Sayed Kashua speaking at San Francisco State University on Oct. 15, 2019. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)
Sayed Kashua speaking at San Francisco State University on Oct. 15, 2019. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)

Sayed Kashua at S.F. State: for the popular Palestinian Israeli writer, home is elusive

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“It sounds really good, my life,” the Palestinian Israeli writer Sayed Kashua said with a chuckle after he was introduced at San Francisco State University Tuesday evening. “But basically, I live in St. Louis and I’m a Ph.D. student now, so it’s very boring.”

On the contrary, the creator of the popular Israeli TV series “Arab Labor” and author of four novels is busier than ever, juggling coursework in a comparative literature program at Washington University while working on several television projects. These include “Shtisel,” an Israeli series about a haredi family in Jerusalem for which he serves as story editor, and a David Simon-helmed series for HBO about the FBI and the American Muslim community that he is helping to write but can’t say much about quite yet.

The TV work takes priority these days, he told a group of students, faculty and community members at SFSU.

“I still have three more classes, and it’s getting a little bit tough,” he said, bemoaning the hundreds of pages of reading he must do each week. “Like, I have two weeks to finish one full script for HBO, so is it that or translation theory? I guess HBO wins big time.”

Kashua’s quick wit and self-deprecating humor were on display throughout his talk, which was organized by SFSU’s Department of Jewish Studies, the Taube Center for Jewish Studies at Stanford University and the Israel Institute. After reading a comic essay — his first written in English, his third language — about achieving his American dream by riding in a limousine and flying first class, Kashua discussed his latest novel, “Track Changes,” which will be published in English in January. The book follows an Arab-Israeli writer who reconnects with his estranged father on his deathbed.

“It’s about the effect of writing and how sometimes there’s a very big price to pay for what you write,” he explained. “For me, writing always caused a lot of troubles.”

Sometimes there’s a very big price to pay for what you write

Born in Tira, an Arab town about 18 miles north of Tel Aviv, the 44-year-old Kashua uprooted his family from Jerusalem in 2014 in the midst of a wave of violence following the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish teenagers by Hamas operatives and the revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager by extremist Jews — events dramatized in the new HBO series “Our Boys,” which Kashua praised. “I wanted to tell the Israelis a story, the Palestinian story,” he wrote in the Guardian at the time. “Twenty-five years that I am writing and knowing bitter criticism from both sides, but last week I gave up.”

For the past few years he taught Hebrew literature — or “Advanced Arabic-Accented Hebrew Literature,” as he put it — at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign while his wife, Najat, pursued a Ph.D. in psychotherapy. He admitted that he has not tried to assimilate into American society — though he loves free refills and watches Fox News before bed — and tells people who inquire about his accent that he is Albanian “because no one knows what an Albanian sounds like.”

Asked by Vered Weiss, an Israel Institute teaching fellow in Jewish studies at SFSU, where he feels most at home, he replied: “Is it St. Louis? Is it Tira? Is it Jerusalem? Is it Israel? I don’t know. I don’t have definitions for home, because I’m thinking about it so many times. Home is what’s written in the GPS.”

Weiss called Kashua “one of the most unique voices in Israeli society” who has helped to bridge the divide between Israel’s Arab minority and Jewish majority. “Sayed has the extraordinary talent of making the reader laugh even while crying,” she said.

In an interview with J. after the talk, Kashua chewed nicotine gum — for which he apologized, saying he recently quit smoking — and said that he still follows Israeli politics obsessively. “I’m trying to be very carefully optimistic for change,” he said. “But who knows?” (In a New York Times op-ed last year, Kashua criticized the country’s recently passed Nationality Law, writing that “Israel’s message to its Arab citizens is that it does not wish to be our state.”)

He said he may return to Israel one day but worries about how his children, who have been in America for five years, would cope. He has one daughter, a sophomore at Brandeis University, who responds to his Arabic texts in Hebrew, and two sons, a 14-year-old high school freshman and an 8-year-old who “thinks that he’s American.” Kashua joked that he and Najat would break the news to their son that he’s not a U.S. citizen, and that he’s Muslim, at the boy’s bar mitzvah.

“Are they going to be accepted as citizens in America?” he wondered. “What’s going to happen to immigrants, foreigners, Muslims? With each year it becomes much more difficult [to go back to Israel], because they are forgetting both the Arabic and the Hebrew.”

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.