Asset 14

Briefwisseling met Sayed Kashua II

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,

Okay, I read your letter at least twice, still looking for a sliver of hope, but without any luck. Even though I’d be lying if I denied the fact that ideas for possible solutions come to mind whenever I drive past those endless corn fields.

And even with all the corn here, they don’t make pizza with corn like they do in Israel. They just never heard of it here, and it’s really the topping my kids like best when it comes to pizza. And Obama? You’d never catch me letting him eat corn on my balcony. That’s all I need, for the president of the United States to leave corn kernels on my floor.

Apart from that, what do you mean, there’s no room for everyone? Do you really think the problem is that the country’s small? I don’t know, sometimes I think that the major problem is how to actually define this country. What exactly are its borders? When you say Israel, do you include the West Bank and Gaza? I once thought that the day would come when we’d know what the borders of the country are. The Israeli government, which is in control there, would hold a formal ceremony to announce what the country’s official borders are, and declare that anyone who lives within those borders is a citizen with equal rights. That hasn’t happened yet, and this week I read again that the country plans to annex another 4000 dunams of the West Bank territories for settlements or state land or some other designation that means stealing Palestinian land for Jews. Tell me, Etgar, how scared are you about what the government does? I mean, how scared are you that the whole world is going to start to officially treat Israel like an apartheid state?

It scares me very, very much. Would you believe that I still care about the country? I don’t mean the government, God forbid, or its designation as a Jewish state. I mean the future of the place I lived in. I’m really not sure how much the country even sees its Arab population as citizens. It does everything to explain to us that we’re a remnant, a demographic problem, a fifth column. But I always insisted on seeing myself as a citizen of the country, and not only because of the Interior Ministry’s formal definition. I always claimed that I am a citizen who cares about the country, that as a citizen who has no other country, the future of that place is important to me, and I want the country be as good a place to live in for my Arab children as it is for my Jewish neighbors’ children.

You don’t know how frightened I am of the moment I will no longer be able to say that I’m a citizen of that country. At a conference I took part in recently, a woman in the audience asked me if I thought that the State of Israel was a legitimate country. I actually started to sweat. “Yes,” I answered, “I mean, the government does terrible things that aren’t legitimate, the occupation isn’t legitimate, the settlements are a crime, discrimination against Arab citizens is pure racism, and the country was established on the ruins of the Palestinian people, the Nakba, of course, and…” And the same woman in the audience continued, “So? I don’t understand. You still claim that the country is legitimate?”
“But the people,” I tried to answer her, and maybe myself, “You see, there are people there, and…”

In short, Etgar, it really, really scares me. I know that in Israel, people carry on and shout, how can you even dare to compare us to South Africa. But what’s going on in the territories is separation based on race. The fact is that a settler can vote, move around freely, get social security and medical insurance, and a Palestinian can’t – that is separation based on race. And it’s not only in the territories, but inside the 1948 borders when we’re talking about Arab citizens like me. How can you read in the papers this week that the Supreme Court has rejected a petition against the Communities Acceptance Committee Law, which gives legal authority to what has always existed in practice and is aimed at preventing Arab citizens from gaining access to state lands? State lands that were owned by Arabs not too long ago. Is there any other word but racist to describe the fact that a citizen can’t live wherever he wants to in the country, that an Arab citizen has no access to more than 80% of the territory of the country?

And despite that, would you believe, despite that, I say to myself, but the people; I know people there who are my friends and my children’s friends, neighbors, partners, basically good people, honest to god, they’re fine. I don’t even know why I’m dumping my political complaints on you. I think I know you well enough already to know that you’re not the one I should be venting my political frustration on, even though you’re an Israeli, I mean a Jewish Israeli. You can see now that I’m doing what the average Israeli does when he asks me, because I’m Arab, “So tell me, what’s with ISIS? What are they all about?” As if the fact that I’m an Arab means I must certainly know the gene, the mysterious gene that makes all Arabs behave the same way. It can be dormant, but you never know when it’ll spring to life, it’s just a matter of time. So I’m sorry for that, but still, Etgar, what’s the Israelis’ problem, why do they behave like that? Do me a favor, just don’t tell me that it’s fear because that’s a quality I value and admire with all my heart, but fear doesn’t explain discrimination, and fear doesn’t explain settlements in the heart of Hebron or Silwan, and fear doesn’t explain why an Arab village is kept thirsty. So what is it, Etgar?

Okay, sorry for laying all this on you, but you’re the one who started with the corn and the idea that there’s not enough room for everyone. This is where I’d add a smiley face, and I really wanted to ask your opinion about smileys and all those other emoticons. You would think that, as a writer, I’d avoid using them in emails and text messages because on the face of it, it’s a second-rate writing style. But on the other hand, I thought about the first people to use question marks and exclamation points, and how serious writers considered them to be some kind of cheap traitors who used drawings when they couldn’t express their feelings in words. What do you say? ☺
Warm regards to Shira and Lev from their uncle in America. Come visit, there’s room for everyone.


