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Author explores Arab-Israeli ties

Christian Myers | Thursday, March 7, 2013

Israeli author Sayed Kashua spoke about the Arab-Israeli dynamic and his latest novel “Second Person Singular” in a presentation at the Hesburgh Center for International Studies on Wednesday.

Theology professor Michael Tzvi Novick introduced Kashua and read two selections from the novel, while Kashua discussed the book’s context. Novick said Kashua’s novel provides a valuable Arab perspective on the problems of modern Israel and includes “snippets of hope for his country.”

Kashua said the novel centers on the first-person narratives of two characters. One is an unnamed Arab lawyer living in Jerusalem, and the other is a young Arab social worker/art student named Amir. Both characters are Arabs living in East Jerusalem and both stories include detailed references to locations in the city, Kashua said.

“The book is a lot about Jerusalem; it has specific stores, cafes, streets in Jerusalem. It is a very Jerusalem book in that sense,” he said.

Kashua said he did not give the lawyer a name because he could not find one the fully captured his character. The lawyer is successful, has a wife and kids and is part of a group that works with Israeli authorities on behalf of East Jerusalem Arabs.

He said the lawyer’s journey begins when he finds a love note in a used copy of Tolstoy’s “The Kreutzer Sonata” which appears to be written by his wife for another man.

Amir’s journey begins when he takes a night job watching over a rich Ashkenazi Jewish man who is in a coma. Amir gradually begins to read the comatose young man’s books, listen to his music and wear his clothes. Eventually, Amir applies to art school using the young Jewish man’s name and identification.
Kashua said both protagonists explore ideas of culture and identity and meet at one point in the novel.

In addition to talking about his novel, Kashua shared his personal experiences about living as an Arab and a citizen in Israel.

Kashua said Arab-Israeli novelists are rare because it is often easier for Arabs to be accepted into Israeli culture as lawyers, doctors and laborers than in the arts or academia.

“Even though I am now a successful novelist, my parents still say writing is for Jews and Arabs should have a profession,” he said. “My father will read my novel and say, ‘That is a very good piece of work. Someone who can write so well in Hebrew should be a lawyer.'”

Kashua said the first real novel he ever read, which was “Catcher in the Rye,” he read in Hebrew at age 15 while at a boarding school in Jerusalem.
“When you read that book at 15, it can really affect you,” he said. “I learned that I can have doubts.”

Although he is ethnically Arab, Kashua writes his novels in Hebrew because that is the language in which he was first exposed to literature and he can better utilize it to tell stories. Kashua said he has a complicated opinion of the language, which he calls his “step-mother tongue.”

More Arabs have access to his books because they are written in Hebrew, since there is no way to market books in Arabic in Israel and very few Arabic booksellers, according to Kashua.

Kashua said he writes in Arabic for television and film because he recognizes the struggle to preserve Arab identity through the use of Arabic.
“Arabic has political and national meaning. We’re in a huge struggle to protect the Arab language,” he said.

Kashua writes a popular prime-time Israeli television show called “Arab Labor” that is primarily in Arabic rather than Hebrew, Novick said. Kashua said he also has done some writing for film and writes a column for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz.

“Second Person Singular” is Kashua’s third novel and he has already begun work on his fourth, he said. His first two novels are “Dancing Arabs and Let it Be Morning,” according to the Kroc Institute’s website.

The lecture was co-sponsored by the department of theology, Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts and Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.