On Monday night, Sayed Kashua presented, “Living with Dual Identity: Cultural Criticism Through Humor,” for this year’s Rabbi Seymour Siegel Memorial Lecture. In front of a lively audience, in a packed Sykes formal lounge, Kashua told his story of growing up as an Arab citizen of Israel, going to Jewish boarding school, and finding hope for a better political future through humor.
A critically acclaimed writer, Kashua is known for his three novels: Dancing Arabs, Let it Be Morning, and the award-winning Second Person Singular. He is also more widely known for his satirical column written in Hebrew in the Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz, as well as hit TV-comedy, Avoa Aravit, or in English, Arab Labor.
Growing up as an Arab citizen of Israel was surprisingly carefree, despite the volatile political climate, Kashua said. Since 1948, majority-Arab Palestine and majority-Jewish Israel have been in conflict over territory and statehood, with over half a million Palestinians becoming refugees, according to Kashua. While it may seem to be a solely religious war, the conflict is simply one of two groups of people, laying claim to the same piece of land given to them by the United Nations after World War II. During the 1980’s, when Kashua was a boy, the wider Arab-Israeli conflict was condensed into the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as we know it today.
“I felt safe, strangely,” he said of his childhood in Tira, Israel. During this time Kashua found his love for storytelling, inspired by his illiterate, yet lively, grandmother, who often told him bedtime stories about her experience of the early war.
When he reached his early teens, Kashua was sent to a prestigious Jewish boarding school in Jerusalem. It was here that he said he first felt “markedly different” and “primitive” because of his Arab heritage. Soon he assimilated with his Jewish peers, and went on to become the successful writer he is today.
Arab Labor is a hit show among Israelis and Palestinians, despite the show being centered around an Arab family. Kashua pokes fun at the cultural divisions he and many other Arab-Israelis have experienced, by placing his characters in similar situations. As a writer, Kashua said his main goal is to “humanize Arab characters through humor.” Through his comedic television show and satirical newspaper column, he does just that. While his choice to write his columns addressing Arab struggles in Hebrew has been controversial, he explained, “when you’re a minority, [you must find] a platform to communicate with the majority audience.”
With dry wit and poignant humor, Kashua is joining the fight to end the cultural conflict in Israel-Palestine. When asked how he’s able to find humor in a cultural conflict that can often feel hopeless, he said that while he has moments of doubt, his attitude can be summed up by a common Arab phrase: “the worst of the worst will make you laugh.”