I had not expected this novel to be the kind of novel it was - and intriguing tale of identity and self-loathing with just a dash of politics but not so much so that it comes off as a vehicle for preaching a particular ideology. Set in modern Jerusalem, it concerns two principal characters: An unnamed Arab-Israeli lawyer and a young initially unnamed Arab-Israeli social worker; and an odd coincidence that set the course for these two characters’ lives to intersect and in a very interesting way.
The lawyer’s story is told in the third person, the social worker’s in the first. We glimpse the lawyer’s life: wife, kids, modern apartment, successful, his office in the Israeli section of East Jerusalem. He is an Arab with Israeli citizenship, navigating a very complicated social climate. He surrounds himself with things that would ingratiate himself - and his practice - with more “Israeli” things, a sort of equivalent to what as known as “passing” during the Jim Crow days of American life. The same can be said for the social worker, also an Arab-Israeli, from a small town in the occupied territories, who comes to Jerusalem to attend school and to find work. The social worker associates with other Arabs as well as a host of Israeli students and he wants - badly - to have the things they have, live the kinds of life they live, unconcerned with the cultural traditions his hometown instilled in him when he was a child. He takes a job being a caretaker for an Israeli kid named Yonatan who because of an “accident”, is currently in a vegetative state.
Here’s where the story becomes interesting. One day the lawyer pays a visit to a used book store in order to buy a copy of a Tolstoy novel for his wife. It is among a group of recently delivered boxes of used books, all of which belonged to someone named Yonatan. Incredibly, inside the Tolstoy novel, there is a note, written to another man, in his own wife’s handwriting and immediately the lawyer becomes obsessed with learning about Yonatan and how his wife knew him and why his wife would be writing such a note to him. As he begins his search, his imagination runs away from him, and the more he looks into it, the more stress it puts on his marriage and his way of life. He suddenly finds himself having thoughts more akin to the traditional Arab culture he was brought up in rather than the more “modern” Israeli culture he wants so badly to be a part of.
The story then alternates between the lawyer’s obsession with finding Yonatan and the social worker taking care of Yonatan and as the novel progresses we soon learn that the social worker’s story had actually taken place several years before the lawyer’s story. The social worker - who we discover is named Amir - becomes intrigued with Yontan’s life: Who was he? What did he do? What kind of kid was he? He begins to spend his nights, while watching over him, going through his things and little by little usurping his identity, trying to pass himself off as an Israeli in order to better his own life and social circumstances - in essence becoming Yonatan.
Inevitably, the two stories will intersect and they do so in a very imaginative way.
This is a novel exploring the nature of identity in a society with very complex social structures and those who are “caught in the middle” define themselves and their place in modern society. There is some humor here too, but over all the tone is rather sad, as we follow these two characters try to make sense of their own position in the world, what the “self” actually means in a society where they feel they are “immigrants in their own land.” A great read. Highly recommended.