Writing his way into existence: A window into the Arab-Israeli experience

Ayman Sikseck writes in his ‘stepmother tongue,’ Hebrew, to make himself, and his fellow Arab-Israelis, present in Israeli society.

Ayman Sikseck (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ayman Sikseck
(photo credit: Courtesy)
WITH HIS second novel “Tishreen” just published in Hebrew, Jaffa native Ayman Sikseck is getting used his writing becoming a window into the Arab-Israeli experience for the majority of Jewish Israelis.
“As an Arab writer growing up in Israel, the comment I get the most on my writing is: ‘I didn’t know this is what Arabs living in Israel are facing and having to cope with.’ At first, it was hugely shocking for me. But this makes the Arab-Israeli presence a part of the discussion,” says the soft-spoken 32-year-old in impeccable English.
His Hebrew is just as polished, and ironically, although Arabic is the language he grew up speaking at home in Jaffa, he feels it is his weakest language.
From a Muslim family, Sikseck spent most of his formative educational years in the multilingual and multicultural educational framework of the French Catholic Collège des Frères de Jaffa, where all subjects were taught in French except for the language classes including Hebrew, Arabic and English, and studied at a vocational school where the language of instruction was Hebrew.
Still, he says, though the standard of education at the Collège des Frères is one of the best in the country, he believes that when it comes to English, he actually learned it through endless hours of watching television.
“I remember listening attentively to the accent ‒ mainly American ‒ the intonations of the voice, and constantly expanding my vocabulary. This meant that I was always ahead of the other kids in my English class, which motivated me to invest myself in the language in more ways,” he says.
“The joy of watching TV later turned into the pleasure of reading in English, which eventually saw me to taking English Lit. as a major at The Hebrew University. Who would’ve thought that watching teen dramas and sitcoms would produce a university degree in the writings of Shakespeare and Hemingway and Sylvia Plath?” As for Hebrew, the language in which he has chosen to write and express himself publicly, he just remembers it as always being around. He does not remember ever actively “learning” the language with its alphabet and rules of grammar. Rather, it was learning in the sense one does with one’s native tongue.
“I suppose this is at least partly due to growing up in Jaffa, where life is largely lived in Hebrew rather than Arabic – the newspapers we read, the street signs, the letters we get from the Tel Aviv municipality ‒ they’re all in Hebrew,” says Sikseck.
“That’s why I’ve grown somewhat skeptical of the term ‘mixed city.’ I’m not sure I can tell anymore the degree to which Jaffa is, in fact, mixed. If the two languages, Arabic and Hebrew, don’t meet here on equal terms, aren’t all other aspects of coexistence in some way already doomed?” For Sikseck, Arabic is usually reserved for daily spoken communication with his family and others, and even then it is interspersed with Hebrew. He feels guilty for letting his Arabic slip during his younger years, and is now working hard to bring not only his spoken and written Arabic back up to par, but is also delving more into the Arabic literature he missed out on as a child.
The fact that he has integrated so well into Hebrew that he works creatively in that language also defies the idea that Hebrew literature is only a Jewish one, Sikseck says. It shows that it can also be something other than the Jewish roots it began with, creating a more complex dynamic. Indeed, he says, Hebrew literature is one that was created by people who learned Hebrew and chose to write in that language.
“In any case, when people insist and ask me, ‘Why haven’t you ever written anything in your mother tongue?’ I say that, in fact, I have – in my stepmother tongue, Hebrew,” says Sikseck.
“IN ORDER to be present or mark yourself as present in Israeli society you have to speak in Hebrew. Arabic is marginalized. For me, writing in Hebrew has made me exist in Israel. Other than that, Arabs in Israel live in a blind spot for most Israelis. They don’t see most of the things I deal with or the things I like to talk about.”
Sikseck currently works as a journalist and news anchor for i24news in English.
The channel, based in Jaffa, broadcasts news in English from the Middle East to several countries in Europe, parts of the US and several other international locations.
He also writes periodically for the Hebrew daily Yedioth Aharonoth, mostly op-eds, where he addresses issues that concern the Arab population of Israel such as racism, educational inequality, and life in what he terms “so-called mixed cities.”
In his most recent piece, he criticizes those who demand that Israel’s Arabs condemn every terrorist action or Palestinian violence lest they be seen as the “mythological monster which is hiding under Israeli society’s children’s beds and may rear its head at any given moment.
