With less than four months to go before the start of a year in which Israel will be celebrating the 60th anniversary of its establishment, the future of the 1.3 million or so Arabs and their descendants who remain within its borders is uncertain. The Arab population, which makes up some 20 per cent of the Israeli population, has been consistently discriminated against and treated as second-class citizens.
Particularly since the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, and then during the war with Lebanon last year, the Arab minority has been regarded with growing suspicion. Given the mounting pressures on Israeli Arabs, the publication in Britain of the novel “Let it be Morning” by Galilee-born columnist and author Sayed Kashua, translated from Hebrew by Miriam Shlesinger, is most timely. The novel, published by Atlantic Books, explores the ambivalence and contradictions of being an Arab in contemporary Israel.
Kashua, who writes in Hebrew, is currently the most internationally acclaimed Israeli Arab fiction writer. His first book, the short story collection “Dancing Arabs” published in 2002, enjoyed major success. Published when Kashua was only 28, the collection was a best seller in Israel, won Italy’s prestigious Grinzane Cavour Prize for Emerging Writers and was a San Francisco Chronicle Book of the Year. It has been translated into eight languages.
“Let It Be Morning” is, like its predecessor, semi-autobiographical. Kashua was born in the village of Tira and first had direct experience of being an Arab in an almost wholly Jewish environment when, at the age of 15, he was admitted to the highly-regarded Israel Arts and Sciences Academy High School in Jerusalem. From there he went to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and then became a journalist, but he had some setbacks in his career, apparently partly because of being an Israeli Arab. He contributes a weekly column to Haaretz and lives in Beit Safafa, an Arab village within Jerusalem.
In 2003, Kashua and his young family moved back for several months to his home village of Tira. The first-person nameless narrator of “Let It Be Morning” is similarly a journalist who has moved back to his home village. The reason for the narrator’s move back to his village is that he has found it increasingly difficult to operate as an Arab journalist on an Israeli newspaper, especially after covering the demonstrations and riots of October 2000 in which 13 Arabs were killed by Israeli forces. The stories he filed from then on were subject to particular scrutiny. “I was liable to be seen as a journalist calling for the annihilation of the Zionist state, a fifth column biting the hand that was feeding it and dreaming each night of destroying the Jewish people.”
The narrator has to make efforts to put up with the jokes colleagues make at his expense. By the time he goes to the village with his wife he has become a freelance contributor to the newspaper and gets hardly any commissions, although he continues to go the office every day. He has not told his wife of his reduced role at work.
Life back in his village hardly proves idyllic. The narrator, with his cool detached eye, notes the changes from ten years earlier; for example it is becoming the norm for men to bring young brides from the West Bank as second wives. The villagers are materialistic, gossiping endlessly about new houses and cars. At the same time, there is a rising crime rate. His wife had not wanted to come back to the village and his relationship with her is tense.
Kashua’s precise narrative style, set in the present tense, has a naturalistic, immediate feel. He skillfully builds the tension in the days that follow the sealing off of the village by Israeli forces with tanks, for no apparent reason. The narrator sees the siege as having the potential for a good story, but when he calls the editor-in-chief of his newspaper he is cut off and he finds that his phone, and those of the other villagers, have gone dead.
Kashua lays bare the deleterious effect of the siege on the village and its social relations. The village quickly runs short of essentials, from money in the bank to food in the shops. Power and water supplies are cut off and stinking garbage mounts in the streets. Israeli TV has only said there is a red alert in the Arab villages in the Triangle area, and the narrator assumes a gag order has been put on the media. At the same time, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are continuing their meetings in Jerusalem.
The village is rife with theories and rumors about what is going on, and political factions and criminal gangs are quick to exploit the situation. When a contractor and two of his workers try to force their way through the Israeli ring around the village they are killed, and the village witnesses its largest-ever funeral, with the dead men declared as “shahids”. The funeral turns into a demonstration, at which the Islamic Movement, Communists and pan-Arabists shout rival slogans.
The narrator claims that in the 1980s and 1990s the Arabs in Israel had started to not just resign themselves to being citizens of Israel, but to like their citizenship, and they were worried it might be taken away from them. “In fact the idea of being part of the Arab world began to frighten them”.
The way in which Israeli Arabs look down on the Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza is one of the less palatable aspects of village life. Workers from the West Bank and Gaza become scapegoats, and the heads of families meet with the mayor and decide that they will hand them over to the Israelis, on the assumption that the main concern of the Israeli police is these illegal workers. There are hundreds of such workers in the village, and the narrator recognizes that, to a large extent, they are responsible for its prosperity. “As the condition of people on the West Bank got worse and worse, things were looking up for Israeli Arabs.”
Several hundred young men are recruited to round up the workers and put them on buses, deprived of their clothes except their underpants. When they are forced towards the Israelis, two of them are shot dead. It is only the older women of the village who have some compassion for the workers and try to save them.
After the Israelis are shot at one night, former criminals take credit and become like war heroes. “The village seems to have decided on a new kind of leadership headed by criminals who acquired their weapons for illegal purposes, certainly not nationalistic ones.”
The narrator is most concerned for the welfare of himself and his family, and he stockpiles food and drink from the shops. Water is stolen from the family’s rooftop tanks, and after he refuses to give a neighbor milk for her baby his house is attacked by a mob which takes food provisions. The narrator has, however, secretly hidden food in his parents’ house.
The siege ends as abruptly as it started. Lights and electrical appliances come to life, water pressure builds once more in the taps. On TV news a new peace agreement is announced under which the Palestinian Authority will receive Israeli land, including the narrator’s village, in return for Israel being given sovereignty over the larger West Bank settlements. An Israeli demography professor says: “At long last the Zionist dream is coming true.” The narrator and most of his immediate relatives are apprehensive at the terms of the peace deal, and at the prospect of being under the rule of the Palestinian Authority.
Still, one upside for the narrator is that he is suddenly in demand as an Arab journalist who knows Hebrew. His formerly indifferent editor-in-chief eagerly calls him, wanting him to be “our man in Palestine.” He adds that there might be a problem with the pay because of drastic budget cuts, “but your cost of living is going to be much lower now anyway, isn’t it?”
Al-Hayat September 17 2007