A story born out of the tensions between Jewish and Arab Israelis, the debut novel by twenty-eight-year-old Arab-Israeli Sayed Kashua has been praised around the world for its honesty, irony, humor, and its uniquely human portrayal of a young man who moves between two societies, becoming a stranger to both.
Kashua's nameless antihero has big shoes to fill, having grown up with the myth of a grandfather who died fighting the Zionists in 1948, and with a father who was jailed for blowing up a school cafeteria in the name of freedom. When he is granted a scholarship to an elite Jewish boarding school, his family rejoices, dreaming that he will grow up to be the first Arab to build an atom bomb. But to their dismay, he turns out to be a coward devoid of any national pride; his only ambition is to fit in with his Jewish peers who reject him. He changes his clothes, his accent, his eating habits, and becomes an expert at faking identities, sliding between different cultures, different schools, different languages, and eventually a Jewish lover and an Arab wife.
With refreshing candor and self-deprecating wit, Kashua brings us a protagonist whose greatest accomplishment is his ability to disappear. In a land where personal and national identities are synonymous, Dancing Arabs brilliantly maps one man's struggle to disentangle the two, only to tragically and inevitably forfeit both.
There are no customer reviews available at this time. Would you like to write a review?
December 07, 2001
Number of Print Pages*
Adobe DRM EPUB
* Number of eBook pages may differ. Click here for more information.
Excerpt from Dancing Arabs by Sayed Kashua
The Keys to the Cupboard
I was always looking for the keys to the cupboard. I looked for them every time Grandma went to visit the home of another old woman in the village who had died. The old brown cupboard was like a locked trunk with a treasure inside--diamonds and royal jewels. One morning, after another night when I'd sneaked into her bed because I was too scared to fall asleep, I saw her take the key out of a hidden pocket she'd sewn in one of her pillows. Grandma handed me the key and asked me to take her prayer rug out of the cupboard for her. I leaped out of bed at once. What had come over her? Was she really letting me open the cupboard? I took the key, and as soon as I put it in the lock, Grandma said, "Turn it gently. Everything is rusty by now."
White dresses were hanging in one section, and in the other were shelves with towels, folded sharwals, and stockings. No underpants. Grandma didn't wear underwear, just sharwals. The sheepskin prayer rug was on the bottom shelf. She'd made it herself: bought the sheep on 'id el-fitr, skinned it, salted it, and dried it in the sun. On the top shelf she'd put an enormous blue suitcase, the one she'd taken on her hajj a few years earlier. What's she got in there? I wondered. Maybe a few more of those policemen's outfits, like the ones she brought back to us from Mecca.
I pulled the rug off the shelf and spread it out on the spot where Grandma always said her prayers. She would pray sitting down, because by then it was hard for her to kneel for so long.
Grandma lives with us. Actually, we live with her. She has her own room, with her own bathroom and a basin for washing her hands before saying her prayers, and she never passes through the living room or the kitchen. The way she sees it, anyone who wants her has to go into her room. She would never dream of invading Mother's territory. And if my parents would rather not talk to her, that's fine too; she has no intention of striking up a conversation. It used to be her house once, until my father, her only son, took it over, added a few rooms, got married, and had kids of his own. Of Grandma's four grandsons, I was the only one who would crawl into bed with her. I almost never slept in the room I shared with my brothers. I'd always wait for my parents to fall asleep, and then, very very quietly, I'd sneak into Grandma's room, into her bed. She knew I was afraid--of thieves, of the dark, of monsters. She knew that with her I felt protected, and she never told me not to come, never said, Don't crawl into bed with me anymore, even though it was a twin bed and more than thirty years old. Every morning I'd wake at dawn, when Grandma would be saying her prayers. I'd never seen the key. She'd never asked me to bring her anything from the cupboard.
When she finished praying that morning, she turned to me. "Did you see where I hide the key? You're the only one I'm telling, and I want you to promise me not to tell anyone else till the day I die. Then you'll open the cupboard and tell your aunts--they're bound to come here when I'm dead--that all the equipment is in the blue bag. You understand? They mustn't use anything except that equipment. Promise?"
"And it's time you stopped being afraid. Such a smart boy, what are you afraid of? Hurry up, off to your room before your parents wake up."
Now I'm the one in charge of Grandma's death. She must know something I don't. Otherwise, what would she need death equipment for? And what is death equipment anyway?
After that morning when Grandma told me where the key was hidden, I started racing home every recess. I only had five minutes, but we lived really close to the school. When the bell rang, I could hear it from our house, and I always made it back to class before the teacher had covered the distance from the teachers' room. I was never late. I was the best student in the class, the best in the whole fourth grade. Every time I ran home, I imagined my grandmother lying in her twin bed with her four daughters standing over her, weeping and singing the very same songs they sang when Uncle Bashir, Aunt Fahten's husband, died or when Uncle Shakker, Aunt Ibtissam's husband, died. I knew I mustn't miss Grandma's death, and I always prayed that I'd make it back before they buried her. I had to get there in time to tell them about the blue suitcase. I had to tell them about the death equipment. Nobody knew where the key was, not even my father, her only male offspring.
