The chapter headings of Arab-Israeli Sayed Kashua’s first novel sound like the titles of children’s books written for adults: “On Days When There Are Terrorist Attacks,” “There’s No Beer in Saudi Arabia,” “The Day I Saw Jews Up Close for the First Time.” This deadpan innocence makes Dancing Arabs — a personal take on the endless divide between Jews and Arabs in Israel — both hugely entertaining and unexpectedly disturbing.
In a country where ethnic lines are starkly drawn, Kashua spent most of his life in an uncertain realm of identity. As a child he lived in the Arab village of Tira, in the Galilee. At 15 he won a place at a prestigious Jewish boarding school, then went on to study at Hebrew University. By the time Dancing Arabs was published, when Kashua was 26, he was a popular, if controversial, columnist for a Tel Aviv newspaper and one of the few widely read Arab-Israeli journalists whose writing wasn’t limited to Arab issues.
The nameless narrator in Kashua’s semiautobiographical novel is a craven, cowardly version of the author. He tries desperately to “pass” as a Jew, pretends to read Wittgenstein’s Nephew in public, feels beleaguered by both sides of the conflict and sometimes insists on speaking Hebrew to other Arabs. As Americans we often see the situation in Israel in extremes. We are either condemning suicide bombers and angry settlers or praising idealistic cultural-exchange programs; Dancing Arabs offers us a land without heroes or villains, and mocks our pitying tears.
An interesting companion to Kashua’s novel is Naama Goldstein’s debut collection, The Place Will Comfort You. Many of the short stories were written from the perspective of American Jews returning to Israel to lay their claim on the homeland. Though Goldstein’s dense prose often gets lost in its own twists and turns, the characters’ sometimes futile searching is messy and truthful enough to, if not comfort, at least hold us.
DANCING ARABS | By SAYED KASHUA | Grove Press | 227 pages | $12 paperback
THE PLACE WILL COMFORT YOU | By NAAMA GOLDSTEIN | Scribner | 211 pages | $22 hardcover