Portrait of Arab-Israeli author Sayed Kashua. Photo: Effigie/Leemage via AFP

Sayed Kashua, hailed in 2002 as the new shooting star of Israeli literature for his humorous reflections on dual identity in Dancing Arabs, takes a darker turn in his latest novel, Track Changes.

In his 244-page debut, Kashua found a unique literary voice, striking an uneasy balance between being Palestinian and Israeli. Kashua, 45, tackled his torn identity and life with wit and irony, despite exploring heavy subjects such as depression, war, and self-alienation.

But Track Changes, which came out in English this year, sheds a very gloomy and bitter light on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Kashua’s fourth novel is void of any lightness or humor, which was his trademark, especially in his famous columns, printed in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz and assembled in his book, Native: Dispatches from an Israeli-Palestinian Life

Kashua’s latest novel carries the weight of the upheaval and uprooting of his own life in recent years, during which time he emigrated with his wife and children to the United States.

In 2014, in an opinion column for Haaretz, ‘Why Sayed Kashua Is Leaving Jerusalem and Never Coming Back’, he declared Jewish-Arab coexistence had failed.

Growing backlash

Throughout the last years Kashua faced a growing backlash from Israelis and Palestinians alike. In a Jerusalem Post article published earlier this year, ‘Sayed Kashua’s hypocrisy regarding Israel’s Nationality law’, the author claimed that Kashua was unappreciative of the freedoms that he as an Arab was allowed in Israel.

Yet Kashua is also a controversial figure to many Palestinians. He writes in Hebrew and identifies as an Arab-Israeli, a term that many Palestinians, like author Ibtisam Azem, reject. Instead, they call themselves the “Arabs of ’48”, as they remained in their villages and towns that were designated as Israeli following the UN partition of Palestine and subsequent war in 1948.

In an interview in 2014, Kashua revealed that he was no longer welcome in his hometown of Tira. 

The main character of Track Changes, whose name – Saeed – is only mentioned once throughout the book, bears a striking resemblance to the author, having also emigrated to Illinois with his wife and children. Like his inventor, Saeed also has a daughter and two sons about the same age. Kashua and his alter ego are neither welcome in Israel nor Tira, their hometown because of “their” writings in Hebrew. 

Hundreds of people gather with Arab deputies who are in the Israeli parliament stage a protest against Israel demolishing houses belonging to Arabs in Tel Aviv, Israel on November 30, 2018. Photo: Mostafa Alkharouf / Anadolu Agency

The protagonist is a ghost writer who pens biographies of mainly elderly Israelis who wish to be remembered by their families. In order to make these books more interesting, Kashua’s alter ego invents fictional events and imbues the biographies with his own memories, at the expense of forfeiting them.

At the center of the novel is a dark secret which engulfs Saeed’s relationship to his estranged wife, whose name is Palestine; a secret that brought shame on the family name and forced his father and brother to break ties with him.

Kashua succeeds in building up suspense and tension, as he slowly and gradually reveals the background of the circumstances that led to Saeed’s exile. Unfortunately, halfway through the novel Kashua does not manage to maintain this momentum, and his narrative thread becomes entangled in a mishmash of loose memories that complicate and impede the reading process. 

The novel, which at times seems to be struggling with structure has clear ups and downs, luckily contains numerous intelligent chapters and passages, like his reflections on loss, his protagonist’s encounters in the US, and the longing for his homeland.

“How jealous I was of the two contracted workers, who would undoubtedly finish their shifts and return home, to the homes in which they were born, never running the risk of disorientation while returning. I was jealous of the man who had no doubt about where he would build his home, where he would raise his children, in which soil he will be interred when he dies,” reads one passage.

Saeed’s memories of home seem to have been tailored to Kashua’s experimentation with style. But at times they overburden the reader and deflate the narration.

‘Track changes’

As the title reveals, his alter ego’s biographies are filled with many track changes. In order to make his clients look good, Saeed tampers with their true memories, by omitting or replacing their stories with his fabrications.

In the novel Kashua crosses out sentences in the narration regarding Saeed himself, mostly painful events that Saeed wishes had never happened. Track Changes thus becomes a metaphor for all the unspoken thoughts and emotions in our everyday lives, and the lies we invent to whitewash the image of ourselves. 

Saeed’s distant wife Palestine is a key character who represents the homeland. In the novel she was unjustly oppressed and forced into exile. But it is not that simple with Kashua’s multilayered prose.

Like in his previous novels, Kashua succeeds in performing an impossible balancing act, criticizing not only Israeli politics but also aspects of Palestinian culture, like the misogynist code of honor which can reduce women to mere trophies in Palestinian villages. Kashua also alludes to the split and internal feuds between Palestinians themselves through allegories and symbolism.

What Kashua truly excels in is his description of the transformation of Israeli society towards ‘Arab-Israelis’ in times of violence, like in the wake of the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers that occurred in real life in 2014, and the fear of reprisals that Kashua and his protagonist faced.

“And rather than go home I drove to the Malha Mall, my head down, avoiding eye contact with passersby, knowing that their gazes were clouded with hatred and fear. I had no desire to be antagonized by their identity-probing stares, as they tried to figure out whether or not I was one of them or the enemy.”

On the back cover of the book the American publisher printed an excerpt from the San Francisco Chronicle claiming: “Kashua goes beyond the front-page headlines… to show a different view of what being an Arab is all about.”

Kashua does the exact opposite. He demonstrates first and foremost what it means to be human; to have a love-hate relation with one’s self, and to be torn, estranged, exiled and helpless in the face of war and oppression.

It remains to be seen whether Kashua will write his next book in Hebrew or switch to English or Arabic. A whole chapter of Track Changes is written in Arabic, with a translation in the appendix.

If that happens, it would not only be a huge loss to Israeli literature, but also for the Palestinian cause, since there is currently no other unique literary voice who can painfully and poignantly describe what it feels like to live in between, which might become a blueprint for coexistence, should it ever occur one day.