Second Person Singular
by Sayed Kashua (translated from the Hebrew,
“Guf Sheni Yahid,” by Mitch Ginsburg)
Grove Press, 352 pages, $25
In the latest season of “Avoda Aravit,” the first Israeli prime-time television show to center exclusively on an Arab family, Amjad, the main character, joins the cast of the reality show “Big Brother,” but with a twist. A soft-spoken, bespectacled journalist for a Hebrew-language newspaper, Amjad is asked by the producers to pretend that he is Jewish. The other cast members, knowing only that there is one Arab among them, but not his identity, suspect that it is Itzik, a Turkish-coffee drinking loudmouth whose dream is to open a restaurant.
This masquerade of identity and its implications (“I can’t believe I trusted him,” a blonde house member muses after Amjad’s ethnicity is revealed) is a stroke of genius from Sayed Kashua, a columnist for this newspaper and the creator of “Avoda Aravit,” which means “Arab labor” and is a Hebrew expression referring to second-rate work. It is also at the heart of Kashua’s powerful new novel “Second Person Singular,” first published in Hebrew two years ago, about a successful Arab lawyer who one day discovers a love letter written by his wife and embarks on a mission to find its mysterious intended recipient.
The lawyer, who remains nameless throughout the book, works in West Jerusalem but lives in the Arab neighborhood of Beit Safafa. He drives a black Mercedes to impress his Jewish peers but hires the daughter of a senior Fatah official for his law office to win an Arab “seal of approval.”
He looks down on Palestinians from the territories, calling them uneducated “car thieves,” but is keenly aware of the way in which they, in turn, perceive people like him: “Lawyers, accountants, tax advisers, and doctors brokers between the non-citizen Arabs and the Israeli authorities, a few thousand people, living within Jerusalem but divorced from the locals among whom they reside. They will always be seen as strangers, somewhat suspicious, but wholly indispensable. ... Somehow, in the eyes of the locals, the Arab citizens of Israel were considered to be half Jewish.”
In one of the novel’s opening scenes, the lawyer and his wife, a couple in their 30s, entertain a group of Arab friends in their home for sushi and a salon-like discussion.
This could be any bourgeois circle in any country young professionals sipping drinks and discussing work, literature and their children’s education except that the conversation for the night, on the topic of “the absence of a Palestinian narrative within the Israeli Ministry of Education,” quickly escalates into a heated debate when Tarik, a colleague of “the lawyer,” rejects the emphasis the rest of the group places on Palestinian nationalism.
Enraged with him, some of the others begin to rattle off familiar talking points about the importance of instilling the next generation with “our culture” and “our roots,” whereas the main character finds himself siding with Tarik. “Well, that’s the thing,” he tells the others, “Sometimes I think that a tree is a tree and a man is a man.”
The lawyer’s sense of rootlessness begins to haunt him, as every image of his current lifestyle clashes in his mind with images from his modest upbringing in a village in the Triangle an area within the Green Line largely populated by Arabs.
His rags-to-riches story may be heartwarming, but Kashua also shows us the underside of success, with clear-eyed insight into an Israeli society that is becoming ever more tainted by discrimination based on class and money. The lawyer manages to cleverly tap into this foible of society and use it to his advantage in order to blur another, much more prominent distinction: ethnicity. As his financial situation improved during his time as a student at the Hebrew University, the main character found that he was stopped less and less by the police and the university’s security guards.
“He had finally figured out,” Kashua writes in his deadpan tone, “that the border police, the security guards, and the police officers, all of whom generally hail from the lower socioeconomic classes of Israeli society, will never stop anyone dressed in clothes that seem more expensive than their own.”
Yet the lawyer’s affluence comes with the heavy price of guilt, and he can’t shake off the knowledge that his sushi dinner would “cost half a teacher’s monthly salary” back in the village. Even his decision to send his daughter to a good bilingual school in the city gnaws away at him, making him feel as though his wish for coexistence with the Jews is nothing but a cover for what he and his friends are really doing: sending off their children “like spies into the heart of a foreign culture.”
This last point, incidentally, may be more than just the lawyer talking: Kashua, like his character, also lives in Beit Safafa and sends his daughter to the integrated Arab-Jewish school nearby. Earlier this year he wrote a column about the experience of finding a note taped to his car window one day that cryptically said, “Why here?”
Kashua describes going into full-anxiety mode, trying to formulate a response: Why here indeed, he thought. Why spend so much time and energy on integrating with the Jews when they will never accept me as one of their own? Then he saw another car parked in the same spot with a similar note on its windshield.
He burst out laughing. “Why here?,” the note began, “You’re blocking the trash bins!”
For all the lawyer’s self-reflection on his and his family’s place within Israeli society, he is spectacularly obtuse when it comes to matters of the heart. He no longer sleeps with his wife in the same bed and he confesses that, apart from knowing that she is a social worker in the south of the city with a degree in “something therapy-related,” he doesn’t really know what she does.
In one particular moment of cold-heartedness, he thinks of her as nothing more than “a functioning airhead.” It’s therefore surprising to see him become consumed by jealousy of his wife’s supposed lover, and his obsession with the idea that she might be having an affair is exacerbated when he realizes that the lover may well be Jewish.
The letter that he finds, unmistakably in his wife’s handwriting, was secreted away inside a used copy he buys one day of Tolstoy’s “The Kreutzer Sonata” which fittingly tells the tale of Pozdnyshev, a man who kills his wife while in the grip of a jealous rage. Scrawled on the inside cover of the book, like a venomous snake awaiting prey, is a Hebrew name: Yonatan.
Yonatan also happens to be the name of a severely disabled young man who lives with his mother and is in need of round-the-clock supervision. He is our link to Amir, the son of a Palestinian collaborator from Jaljulya, who becomes Yonatan’s caregiver and serves not only as the lawyer’s rival but also, primarily, as his foil.
Painfully shy and highly impressionable, Amir is initially as clueless about his plans for the future as he is about women. Over time, Amir discovers a life of which he knew nothing: a world of Sonic Youth and Lou Reed, of cool T-shirts and foreign-sounding books, and most of all, while playing around with Yonatan’s camera, he discovers what becomes his real passion in life taking photographs. It is when the newly culturally literate Amir braces himself for the entrance exams to the Bezalel arts academy in Jerusalem that Kashua brings identities real and otherwise into play once again:
Will Amir apply to the school using his own name, which will surely land him a coveted spot as the “token Arab” of his class, or will he walk into the classroom and hand over to his examiners a blue identity card bearing the picture of one Yonatan Forschmidt? It’s quite telling that the only assignment Amir fails to complete is a self-portrait, because, he explains, “It hasn’t come into focus yet.”
Unbeknownst to them, Amir and the lawyer find themselves sharing the same dance floor one night at Hasira, a small, hole-in-the-wall nightclub that is a favorite among Jerusalem’s hipster students. Amir looks around and takes the scene in.
“Today I want to be one of them,” he thinks, “to laugh the way they laugh, to drink without having to think about God. I want to be like them. Free, loose, full of dreams, able to think about love. Like them. Like those who started to fill the dance floor with the knowledge that it was theirs, they who felt no need to apologize for their existence, no need to hide their identity.”
While Amir imagines what it must be like to be “able to think about love” for a change, the lawyer is able to do just that, as his quest to find his wife’s lover reaches a convincing end. One gets the sense that he has finally arrived. And so, too with assurance and a deft eye has Kashua.
Ruth Margalit, a frequent contributor to Books, is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker.