Clara Khoury and Norman Issa, in TV series "Arab Labor".
Clara Khoury and Norman Issa, in Sayed Kashua's TV series 'Arab Labor.'
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Guf Sheni Yahid (Second Person Singular ) by Sayed Kashua, Keter (Hebrew ), 318 pages, NIS 92.

"Second Person Singular" may be the most ambitious of Sayed Kashua's three novels, as well as the best. Each of its two interlinking plots - despite the title, one is narrated in the first person and the other in the third person - is driven by an emotional need shared by both Israeli Arab protagonists: the need to establish an identity that will neutralize their foreignness. That sense of alienation extends beyond ethnicity, encompassing their distance from their own families, their discomfort with social conventions and their permanent, irreparable foreignness to themselves.

The first main character we meet is a successful Arab lawyer who lives with his wife and children in Jerusalem. He is driven by a desire to subvert the fate he believes awaits him because of his rural origins and by his effort to become part of a collective that will enable him to determine his own place in society. The Israeli collective is chosen mainly in the absence of any other option. For the lawyer, becoming Israeli means adopting material status symbols: an extravagant car, expensive clothes, sushi and fine wine. It represents progress and social mobility, as opposed to Arabness. That mobility is expressed through the character's physical movements through cities, neighborhoods and streets, from Jerusalem to the country's north. In a sense, this undermines the lawyer's seemingly clear-cut attempts at social climbing.

Ironically, and in the best tradition of Kashua's razor-sharp ironic style, it turns out that the (Jewish ) social class the lawyer wants to join doesn't need these status symbols in the same way, or at least not for the same reasons. Hence, the trappings on which the lawyer bases his escape from the stereotype of the Arab peasant become characteristics that further emphasize his foreignness and undermine his efforts to be accepted into Israeli society at any cost (especially if the cost can be expressed in monetary terms ).

The artificiality of these efforts is emphasized by Kashua's decision to leave his hero nameless. Like his career-oriented friends, he too is defined by his legal profession, and his identity and social status (in his eyes, at least ) are derived from his financial success.

Primeval need for belonging

The story of the second main character, a young social worker from Jaljulya who has just completed his graduate studies in social work, presents an entirely different approach to the primeval need for belonging, and provides the novel with its strongest dramatic moments. By a circuitous route, the young social worker - who is identified by name in the book, but in order to preserve the tension that Kashua builds up surrounding this issue, I won't reveal it here - ends up working as a helper for a young Jewish Israeli who suffers from paralysis. As the son of a single mother who faced scorn and ostracism all her life, the Arab character's need to be accepted is more rooted in emotion than that of the lawyer, and more extreme. "I want to be like them," he says in his concluding monologue, part confession, part defiance. "Without loyalty tests, without admissions exams, without a fear of suspicious looks. Today I want to be a part of them without feeling that I'm committing a crime."

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And in fact, the stronger and more complex his relationships with both the Jewish patient and his mother become, the greater his opportunity to shed his identity and assume a new one, in an extremely literal manner. His total success at shedding his Arab identity - in a horrifying exchange of identities that reaches its unforgettable climax toward the novel's end - stuns the readers.

A passing acquaintanceship between the social worker and the woman who becomes the lawyer's wife links the two plots. However, it is not accurate to say that this weak connection is what will cause the paths of the two protagonists to cross. When the lawyer happens to discover the connection between his wife and the social worker, he decides to do everything in his power to find the latter. At first, because he is convinced that his wife is having an affair with him, and later because he cannot bear the thought that she had feelings for another man before him. In fact, it is the lawyer who links the two plots, actively and consciously, due to his fears.

Finding the social worker causes the layers of facades behind which the lawyer has successfully hidden over the years to fall to the floor. The cultured, liberated, liberal man who scorns chauvinistic tradition and Arab codes of masculine honor turns out to be a jealous and fanatical person who has sublimated his need to preserve those standards. The respectable lawyer undergoes a total and apparently irreversible regression, once again becoming the embarrassed university student embodying the stereotype of the provincial Arab that he was when he met his wife. Back then, a brief conversation with her left him so confused - by speaking to a woman, by the expectations of what men are supposed to do - that he proposed marriage, to her dismay.

Just like a soap opera

Kashua also points out the tremendous influence of popular Arab culture on the way in which its consumers - members of the younger generation - understand and interpret their surroundings. The lawyer and the social worker repeatedly refer to soap operas as a point of comparison to what is happening in their own lives. The cynicism typical of Kashua's characters, which in his previous books was an integral part of their attitude toward everyday life, becomes, in "Second Person Singular," an ideology that dictates their behavior and determines the most practical aspects of their relationship with their surroundings.

It is also important to note the place of art, primarily literature, in this novel. It was not as important a characteristic of Kashua's previous books (the novels "Dancing Arabs" and "Let it be Morning," both of which are available in English translation ) as it is here. The lawyer starts getting anxious about his wife's loyalty after she buys a copy of Tolstoy's "The Kreutzer Sonata." The Tolstoy novel makes an appearance early in "Second Person Singular," but only toward the end does he actually read the book, in which a man who becomes obsessed with the idea that his wife is betraying him sexually kills her after finding her in bed with another man. As with his attitude toward his wife, the lawyer's attitude toward literature reinforces his subjective (paranoid ) understanding of the dry, factual reality. Kashua did well to intensify the lawyer's paralyzing anxieties by means of the constant presence of Tolstoy's text - which, due to its blatant Westernness, further distances the reader from the Israeli Arab cultural norms described in the novel.

The story of the pointless murder in "The Kreutzer Sonata" bubbles beneath the description of the relationship between the lawyer and his wife. It is therefore interesting that even the commitment to literature and art - the lawyer is also interested in photography - is another means of linking him to the social class he aspires to join.

Art plays a major role in the social worker's story too, but in this case, art dictates life and recreates it. In that sense, "Second Person Singular" is a book about the conflicted attitude toward art in the life of its creator, due to the fact that on the one hand, it is an act of representing and interpreting life, demonstrating that both the author and his characters have a grip on reality, while it is also an act of deception, appropriation and death. In the case of both protagonists, life is subordinate to art and to the place it occupies in their lives, and in both cases the result is a disruption of the daily status quo.

But whereas the social worker is the one who causes that disruption, the lawyer is helplessly pulled along after it, unable to anchor this change on a permanent interpretative axis. He is powerless in the face of the obstruction of his everyday life, brought about by his association with art. In that sense, this book is first and foremost a work of art that tells a parable about art. The literary achievements of Kashua's third novel - on the narrative level and, more significantly, on the structural level - place "Second Person Singular" on a totally different plane than his previous works. With this book, Sayed Kashua has become one of the most important contemporary Hebrew writers.

Ayman Sikseck is the author of "To Jaffa," published earlier this year by Yedioth Books (in Hebrew ).