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'It's A Surviving Tool': 'Native' Tells Satirical Stories Of Life In Israel


Sayed Kashua is one of the most popular writers in Israel. He writes a weekly column for the newspaper Haaretz, and he writes it in Hebrew even though Kashua is Arab and grew up speaking Arabic. He calls the column his little war to bridge the divide between Jews and Palestinians. But the columns are rarely political. They're mostly these funny, sometimes absurd descriptions of everyday life in Israel, moving to a Jewish neighborhood, hiring a Jewish maid, waiting for the cable guy on a day that's supposed to be an important holiday for Palestinians. A new collection of the column is out in English in a book called "Native." It starts in 2006 and ends in 2014 when Hamas militants kidnapped and killed three Israeli teenagers then Israeli settlers killed and burned a Palestinian boy. All of that led to a new round of fighting between Israel and Hamas. It was then that Kashua and his family emigrated to the U.S. He now teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and I asked him why his columns are often so funny.

SAYED KASHUA: I use a lot of humor, and I follow the saying that if you want to tell people the truth, you better make them laugh first, otherwise, they will shoot you. So I can tell you a joke and maybe you will laugh at the beginning. But it's not about telling jokes. I tell you a joke to have you listen to me, and then maybe I will tell you another joke that we can laugh together and feel equal. And then I will tell you a story hopefully that will make you cry. So I think that's the way that I approach the columns, as a surviving tool in a way.

MCEVERS: Your wife is such an amazing character in these columns. Part of me wishes that I could interview her. I mean, she is so funny and so cynical and she never gives you a break. Is she there to be a foil, you know, so the character of you can never take himself too seriously, or is she really like that?

KASHUA: I think that yes, it's a character. I very much hope that when my wife reads my writings so she reads it as if she is a character and not the real one. Sometimes she takes it too personally. I used to give her to read the column every week before I sent it to the editors. And sometimes she was so mad - are you crazy? You're not going to send that, or, you're not going to write that about me. So I would go, OK. You have five hours. Go ahead, write the column yourself.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

KASHUA: So I gave her - I delivered her the column, I emailed her the column always but never listened to her opinion about it.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

KASHUA: I think also it's - I'm not sure that in real life that's the case. I always see my wife as the clever one, as the wise one in the family.

MCEVERS: Do you still write about her?

KASHUA: Sometimes, but in a different way. Not because she changed or I changed. It's the fact that we are not in Jerusalem any longer. So the whole style of the writing I guess that - that the columns that I'm delivering from here, from Champaign to her, it's more politically direct. Probably also due to the political situation getting just worse and more extreme, but also this distance and this sadness of this feeling that I gave up - that I surrendered, that I felt that I lost my small war. So the whole column is different than the columns that I used to write back home, back in Jerusalem.

MCEVERS: How do you look back on that decision now?

KASHUA: Still traumatic, the feeling. Very confusing. I knew very well that I could not stay. Everything collapsed. Everything in my life just collapsed, and it started with the kidnapping of three teenaged settlers and then judging the life - the young Palestinian from Jerusalem. That was the day that I decided that I have to go now. I'm not sure that I recovered, but I also know that I cannot afford going back yet. I see how much the kids are happier, I guess, here and I think that they might have a better future not hiding. I couldn't lie anymore to my kids telling them that they are equal citizens in the state of Israel. They cannot be equal because in order to fit in and to be accepted and to be a citizen in Israel, you need a Jewish mother. So basically what I'm trying to tell my kids is just, it's their mother's fault and it's not my fault. So if...

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

KASHUA: No, I'm just kidding.

MCEVERS: (Laughter). If they ever feel bad about it.

KASHUA: Yeah, if they blame me. Yeah, blame it on her. But I hope that one day I will gain power somehow, and somehow convince myself that there is still hope and go back and fight, people who's trying to make that place worth living for both Jews and Palestinians.

MCEVERS: Well, Sayed Kashua, thank you so very much for your time today.

KASHUA: Thank you. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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