaks these places into pieces, and from those pieces patches together his own narrative. His neighborhoods may torment him still, but they are vividly remembered, painstakingly specific, and blissfully free of hyperbole or clich”.” –Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, The Daily Star
“This book is worth reading not only as a chronicle of a young Arab’s life in hostile Israel, but also as a biography of Sayed Kashua the man. . . . Such a dual reading promises not only a fuller private experience. It also reminds us of the faint hope that maybe some day, this piece of land will be a place where not Arabs and Jews live, but simply people.” –Daphna Baram, Oznik.com
“A quick, readable, highly engaging–and bluntly pessimistic–debut tale. . . . [Kashua] is never once self-indulgent or sentimental with the result that his story rings out on every page with a compelling sense of human truth.” –Kirkus Reviews
“Kashua resists stereotype in this slyly subversive, semi-autobiographical account of Arab Israeli life. . . . The drab hopelessness of his life is offset by his self-awareness. . . and by Kashua’s deadpan, understated humor. . . . This is a chilling, convincing tale.” –Publishers Weekly
‘despite its dark prognosis, there is a lightness and dry humor that lifts it with the kind of wings its protagonist once hoped for.” –Brendon Driscoll, Booklist
“An astonishing book . . . Without self-righteousness [Kashua] illuminates the hell of anguished cohabitation and the prejudices that forment fear.” –La Liberte (France)
“Dancing Arabs . . . is a tenderly written, honest portrayal of Israeli-Arab society. . . . Kashua, a journalist, is an unusually gifted storyteller with exceptional insight. How unfortunate that so few leaders possess the same clarity of vision and longing for peace.” –Atara Beck, Jewish Tribune (Canada)
“Courageous . . . provocative . . . Kashua explores the two Israeli communities with remarkable lucidity.” –L”Independent
“Dancing Arabs is a delight despite its bitter truth. Kashua and his anti-hero laugh, and in that is more heroism than in any explosive belt.” –Neue Zuricher Zeitung (Switzerland)
“The narrator’s reportorial tone and his convincing depictions of daily life in the village make the story’s plot seem concretely possible. The political events that have occurred since Kashua began writing the book make it that much more real.” –Neri Livneh, Ha Aretz
“[Kashua’s] hero does not have a God. He does not threaten with violence, nor does he ask for pity. . . . His life is a masquerade ball, and though he betrays himself, disguises himself, and pours himself from one character to another, he is always honest. And no reader, foreign or local, can remain indifferent to his truth.” –Dorit Rabinyan, author of Persian Brides
Winner of the Grinzane Cavour Prize from Italy
A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2004
The Keys to the Cupboard
I was always looking for the keys to the cupboard. I looked for them every time Grandma went to visit the home of another old woman in the village who had died. The old brown cupboard was like a locked trunk with a treasure inside–diamonds and royal jewels. One morning, after another night when I’d sneaked into her bed because I was too scared to fall asleep, I saw her take the key out of a hidden pocket she’d sewn in one of her pillows. Grandma handed me the key and asked me to take her prayer rug out of the cupboard for her. I leaped out of bed at once. What had come over her? Was she really letting me open the cupboard? I took the key, and as soon as I put it in the lock, Grandma said, “Turn it gently. Everything is rusty by now.”
White dresses were hanging in one section, and in the other were shelves with towels, folded sharwals, and stockings. No underpants. Grandma didn’t wear underwear, just sharwals.
The sheepskin prayer rug was on the bottom shelf. She’d made it herself: bought the sheep on “id el-fitr, skinned it, salted it, and dried it in the sun. On the top shelf she’d put an enormous blue suitcase, the one she’d taken on her hajj a few years earlier. What’s she got in there? I wondered. Maybe a few more of those policemen’s outfits, like the ones she brought back to us from Mecca.
I pulled the rug off the shelf and spread it out on the spot where Grandma always said her prayers. She would pray sitting down, because by then it was hard for her to kneel for so long.
