'Your true identity is your bank account, baby'

In this country, says Israeli Arab author Sayed Kashua, one is born into a certain side in an ongoing war and is marked by that forever.

Kashua 311 (photo credit: Yanay Yechiel)
Kashua 311
(photo credit: Yanay Yechiel)
Second Person
By Sayed Kashua | Keter | 318 pages | NIS 92
If you were to ask Sayed Kashua about his new, best-selling book, Second Person, he’d say it’s “a satire disguised as a cheap melodrama.”
But, of course, you shouldn’t take his word for it. As intimated by its name, Second Person is a story of identity, and one as deceptive as its author.
Kashua, 35, is the acclaimed writer of three novels; he writes an acerbically introspective weekly column in Haaretz and has just completed the second season of his TV show, Avoda Aravit, which began airing this week.
He lives in Ramat Sharett in Jerusalem with his wife and two children.
With many clues borrowed from Kashua’s own autobiography, the story of Second Person cunningly follows two Israeli Arabs, a lawyer and a young social worker. Both had renounced their village heritage, moved to Jerusalem and are now trying to reconcile what they were born as with what they wish to be.
The lawyer, who buys every status symbol he can afford to fit in, suspects his wife is having an affair (based on a note he finds in a used book, mind you). In a fervent, specious obsession, he’s determined to find the phantom lover, whom he considers the embodiment of everything he is not. Amir, the bright but unfulfilled social worker, is drawn to the cultural world of a paralyzed, middle-class, Jewish teen he’s taking care of, and slowly encroaches on his identity.
Your book is quite an intricate journey of intersecting identities, illuminating some stirring insights.
It’s difficult to discuss identity here. It’s always over-simplified. When you say “identity crisis” in psychology, it usually refers to someone maturing and finding his way in the world. But in Israel, when you say “identity,” it necessarily means “national identity.”
There’s no room for individual decision.
You are born into a certain side in an ongoing war and it marks you forever.
Your characters heavily define themselves by the books they read and the music they hear. Is identity the sum of the culture you embrace?
Personally I don’t get this need to figure out “who you are.” It’s true that these characters define themselves by their work, their books and their friends, and that deep down they’re torn because they feel it’s all false.
But my bottom line is, that your true identity is your bank account, baby. When you’re young, you get to wallow in questions about “who am I.” Just wait till you get your first mortgage; that’s your identity.
The lawyer, for example, can’t help getting a car he doesn’t really want. It’s all about the neighborhood you live in and what house you’ve got. And it’s all pretty much genetic; you inherit your socioeconomic identity.”
Isn’t that the sort of predetermination your characters constantly try to defy? Like the lawyer, you might upgrade yourself a bit, and your life might seem slightly better than your parents’. But it’s nearly impossible to truly break through the socioeconomic frame you were born into. What I’m sure of is there’s no identity crisis two double whiskies can’t solve.
How has parenthood defined your identity?
My anxieties, since becoming a father, are baffling. You’re defined by your obligation to be dependable, both financially and in actually raising your kids. But most of all, there’s this dreadful apprehension that you can’t just quit. You can’t give up on your family, or on your career, or on this world or this life. When you’re young and single, particularly if you’re not too friendly with the world as it is, you act stupidly and irresponsibly.
Worst case, you quit one way or another. Being a parent, the option of cutting your wrist is irrelevant. It’s consciously grueling to know you have got to survive.”
Family is a poignant and unresolved theme in your work. To me, one of the most touching characters in Second Person is that of Umm Bassem, (landowner to Amir and his mother, who also functions as Amir’s pampering grandmother).
In a way, I based her on my grandmother.
She was a very powerful person. She pretty much kept the family together. I think, during the last years of her life I might have neglected her a little. When she died, I realized how much she really loved me. I felt undeserving of this love, because I really wasn’t there for her.
Dancing Arabs also had a powerful grandmother presence.
All the stories I heard in my childhood, whether historic or fairy tales, were told to me by grandma, while I was leaning my head against her lap. These moments started my passion for stories. She was also my window to what happened to the family in ’48, when she lost everything and was left to raise four kids on her own. That mental scar, knowing you could lose everything in a second, I got from her.
Is it all about this mental scar? Is your writing driven by your anxiety?
Let me tell you a story. It was about two years ago. I met Amos Oz at some conference and he asked me: “What about the new book?” I told him I was working on my TV show and on my weekly column and that the book would come out, eventually. What he told me then was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever heard. He said: “Literature writing is like a proud woman; you can cheat on her once or twice and she’ll forgive you. But if you make a habit of it, she will never accept you back.” To think that I could just lose my ability to write! Horrified, I darted out of there right to my keyboard to write this novel.
And are you pleased with what came out?
What pleases me most about this book is that it feels essentially different than my previous two. I’m happy to see that I’m evolving.
I guess I also like the little moments in it. For instance, when the lawyer remembers the first time he brought his wife to an orgasm while thinking about his grandfather’s funeral.
Where did that come from? No idea. I don’t follow a plan, I go by feeling, and somehow it manages to connect and tie up the right way. That pleases me. And I’m not usually pleased with anything I do, you know.
Being modest?
I think Muhammad Darwish once said something like: “Modesty is often a form of stupidity.” I can relate to stupidity, but I don’t think I’m modest. I simply can’t connect with success. I tell myself, I wrote a book, it’s a best-seller, the reviews are good, what else do I want? Why can’t I get excited about it?
Don’t you ever get excited, not even while writing?
Sometimes, when I write a chapter and see it’s rounding up well, I get thrilled for some very powerful minutes. But they’re gone so quickly and turn into feelings of distress and idiocy and an inability to distinguish good from bad. That’s why I can’t wrap up a chapter without a trustworthy editor telling me it’s good. And if he tells me it’s not, then it’s not. And I delete it.
But he must know how to articulate his feedback, even when it’s negative. It has to be: “Sayed, you’re beautiful, smart, even brilliant, but this chapter is not worthy of print.” If it’s something like: “Listen, I’m not sure about it,’ then I’m done for. I crush into a two-week depression. It’s all about the “how.”
Do you have a favorite character in Second Person?
I love the lawyer’s obsession, I think he’s great. He’s seriously screwed up, as only I can be. He drowns himself so deeply in his wild, paranoid jealousy, and he just wouldn’t give it up. I love this lawyer.
Who are you jealous of?
Tiger Woods.
I guess I envy people who are free of life-impeding fears; people who are not afraid of flying. I’m jealous of people who don’t feel that every success must be followed by some great disaster.
As a guy who compulsively likes things done his way, how is it to survive the synergistic effort that is creating a TV show?
It’s something else. As a screenwriter, with so many intervening people and opinions, I find myself asking: “Where am I in this grand scheme?” You need to step over things you believe in and adjust them to different schematics. You try to argue for your ideas: “But they did so in Curb Your Enthusiasm!” and they tell you: “This isn’t HBO. Curb Your Enthusiasm wouldn’t have made it onto Channel 2.” And it’s true. And it’s a shame.
Ever feel like broadening yourself further, beyond writing?
I’m planning to buy a video camera soon; maybe I’ll do something with it. And music.
My greatest fantasy is to start playing and writing wonderful songs. Whenever I’m in Boston, I ask my hosts to take me to the pubs where young bands play. This results in dozens of hapless Brandeis professors calling their kids for help. Eventually they come along. And I love it. Maybe I’ll end up a musician. It’s not going to happen, but I’d really like that. That and rallying. Even though I’m the worst driver; I’ll only drive in the safe places. I’ll race in the fields. Yes, that’s what I want. Music and rally racing.