“When the prime minister says there is a ‘state within a state’ of lawbreakers in Israel’s Arab communities, he is intensifying Jews’ fear of us and dismissing every ingredient of our life in Israel,” he wrote.
But this condition, the semi-invisibility of living in Israel as an Arab, also forces him to confront head on what being a writer is all about, says Sikseck, who participated in the Jerusalem Writers Festival in May on a panel together with Israeli writer Dror Mishani and Colombian Juan Gabriel Vasquez entitled “A Possibility of Violence: Life in the Shadow of Terrorism.”
The first novel that made him understand the power of literature was “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, Sikseck tells The Jerusalem Report.
“It makes you understand why a woman would kill her own child in order to save her from what she sees as a terrible future. Only through literature are you able to understand what with a news piece you would never be able to understand,” he says. “Literature has this capacity.”
Israel used to take its literature seriously, and writers were considered important people, Sikseck says. Political figures, including prime ministers, used to want to have their pictures taken with respected writers.
“Being seen with an artist was something voters could appreciate,” he says. “Amos Oz was very highly regarded. All that has changed dramatically. Culture has really been sidelined. It is considered a luxury to deal with literature. Writers are less political today, they are more afraid to take a political stance, which is understandable when you see how actors or musicians especially in the Left are demonized. They suffer professionally ‒ tickets are not sold.”
But if you want to be a serious writer, he says, you should always be “crying out for something. Otherwise you are just patting your reader on the back.”
His first short story was published at the age of 18 in the daily Maariv newspaper, and others were published in literary journals. Two years later, at the age of 20, he won a commendation in an annual short story competition sponsored by the Haaretz newspaper, which led to a series of Jaffa-Tel Aviv vignettes.
His first novel “To Jaffa,” which like his earlier short fiction he wrote in Hebrew, grew out of this series of stories. Rewriting them and adding new stories, he created a narrative of a young literature student at the Hebrew University, originally from Jaffa, who divides his time between the two cities and two women: his secret love, a Muslim woman betrothed to another, and a Jewish woman with whom he has a relationship.
Though there are similarities with his own real life ‒ Sikseck studied literature at the Hebrew University ‒ the story is largely fiction with some bits and pieces of his own political thoughts thrown in, he says.
At the time the book was published, an interview in Haaretz noted that the hero of the book, with his similarities to Sikseck, could be seen as homosexual, though Sikseck said he had not written it with that intention since that would be dealing with too many issues for a first novel.
SIX YEARS and one book later, Sikseck has recently begun speaking openly about his own homosexuality. Over the past few years, he has told some of his family ‒ who for the most part have been supportive though it is not easy for them, he says ‒ all of his friends and most of his coworkers.
“As you can imagine, it’s a complicated place to be in, for a variety of reasons,” he says. “I’m 32 years old. I had to ask myself who is it that I’m hiding this from, then? From this point on, I realized that this is not just about being open about your sexual orientation. It’s far deeper than that. Because people who become accustomed to hiding their sexual preferences, censoring part of who they are, will unconsciously get used to hiding other facets and parts of their identity and feelings, as well.
“Censorship, and that includes self-imposed censorship, is never target specific. It has expansionist ambitions ‒ it constantly wants to grow and eat away at more information. You cannot choose to hide part of who you are without risking that you will grow ashamed or insecure about the rest of who you are. And I simply decided I don’t want to be ashamed or scared anymore, not about being gay, and certainly not about anything else.”
In “Tishreen,” which Sikseck hopes will also be published in English, he explores a true-life family story that has captivated him since he was a child. Tishreen is an Arabic month that coincides with the Hebrew month of Tishrei, which usually falls in September-October.
Like his previous book, “Tishreen” draws on Sikseck’s roots and takes place in Jaffa of the 1960s. It is based on the true story of a maternal aunt who was the victim of a murder that was unsolved for some time.
A rumor was spread and supported by her husband that she had been having an affair, and her disfigured body was found at the bottom of a well on the outskirts of Jaffa.
Eventually, it came out that her husband was part of a Palestinian underground movement that objected to the sale of Arab land to Jews. She found out about this and his related illegal activity, which endangered their family. She threatened to expose him, and so she was killed.
