Sayed Kashua's humane and aesthetically satisfying third novel, an existential mystery concerning Arab-Israelis in Jerusalem, explores issues of cultural identity and class.
Second Person Singular: straddling cultures as an Arab-Israeli
World-class writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Bernardo Atxaga have chosen to work in certain languages – Gikuyu and Basque, respectively – for reasons that are primarily political. Ngugi could reach a larger audience by composing his work in Swahili or English, and Atxaga would find the same were he to write in Spanish; yet they have variously argued that writing in a minority language represents a riposte against colonialism, and that it allows one to breathe life into a moribund national literature.
Sayed Kashua is a bit different, but he has something in common with both. An Arab citizen of Israel, Kashua writes in Hebrew, but he claims he does so out of practicality; he attended a Jewish high school and his literary Arabic isn’t quite up to scratch. Even so, Kashua’s choice of language, and the unique vantage it affords him on Israeli and Palestinian culture, are worth noting. He undoubtedly would be a very fine writer if he committed himself to Arabic but by writing as an Arab in Hebrew, he has emerged as a kind of hinge figure in Israeli culture. And by its very existence, his work contains an implicit political message – one of coexistence, curiosity and cultural ambiguity – besides that expressed in the stories themselves.
Kashua’s third novel, Second Person Singular, plays on notions of language and translation, featuring several scenes with Arab characters passing as Jews, pretending not to understand the Arabic being spoken around (and about) them. It’s a book very much concerned with issues of cultural identity, class and if or how one may straddle different cultures. With a few surprising plot twists, it is also a kind of existential mystery, probing for answers about how one fashions a sense of self under excruciating political and social conditions. The book tells two stories, told mostly in alternating sections: that of an unnamed 32-year-old Arab-Israeli lawyer, a top-flight criminal defence attorney in Jerusalem; and that of Amir, a dissolute young Arab social worker in the same city who, despite his promising career prospects, finds himself struggling with his chosen path. The stories inevitably, if only slightly, converge but they’re not neatly defined. Instead, we see each man performing a number of identities, often depending on who his audience is and what he hopes to gain from them.
The lawyer is fabulously successful but feels he must constantly prove himself. He drives an expensive car to demonstrate his confidence and wealth to Jews and Arab-Israelis, but when encountering Palestinians from East Jerusalem or the West Bank, he’s nagged by guilt: “What did the locals think of him? What did they make of Arabs like him, citizens of the state? With their luxury cars and their ostentatious lifestyles, the ones like him, who came here for college and stayed for financial reasons, immigrants in their own land.”
Kashua has a talent for decoding a population, revealing its subcultures and tribalisms, presenting them as both fractured and deeply enmeshed. Economically and socially, Arab-Israelis are often of a different class than people from the Palestinian territories but they tend to be viewed as a sort of other: in East Jerusalem, the lawyer remarks, “the Arab citizens of Israel were considered to be half-Jewish”. But Palestinians often turn to Arab-Israelis to take advantage of the rights and opportunities that citizenship affords them. What’s more is that Arab-Israelis find themselves further divided between those from the Triangle (a cluster of communities in northern Israel) and those from the Galilee, with the latter generally being more prosperous.
In Second Person Singular, the lawyer and his wife attempt to throw off this shackling context, conducting themselves as part of an enlightened, savvy new breed. They host other couples for cultural salons, eating expensive sushi, debating about books and the issues of the day. Economically, the lawyer measures himself against other Arab-Israelis, most of whom can’t match his success. Yet culturally, his bourgeois lifestyle places him in competition with Jewish-Israelis (he maintains a friendly relationship with a Jewish clerk at a used bookstore), and the cultural salons begin to seem like a charade. Mentally scanning through Arab culture, he finds “nothing to be proud of”. “There was no changing the fact that they were all members of the first generation of educated Arabs in Israel,” Kashua writes. Any achievement can seem hollow when the bar is continually moved – or when the score is kept at all. Kashua’s novel runs on this kind of sociological analysis and occasionally becomes mired in it. He writes that police and security guards “generally hail from the lower socioeconomic classes of Israeli society” – a perfectly relevant and useful observation when communicated through the eyes of the socially insecure lawyer. But Kashua can also go too far, such as when we’re told that the lawyer “made a point of reading the Wednesday book review in Haaretz, the
high-brow Hebrew paper he subscribed to”.
These didactic phrases may be the doing of Kashua’s translator, Mitch Ginsburg, but either way they come across as schematic. Fortunately, these overreaches are few.
Amir and the lawyer become bound by an amorous note that the lawyer’s wife, Leila, wrote to Amir before she met her eventual husband. The lawyer finds the note in a book he buys from his favourite store. It sets him on a dangerous, perhaps improbable, jealousy-fuelled campaign of investigation. And the note itself – written in Arabic, found in a copy of Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata inscribed with a Jewish name and bought from a Jewish store – becomes invested with the weight of the politics of culture, class and religion.
Amir, too, is introduced as an anonymous man, but he’s later granted a name, the result being that he achieves a kind of full-bodied humanity denied to the lawyer, who is only represented by his professional title and an impersonal pronoun. Further, the lawyer’s story plays out over the course of a week or so, while we follow Amir through much of his twenties. Amir’s own crisis of identity, then, has a richness and authenticity that the lawyer’s might lack. Amir also comes from a poor village, where he has the added luck of being the child of a disgraced single mother.
Eventually, through equal parts guile and happenstance, Amir takes on the legal identity of a Jewish man. Amir speaks impeccable Hebrew and he finds that he has better luck getting work when he represents himself as Jewish. By passing himself off as Jewish, he hears how Jewish-Israelis, of varying political stripes, talk about Arabs, and he becomes the target of verbal barbs from Arabs who don’t know that he can understand them. But Kashua cannily amplifies the effect by repurposing, and subtly dismantling, the crude stereotypes Amir overhears.
For example, a clerk in the interior ministry tells Amir to be firm when people (presumably Jews) try to cut him in line: “Only force, that’s the only language they understand.” In another context, the line might have been uttered by a hardline Knesset member, describing Palestinian Authority intransigence. Instead, it’s sent the other way, creating not a cheeky equivalence so much as an echo-chamber of clashing political talking points.
Kashua has said that his work tends to offend Jews and Muslims alike, particularly right-wingers from both groups. Some take issue with his politics, others with his questioning attitude towards traditional Muslim culture. His television show Arab Labor, the first Israeli sitcom to feature an Arab star, has been celebrated in Israel and abroad but deeply criticised by some in the Arab media. Inevitably, the acclaim heaped on him by Jewish-Israelis has been seized upon by critics, who say that he’s an apologist for the state.
For any artist, to cause offence to two opposing groups should be considered a compliment. It means he is doing something right. In an unfortunate irony, Kashua’s novels have not yet been translated into Arabic, though hopefully that won’t be far off.
In the meantime, Anglophone readers can treat themselves to a young novelist who marries narrative sophistication with a diverse palette of political and socioeconomic concerns. His work is not only aesthetically satisfying; in what it represents and in the humane point of view it expresses, it has the feeling of something essential.
Jacob Silverman is a contributing editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the New Republic.