This Week's Must Read
4:17 pm
Fri July 25, 2014

Fiction Explores The Push And Pull Of Arab-Israeli Identity

Originally published on Wed July 30, 2014 11:27 am

To be an Arab living in Israel proper has long been a challenging proposition. Even sussing out what to call them has political implications: Arab Israelis? Israeli Arabs? Palestinian Israelis? Or maybe just Palestinians? Arabs in Israel live lives that constantly — often stressfully — straddle two cultures: They are all at once ethnically Arab and citizens of the Jewish state.

I'm not talking here about Palestinians who live in Gaza and the West Bank. I'm talking about Arabs who live inside the Green Line and vote in Israeli elections. Some even serve in Israel's military. But during a week like this, with Israel and Hamas pummeling each other and the death toll rising on both sides, their lives must become ever more complicated. To some Israelis, after all, Arabs are just a fifth column waiting to turn on them. And for some Arabs, Arab citizens of Israel are simply traitors. The push and pull of this dual existence is trying, to say the least.

Sayed Kashua, an Arab Israeli novelist, television writer and Haaretz columnist has spent his career exploring this chasm with tremendous insight and humor, no more so than in his most recent book of fiction, Second Person Singular. The novel centers around the lives of two very different Arab Israeli men. One, a successful criminal attorney — known throughout the book as "The Lawyer" — has, from the outside, assimilated smoothly into upper-middle-class Arab life in Jerusalem. But inside, he is plagued by a constant need to prove himself to the world. Every week, in an attempt to demonstrate his sophistication and intellectual prowess, he pops into his local used bookstore to buy the books mentioned in the newspaper's literary supplement. One day, while leafing through Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata, he finds a note inside written in Arabic that is clearly in his wife's handwriting.

"I waited for you, but you didn't come," the note reads. "I hope everything's all right. I wanted to thank you for last night. It was wonderful. Call me tomorrow?"

This, of course, leads our lawyer on a jealous rampage through Jerusalem, which leads him to Amir, an Arab social worker who may or may not — no spoilers — have answers about whom that note was intended for.

Desperately broke, Amir has taken on a second job as a live-in caretaker for a dying Jewish man named Yonatan. When Yonatan finally passes away, Amir assumes the dead man's identity to help advance his own career by gaining entry into a prestigious art school in Jerusalem. In a sense, both Amir and The Lawyer are struggling to invent new versions of themselves that conceal their Arabness in order to advance in Israeli society.

Eventually, Yonatan's mother discovers Amir's deception. When he denies it, she laughs and says, "Why not? It's like an organ donation. Around here identity is like one of the organs of the body and yours is faulty." This belief strikes me as deeply depressing — that a person's background, as integral to his sense of self as the heart or liver with which he is born, can be defective from the very start.

The novel, told in alternating sections by The Lawyer and Amir, grows darker and more cynical as the two men are increasingly plagued with insecurities about their true selves. Kashua seems to be saying that the more they fit in, the less comfortable they become.

Of course, during a week like this, it's hard for anyone to find a comfortable identity — Arab or Jew. Welcome to Sayed Kashua's Israel.

Molly Antopol is the author of the book The UnAmericans.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Author Sayed Kashua is an Arab who was born in Israel. He writes novels in Hebrew, but he's also created a popular Israeli sitcom that's mostly in Arabic. A contradiction? Maybe. But Molly Antopol says his newest book is a good look at an often overlooked segment of the Israeli population, and it's this week's Must Read.

MOLLY ANTOPOL: It's always been complicated to be an Arab and to live in Israel. I'm not talking about the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. I'm talking about people who live inside the green line, who vote in Israeli elections and can serve in the Army. They have to constantly straddle two cultures, and during a week like this, with the death toll rising on both sides, that becomes even more problematic. The writer Sayed Kashua fits into this category. His newest book "Second Person Singular" is about two Arab-Israeli men, one who we only know as the lawyer, has assimilated smoothly into upper middle-class Arab life in Jerusalem. Every week he pops into his local used bookstore, hoping to look sophisticated. One day he finds a note in one of the books, clearly in his wife's handwriting. (Reading) I wanted to thank you for last night, it says. Call me tomorrow?

Of course, our lawyer goes on a jealous rampage around Jerusalem, which leads him to Amir, an Arab social worker who may or may not have answers about that note. Amir is broke and he's taken on a job as a living caretaker for a dying Jewish man. When the man finally does die, Amir assumes his identity. In a sense, both Amir and the lawyer are inventing new versions of themselves. Eventually, the dead man's mother discovers Amir's deception and says, why not? (Reading) Around here identity is like one of the organs of the body and yours is faulty.

It's a depressing thought from Kashua, that a person's background can be defective. This is a cynical novel and it gets darker as the two men become more insecure about their truth selves. The more they fit in, Kashua seems to say, the less comfortable they become. Of course during a week like this, it's hard to find a comfortable identity for anyone, Arab or Jew. Welcome to Sayed Kashua's Israel.

CORNISH: The book is Sayed Kashua's. It's called "Second Person Singular." It was recommended by Molly Antopol. Her latest book is called "The UnAmericans." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.