Dancing Arabs [NOOK Book]

Overview


A bildüngsroman suffused with humor and irony, Dancing Arabs centers on a young boy from a poor Arab village, his haphazard receipt of a scholarship to a Jewish boarding school, and the dislocation and alienation that ensues when he finds himself faced with the impossible: the imperative to straddle two famously incompatible worlds.

As a child, our nameless narrator/antihero lives with his family in his grandmother's house. His grandmother ...
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Dancing Arabs

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Overview


A bildüngsroman suffused with humor and irony, Dancing Arabs centers on a young boy from a poor Arab village, his haphazard receipt of a scholarship to a Jewish boarding school, and the dislocation and alienation that ensues when he finds himself faced with the impossible: the imperative to straddle two famously incompatible worlds.

As a child, our nameless narrator/antihero lives with his family in his grandmother's house. His grandmother and father constantly impress upon him the significance of their land: when so many people fled or sold theirs away, they held strong. "Better to die fighting for your land than to give it away."
Every night after his brothers fall asleep, he climbs into bed with his grandmother, his main source of comfort and protection. One night she tells him where the key to her secret cupboard are, and if she should die, he must find all the death equipment in the blue bag. Paranoid from then on, he races home every day at recess to see if she's died. One day he gets there and she is not there, so he unlocks the cupboard and pulls out the box. All he finds are towels and some soaps from Mecca, but then he notices his father's photo in the old newspaper lining the suitcase, and some postcards in his father's handwriting. At his urging, his grandmother tells him about the newspaper clippings: his father was always "the handsomest and the smartest" in Tira, until he was thrown in jail for his political activity (eg: bombing a school cafeteria). The grandmother visited her son every week, wrote letters to the mayor, anyone who might be able to help her son. When he was released years later, he remained politically active, revering the Egyptian president Nasser, and for a time, joined the communist party.

The young narrator is nothing like his father, who "doesn't understand how my brothers and I came out the way we did. We can't even draw a flag. He says kids smaller than us walk through the streets singing 'P-L-O----Israel NO!' and he shouts at us for not even knowing what PLO stands for." Not at all politically motivated, the boy knows nothing of national identity; he simply wants to get through the school day without getting smacked by his teacher.

He excels at school and his family dreams that by the time he graduates, they will have their own state and he will become a pilot, or a judge. One day the principal tells him the Jews are opening a school for gifted students and they will be admitting a few Arab kids too. He is accepted and his father whoops with joy-this will mean a better life for his son and his whole family.

His transition at school is very rough. The other students make fun of how he speaks and eats. On a bus home to Tira during his first school break, he is singled out and pulled off the bus by some soldiers. Humiliated, he proceeds on his journey home, but gets off of two more buses fearing that he will be questioned again. He winds up at Ben Gurion airport where his father has to come get him. He cries the whole way home and says he is never going back. His father mocks his tears and his weakness and tells him he has no choice-this is his only chance to escape the limitations of life in Tira. (The tug of war between father and son continues throughout the novel, the father putting his hopes and aspirations onto his son, as well as his defeats and disappointments.)

He goes back to school, but only after deciding that he will never be identified as an Arab again. He becomes an expert at assuming false identities: he shaves off his moustache, learns how to pronounce Hebrew like the Jews, buys new clothes, starts listening to only Hebrew music. Soon he falls in love with Naomi, one of his Jewish classmates. On Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers, the narrator does not stand up during the moment of silence, and Naomi, whose father had died in action, refuses to speak to him. Eventually, Naomi admits that she loves him too, and for a while, they are together in spite of their differences. She initiates him into a new world of movie theatres and restaurants, and for the first time he learns that Zionism is an ideology, not a swear word; that his aunt is called a refugee; that Arabs in Israel are called a minority; he learns the meaning of both national homeland, and anti-semitism.

