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.