A niche of one's own

Israeli-Arab writer Ayman Sikseck, who grew up detached from the Palestinian struggle, has become one of the country’s most intriguing writers.

Israeli-Arab writer Ayman Sikseck (photo credit: Courtesy)
Israeli-Arab writer Ayman Sikseck
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If you wander into Ayman Sikseck’s apartment on Jerusalem Boulevard, which runs through the heart of Jaffa, you could easily mistake the identity of its occupant. At first glance, the apartment seems like a typical Tel Aviv bachelor pad. The conjoined kitchen and living room are inviting and bright.
But in the living room it is hard to miss the magnificent library, replete with the classics, alongside a wealth of contemporary works. A closer look at the crowded shelves reveals a plethora of Hebrew titles.
“There is also a small shelf of quality Arabic literature,” Sikseck says with a casual smile. “After all, I know that language.”
Your mother tongue is important to emphasize.
“True, and still, believe it or not, I feel more comfortable with Hebrew.”
Sikseck, 33, is one of the few Arab authors to publish in Hebrew and sell his works to the Jewish public in Israel. The publication of his first two books, his stature as a writer and an interviewer in the Israeli media and the attention he receives on Facebook are all marked by the ever-present tensions between Jews and Arabs in Israel.
However, his literary identity card is foreign to the environment in which he grew up and was educated. Both in his private home and in the French school where he studied, there was no explicit expression of the fact that Sikseck was born to an Arab family in the State of Israel.
“The Catholic school where I studied is a detached bubble, where children from Christian, Muslim and Jewish homes and children from families of foreign diplomats learn together,” he says. “In many ways, this greenhouse did me good, but when I left school, I felt I was not ready for the reality outside: that my Arabism carries a spotlight on me and differentiates me.
“I grew up as an Israeli child in every respect. Only in retrospect do I understand that this assimilation was a deliberate choice on the part of my parents. They felt, much more than I did, like outsiders in Israeli society and wanted the youngest son in the family to grow up with a different reality. It worked beyond their original intention.”
His “Israelization” was so successful, says Sikseck, that it made him “feel alien” even within in his own family.
What is the gap between you and your family?
“My mother has 11 brothers and sisters, for example, and they grew up hand-to-mouth. My mother did not even finish high school. My brothers grew up in a crowded place I did not know in my father’s house.
“Only now can I understand how delusional the scene is when a child like me comes home in the afternoon from French lessons, strolls through museums...in a world parallel to the rest of the family.”
The background that Sikseck speaks of is connected to a new kind of Arab Israeli that has been emerging in recent years. “I think that many Israeli Arabs of my generation are disillusioned by the illusion of separatism,” Sikseck says.
That is?
“For many years, there was a strong belief among Arab parties and among the young intelligentsia that there was no need for an Arab in Israel to cooperate with the Jewish apparatus. If you do so and you succeed, then that is a sign that you have given up your identity and that is forbidden. The prevailing view was that there should be opposition.
“Maybe on paper that sounds good, but what actually happened is that for years the Arabs were out of the game in everything that mattered: in politics, culture and art they were not relevant because an entire generation decided that opposition was more honorable than participation in this game.
“I think we are starting to free ourselves of it. Young people realize that it is no longer possible to call for change and say that there is still racism and social division in the State of Israel – and at the same time stand aside instead of participating in the discourse, because that will not help you; nothing will change.
“There are Arab MKs who still believe in this, even though they are sitting in the Knesset. Their idea is not to cooperate with any mechanism. In my opinion, this is an outdated and irrelevant opinion. That is an ancient concept of Israeli Arabism that has already passed from the world – and if not yet, then the time for its extinction has come.”
SIKSECK’S LIFE changed beyond recognition eight years ago, almost overnight. He published his first book, To Jaffa (in Hebrew, Yediot Books, 2010), and has since become a phenomenon.
Commenting on the book at the time, Yoni Livneh, the literary critic of Yediot Aharonot, wrote: “To Jaffa presents a sensitive and inspiring way to deal with the sense of political siege that accompanies a large number of Israelis today. Sikseck manages to convince [readers] that delicate people who are compromising by nature can raise a voice in a society that expects them to shut up and ‘swallow the frog’ [accept the difficult situation], and moreover, that this ability ultimately creates a space of freedom.”
The esteemed literary critic Prof. Nissim Calderon relished Sikseck’s second book, Tishrin (in Hebrew, Ahuzat Bayit, 2016). “It’s a pleasure to write about a book that tops the best-seller list, and it’s also worthy of being on top,” Calderon wrote in a review. “The more I read, the more I grew respectful of the way Sikseck coped with the tension between Arabs and Jews in Israel. He knows very well that his readers will examine his novel politically with great scrutiny. There is no other way. Sikseck has written an excellent novel with a subtle examination of people – and only then also a brave novel about Arab people in Israel,” Calderon concluded.
The accolades also came from higher up. Last year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu awarded Sikseck The Prime Minister’s Prize for Creative Work, a prize established in 1969 by then-prime minister Levi Eshkol.
SIKSECK WORKS with explosive words and ideas in a measured, restrained manner. There is no shortage of such material in his life story, even if he often watched from the sidelines. His reserved tone also characterizes the posts he shares regularly on his Facebook page, resembling short opinion columns – for example about his decision to stand on Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers for the first time or the criticism he has learned to fend off over the years: “You’re not pretty enough; you’re too Arab; you’re not Arab enough; you’re not masculine enough; you’re too sensitive, etc.”