Grandma lives with us. Actually, we live with her. She has her own room, with her own bathroom and a basin for washing her hands before saying her prayers, and she never passes through the living room or the kitchen. The way she sees it, anyone who wants her has to go into her room. She would never dream of invading Mother’s territory. And if my parents would rather not talk to her, that’s fine too; she has no intention of striking up a conversation. It used to be her house once, until my father, her only son, took it over, added a few rooms, got married, and had kids of his own. Of Grandma’s four grandsons, I was the only one who would crawl into bed with her. I almost never slept in the room I shared with my brothers. I’d always wait for my parents to fall asleep, and then, very very quietly, I’d sneak into Grandma’s room, into her bed. She knew I was afraid–of thieves, of the dark, of monsters. She knew that with her I felt protected, and she never told me not to come, never said, Don’t crawl into bed with me anymore, even though it was a twin bed and more than thirty years old. Every morning I’d wake at dawn, when Grandma would be saying her prayers. I’d never seen the key. She’d never asked me to bring her anything from the cupboard.
When she finished praying that morning, she turned to me. ‘did you see where I hide the key? You’re the only one I’m telling, and I want you to promise me not to tell anyone else till the day I die. Then you’ll open the cupboard and tell your aunts–they’re bound to come here when I’m dead–that all the equipment is in the blue bag. You understand? They mustn’t use anything except that equipment. Promise?”
“And it’s time you stopped being afraid. Such a smart boy, what are you afraid of? Hurry up, off to your room before your parents wake up.”
Now I’m the one in charge of Grandma’s death. She must know something I don’t. Otherwise, what would she need death equipment for? And what is death equipment anyway?
After that morning when Grandma told me where the key was hidden, I started racing home every recess. I only had five minutes, but we lived really close to the school. When the bell rang, I could hear it from our house, and I always made it back to class before the teacher had covered the distance from the teachers’ room. I was never late. I was the best student in the class, the best in the whole fourth grade. Every time I ran home, I imagined my grandmother lying in her twin bed with her four daughters standing over her, weeping and singing the very same songs they sang when Uncle Bashir, Aunt Fahten’s husband, died or when Uncle Shakker, Aunt Ibtissam’s husband, died. I knew I mustn’t miss Grandma’s death, and I always prayed that I’d make it back before they buried her. I had to get there in time to tell them about the blue suitcase. I had to tell them about the death equipment. Nobody knew where the key was, not even my father, her only male offspring.
At night, I continued sneaking off to Grandma’s bed and sleeping beside her. But instead of being afraid of the dark, of thieves, and of dogs, I started being afraid that the woman next to me would die. Her large body no longer gave me a feeling of security. From that point on, I started sleeping with her to protect her. I would wake up very often, holding my breath and putting the back of my hand to her mouth. So long as I could feel the warm air, I knew–Not yet; death hasn’t come yet.
Grandma didn’t mention the blue bag of death equipment again, as if she’d forgotten all about it, as if her death wasn’t on her mind anymore. Then, at some point in fifth grade, between winter break and spring break, when I dashed home during recess as usual, Grandma wasn’t there. Grandma rarely left her room unless someone had died. And when she did, it took her a long time to return.
Without thinking twice I walked over to the pillow. Gently, without moving it, I pushed my hand into the secret pocket and pulled out the key. I remembered Grandma saying that everything was rusty, so I turned the key slowly and carefully. That’s all I needed–for it to break off in the lock.
The things in the cupboard were just as they had been, as if nothing had changed: the rug, the white dresses, the sharwals. No underpants, only stockings. I couldn’t reach the top shelf. I took off my shoes, placed one foot on the shelf with the rug and the other one on the sharwal shelf, and managed to open the metal locks of the blue suitcase with one hand.
I could hardly see what it held, but I could feel towels. What, only towels? Is that the death equipment: towels? But the whole house is full of towels. Since when are there special death towels?
