Life and art collide in the work of Israeli Arab novelist Sayed Kashua.
When I ask Sayed Kashua about the roots of his humor, he says that he isn’t sure, but that it probably has something to do with his discovery, as an Israeli Arab attending a Jewish high school, that humor could protect him.
“It was a way to fit in and to survive,” he says. He left his village of Tira in central Israel to attend a boarding school, Israel Arts and Science Academy, on scholarship. During the first year, as he recalls in an interview, he was crying that he wanted to go home. But one of his teachers noticed his humor before he did. “It was mostly political humor, commenting on daily life. I have a strong feeling that in Tira, I wasn’t funny at all.”
Kashua, who now lives in Jerusalem, later studied philosophy and sociology at Hebrew University. He writes a popular weekly column for the Israeli daily Haaretz and is the creator and writer of the hit television sitcom “Avoda Aravit,” or “Arab Labor.” He’s unusual as an Israeli-Arab writing in Hebrew, but that’s the language in which he studied literature. His third and latest novel, “Second Person Singular” (Grove Press), full of wit, pathos and surprising turns, underlines the complexities of life in Israel for minorities.
“The lawyer,” as the main character is known throughout “Second Person Singular,” is ambitious and successful — the top Israeli-Arab criminal defense lawyer in Jerusalem. He lives with his wife and young children in a custom-designed duplex, sends his daughter to a Jewish-Arab school, drives a black Mercedes, and runs his practice from offices on King George Street in West Jerusalem, even though his clientele is based in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. He understands that the east Jerusalemites have more esteem for a lawyer whose offices are in a Jewish neighborhood, and his earnings prove that to be true.
Trying to bolster his literary education, the lawyer buys at least a book a week in a Jerusalem book store, usually the book reviewed in that week’s Haaretz, and reads it. At the shop, he enjoys browsing through the classics and wants to read the great works that others seem to know about, but buying them would reveal his inadequacies, or so he thinks. When his gives in to his curiosity, he has the books gift-wrapped and enjoys tearing off the paper when he gets home.
When the novel opens, the lawyer is just opening his eyes in the early morning and he’s certain that he’ll be tired all day. “He imagined sleep cycles like the wave of the sea and himself as a surfer upon them, gliding toward shore and then suddenly, violently, being tossed in the water, waking up with a terror he didn’t understand.”
That mix of ease and unease runs through his life. The novel unfolds through two intertwined stories, linked by a note that falls out of a used copy he takes home of “The Kreutzer Sonata” that he takes home. The themes of Tolstoy’s novella of love, marriage and jealous rage echo in the lawyer’s tale.
The second story, told in the first person, involves an Israeli-Arab social worker-turned artist, also living in Jerusalem and, like the lawyer, from an Arab village. His story is one of loneliness and reinvention, also offering an uncommon view of Israeli society. Kashua narrates powerfully, with careful attention to detail. As he explains, he knows both of these characters very well.
“When I write,” he says, “I imagine myself as the character. I move with him, slowly. For me, writing a novel is a long journey. It leads to a place I never imagined.”
Writing for “Arab Labor” — the first program on Israeli television to feature characters speaking Arabic on prime time, now in its third season — is a very different process, with set rules. “I feel like a completely different person when I’m writing a novel,” he says. He wrote much of “Second Person Singular” in a studio on King George Street, renting space from the feminist peace group, Bat Shalom.
Kashua’s two previous novels, “Dancing Arabs” and “Let It Be Morning,” were translated into eight languages, including Arabic. And he hopes that this one too will be published in Arabic, although he understands that it’s problematic for an Arab publisher to publish an Israeli citizen who writes in Hebrew.
Kashua is soft-spoken and jokes easily. His wife is also from Tira, although they didn’t know each other growing up and only met when they began Hebrew University when they were 19 — he noticed her getting off the bus in Jerusalem. He and his family now live in Ramat Denya in West Jerusalem and send their children to a bilingual Arab-Jewish school. Kashua, whose grandfather was killed in 1948, still has a home in Tira, where his parents and siblings live, and the family visits there often; he says that there’s no place that his kids like more than Tira.
“In a very sad, not-clear way, I truly love Jerusalem very much. But it’s very scary. The future is not obvious for a minority. Jerusalem of today is very different from 21 years ago when I arrived to boarding school. It’s a very conservative city. When coming from the village, it was the city of the senses – my first cigarette, my first love.”
About his children, he says that he hopes they will find their own friends. “I hope that I didn’t do a lot of damage in the way that my wife and I chose a bilingual school. We live in a Jewish neighborhood. I hope that they will not be confused. I’m always trying to give them a ticket, like music, if they choose to run away. I hope that they will be happy … happy doctors who play the piano.”
He says that over Passover vacation, he returned to Tira and spoke with his siblings about how their parents raised them “so that we should stay. They put that into us, that there’s no place for you but this place. Don’t go away, stay here. I’m not sure how I’m going to feel if my kids want to leave.”
He’s sometimes criticized by other Arabs for not always showing Arab people in the best light and for not only writing about Arab suffering -- and by Israelis who’d like to see him explain their point of view.
“I’m trying really to be faithful to reality as I see it.”
These days he’s in friendly contact with Israeli writers like Meir Shalev, Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua and David Grossman. While they often choose to take on the role of conscience, speaking out, he says that he’s trying to escape that, although it’s nearly impossible.
“I’m just a writer, a storyteller,” he says. “I really just want to write.”