Dana E. Abizaid

An Arab-American might at first glance appear an ironic pilgrim in Prague’s main Jewish Cemetery. Stereotypically anyway, Arabs and Jews find very little to respect in each other, let alone travel thousands of miles to admire. Adding to the irony, in Europe these days there are hardly two peoples more reviled than Americans and Arabs. It would be easier for Americans to stay put stateside, perhaps making pilgrimages to Washington, Philadelphia, or Boston. And Arab-Americans may find it more rewarding and adventurous to get in touch with their roots in the Arab world (in my case, Beirut). But someone and something more powerful than boundaries and ideologies (but no less misunderstood) brought me to a Jewish Cemetery in Prague: the prose and grave of Franz Kafka.

Upon deeper inspection into Kafka’s life, however, the irony of an Arab-American sojourning to Kafka’s resting place in Prague dulls. Kafka himself was a man immersed in contradictions and irony: a German speaking Jew in early 20th century Prague, a Doctor of Law who despised his profession but received many citations for meritorious work, and a sensitive romantic who, nonetheless, never married. For me, an Arab Catholic who, stateside, is often expected to answer for the acts of radical Muslims or, abroad, for the actions of the US military, the ethnic, religious, and social perceptions others have of me are no less confused. It is this very human confusion that draws one to Kafka.

Despite the prevailing view of the macabre and dour Kafka, one is pleasantry surprised by the light and humorous nature of some of his shorter works, letters to lovers, or tales of him relating jokes to friends. Nevertheless, it is his timeless struggle with his own Judaism and domineering father that engages many readers. In Kafka we find a man burning up the pages of his journal with the inadequacy he felt in the presence of his father and the weakness he displayed in religious belief. In a letter to one of his lovers, Milena Jesenska, Kafka sums up his feelings about being “a typical example of the Western Jew.” He states, “This means that I don’t have a moment of peace, that nothing has come easily to me, not just the present and the future, but the past, that thing that each man receives as his birthright: even that I have to conquer, and perhaps that is the hardest task.”

This confrontation with the feelings most try to repress, his detailed accounts of the dreams that tormented him nightly, and his forecasting of the depraved nature of the 20th century totalitarian state have fueled the myth that Kafka was a sullen, withdrawn man. In fact, the opposite is true. It is just that as he tried to find his way amongst the uncertainty in his own life he eloquently touched on difficult common themes we all would like to ignore. Kafka’s brave confrontation with these themes has led many to stigmatize him as a lonely misanthrope fascinated with death.

Prague itself may be said to be capitalizing on this Kafka image. A Kafka Café full of disaffected teenagers and casual tourists exists in the city’s Old Town. But besides a few unmarked pictures on the walls there is little to suggest that one is sitting in a hallowed space. On the other hand, with the din of different languages and the expressionless stares of tired tourists overwhelming the café, the serious pilgrim may feel like a disoriented character in a Kafka novel. Not a totally unwelcoming sensation, but undoubtedly not one the proprietors want to elicit.

The pilgrim, then, is driven toward the Jewish Cemetery, six metro stops from the Old City. There a small sign points toward the writer’s humble headstone. Stricken with tuberculosis in his thirties Kafka valiantly wrote through intense physical pain, producing many of his most famous works before his death, at the age of 40, in 1924. While persevering, Kafka kept a measured view of his literary life. Though a talented and perceptive writer he doubted his own ability and requested his friend, Max Brod, burn his manuscripts upon his death (he published them instead).

It is fitting that the cemetery is void of tourists and that his gravestone rests in relative peace. Franz Kafka is buried with his parents, perhaps in death finding that lasting connection with his father he never found in life. One thing is certain, though. For the pilgrim in Prague, Kafka continues to inspire beyond religious, ethnic, and geographic divides.