“I was always haunted by this story. It is a very painful episode for the family,” Sikseck says. “I chose it as a trigger to write about someone growing up in Jaffa and insisting on finding out about a murder that happened 40 years ago, the violence of that time and its effect now. But it is really about obsession about the truth and a desire to find out about what happened.”
THE STORY delves into the idea of the concept of truth, which version of truth is the truth, and how much a person remembers is what really happened, he says.
Though in writing the novel his intention was not to write a political examination of the Israeli-Palestinian experience, it can be a valid interpretation of the book, Sikseck says.
“I am definitely open to seeing it in that,” he says.
His own immediate family has also felt the brunt of the harsher realities of poverty and crime in Jaffa ‒ his older brother has spent time in prison for petty crimes, and a brother-in-law was killed in a drive-by shooting 12 years ago in a blood feud between rival clans.
Though the murder strengthened his parents’ religious resolve and his family is religious, Sikseck says he lives a completely secular life, has lost faith in all religion, but still believes in God.
“I don’t buy anymore the concept that religion is the mediator between us and God.
If He or She is in fact everywhere, I personally doubt that permission for a human being, no matter how high-ranking in religious terms, is required to contact God,” says Sikseck.
“You see, I speak to God all the time. I tell Him about my worries, my fears, my dreams. He never answers, I’ll give you that. But you know what, every once in a while things that seemed hopeless to me at one point are suddenly resolved. And that’s how I know that, though he doesn’t reply, there’s a very good chance that he listens.”
Sikseck, who is the youngest of four children (coming 14 years after his closest sibling), had a difficult relationship at first with his older brother – he also has two sisters – and avoided talking to him.
But he has come to a more sensitive understanding of the harsh realities his brother experienced, partially through the writing of “Tishreen,” which turned the character based on his brother into a more sympathetic figure in relation to the younger brother.
Sikseck says he began to realize the distinction between his own semi-privileged childhood – when there was more food, money and even space at home, when he was able to grow up Israeli in every respect from enjoying matza with chocolate spread to going on trips to museums – versus the earlier years of his brother’s childhood, when things were sparse and sometimes there even was no food to eat.
His parents, who both experienced the creation of the Jewish State under their feet – an event that changed their reality from one moment to the next – have been consistently non-political in their home, attempting to create a situation where their children could integrate into the new reality as best as possible.
His father comes from a distinguished Jaffa family, while his mother, who married at the age of 14 and can’t read or understand English, comes from a family of lesser stature. Though Sikseck understands the reasoning behind their decision, he blames them for his own lack of Palestinian identity as a child and lack of political awareness.
“When I was younger, I went through this rebellious phase where I was angry or disappointed at my parents who did everything they could to arm me with the best tools for complete integration into Israeli society. This included not only enlisting in a good school and mastering the only actual formal language in Israel, Hebrew, but also the silencing of their own history,” he says.
His mother was born in 1948, and his father nearly 10 years earlier. They both had other identities, other cultural contexts, another history, Sikseck notes, and they both woke up one day to find that the State of Israel had been established around them and were given a new identity, an Israeli one, with the traditional blue ID card.
“They literally lived an entirely different life right here, where I also grew up. But I was born in a time, in 1984, where Israel was a reality, and the past was debatable and largely ignored or misrepresented or misused as a tool for political power.
“They never shared their past with me. I understand them now. I realize they wanted to make life easier on me. But at age 16, when the now infamous October 2000 riots occurred, I was angry at my parents, too. I felt they had lied to me and kept my Palestinian past hidden, and now the State of Israel itself was showing me that I could never be entirely Israeli no matter what I do. So I insisted on identifying myself as Palestinian ‒ this was my heritage and culture, and Israeli was my nationality.”
But Sikseck says that over the years he has begun to feel as though he doesn’t deserve to call himself Palestinian.
“I don’t have to move through checkpoints to get to work or school, I don’t live under siege, and I’m not under military rule,” he says. “At the same time, the word ‘Arab’ became increasingly identified with danger here in Israel. You mostly hear the word Arab when violence, or fear, or suspicion, or ridicule is involved. So it became a conscious decision for me to identify myself as an Arab citizen of Israel. I want to demystify the word Arab, to make it recognizable and widespread, rather than scarcely used and feared.”
Sikseck moves in a social and professional circle of both Arab and Jewish friends, but does not like to categorize people or put them in boxes.