I ran to the kitchen to get a chair and stood on it. Just then I heard the bell. Another lesson was starting, but I was not going to run straight back this time. Let them mark me absent. I’d say I had a stomachache. They’d believe me because I’m a good student. I forgot about the bell and focused on the suitcase. Up on the chair I could reach it much more easily. I mustered all my strength before lifting it, but the suitcase was much lighter than I’d imagined. For some reason, I’d expected the death equipment to be heavy.
I put the suitcase down on Grandma’s bed and studied its contents. The towels on top were meticulously folded. I took them out, one by one, making a mental note of the position of each one so I could replace it exactly. There were five of them. Underneath was a large piece of white fabric with the word Mecca written on it. My grandma must want them to use this cloth for her shroud. Underneath, there were dozens of bars of soap, all made in Mecca. There were perfume and hand cream too, a pair of tweezers still in its wrapping, scissors, and a new hairbrush. I didn’t know that the death equipment was toiletries. I was very disappointed. Is this what I was missing agriculture class for–soaps and towels?
Now that all the equipment was out of the suitcase, I saw it was lined with newspapers. I was sure they were just there to protect the equipment from humidity, but before I had a chance to put the toiletries back inside, my eyes fell on a picture in one of the papers. It was all written in Hebrew, and I hadn’t learned Hebrew well enough yet to read a paper, but in the newsprint I saw a small faded passport photo of a young man looking at me.
My hands froze. It was a picture of my father. True, he looked much younger. I’d never seen a picture of him at that age, but I could swear it was my father.
I lifted the paper, and underneath it were many more newspapers using that old passport photo. All of them were in Hebrew, and in class we were still plodding through “Who is this? This is Father. Who is this? This is Mother.” I made up my mind: I’ve got to learn Hebrew. I’ve got to be able to read a Hebrew newspaper.
I rummaged some more and found dozens of postcards hidden underneath. These were in Arabic. I recognized my father’s handwriting right away: beautiful and rounded, like a drawing. My father had been the best student in Tira. I’d always wanted to be like him.
I pulled out a postcard and read:
How is my sister Fahten? I hope everything is well with you. I am fine, thank goodness. Tell Mother to stop crying. I will be released soon. Give my love to Sharifa, Fahten, Ibtissam, Shuruk, and the children.
P.S. There are a few things I would like Mother to bring on her next visit: a notebook, two pencils, a pair of socks, and two pair of underpants.
Your brother Darwish There were many red triangles on the postcard, with some Hebrew writing inside them, and on the back was a black-and-white picture of a girl soldier eating a falafel. Another bell went off. They were breaking for recess, and class would be starting again soon.
I quickly arranged the postcards and the papers the way they were before, put all the equipment back in the suitcase, and placed the suitcase back on the top shelf. After locking the cupboard, I pushed the key into the hidden pocket, and within two minutes I had returned the chair to the kitchen, put my shoes on, locked the front door, and was running back to class.
On my way, I saw a funeral. I spotted my grandmother. It was Abu Ziad who had died, our neighbor, whose grandson Ibrahim was in my class. My grandmother couldn’t stand the sight of Abu Ziad. As for me, I couldn’t stand the sight of Ibrahim.
©2002 by Sayed Kashua.
Translation ©2004 by Miriam Shlesinger. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
1. How would you describe Sayed Kashua’s writing? What is his style of storytelling? What is his tone? Is his prose reminiscent of any other writers? Given his subject, did you find his work dogmatic? What sorts of reactions did he elicit from you? Were you moved? Were you ever amused? Did he ever take you by surprise?
2. In Kashua’s opening chapter, “The Keys to the Cupboard,” powerful elements intermingle, for example, old age with early childhood and life with death. However, the author does not allow the story to develop into one of sentimentality and lyricism. The grandmother attends the funeral of a person she couldn’t stand the sight of in life. How does this first chapter prepare us for the tone and subject of the book?
3. Sayed Kashua’s narrator tells a story that begins in childhood and ends in early adulthood. How stable is the character of the narrator? What sort of child is he? What sort of adult does he become? Did your reaction to him change over the course of the novel?
