by Sayed Kashua
Chatto & Windus, 346pp, £12.99
The Jews oppress the Arabs, occupy their land, plant settlements in the West Bank and deny the Palestinians their rights. This is all true, but it is an over-simplification – and not only because it leaves out the Christians and also those Israelis who oppose their government and favour the establishment of a Palestinian state. But there is another group excluded from this black-and-white, right-and-wrong picture. These are the Israeli Arabs, citizens of the State of Israel, not of the Occupied Territories.
Sayed Kashua is one of them. He is Muslim, an Arab novelist, and journalist. He writes a humorous, satirical column for the liberal Jewish newspaper Haaretz and created a prime-time TV sit-com about an Arab family for Israeli TV. His grandfather was killed in the 1948 War of Independence and his father, a Palestinian nationalist, spent time in Israeli prisons. But he is an Israeli citizen – Arabs make up almost 20 per cent of the population of Israel – and he writes in Hebrew, the dominant language of his country, just as many North African novelists write in French and Nigerian ones in English. In any case, he says, his classical Arabic isn’t good enough, while the vernacular Arabic spoken in the Arab village where he grew up is inadequate for his subject matter. So he is an in-between man, and he writes about people caught between two cultures.
Exposure is his third novel, and a very good one. There are two main characters and two narratives which seem to run parallel to each other (though the second of them starts some years earlier than the first), but which will eventually converge.
The first character is the lawyer. He is an Arab who has made himself as Jewish as can be. He is a success, the most prominent criminal lawyer in Arab Jerusalem. He can’t hope to get his clients acquitted; they will almost all go to prison. But he uses his eloquence and skills to present those he defends in such a way that they will be eligible for release quite early in their term of imprisonment. He has moved his office to a Jewish part of the city, because this gives him standing and establishes his credentials with his clients and, of course, with the authorities. He is well-dressed and drives a Mercedes. So of course he is never stopped and searched by the police. He is married to a social worker, and, though he is often irritated by her, he believes he has a good marriage. Meanwhile he pursues his self-education, buying European classics from a second-hand bookshop. Then, one day, in a copy of Tolstoy‘s Kreutzer Sonata, which he has just bought, he finds a love-letter. It is written in Arabic and he recognises his wife’s hand-writing. He is seized with jealousy and wants to kill her. The book was, it seems, previously owned by someone called Yonatan. Who was this Yonatan, his wife’s lover?
The second character is Amir, a young social worker, also an Arab Israeli. He is shy and withdrawn, estranged from his native village, loving his mother but unable to live with her. Dissatisfied with his life and work, he takes a second job as a carer, looking after a young man, Yonatan, who is comatose, in a vegetable condition. He gradually becomes obsessed with his patient’s possessions – his books, CDs, and the photographs he used to take. He starts borrowing his camera, and finds photography is his true interest. He goes further, taking Yonatan’s ID card, and slowly, daringly, assuming his identity. To his surprise, Yonatan’s mother is not angry when she finds out. On the contrary, she encourages him. Does he want to become Yonatan? Does he want to make himself a Jew?
The novel is written with a keen eye for detail, for character, place, and mood. Its theme is partly identity, partly the difficulty of knowing other people for what they are. If Amir is treated with more sympathy than the lawyer, this is partly because he is oppressed by self-doubt, while the lawyer is self-satisfied and directs his doubt and suspicion, not at himself and his own motives, but at his wife, whom he has never troubled to get to know; she has been an appendage rather than a person. Both lawyer and social worker have much learning to acquire about who and what they are.
The stories, characters and situations of this novel are fascinating in themselves and it would, I think, be possible to enjoy the book without knowledge of, or reference to, the politics and society of Israel. Yet many in the West will value it chiefly for what it reveals about life in Israel; they may discover that the situation there is more complicated, and certainly far less clear-cut than they had supposed.