BEIRUT: When the unnamed protagonist of Sayed Kashua's "Let It Be Morning" returns to the Arab village where he was born after spending 10 years working as a journalist in Israel, he is shocked, among other things, by the outrageous degree of choice available on television.
"One hundred and ninety channels," he observes, "more than 90 of them in Arabic, and one of the Israeli channels. The whole business of the Arab channels is new to me, and I'm intrigued. I'd never come across it before. When I left the village they were still using antennas, the kind that barely pick up the Israeli channel, and with any luck, a Jordanian one."
Now, however, he zaps quickly through an inexhaustible number of music channels showing half-naked Lebanese pop singers, Abu Dhabi stations screening "The Weakest Link," another war on Al-Jazeera and a spate of religious programs. He stops to watch one of them, zones out and remembers being schooled by a sheikh in school.
The teacher asked his class to name the day's heretics. People who put their faith in false idols, the students said. The teacher would have none of it. No, he told them, and turned to a blackboard to scrawl a name in gigantic chalk letters: Karl Marx.
"Nobody understood who the hell Marx was," the protagonist continues, returning his attention to the television set. "There are some channels, especially the official Saudi one, that are beneath contempt."
In circumstance, Kashua's main character in "Let It Be Morning" bears a strong resemblance to the main character in "Dancing Arabs," the writer's auspicious debut novel, which was, like his follow-up, written originally in Hebrew. "Dancing Arabs" was a breakthrough success in Israel, translated into six languages and Kashua was made the subject of a documentary film called "Citizen K."
"Dancing Arabs" was largely autobiographical, telling the story of a man who was born in the mid-1970s in an Arab town near Tel Aviv. After he studies at a prestigious Jewish boarding school and a Hebrew university, he becomes something of a train wreck, a character with an agonizing yet undeniably creative and cracked psyche.
If "Dancing Arabs" profiled the adolescence of Arab-Israeli identity, "Let It Be Morning" tracks its maturity. It is a thicker, richer, more cynical and at the same time more imaginative book than Kashua's previous effort, which was already accomplished to start.
The caustic humor of "Dancing Arabs" has given way to deeper, more complex and more reflective writing.
A journalist who has been working in an unnamed Israeli city decides to move back to his village, an Arab enclave within Jerusalem, after he finds he's getting smaller and smaller column space in the newspaper where he works, and his colleagues are making more and more nervous jokes at his expense, about throwing stones, detonating bombs and so on. With his less than enthusiastic wife and their infant daughter, he moves into the house his parents built for him, which is identical to the houses they built for his brothers.
Just as he is beginning to adjust to the provincialism of his hometown, he wakes up one morning to find that the newspaper hasn't been delivered, an ominous sign. The entire village has been surrounded and blocked off. Why? That question stabs through the rest of the book. The electricity gets cut, food supplies dwindle, sewage backs up, garbage accumulates, water tanks run dry, bombs start falling. The news reports nothing, except a few faintly optimistic suggestions of an impending Palestinian-Israeli peace. There seems to be a gag order in place.
Meanwhile, the closure squeezes the village like a vice. Tempers flair and violence erupts. Neighbors steal water from one another. When nearby residents realize the protagonist has had the foresight to stockpile food and drink, they storm his house. In one of the most memorable passages in the book, he loses it completely. He stumbles out of the doorway swinging a broomstick like a madman. The neighbors respond by chucking rocks. One dings off his head and he falls face first into a puddle of raw sewage. His wife, mother, father and brothers watch in horror tinged with sad resignation.
As suddenly as it began, the closure ends, alleviating unbearable pressure. But then the news comes. A peace deal has been made. Everyone is elated until the protagonist and his family tune in again to the television. The map of a new Palestinian state includes their village. There must be some mistake, they say.
And therein lays the novel's key, underlying tension. Having been made citizens of Israel, the village residents don't want to be part of a Palestinian state. They want to be a part of Israel. In Palestine, they're, well, they're screwed.
"Let It Be Morning," then, is a complicated study of betrayal, an indictment of what is exposed as sheer foolishness on the part of Arab-Israelis for ever thinking they'd really be equal citizens in Israel. That betrayal also multiplies inward and outward at once.
One of the most damning incidents in the book sees the village residents trying to figure out why they've been closed off. Deciding it must be because of some troublemaking on the part of migrant Palestinian workers, they round them up and march them over the new ad hoc border. The always-off-in-the-distance Israeli soldiers pick them off one by one with machine-gun fire. They don't want this offering. They don't care. The village residents have essentially sent their own to the slaughterhouse.
And as a writer Kashua goes further. He spikes his novel with strong, pungent anecdotes and observations. "Let It Be Morning" is as much about humiliation, disappointment, fear, hope and fleeting moments of euphoric possibility as it is about Middle East politics.
Kashua refuses to offer up a fable in black and white. He picks not one major fault line to focus on but many.
At times uproariously funny, at others wrenchingly poignant, "Let It Be Morning" is a queasy read, very much by
design and very much worth the discomfort.
Sayed Kashua's "Let It Be Morning," translated from Hebrew by Miriam Schlesinger, is published in English by Black Cat, and imprint of Grove Press