Brothers and others

An intriguing novel about a Palestinian lawyer in Jerusalem prompts profound reflections on identity


By Sayed Kashua (Trans: Mitch Ginsburg)

Deliberations on our individuality, our place in the world — whether or not our attitudes towards social, political and religious responsibilities offer acceptable meanings to life — have been major themes in literature since Antiquity.

In contrast, progress and knowledge have prompted antithetical discourses, not least the nihilism that life, being a cosmic accident, has neither meaning nor an ultimate, divine purpose.

Latterly, our robotic existence in our techno-materialistic world has, in the main, severed itself from esoteric pursuits. Today, but for a few seers in the wilderness, the question of “identity” has become the war-cry of hysteric religions in fear of losing their futures.

Haaretz columnist Sayed Kashua, the author of Exposure, is a Palestinian who is also an Israeli citizen. He writes in Hebrew and is a recipient of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Literature. But are he and the Palestinian-Israelis he writes about full Israeli citizens?

Can they exist freely as both Palestinian and Israeli individuals in a land where the cultures and selfhoods of the two peoples are torn asunder by indurated politics?

In Kashua’s first novel, Dancing Arabs, the answer was negative. His Palestinian protagonist, despite his brilliance and ability to interchange identities and appearances, failed. In Exposure, the answer is more nebulous.

Its story is quite simple. Well-settled in a prosperous Jerusalem neighbourhood, a successful Palestinian lawyer finds, in a secondhand book he has just purchased, a billet-doux written by his wife. Consumed by jealousy and determined to redeem his honour, he sets out to find the book’s previous owner whose name, Yonatan, is inscribed on the title page.

Parallel to the lawyer’s investigation runs the story of another Palestinian, a social worker, who looks after a paralysed youth named Yonatan. I will disclose no further details in order to safeguard the reader’s enjoyment of the story’s twists and turns.

Suffice it to say that the lawyer does triumph in his quest and finds Yonatan. But we wonder whether this is a Pyrrhic victory.

Exposure is not an intense circumspection on selfhood as is, say, Albert Camus’s The Stranger or Max Frisch’s I’m Not Stiller. But it makes full use of its own troubled times — always conducive to questioning the Self — to subtly depict the erosion of both individual and communal identities not only of Israeli-Palestinians but also of Israelis themselves. Bearing in mind that when we look at our adversaries we see our own selves, the warning is clear: we can celebrate our identities only by allowing others to celebrate theirs. Otherwise, woe unto us!

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