Tell Palestinian author Sayed Kashua that he helps build bridges between the Israeli and Palestinian cultures and he replies, barely tongue in cheek, "when I'm accused of being a bridge builder, I say, 'No, I'm digging tunnels. My bridges do not work.' I would never take the bridges that I built." In fact, the Arab author, journalist and showrunner born in Tira, Israel and currently based in Missouri, U.S.A. admits that he has "a fear of bridges, I hate bridges, I mean, I'm scared of them. So, now we live in St. Louis, and if we want to go to Chicago with the kids, we have to cross the Mississippi, but even my family knows that scares me."
Since his very first read through of The Catcher in the Rye at age 14, Kashua knew he had a passion for the written word. But while he was brought up reading and writing mostly in Arabic in school, he penned his books in Hebrew as a way to create an Arab narrative for the Israelis. His very popular weekly newspaper column was published in Haaretz, and although that ended in 2017, he continues to write in English-language newspapers like The Guardian, The New Yorker and The New York Times. But don't call him a bridge-builder...
These days Kashua is on our radar for the adaptation to the big screen of his 2006 novel Let It Be Morning, which opened in NYC and LA over the weekend. At the helm of the cinematic version of Kashua's story, told in first person in its literary form, is Israeli filmmaker Eran Kolirin. Another work of Kashua's which was successfully translated to the big screen was titled A Borrowed Identity, also directed by an Israeli filmmaker, another Eran -- this time Eran Riklis. The 2014 film was based on Kashua's debut novel, Dancing Arabs, mixed in with Second Person Singular, which the Palestinian author published in 2010.
When we chat via Zoom from our respective homes, first of all I ask Kashua what it's like to have his work translated to the big screen which, in the case of Let It Be Morning, sees so many changes applied in the process. "Honestly, I related to it as a completely different creative work. The maximum you can say about it is that it's inspired by the book," Kashua says, in his languid, gentle tone of voice, "but it has nothing to do with the book." Kolirin, the filmmaker, admitted during our interview this past week that he changed things to make the work feel more personal. Which Kashua concedes, "I was anticipating that -- knowing the work of Eran," but he continues "the most one can say about the film is it was inspired by the book and I take responsibility only for the book. As a work of Eran Kolirin, as a movie disconnected from the book, it is a nice movie. I love the movie." Phew, I think, otherwise this was going to be a strange piece to write up -- "Author hates adaptation of his work." Then Kashua adds "but again, this is not my movie. This is not my story."
The challenges of being a creator, someone who comes up with an idea that others wish to adapt to their own medium, must be how to relinquish the power. On the previous film, directed by Eran Riklis, Kashua co-wrote the screenplay as well, along with the Israeli filmmaker. How was that, I ask? Thinking he must have enjoyed that more... "It's something that I will never do again," Kashua quips back. Was this why he didn't help write the script for this latest adaptation, I continue? "I was called in on Let It Be Morning, but I knew that this is not my field and my experience as a screenwriter is as the showrunner for TV."
Lately, Kashua has in fact been working on the show Madrasa, which was just renewed for a second season, and previously created and wrote both The Writer and Arab Labor, two series for Israeli TV. Plus he continues to write for the latest season of Shtisel, the hit serial about a Haredi family in Jerusalem. "I always felt that this is my creation," he confesses about his TV work on The Writer and Madrasa, "this is my work. I'm the one who will hire the director and be on the set and be involved in everything. And this is my story." Very different from how things work on the big screen, "with cinema directors, I understood that for some reason, it's the director's film. So it's a completely different and one might say also a shocking experience." He explains further, "I thought, to be a screenwriter is like it is on TV but it's completely not. I mean, it's fine, it was a nice experience, but it's very complicated -- a different experience from being a TV writer, where you are considered the creator and everyone wants to make your story. In cinema, at one point, you're out of the picture, and it's about the directors and their story."
While Kashua enjoys the community feeling of working on a TV series, he still nourishes "this huge part of the job as writing, which is just to be by yourself and write." Lately, he's been seeing the edits and commenting on the latest episodes of Madrasa, about a bilingual school in Jerusalem, "on Zoom," he confesses, "I will just receive the videos and all the casting and photos of the locations and I'm less involved than the way I used to be." Madrasa, which of course means “School” in Arabic, is being aired on the kid’s affiliate of Israel’s Kan 11 broadcaster.
What does he think of Let It Be Morning, the finished product? I dare ask the question. "I'm happy with his interpretation," meaning Kolirin's, he continues, "it's a very well done movie with minimum Orientalism -- It's a good movie." Another sigh of relief on my part.
Is Kashua surprised that his books have been adapted to the big screen and directed solely by Israeli directors, not Palestinian ones? "I'm not surprised but it's a little disappointing," he admits, "and honestly, with Let It Be Morning, the whole idea of translating that into a movie started from Tawfik Abu Wael, a wonderful Palestinian director -- he is the one who read the book and said, 'I have to make a movie out of this novel'." Kashua continues, explaining that "he made the connections with the producers at the beginning, but at one point it just did not work. And then the rights were in the hands of an Israeli producer who chose Eran Kolirin, so in this sense I was lucky." The filmmaker of the hit The Band's Visit -- a film that keeps on going, lately as a Broadway musical as well -- has made quite a film, one for audiences to enjoy.
But Kashua explains that the same thing happened with Dancing Arabs, which was originally meant to have another director on board, Kátia Lund, the American Brazilian co-filmmaker of City of God, who would have been co-creator on the film along with Kashua. "We spent months there writing it," Kashua explains, "and at one point she was out of the project, her French producers somehow were out to the project, and then it was Israeli producers and no one asked me about Eran Riklis, that he was going to direct." Again, not Kashua's choice but he admits also with Riklis' film he ended up being happy with the result. The choices are about money, as Kashua wisely points out, "sometimes it takes directors with names so that the producers can get that money."
So what is next for the prolific Kashua? "I'm working on a new project developing with David Simon for HBO, which is very promising. It's at a very advanced stage of development," he continues, "Madrasa was ordered for a second season. And you know, story editing the spinoff of Shtisel-- I have a lot of on my plate, right now."
Would Kashua ever think of writing a superhero story? "Oh, yes, of course. That's one of my dreams!" Kashua exclaims, continuing "I always thought about the first Palestinian superhero -- he works in Birzeit Lab University, and there is some kind of an attack and a mixture of chemicals. But he will be the most devastated superhero -- Hamas do not like his suit, they think it's not masculine enough and the Palestinian Authority will try to recruit him... He will be the most depressed superhero ever. He will be criticized by all factions of Palestinian society... A suicidal superhero!" What is his mission, I inquire? "To free Palestine!" Kashua exclaims and of course, what a silly question that was! He's a Palestinian superhero! Kashua catches my embarrassment and adds playfully, "but he will be so devastated and he will loose direction, maybe a very strange comedy about the first Palestinian superhero." He adds, "I remember as a kid watching movies like Rambo in the 80s and my father would say 'if only Palestinians had this one...' You know Americans like Chuck Norris or something," I hear him giggle with tenderness, "if only the Palestinians had one". I watched Superman with my father and he would say 'if only there was a Palestinian Superman'." A Palestinian Superman, yes. Inshallah.
Let It Be Morning is distributed in the U.S. by Cohen Media Group.
Portrait photo of Sayed Kashua by © Karl Gabor, courtesy of the author and used with permission.