Yesterday I almost got to read with novelist Sayed Kashua.
He had driven slowly, slowly through the fog toward the airport in Champaign, Illinois, thick fog of the kind—was it Hemingway?—compared to the process of writing, where your headlights show you just a few feet in front, but at each moment you drive, the lights show you that next little bit of road. When he arrived in Chicago, all the flights had been cancelled: he would not make it on time.
The night before, on the phone with the translator, we had run through the translation line by line. The bump and wave of Sayed’s mind and memory had slipped through our fingers in the two and a half page passage he had sent us from his new novel. The new work—or at least the filename attached to this passage—was biyrushalayim hit’orarti mukdam [In Jerusalem I wake early], and it featured a narrator living somewhere in America, who walks through the spaces of Tira of his childhood as he runs his fingers across his trackpad on Google Earth. Tira, our translator says, is a town in Israel where no Jews live, so the other children walking home from elementary school in our narrator’s memory must be Palestinian Israelis. Or Israeli Palestinians, depending on which you want to land on a s a noun and which a mere adjective. Sayed himself on wiki calls himself an Israeli Arab writer, where Israeli seems both the most contingent and conditioning of adjectives.
The passage jumps back from the scene of the narrator tracing a passage on his trackpad in the US to the distance he had already felt from Tira when he lived in Jerusalem. Then his memory dips further back to elementary school children who cut through a cemetery while he walks the long way around. We make our way to the childhood home where the boy anticipates waking his father to show him a successful math test.
What our grandmothers say
The man remembers his mother used to say, “The dead scare you? They are not frightening at all. It’s the living that you should be afraid of.” Still, through junior high, he had walked around the cemetery, and we felt with him the pain of that awkward adolescence, not feeling accepted, his cousin choosing to sit far from him on the first day.
Sabti’s mother used to say, “Be afraid of people, not ghosts!” She hid in cemeteries while the soldiers passed by.
Sayed’s speaker hopes his children will always live nearby, if not in the same neighborhood then a short drive away “over safe roads that have one of those median barriers, one of those separation fences, in between.” For median barriers, Sayed uses the word “gader ha-frada,” the same word, the translator says, that people use to describe “the wall,” that other kind of wall politicians want to build to keep people out.
Here the separation fence is a sign of safety, dividing one direction from another on a speedy road, where people travel too fast (but just a short drive away).So in a little piece of writing Sayed takes us all the way from an unknown American town to Jerusalem with children, to the first time the man meets his wife, back to the possibly sleeping father and up to today, where the man picks his children up from school, wonders if they have friends, if they are happy. He imagines their future safe nearby, secure fences and roads. From the deep past to the unknown future, flying over and placing Google Earth’s“frozen children” in those photos in layers with the roots of memory.
You could say that the event that never happened: the tea and cookies and reading that the fog blocked in real time only took place in imaginary time, in the future perfect, when I made the Brown Paper Tickets–like the man’s journey. It happened most fully perhaps in the phone call with the translator where the tenses—”would be” living in America, “had never” visited Tira, passed fingers over the trackpad, walked (without walking), saw the father’s car. My story with its layering of times jumped forward with a giant leap the day I found two streets of Zbaraż on Google Earth, and found the nearest airport on Expedia—Lviv.
Later that night, when he finally arrived in Berkeley, held his other event, Sayed Kashua dropped a suggestion that Finding Zbaraż should probably not be a memoir at all: it should be a novel. He said it was “auto-fictsia”—auto-fiction. “Even if you stick completely to the facts, ninety-five percent of them might just as well have been told another way,” he said. In the end, the reading that never happened took place in the gap between its before and after. Maybe if I search for it, I can taste its tea and cookies on my trackpad. Or it just hangs in the air, in the fog, waiting for another day that may or may not come.