In this “slyly subversive, semi-autobiographical” novel “of Arab Israeli life,” a Palestinian man struggles against the strict confines of identity (Publishers Weekly).
In Sayed Kashua’s debut novel, a nameless anti-hero contends with the legacy of a grandfather who died fighting the Zionists in 1948, and a father who was jailed for blowing up a school cafeteria in the name of freedom. When the narrator 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, schools, and languages, and eventually a Jewish lover and an Arab wife.
With refreshing candor and self-deprecating wit, Dancing Arabs is a “chilling, convincing tale” of one man’s struggle to disentangle his personal and national identities, only to tragically and inevitably forfeit both (Publishers Weekly).
“Rings out on every page with a compelling sense of human truth” —Kirkus Reviews
“Despite its dark prognosis, there is a lightness and dry humor that lifts it with the kind of wings its protagonist once hoped for.” —Booklist
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.