Why I write in Hebrew

By Sayed Kashua, September 13, 2013
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About two years ago, I was in a western European city participating in an evening dedicated to literature. My host invited the audience to ask me questions. The first question came from a young Palestinian woman from a refugee camp in Lebanon. She declared that she had never read a single word I had written, and promised never to do so in the future.

“Aren’t you embarrassed?” she exclaimed. “How could you even think of using the Hebrew language? It’s the language of the Zionists, who trampled your people, massacred them, made them into refugees, and occupied them…”

I remember my eyes swelling with tears, and I remember how humiliated I felt that Hebrew was the only language I knew how to write in. Most of all, I was humiliated by the fact that, no matter what I write, what subjects I deal with, or how I write about them, I will always be suspected of treason, first and foremost, for using Hebrew.

Palestinian citizens of Israel are Hebrew speakers. They study Hebrew at school and they need to master the language to matriculate, be admitted to university, get a job, and to live their lives.

But an Arab doctor who speaks Hebrew in a hospital, a lawyer who speaks Hebrew in court, or a labourer who asks his Jewish boss for a pay rise, are unlike someone who writes in Hebrew, since the very act of writing in Hebrew carries with it a nationalistic dimension.

Fingers are pointed at an author who chooses or is compelled to write in Hebrew. It is this choice of language that is regarded as an act of treason. By writing in Hebrew, you can be accused of abandoning Arab culture and the struggle for national identity, and joining the ranks of the enemy.

Similarly, many Israelis believe that an Arab should speak in the language of his people, and should veer away from the Hebrew language – the language of the Bible, the language of the revival of the Jewish people. After all, an Arab who writes in Hebrew could never be thought of as a “Hebrew author”, regardless of how good his Hebrew is. Again – it’s a nationalist issue.

So, why do I write in Hebrew? I have yet to find a convincing answer that would satisfy me, to say nothing of the two sides of the conflict. I sometimes say — in total honesty — that Hebrew is the only language that I can use for writing. After all, ever since my parents decided to send me to the best boarding school in Israel, which was both Jewish and Hebrew-speaking, I haven’t read a single Arabic book.

In fact, it was there, in Jerusalem, at that boarding school, that I had my first encounter with something called a “library”. That is where I started reading and falling in love with books. At a library that did not contain a single Arabic book.

I say that I don’t sanctify the language at all and that I do not concur with those who opine that language is the main component of national and cultural identity. I say that language can, at times, serve as no more than a technical tool. Perhaps, for the sake of my own understanding of why I write in Hebrew, I need to remind myself why I started writing in the first place.

I sometimes feel that it started when I was a boy, when I was attending that boarding school, when I believed in the power of books and stories to make an impact; change the universe. It started with the belief that all I needed to do was tell Israeli Jews, slowly and surely, in their own language, the story of my own calamity, and hey presto — I would cause them to listen to me. They would read about my grandfather, who was killed in the war, and about my widowed grandmother, who lost her land and went from landowner to simple harvester. They would read about my father and his struggle, and about me — someone who has struggled every moment of his life to find his place and survive as a refugee is his own homeland.

Speaking their language, I would cause them to feel the pain that I feel, the pain felt by my Arabic-speaking countrymen. I would make them cry. I would make them laugh. I would excite them and make them fall in love, convinced that as soon as they will have finished reading what I had written, they would sign peace treaties and solve the problems of borders and refugees. The country would become egalitarian, and Jews and Arabs would dance hand-in-hand in city streets.

I now understand that my writing has no effect whatsoever. Quite the contrary, in fact – ever since I started writing, the situation has only deteriorated, gaps have widened, and racism has become a way of life, while those who believe in peace are seen as delusional.

If so, why do I continue writing in Hebrew, the language of occupation, persecution, and discrimination? Is it in order to condemn Hebrew speakers for their actions?

Perhaps writing in Hebrew has become a tool for survival. Is it a desperate attempt to ask for forgiveness, clemency, or a delay in the passing of the sentence — in the only language that the strong can understand? I swear that I do not know, but I have no choice, I will have to continue telling stories, writing in the hope that one day, I will find a story that will give me an answer.

Sayed Kashua is the award-winning author of ‘Dancing Arabs’, ‘Let It Be Morning’ and ‘Exposure’ (English translation published by Chatto & Windus). He is speaking at West London Synagogue on September 16 at an event organised by the UK Task Force, in partnership with Eretz West London and UJIA.

Last updated: 3:45pm, September 13 2013