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

(page 2 of 2)

One day, after purchasing Tolstoy’s “The Kreutzer Sonata” in a used bookstore, the lawyer discovers a cryptic note written by his wife. He assumes that it alludes to a torrid love affair. The lawyer is driven mad with jealousy, and his frenetic efforts to prove his wife’s duplicity result in alarming emotional cruelty. Yet even in the midst of his violent revenge fantasies, we glimpse the vulnerable longing for what he callously rejected.

He wanted to go back to his old room, the cold room he had shared with his three brothers, the thin mattress and the sheepskin that his mother would put under it for insulation during the winter. He wanted to go back to the village, to his parents’ house, his real home.

Beyond this plaintive longing for authenticity, Kashua’s frequent intertextual nods to Tolstoy’s tale of sexual obsession and murder (which the lawyer unwisely defers reading) strategically nudge the reader to think beyond stereotypes of the “primitive Arab” and to the dark and universal comedy of the human condition.

The second plot follows the journey of a young Arab whose ambitious transformation from nebbishy social worker to artistic success entails a startling act of erasure. Like Coleman Silk in Philip Roth’s “The Human Stain,” he forsakes his origins to pass as a Jew. As home caretaker of Yonatan, a young man reduced to a vegetative state, the Arab’s fascination with the alluring artifacts of his patient’s former life — books, music, clothing and especially his photography equipment — sets the stage for his self-reinvention as a Jewish artist trained at the Bezalel Academy.

The young man accomplishes this with the unlikely support of Yonatan’s beleaguered mother, who tells him that he and her son are “practically identical,” whereas he is spellbound by her iconoclastic “scorn for tradition, nationalism, religion, roots… she believed that the Arabs did a bad job of impersonating the Zionists, who did a bad job of impersonating the European nationalists.” But what first appears to be a story of empathy and compassion becomes something quite different, as Kashua ingeniously unravels incremental rationalizations as they lead to terrible betrayals. As is that of the lawyer, the artist’s life is such a carefully calibrated performance of suppression that in the end he seems utterly lost to himself. In Kashua’s imaginative exploration of the consequences of self-erasure and betrayal, the intricate interplay of both stories renders a powerful statement about the ambition, desire and loneliness inherent in all human nature.

In Mitch Ginsburg’s lively translation from the Hebrew, Kashua’s razor-sharp wit and irony are on full display. As in both of his previous novels, “Dancing Arabs” and “Let It Be Morning,” Kashua proves an incisive guide to the simmering tensions of class, politics and generation within Arab-Israeli society, and between Arabs and the hostile majority. Yet whereas “Let It Be Morning” prophesied the dystopian nightmare of the Kafkaesque state turning against its Arab citizens, “Second Person Singular,” while not altogether relinquishing that fear, offers a more measured assessment of the quotidian nature of Jewish and Arab interactions. Much more than in previous works, Kashua examines life as a struggle against the destructive forces within the individual, even while bearing unsparing witness to the corrosive ethnic pressures and xenophobia of Israeli society. And the disquieting denouement in which these troubled men’s lives finally intersect is storytelling of the highest order.

Ranen Omer-Sherman is a co-editor of the forthcoming “Narratives of Dissent: War in Contemporary Israeli Arts and Culture” (Wayne State University Press).


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!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "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.”
  • 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.