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. The perceptions others have of me as an Arab-American Catholic are no less confused. In the US I’m often asked to answer for the acts of radical Muslims, while abroad I’m frequently confronted with an anti-Americanism fueled by US military action and the gruff manor of our president.
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 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 the man, but also the love he had for him. Kafka writes emotionally about getting the man’s approval: “You have an unusually beautiful kind of quiet, satisfied smile, such as one seldom sees, which can make the recipient quite happy.” Kafka noticed this smile and fatherly love “when, during my last illness, you came softly to my room to see me, stopped at the door, just stuck your head in, and out of consideration for me, only waved a hand to me. On occasions like this one lay down and cried for joy, and is crying now as one writes about it.”
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 encouraged 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 honest 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.
The pilgrim, then, is driven toward the Jewish Cemetery, six metro stops from the Old Town. 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. Brod 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.