Sayed Kashua has always had a tough time adjusting to new places. At the Beck Lecture in the Barney Davis conference room, Kashua read from short stories from his recently published book Native, a collection of columns that give insight into his experience as an Arab-Israeli. The stories touched his search for identity, and while the tales were serious in their themes, they possessed the subtle wit that he delivered the entire evening.
“I wrote these columns for ten years,” he told the intimate crowd of no more than 50 people, “and it took me ten years to realize that a weekly column meant writing every week.”
The crowd heard columns in the form of narratives that addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one of which was from the perspective of him talking to his grandmother about the stories she had told him, and how to bear the burden of war and its morbidity.
Kashua grew up in the predominantly Arab city of Tira but was sent to a Jewish high school in Jerusalem. That experience shaped a lot of his stories, and was the basis of his first novel Dancing Arabs, which was written in Hebrew as opposed to Arabic.
“I had to leave my family, and everything was different. Even the smell,” Kashua said in a heavy Middle Eastern accent. “It was the smell of being a stranger.”
Kashua read from his new book Native, but a large portion of his time he spoke off-script, telling the stories of adjusting to new places.
One story he told from his high school years of being taken off of a bus and searched by a Jewish soldier drew a particularly strong reaction from the crowd.
“When he began to search through my things, I don’t know what happened but I started to cry, very hard,” Kashua said. “It was the first time I felt like an Arab, what it looked like to be an Arab. When I made it back to Tira I was trying to tell my dad, but I was hysterical.” His late father was a major influence in his life.
“[His father] said, ‘If a soldier came on the bus and asked who wasn’t Jewish, I’d stand up and scream ‘I am an Arab and proud of it!’ So why the hell are you crying?’”
Kashua now lives in Champagne, Illinois, and he amused the crowd with his initial impressions of moving to the Midwest.
“We landed in Chicago and rented a car to Champagne. I told my kids, ‘Look, a corn field!’ Little did I know it would be the same cornfield the whole way.”
A major theme of Kashua’s work is an understanding of his identity and learning other cultures. To immerse himself into America’s culture, he told the crowd he did the thing he thought any American would do.
“On my immigration card they said I was white, but I had no idea what it meant to be white in the US, so I went out the next day and bought a Jeep Liberty.”
Kashua’s book, Native: Dispatches from an Israeli-Palestinian Life can be found at the Doane Library. His book Dancing Natives is now a motion picture and can be streamed instantly through Netflix.