Illustratie: Charlotte Peys

Hi Sayed,

Your last letter really was heavy going, but that isn’t your fault, it’s the fault of the situation, which weighs a ton. Just a few days ago I stopped a very friendly taxi driver on the street. After showing me pictures of his kids (“They got their good looks from their mother”), he offered me a mint and invited me to watch some clips of ISIS beheadings on his phone (“Be warned: it’s not for the squeamish!”), and then started talking about making a living. “People didn’t set foot out of the house during the whole war,” he said, “they were in a lousy mood. And when people are in a lousy mood – I don’t make a living.” His monologue quickly turned to politics, and surprisingly, he suddenly said, “Enough already. I’m sick of it. A war every year and a half. We’ll never be able to finish them off, so we should give them a country and let them choke on it. Just as long as they leave us in peace already.” Later on in the conversation, he said that in the last election, all the candidates seemed like good-for-nothing swindlers, but in the end, he voted Likud, and in the next elections, he’s planning not to vote at all. Which probably means that he’ll vote Likud again.

You asked me to try and explain to you why the injustices you describe continue to happen, and you added that I shouldn’t say it’s because of fear. So I’ll try to explain, even though I’m not totally sure that I understand, and I won’t say that it’s because of fear, because what I felt all around me during the last war wasn’t fear but a general sense of hopelessness and despair.

During the war I read the results of a poll showing that close to 90% of Israelis are in favor of occupying all of Gaza and bringing down Hamas, but the day before that, I came across the results of a different poll indicating that almost 80% of Israelis don’t believe that occupying Gaza would lead to the collapse of Hamas. Simple math shows that the majority of Israelis who advocate the use of force and more force don’t really think it’ll solve the problem, they just don’t believe there’s an alternative. “Violence is the final refuge of the incompetent,” Isaac Asimov said, and in the last war, for many Israeli citizens, the collective desire to prevail through violence was inspired by the same urge that makes people kick a vending machine that swallowed their money without dropping a can of soda: they don’t do it because they think it’ll help bring the refreshing liquid closer to their dry lips, but because they can’t think of anything else to do.

The explanations I hear from so many of the people I know are: Islamic fundamentalism is growing stronger all over the world, the governments in the region are unstable, and all negotiations will end in the loss of territory without compensation because there’s no one in charge there anyway. And that’s only what I hear from people who are trying to be rational. Many others just reject any new idea or initiative by saying something like, “They don’t want peace, and they won’t stop fighting us until they get Tel Aviv and Jaffa too.” But all of those dubious claims can’t hide one feeling: despair. And despair is a much more dangerous feeling than fear. Because fear is an intense feeling, and even if it can be momentarily paralyzing, in the end it calls for action, and surprisingly, it can also create solutions. But despair is a feeling that calls for passivity and acceptance of reality even if it is unbearable, and it sees every spark of hope, every desire for change as a cunning enemy.

It’s easy for me to understand why so many Israelis have chosen despair. The history of this conflict is endlessly depressing. We’ve seen so many missed opportunities, shows of distrust and lack of courage on both sides throughout the years, occurring almost as persistently as a force of nature. But even if everyone is to blame for the failure, we Israelis (sorry for dragging you into this too, Sayed, but a thousand green cards won’t help you; for me, you’ll always be an Israeli), are the only ones capable of beginning a process that will rescue us from this inhuman situation. Israel is the stronger side in this conflict, and as such, it is the only side that can truly initiate change. And to do that, it has to part company with that despair, which like many other kinds of despair, is nothing but an ongoing, self-fulfilling prophecy.

And I believe it will happen. I believe this despair is temporary and that even though there are quite a few political elements that would rather see us despairing, and even though it sometimes seems as if enormous forces are working to convince us that hope is just another word in our national anthem and not a powerful force that can lead to change, people feel deep down that the terrible situation we find ourselves in is not really the only dish on the regional menu. When I look around, apart from the minority of Jewish messianists cavorting on the hilltops and in the Knesset, I don’t see people who are happy with the existing situation and are willing to accept it. Only some of them have a moral problem with the occupation, but even the ones who don’t, realize that until the Palestinian people have a country, no one’s going to have an easy time of it here. War is expensive, as our Minister of Defense reminded us recently, and every person in this country is personally invested in the next war, with a son, a father, a brother or a friend who will go into Gaza for the umpteenth time. And the fact that all those people who are not happy still haven’t found an effective plan of action or a worthy leader they can follow is only a temporary situation. Yes, this temporary situation is terrible, but paradoxically, the worse it gets, the more inevitable change becomes.

I know, Sayed, I know, whenever I get excited about something, I start to sound like some drunk hippie, so I’ll close this letter with a slightly depressing story, to balance things out.

A few days ago, Shira told me that Lev said he wanted us to stop talking to people about wanting peace. When Shira asked him why, he was surprised. “Mom, didn’t they teach you anything in school? You know who said they want peace? Rabin, Sadat, John Lennon, and they were all murdered. I want peace too, but I want parents even more.” When Shira told me that, I had chills all over my body. Here’s this smart and curious kid, 8-1/2 years old, who last year took part in a much publicized anti-racist Ministry of Education program, and the only truth he managed to extract from the world running wild around him is that wanting peace is dangerous. Sorry, correction: wanting a non-violent future in which all the inhabitants of the region have self-definition and can exercise all their basic rights is okay, but saying it out loud or, God forbid, trying to do something about it – that’s already too dangerous.

Take care of yourself and your family, friend, and I promise to come to visit you soon in Urbana Illinois, which Lev thinks is the best place in the world.


P.S. And if we’re already talking politics, zalma, tell me, what’s this business with ISIS all about? ☺

Lees het eerste deel van deze briefwisseling hier terug.



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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