At night, I continued sneaking off to Grandma's bed and sleeping beside her. But instead of being afraid of the dark, of thieves, and of dogs, I started being afraid that the woman next to me would die. Her large body no longer gave me a feeling of security. From that point on, I started sleeping with her to protect her. I would wake up very often, holding my breath and putting the back of my hand to her mouth. So long as I could feel the warm air, I knew--Not yet; death hasn't come yet.
Grandma didn't mention the blue bag of death equipment again, as if she'd forgotten all about it, as if her death wasn't on her mind anymore. Then, at some point in fifth grade, between winter break and spring break, when I dashed home during recess as usual, Grandma wasn't there. Grandma rarely left her room unless someone had died. And when she did, it took her a long time to return.
Without thinking twice I walked over to the pillow. Gently, without moving it, I pushed my hand into the secret pocket and pulled out the key. I remembered Grandma saying that everything was rusty, so I turned the key slowly and carefully. That's all I needed--for it to break off in the lock.
The things in the cupboard were just as they had been, as if nothing had changed: the rug, the white dresses, the sharwals. No underpants, only stockings. I couldn't reach the top shelf. I took off my shoes, placed one foot on the shelf with the rug and the other one on the sharwal shelf, and managed to open the metal locks of the blue suitcase with one hand.
I could hardly see what it held, but I could feel towels. What, only towels? Is that the death equipment: towels? But the whole house is full of towels. Since when are there special death towels?
I ran to the kitchen to get a chair and stood on it. Just then I heard the bell. Another lesson was starting, but I was not going to run straight back this time. Let them mark me absent. I'd say I had a stomachache. They'd believe me because I'm a good student. I forgot about the bell and focused on the suitcase. Up on the chair I could reach it much more easily. I mustered all my strength before lifting it, but the suitcase was much lighter than I'd imagined. For some reason, I'd expected the death equipment to be heavy.
I put the suitcase down on Grandma's bed and studied its contents. The towels on top were meticulously folded. I took them out, one by one, making a mental note of the position of each one so I could replace it exactly. There were five of them. Underneath was a large piece of white fabric with the word Mecca written on it. My grandma must want them to use this cloth for her shroud. Underneath, there were dozens of bars of soap, all made in Mecca. There were perfume and hand cream too, a pair of tweezers still in its wrapping, scissors, and a new hairbrush. I didn't know that the death equipment was toiletries. I was very disappointed. Is this what I was missing agriculture class for--soaps and towels?
Now that all the equipment was out of the suitcase, I saw it was lined with newspapers. I was sure they were just there to protect the equipment from humidity, but before I had a chance to put the toiletries back inside, my eyes fell on a picture in one of the papers. It was all written in Hebrew, and I hadn't learned Hebrew well enough yet to read a paper, but in the newsprint I saw a small faded passport photo of a young man looking at me.
My hands froze. It was a picture of my father. True, he looked much younger. I'd never seen a picture of him at that age, but I could swear it was my father.
I lifted the paper, and underneath it were many more newspapers using that old passport photo. All of them were in Hebrew, and in class we were still plodding through "Who is this? This is Father. Who is this? This is Mother." I made up my mind: I've got to learn Hebrew. I've got to be able to read a Hebrew newspaper.
I rummaged some more and found dozens of postcards hidden underneath. These were in Arabic. I recognized my father's handwriting right away: beautiful and rounded, like a drawing. My father had been the best student in Tira. I'd always wanted to be like him.
I pulled out a postcard and read:
How is my sister Fahten? I hope everything is well with you. I am fine, thank goodness. Tell Mother to stop crying. I will be released soon. Give my love to Sharifa, Fahten, Ibtissam, Shuruk, and the children.
P.S. There are a few things I would like Mother to bring on her next visit: a notebook, two pencils, a pair of socks, and two pair of underpants.
Your brother Darwish There were many red triangles on the postcard, with some Hebrew writing inside them, and on the back was a black-and-white picture of a girl soldier eating a falafel. Another bell went off. They were breaking for recess, and class would be starting again soon.
I quickly arranged the postcards and the papers the way they were before, put all the equipment back in the suitcase, and placed the suitcase back on the top shelf. After locking the cupboard, I pushed the key into the hidden pocket, and within two minutes I had returned the chair to the kitchen, put my shoes on, locked the front door, and was running back to class.
On my way, I saw a funeral. I spotted my grandmother. It was Abu Ziad who had died, our neighbor, whose grandson Ibrahim was in my class. My grandmother couldn't stand the sight of Abu Ziad. As for me, I couldn't stand the sight of Ibrahim.