Sunday, February 1, 2015

Impossible Belonging: Sayed Kashua's Second Person Singular

Writer Sayed Kashua (Photo courtesy of Die Welt)

The world of fiction is replete with novels about ‘identity’: sometimes it is about gender, sometimes about the place of a character in a family, or city, or even time period. In other texts the character is concerned with their religious, ethnic, or national identity. All such books point to the fact that our identity is fluid. How we define ourselves, and what content we give to those definitions, changes throughout our lives and is often very (if not wholly) dependent upon the situations in which we find ourselves and to which we must respond. Not only does our ‘identity’ change over time, but we contain multiple identities at any given moment – we dress, speak, and respond to other people differently depending on the context, we consider certain behaviors appropriate in one context and not in another… and this is not a demonstration of our hypocrisy (which would assume that there is some stable identity to which we are being unfaithful) but a demonstration of our multiplicity. Fictional works that focus on identity illuminate the extent to which we human beings, for all of our vaunted uniqueness, are rarely ever the ‘same’ person for two moments in a row.  Sayed Kashua’s most recent novel, Second Personal Singular (published in Hebrew by Keter Books as Guf sheni yaḥid in 2010, and in English by Grove Press in 2012), charts the permutations of his characters identities in a unique context, and with a unique style, that is all the author's own. 

Set in the present time, the novel follows the lives of two men in East Jerusalem who might be described as ‘Israeli-Arab’: that is, they are of Palestinian origins, hold Israeli citizenship, but are nevertheless subject to restrictions on their movement and in their career development that their Jewish-Israeli compatriots never experience. Since moving to the United States this past summer, following another season of violence in Gaza, Kashua has often spoken (most recently at the University of Toronto) about the situation of the Arab citizens of Israel – and also about the very impossibility of naming this group of people (to which he himself belongs). They are citizens, and therefore in theory juridically equal to all other citizens of Israel… and yet, as Kashua’s characters demonstrates, they have access to different court systems than their fellow citizens. They have the right to travel on Israeli passports, to hold property and move freely, but those rights are often and regularly infringed upon by the prejudices of  neighbors, teachers, bosses, security guards, and army personal who continue to identify these particular citizens of Israel as somehow ‘other' – and whose discrimination is authorized by both official and quasi-official policy. At the same time, the Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship invest themselves – studying for extra years to overcome the barriers to education and success – in Israel. As Kashua brilliantly (and painfully) demonstrated in his hit Israeli television series, Arab Labor, many want to live in Jewish neighborhoods, want their children to speak Hebrew, and strive in many ways to become indistinguishable from their neighbors. The tragedy, as it appears in Kashua’s novels, newspaper columns, and television work, is that those neighbors will never accept them.

In Second Person Singular. Kashua brutally outlines the degree to which ‘citizenship’ as the marker of equality has become a farce, focusing primarily on the people – the men, the women, and even the children – who must navigate the push-me-pull-you of a citizenship that requires a person to reject one component of their identity while withholding a replacement. This conflict of identity affects the two main protagonists differently: one begins, slowly, to subsume his own identity under that of an Israeli (and Ashkenazi or European) Jew, while the other finds himself unable to trust himself, and those he loves, in a world so filled with potential enemies, traitors, and betrayers.

Within the field of ‘identity sagas’ one book can often seem more or less identical to the next and, if we are honest, the vast majority of so-called literary works have a claim to this title among the best of them include not only obvious and non-fictional works like Maya Angelou’s autobiography but canonical works of literature like Anna Karenina, the Tom Sawyer novels, and everything by both Edith Wharton and Chinua Achebe. What distinguishes most of these novels, at least for the casual reader who is not necessarily invested in the particular era, class, or geographical region under discussion, is the quality of the writing. In the case of much European literature, the quality of the writing often appears linked to the depth and breadth of description (and I am thinking here in particular of both Proust and Henry James).

Kashua’s prose is not about the description, or at least, it is not about adjectives. Spare and active, his sentences are short and his verbs effective. Mitch Ginsburg's translation of Second Person Singular is (according to colleagues more proficient in modern Hebrew) admirable, but more interestingly I have heard the original recommended multiple times as an intermediate text for those who are learning Hebrew. Unadorned with the curlicues of James or the madeleines of Proust, the narrative moves quickly and the reader is called upon to color in the shadings and colors of Kashua’s world with only the barest suggestions from the author himself. The result is a Technicolor world, but one in which the reader must recognize their own complicity in its production.

Since arriving in the United States, Kashua has remarked (most famously in an exchange with Etgar Keret published in The New Yorker) that he is a Hebrew writer; Hebrew has always been the language of his writing, of his expression, and he is somewhat at a loss as to what he should do now that he is living in the United States… and growing more and more pessimistic about any Arab ever being truly accepted as a citizen of Israel. His pessimism is convincing; the endemic racism towards Arabs in Israel (both Palestinian and to a lesser extent Jewish Arabs) shows signs of ratcheting up rather than improving. The events of the summer, and of the past months, have raised the level of invective in Israel to the point where Kashua’s next project, a more autobiographical TV series intended as a kind of meta-sequel to Arab Labor, has been placed on indefinite hold because it is considered unwise to air a prime-time television show about ‘an Arab’ in Israel at this time.

But it would be a shame, and a loss for us all, if Kashua stopped writing. While his television content is constantly hilarious (and I cannot stress enough that if you do watch Arab Labor you will find yourself crying as you laugh hysterically), his novels are not funny. There is a seriousness to Second Person Singular, a sense of impending and inevitable tragedy. And it is not the tragedy that too many people in North America have come to expect from the Middle East – tragedies of war and violence – but the tragedy of individuals, torn apart and asunder from the inside, unable to ever find a place that can never be taken from them, a place that will always be their own.  In the sparseness of his prose, and in the clarity of his characters, Kashua makes this tragedy more impossible to understand, and more impossible to accept, than it has ever been before.

Jessica L. Radin is a graduate student living and working in Toronto, where she teaches, works on her dissertation, and reads everything she can get her hands on.

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