Friday, June 04, 2004

So who isn’t a misfit?
Jonathan Edelstein has just read Sayed Kashua’s book “Dancing Arabs”. I read it when it came out in Hebrew in 2002, before I began blogging.

I can’t remember the book well enough to comment on it. I mainly remember falling in love with the hero’s grandmother, as she is described in the book. Kashua portrays a powerful image of her that has stayed with me.

Jonathan writes:

But Dancing Arabs isn't fundamentally about harmony; it's a story of conflict. The narrator is an Arab Israeli from Kashua's home village of Tira - he is never named, and we are left to guess how many of the details are autobiographical - and Dancing Arabs is the story of how he was caught between two worlds. The narrator's father and grandfather were Palestinian militants, and he is raised on stories of the 1948 war which he retells in the first person. When he is accepted to a predominantly Jewish boarding school for gifted children, he responds by trying to "pass" - to become as Jewish as possible, to blend in to the Israeli society around him.

The conflict comes from the fact that, from the narrator's standpoint, it is impossible to be both Arab and Israeli at the same time. This is due at least in part to his village background; much of his difficulty fitting in at the boarding school comes from his accented Hebrew and unfamiliarity with middle-class norms rather than his Arab ethnicity as such. He is no middle-class urban Arab who can comfortably consider himself Israeli; to him, Israeli society is Jewish society, and to become an Israeli it is necessary to become a Jew.

But even when he passes for Jewish, he learns another truth - that acceptance is always conditional, that efforts at coexistence are often gratingly artificial, and that the rift between Arabs and Jews will come back to bite him when he least expects it. He ends up a man without a country, too Israelized to return to village life but barred by accident of birth from blending fully into middle Israel. This loss of identity follows him through depression, failure in career and marriage, and finally resignation.

I am reminded of a friend, with whom I lost touch long ago, who was originally from Tiberias. We were in the army together and later we met again in university. She was the most brilliant person I knew (besides Bish, of course :-)). She must have tried to explain to me what her thesis was about at least three or four times. I just couldn’t understand. And it wasn’t in Higher Mathematics, it was in Psychology and I was also studying Psychology. Still it was far too clever for me.

When she was fourteen, my friend had left her family in Tiberias and had gone to a special school in Kfar Saba, a boarding school for especially gifted children.

The idea of this boarding school (which has since closed, I believe, for lack of funds) was to give very talented children a chance to develop their special abilities. These were children from development towns in remote areas, where the schools couldn’t give them suitable intellectual stimulation.

I remember my friend telling me that there were two such boarding schools in Israel. The other one was in Jerusalem. It was to this other one, it seems, that the narrator in Kashua’s book was sent, as was the author himself, in real life, I believe.

I can well understand and sympathize with Kashua’s hero not feeling that he belongs to either Arab or Jewish society. I too am a child of two very different universes. You are probably thinking that my worlds couldn’t possibly conflict as severely as Kashua’s. Maybe not, but conflict they do nevertheless, and my life has always revolved around my inner struggle to find my place.

Something else sounds familiar in Kashua’s story, from my limited experience observing gifted people, and that is the difficulties that these people can encounter, in adjusting to life. They are brilliantly shining stars in a dull, mediocre world. Their everyday social experiences can often be disappointing. Even without such an inner (and outer) cultural conflict, as Kashua’s hero experiences, just dealing with the world can be extremely frustrating for them. Learning to successfully cope with these dilemmas along with such a cultural conflict is certainly no small feat.

Israel has so many serious social challenges to meet, but it can’t address them properly until it is at peace. But how can it be possible for Israel to achieve peace while all these social challenges are pulling it in all directions from the inside?