4. Unsparing realism is a prominent force in Kashua’s writing. He does not shy away from the realities of life, in both its minutiae and its greater philosophical concerns. He describes nosepicking in unsparing detail. And he doesn’t hesitate to inform the reader of his desire to deny his own identity. How does this affect the tone of the book? Is it an important aspect of his sensibility? Does it allow him to say more?
5. The narrator’s family has been part of the political resistance to Zionism. His father had an instrumental role in the explosion of a cafeteria. To some, his actions make him a terrorist; to others, a hero. How does the author present the father’s actions? Why does political activism fail to enflame the narrator?
6. Kashua’s writing offers what is for many a rare look into the lives and troubles of an Arab-Israeli family. Certainly he does not idealize them. In the narrator’s family we see familiar demons of human nature, including anger, pettiness, and family dysfunction. This is not an ennobling portrait, and it has been criticized by some Arab-Israelis. Is this portrayal simply a function of his realism? Are some elements of his portrait critical of the Arab-Israeli culture? If so, what is his critique?
7. How does Kashua depict Israeli Jews? Are they presented as individuals? What are the differences between Jews and Arabs as he portrays them? Are there commonalities? The narrator is pleased that he can pass as a Jew. Do you think Kashua has had similar experiences? Are there any instances where the author’s opinion or perspective seems to differ from that of the narrator?
8. In “The Day I Saw Jews Up Close for the First Time” the narrator is assigned a Jewish friend, Nadav, in a Seeds of Peace program at his school. The narrator is disappointed when he is not assigned the same partner at the program’s next session. Later, he learns that Nadav cried from disappointment. To his relief, the narrator concludes, “That Jew really did love me.” How did you react to this chapter? What are its tone and significance?
9. A significant portion of Dancing Arabs involves the narrator’s desire to “pass’ as a Jew. This is particularly interesting given his family’s political activism in the past. What is the source of his desire to “pass’ and what is its significance? He is aware that this desire may be seen as a sign of self-hatred, but this does not deter him. Why?
10. When the narrator wins a place at the Jewish school, his grandmother says, “Thank God it’s over.” What is “it”? What is the nature of his relationship with his grandmother and with his father? Respectively, what worlds do they represent?
11. The narrator’s nervous breakdown provides a transition between childhood and young adulthood. What is the source of his troubles? How do his troubles influence the adult he becomes? How does the storytelling change when he becomes an adult?
12. Sayed Kashua has said that much of Dancing Arabs is autobiographical but that the narrator’s wife is not based on his own. How does the fictional wife, a constant source of misery, contribute to the tone of the book as it winds down? How might a happy marriage and all it signifies have affected the conclusion of the book?
13. In “My Little Brother,” which comes late in the book, we are introduced to a sibling who barely speaks and who, except for his work at the hospital, lives a self-contained life in a sort of separate peace. What is the narrator’s attitude toward his brother? What is the significance of this portrait? Why do you think Kashua included it? Does the plot require it?
14. Kashua’s book has elements of a coming-of-age novel, but he does not describe all rites of passage with equal emphasis: falling in love with a Jewish girl is a major event, yet the birth of his daughter is mentioned almost in passing. What does this suggest about the book’s subject?
15. By the end of Dancing Arabs the narrator tells us that “war has become part of our routine.” What are the dangers of such a life? What are the implications of this war for the individuals who live in it? What questions does the book raise?
16. Dancing Arabs opens and closes with the keys to the grandmother’s cupboard. Why does this image receive such emphasis? Why and how do the keys and the grandmother bring the novel full circle? Why do the narrator and his grandmother cry together?
17. Dancing Arabs is classified as a novel. Is there anything about its structure and nature that does not fit the “novel” label? Does it have the sort of arc conventionally associated with novels? Would you call it a typical novel? What does the structure of this book have to do with the subject, pace, and tone of the story it tells?