As the end of his final term draws near, he is constantly tired and dizzy, cannot sleep or eat. He knows that he and Naomi will have to break up when school ends. He takes a bottle of pills the night before a big exam, and winds up in the hospital. His father comes and blames it on "that Jewish whore." After a short convalescence, he finds himself at Hebrew University. He trails Naomi at school, but she avoids him. He stops going to class-he uses his unlimited bus pass to travel the streets of Jerusalem for hours listening to his walkman. This is how he meets Samia, an Arab student who asks him the way to Hadassah hospital one day; he takes her there himself and they areeeeee a couple from then on. Four years later he decides it is time for them to marry. He and his wife are both Israeli citizens and know Hebrew well, but the narrator, a lost son, has no place to go back to after having been exposed to the tempting Israeli experience from which he is barred. He and his wife move to Beit Tsefafa, an Arab neighborhood where they don't know anyone. Soon the second intifada begins to rage-the narrator refers to it as "the war." He begins drinking heavily. He blames his father for his optimism, his faith that it will all turn out well for them, that his going to the boarding school would make a difference.

His aimlessness and self-loathing deepen and spiral: he grows apart from his wife, he drinks, fantasizes about taking a lover, and is preoccupied with all his failures. Through his self-destructive haze, he decides he will make everything right-he and his wife will sleep together peacefully, like spoons, he'll give up drinking, he'll start praying, he'll become politically active, a member of the Knesset. He even makes a pilgrimage to Mecca with his one Arab friend from boarding school. But the biggest revelation he has there is that there is no beer in all of Saudi Arabia.

One night the narrator is at a bar watching Arabs take over the dance floor. He is disgusted by their ugliness, their lack of grace and self-consciousness. He affirms that Arabs should not be allowed dance, not only because they look ridiculous, but because they make him, the narrator look ridiculous. On Land Day in March, his wife goes with her family to their old village, which is now a Jewish neighborhood. They dress up and bring a picnic as they do on every Land Day and Independence Day. His father criticizes her family, these "refugees"-if they really loved their land, why did they leave it in the first place?
After a trip to Egypt, his father gives up on his dreams of liberation and statehood. He was stopped at a border crossing for hours and something in him broke. Now he doesn't want to fight any more. He hates Arabs: "It is better to be the slave of your enemy than to be the slave of a leader from within your own people."