“I don’t think of them as Arabs or Jews, though I’m friends with both and I work with both. I hope they, too, think of me first as simply their friend,” he says.
Though Sikseck says he cannot sing a national anthem he feels does not represent him, he has made the conscious decision to stand in silence during Israel’s most sensitive moments: the memorial sirens during Holocaust Remembrance Day and Remembrance Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers. The next day he also commemorates the Palestinian Nakba Day.
“For years I stood for the siren on Holocaust Remembrance Day. That’s because I believe this is a travesty on the human level, not the religious one. As a human being and part of society, we should all feel ashamed that this happened. I wish the history of the Holocaust was taught in Israel this way, as opposed to the political use it is often put to,” he says.
He later decided to also stand for Remembrance Day, when he began to question himself as to what he was communicating by not standing for the siren.
“Obviously, this would be a statement, but what kind of statement? Am I really standing up for the rights of Palestinians in Gaza or the West Bank? Am I decrying the marginalization of Arabs in Israel by not standing to mark the memory of fallen IDF soldiers? I don’t believe this is true, not anymore,” he says.
“The only statement that I would be putting forward by not standing for the siren is that I don’t care about the feelings of the people around me, my friends and coworkers, some of whom had lost family members who were serving in the IDF. I would be saying that I don’t see or value their loss. And that’s not what I want to communicate to the society I’m living in – first of all, because it’s not true.”
WHEN ONE of his coworkers, who is very forthright about his rather extreme right-wing views, thanked Sikseck with tears in his eyes after he saw him standing for the siren, Sikseck realized that as complex as it was for him to mark Remembrance Day, it was just as difficult for his coworker to recognize him marking it.
“That was a special moment,” he says.
“By internalizing my own conclusions about Remembrance Day, I motivated a process within him, too, without intending to. If moments like this one happened more often in Israel, everyday life for Jews and Arabs would be significantly different.”
Though his heart has always been in Jaffa, Sikseck spent several years studying in Jerusalem but found the city tough and strange, and not always welcoming to the outsider, the new arrival. Each of the various communities that live there is tightly knit within themselves, he says, so much so that there can be no room for others, and there is a huge disconnection between all the communities.
“You really feel the tension in Jerusalem. Even though I spent four years in Jerusalem and knew the city well, I never felt at home. I felt like a guest and not a very welcome guest at that. The city either takes you in or shuts you out completely. Either you fall in love with Jerusalem completely, or you can’t stay there for very long.”
Putting aside the political tensions, what he missed most about his native city while he lived in Jerusalem was the sea.
“When you are born in a city with a sea, you can’t live in a city without a sea. The sea really opens up borders. Spiritually there is a sense of freedom, a sense of possibilities.
The water is a boundary with a promise for endlessness. Jerusalem metaphorically and in reality is surrounded by walls,” he says. “There is something about that city which is stupefying.”
Sikseck spent several years in upstate New York as part of an artist-in-residence program in order to finish work on “Tishreen.”
While there, he reminisces, Sikseck lived in an “amazing” cottage, and for the first time he was able to devote himself solely to his writing. It was an eye-opening experience, he says.
“It was the first time in my life that I would wake up in the morning and there were deer eating apples from the trees. It was like a movie. I couldn’t believe everything [I was seeing],” says Sikseck, who returned to Israel three years ago.
Writers have so many excuses for not sitting down and writing, but when you are pushed to the wall, he says, in the end you have to deal with your beast.
“I realized that when I was put in that spot I can deal with my beast and that helped push the book forward.”
Still, he says, though it was the peace and silence of upstate New York that in the end helped him complete Tishreen, there is no doubt that the tension and violence of Israeli society affects his and other Israeli literature.
“[Since] I was born here, it is hard to imagine how it could be any other way,” and the big question, obviously, is why he doesn’t just leave since as a writer, he could ply his craft anywhere, in any country.
“I could go to a country where their only problem is dolphins washing up on the beaches. It sounds enticing and I often think about what is keeping me here. The fact is that there is no other place in the world I believe that my writing would matter as much. Living here empowers me to talk about Israel and the things that are painful for me about Israeli life, the political violence, the racism,” says Sikseck.
“So many things that people don’t want to hear about. If you decide to leave the country, then all the better reason for people to dismiss your voice.”