His parents framed and proudly displayed in their living room the first story he published at the age of 18, but they do not read their son’s articles and books.
“My entire cultural context is different from that of the rest of the family,” Sikseck says. “My love for reading and discovery of writing were born at school, not at home. It made me feel that the things that make up my character are completely different from what interests my parents and siblings.
“Perhaps it was convenient for me to be in this position... From childhood, I felt they would not understand, that they did not know. I wasted years until I realized that I was the one who did not know them.”
In recent years, Sikseck has been making a living as a presenter on i24NEWS. From time to time, he publishes opinion columns in Yediot Aharonot and Haaretz.
Lately, he has been at work on a third book.
“It’s always a very strange concept – ‘working on a book,’” he says, smiling. “After all, much of the writing is done in your mind, before the physical writing itself.
In pondering the book, one of the mind games Sikseck is engaged in involves anchoring his thoughts around one imaginary building in east Jerusalem for a single day. Peering into it, he hopes to cast light on places in Israeli society that do not necessarily get exposure. Then, the idea is to move from one apartment to another, looking into the daily circumstances of those inside.
That is, the Arabs living in Israel.
“Exactly. It’s not that [Jews] don’t talk about Arabs or hear about Arabs. They talk and hear [about them] all the time. What is missing today is the ‘everyday.’ I think that is what excited the readers of my second book [Tishrin]. People told me, ‘I didn’t realize that these Arab characters have the same conflicts I have.’
“In my first book [To Jaffa], I kept busy dealing with identity and how this boy finds himself as an Israeli Arab. Since then it has become important to me that this identity be more beneath the surface, to depict Israeli Arabs who are not always preoccupied with what it means to be an Israeli Arab. They just live.
“There is real hunger for that in Hebrew literature. People want to know. I think it’s also very Israeli.... We love that we are allowed to look at haredim and Ethiopians and how they live.”
Maybe mostly because they are not us? It is more convenient to look at someone else.
“Of course, especially if he or she is completely exposed and does not oblige me to be exposed.”
What is your goal in writing?
“First, to present a narrative that is important to me. If you ask more broadly, then I want to try to create dialogue between Jews and Arabs. That is what I missed most when I grew up here as a boy in Jaffa. I felt I was not part of the great dialogue in Israel – neither the political dialogue, nor the social one. I wasn’t part of the conversation on the big issues until I realized that in order to be part of it, you simply have to insist – you put your foot down and say, ‘I am also part of the discourse.’”
The building you chose to write about in your next book is in east Jerusalem. Your first two books were about Jaffa. Why did you leave familiarity behind? Why east Jerusalem?
“As a writer, I want a new challenge. Jaffa is easy for me to write about. I was born here. I can describe Jaffa without thinking too much. I know the feelings, the stones – everything.
“I was not born in Jerusalem and I certainly did not visit east Jerusalem much. This is my project now: to get there a lot, to try to feel what I want to write. It is not easy to get there, even for me as an Arab. However, that is exactly why the subject appeals to me.
“I know how east Jerusalem is perceived by most of us, Arabs and Jews, but I want to get there and tell a different story – to humanize it, to pour humanity into it.”
It feels like a documentary project. Does the building really exist?
“No. It’s not a building that really exists. Everything is fabricated – the characters, too. But I want to feel the place itself and insert it into the story.
“The novel is still in its early stages. Every writer envisions all kinds of beginnings on the computer of something that he will not finish. I feel good about it, but also am very careful. I believe in the idea. It’s a bit like being in a darkroom, facing yourself as a writer. You know you have something, but if you open the door too soon, everything will burn. You have to protect it even from yourself. Do not try to interpret it too much until it is ready. Slow cooking...”
SIKSECK’S WRITING requires the honest and almost total exposure of his books’ protagonists. Conversations with his mother and about her youth, which served as the basis for To Jaffa, led Sikseck to speak openly with his parents about his sexual identity.
“I always thought that because my mother grew up in Jaffa at a certain time, she must have prejudices about things like that. However, following our conversations about Tishrin, I realized I had prejudices and assumptions about her. In that sense, she made it difficult for me when she suddenly opened up. I understood that the responsibility was all mine.”
How did your mother react when you told her you are gay?
“It was not easy for her. When I came out of the closet, her reaction was almost clichéd. She started by saying she still loved me and that no matter what happens, I’m still her son. Then she asked me if I had tried to be with women before. I told her ‘no.’ So she said, ‘Maybe you should try.’
“I realized she did not have to like it. She does not have to celebrate my homosexuality. She is a mother. She is worried. She is afraid I’ll have a bad time, that I will grow old alone, that I will not have a family. As long as she just respects it, is not angry at me and accepts it, that’s enough for me. I don’t need her to like it and go to the parades. I do not need the supportive statements.
Have you ever come home with a guy? Did your parents meet a guy you were with?
“No. Just thinking about it makes me feel a bit nervous. I also live alone. It has not happened since I came out of the closet – introducing to my mother a guy I’d been in contact with.
“Let’s wait and see. I am just at the beginning of my research on the new book. There could be all sorts of surprising developments. Not just in the book, but in life.”