In the final scene, the narrator and his wife and baby are sleeping on a mattress in his grandmother's room and his grandmother gets up in the middle of the night and vomits. He gets up to take care of her and she tells him it's like this every night, but that it's not death that makes her cry, it's that she used to think she'd be buried in her own land and now she knows that will never happen. The narrator and his grandmother sit and they both cry together. Filled with humorous observations, this is ultimately a serious book in which huge human truths are delivered in the most deadpan tone, and in which the individual self is lost to the strangling demands of family, history, and political realities.
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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
As a portrait of a young man's drift into emotional no man's land, this novel has the feel of grim truth.—Charles Wilson
Publishers Weekly
Kashua resists stereotype in this slyly subversive, semi-autobiographical account of Arab Israeli life, telling the story of a Palestinian boy who wins a prestigious scholarship to a Jewish high school, but slips into listless malaise as an adult, despising himself, scorning his fellow Arabs and resenting the Israelis. The unnamed narrator spends his childhood in the village of Tira. His grandfather was killed in the 1948 war, and his father was jailed for two years before he was married, accused of blowing up a university cafeteria. The narrator doesn't inherit his father's revolutionary tendencies; he's even ignorant of his own history ("In twelfth grade I understood for the first time what '48 was.... Suddenly I understood that Zionism is an ideology. In civics lessons and Jewish history classes, I started to understand that my aunt from Tulkarm is called a refugee, that the Arabs in Israel are called a minority"). When he goes away to the Jewish boarding school, his greatest desire is to fit in, and he bursts into tears the first time he is stopped at a checkpoint. He never finishes college, taking low-level jobs at an institution for the retarded and a bar. When he finally drifts into marriage to an Arab nursing student, he cringes at her dark skin and soon dreams about taking a lover. He can't even find solace in belief, though he fantasizes about becoming a respected teacher of religion. The drab hopelessness of his life is offset by his self-awareness ("I'm a failure anyway") and by Kashua's deadpan, understated humor. Nearly absurdist at moments, this is a chilling, convincing tale. Agent, Deborah Harris at the Harris/Elon Agency. (May) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This first novel features a young man who shares the author's Arab-Israeli background. In a more affluent and privileged setting, his hero might have been someone like Kerouac's Sal Paradise-engaged in life's possibilities but avoiding firm commitments. But this Palestinian narrator is filled with fear, hopelessness, and self-loathing. He fails to see the purpose in an existence that is at best marginalized and at worst terrifying. From the time he is admitted to an elite Jewish school, Kashua's hero seeks to become indistinguishable from his Jewish classmates. If one blends in, he reasons, one can avoid delays at roadblocks, removals from buses, and attacks from bullies. Kashua describes Palestinians leading routine lives as professionals and students, as multigenerational families raise children in the midst of military conflict and face futures that are anything but certain. As an outsider, this reviewer finds it difficult to fathom the full extent of the novel's complicated irony and the emotional impact it might have on Arab-Israeli readers. Yet readers far removed from the experiences portrayed by Kashua will gain a more personal view and a deeper sympathy for those born into the decades-long struggle for land and country. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries.-Rebecca Stuhr, Grinnell Coll. Libs., IA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A quick, readable, highly engaging-and bluntly pessimistic-debut tale of an Arab-Israeli whose life is one of anger, fear, and broken spirit. "I was the best student in the class," announces Kashua's narrator, "the best in the whole fourth grade." So it's possible-isn't it?-that he'll go far, escape his family's drab, broken village, be a great success? He does take the very tough exam for admission to a competitive Israeli school, does pass, does get admitted, and does attend-but not successfully. There's too much shame for him in a boarding school full of Israeli Jews, shame at simple things like not knowing how to use silverware, what music to listen to, not having the right kind of pants, not pronouncing Hebrew correctly, and shame at bigger things, like the scorn, derision, and threat both in school and on the busses that take back home at the end of the week. Kashua offers nothing new so far-mightn't this be another tale of schoolboy alienation overcome, true merit being demonstrated, acceptance, comradeship, and success following thereby? No, the conflicts, wounds, and humiliations are too many and too deep. The boy's grandfather died in the war against Zionism, and even his father was a hero in his own college days, imprisoned on suspicion of complicity in blowing up a school cafeteria. And so, for all his brains, the boy, torn between cultures and histories, begins to fail in school, suffer health problems, lose morale. He never does finish college, but ends up as bartender in a seedy club, despising the Arabs who come in to dance, despising even his own wife, the birth of a baby daughter notwithstanding. Life, at novel's end, remains seedy, undirected, filled with sorrow,failure, and regret. Gloomy indeed. And yet this Arab-Israeli newcomer is never once self-indulgent or sentimental, with the result that his story rings out on every page with a compelling sense of human truth. Agent: Deborah Harris/Harris Elon, Jerusalem
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781555846619
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 12/1/2007
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 576,639
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author


Sayed Kashua was born in 1975 in Tira, and went on to study in a boarding school in Jerusalem and at Hebrew University. He lives in an Arab village near Jerusalem with his wife and daughter and works as a journalist. Until recently he had a column in Kol Ha'ir, Jerusalem's most important cultural magazine. An Arab who writes in Hebrew, he has a complicated relationship to his family and history and this project has not endeared him to his village or his people. Like the narrator/anti-hero he has alienated most people in his life, is largely barred from Israel's dominant society, and yet he remains bound to this volatile land.

Translated from the Hebrew by Miriam Shlesinger
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Read an Excerpt

Dancing Arabs


By Sayed Kashua

Grove Atlantic, Inc.

Copyright © 2002 Sayed Kashua
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8021-4126-9


Chapter One

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 thosepolicemen'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?" I promised. "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: Dear Bashir, 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. Yours, 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. (Continues...)



Excerpted from Dancing Arabs by Sayed Kashua Copyright © 2002 by Sayed Kashua . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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