Portraying Inner Conflict of Israeli-Arabs

Sayed Kashua's Novel 'Second Person' is Singular Triumph

By Ranen Omer-Sherman

Published April 24, 2012, issue of April 27, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Second Person Singular
By Sayed Kashua Translated by Mitch Ginsburg
Grove Press, 352 pages, $25

dan porges

Sayed Kashua has built an impressive career exposing the porous and impenetrable, farcical and tragic demarcations between Israel’s Jews and Arabs. Readers of his weekend column for Haaretz may recall a caustic fable titled “Cinderella (Herzl Disappears at Midnight)” in which the hapless protagonist bears the burden of the answered prayer of a hitherto childless woman who “begged God for a son, even if he was born half Arab.” As an adult, Herzl Haliwa’s nocturnal metamorphosis causes endless angst. This long-suffering hybrid has constant explaining to do, especially to his Jewish girlfriend, with whom he never spends a single night. (After midnight, the “Haliwa” half of this bifurcated being craves the company of pro-Palestinian European tourists.) Nor does it help that “Herzl” quaffs wine while the Arab side indulges in heavy Arak drinking.

In this schizophrenic tale, Kashua’s young man navigates Jerusalem as both Palestinian Arab and Jewish Israeli, suggesting both an impossible condition and a vital bridge between polarized communities. Kashua’s third novel, “Second Person Singular,” revisits the serious issues underlying this mischief, recasting its doppelganger with greater insight in a novel that adroitly blends tragedy with dark comedy. In awarding the novel Israel’s prestigious Bernstein Prize, the jury praised its “complex look at Israeli society as a multicultural society.” Most intriguing was the suggestion by the Bernstein judges that, in portraying Israel’s Arab middle class’s struggles to assimilate, Kashua ironically reimagined the plight of Jews in Enlightenment novels.

Whatever Kashua’s actual intentions, “Second Person Singular” triumphs as a tragicomedy composed of two suspensefully intertwined stories tracing the lives of two unnamed Arab protagonists, illuminating their fraught condition as insiders and outsiders and their painful struggle to create a life of meaning. The first of the novel’s stories concerns a highly successful Arab attorney who lives with his beloved wife and children in Jerusalem. Despite the lavish evidence of his accomplishments and affluence, he anxiously purges any hint of his Arab village origins (Kashua himself left the Arab neighborhood of Beit Safafa for a predominantly Jewish neighborhood).

Harboring no illusions about the precarious nature of his ascent, he ruefully contemplates the service he and other Arabs of his class provide to the Jewish state: “Lawyers, accountants, tax advisors, and doctors — brokers between the noncitizen Arabs and the Israeli authorities… living within Jerusalem but divorced from the locals among whom they reside. They will always be seen as strangers, somewhat suspicious, but wholly indispensable. Without them who would represent the residents of East Jerusalem and the surrounding villages in the Hebrew-speaking courts and tax authorities?” Even as he relishes visiting “the most expensive sushi bar in the city,” he is tormented by the notion “that his life was a mirage that could suddenly melt away.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.