Second Person Singular
by Sayed Kashua. Grove Press: 2010.
I didn’t expect to like this book. It’s probably because I’m a little ideologically close-minded on this topic – well, what I thought would be the topic of this book. I thought it would be a book about how unjust and terrible life is for Palestinian Arabs living in Israel, as seen through the eyes of the misunderstood and downtrodden protagonists. But the book was delightfully surprising in several ways. First, the plot, with the mystery of possible adultery and the absorbing drama of the lawyer, his wife, and a young Arab man taking care of a comatose Israeli man, is good on narrative points alone. Second, the prose is just the right blend of understated, descriptive, and psychologically perceptive. And finally, the whole Arab-Israeli conflict thing is presented in such an unexpectedly unique and complex way (to me) that all I could do, really, was admire Kashua’s ability to integrate so many elements into one relatively short novel.
The story alternates between two narrators: a wealthy Arab lawyer (never named) and a young Arab man, Amir. They are, like most normal people, far more concerned with their personal lives (specifically, love lives) than with overarching political events. But because they live in Israel, where the personal is political and vice versa, elements of the unique political situation in Israel are inevitably part of it all. The lawyer and the young man seem to be initially set up as opposites: the lawyer is wealthy and established while the young man is barely scraping by and trying to figure out his profession in life, and Kashua sets them up as possible romantic rivals. Yet they have striking similarities. For example, each man’s name is ambiguous: “The lawyer” is always referred to as such, never by his real name, and the young jumps between his given Arab name and an Israeli identity that he steals. The men actually seem to be in similar positions in their relationship to other Israeli Arabs, as well. Both men desire to be good Israeli citizens, simply getting on with their lives and their jobs, and they both often express annoyance with more rebellious and/or contentious factions of Palestinian Arabs. And yet both men seem to experience similar discrimination – whether real or perceived on their part only- as Arabs in Jerusalem.
The differences in Amir and the lawyer’s lives are highlighted by descriptions of daily amenities: the lawyer’s expensive car, Amir’s squalid apartment that he shares, and the differences in their food. As the book opens, the lawyer is rushing to pick up the sushi order for a dinner party that he and his wife are hosting that evening. The rest of the menu for that evening includes “arugula salad with a balsamic dressing, pumpkin ravioli, and entrecote steaks in a cream and mushroom sauce, along with a potato pastry” (34) served with wine. This meal is followed by an official dinner table discussion topic: “nationalist education and the absence of a Palestinian narrative within the Israeli ministry of education’s curricula for the Arab citizens of Israel.” The other members of the dinner party are of equal status to the lawyer and his wife – one is a gynecologist, another is an accountant, and their wives hold advanced graduate degrees. Yet far from being a rote recitation of Palestinian national arguments, Kashua demonstrates the complex feelings of these particular party attendees regarding the topic. His description of the woman leading the discussion, how she “carried on” for “many long minutes” and that this topic happened to be her PhD topic, signal the possibility that Kashua/the lawyer is not exactly a staunch supporter of this viewpoint. Furthermore, “the lawyer noticed that all present, but particularly the males, were looking fatigued by the all-too-familiar lecture…” In truth, the lawyer relates, “the parents of all those present…understood the importance of education…but academic achievements were one thing and a firm knowledge of the essentials of Western culture quite another…like all now present, he, too, consoled himself with the thought that the Jewish students were certainly ignorant of Arab culture, but he had to admit that most of that culture was frankly not worthy of being called art…after all, the decision to found a mixed school, to send their children off to study with Jews, the lawyer thought, was not borne of shared ideals or a dedication to coexistence, as the brochures claimed and the philanthropists believed; the Arab parents simply wanted their children to soak up Western culture, for their children to learn from the Jews that which they themselves could not provide.” (39)
In contrast to the lawyer’s sushi, Amir is repeatedly sent out by his lazy coworkers to retrieve breakfast for the office from Abu-Ali’s hummus shop: “…he’d make the usual – three orders of hummus with fava beans, one with chickpeas and spicy sauce; one plate of sliced tomato, cucumber, onion, green pepper, and pickles; one plate of felafel balls; and four glass bottles of Coke.” (68) And Amir’s apartment, which he shares with two other single men, leaves much to be desired in terms of cleanliness and heat. The lawyer drives a black Mercedes and reflects that the car is an “integral part” of his “campaign” to be the number one Arab criminal defense lawyer in the city; while Amir and his roommates can only discuss, at length, their dream cars and “a BMW was the ultimate vehicle.”
For the lawyer, the car also reminds him that he has to present himself in ways that he feels his Jewish peers do not. In the parking lot of his kids’ school, he notices that “The Jews’ cars were modest, affordable, generally products of Japan or Korea. The Arabs’ cars were expensive and German, with massive engines…not that the parents of the Jewish kids earned less…but as opposed to the Arab parents, the Jewish parents were not in competition, none of them felt they had to prove their success to peers…” (13). What is unexpected is that it seems that the lawyer means he has to not only prove his success to other Israelis but also to other Palestinians – he opens his office on King George street in order to gain respect of his east Jerusalem patrons. Amir, too, seems to experience those places in which it would all just be a bit easier if he were Jewish, eventually leading him to take on the identity of the comatose Israeli man – Yonatan – for whom he works as a night nurse.
Yet as Amir/Yonatan sits in the offices of the prestigious – and ideologically left-wing and liberal – art school Bezalel, waiting for an interview, another student jokes about one’s chances of getting in: “ ‘…But this is Bezalel. They’d kill to have an Arab in the program…’” (201). Adding to the complexity, though, Amir decides to take on the Israeli identity Yonatan because he feels it is easier for him to get basic jobs, such as working in a café, as an Israeli rather than an Arab. And he wants to be known as the Israeli Yonatan in Bezalel precisely because he doesn’t want to be admitted as the token Arab student rather than on the merits of his work. Kashua mocks the hypocrisy of the left-wing Bezaleler’s, who presume to be so open-minded, as they are seen through Amir masquerading as an Israel: “At Bezalel, I, a left-wing liberal like most of the students, learned that Arabs are horny, that they think with their dicks…I learned that they’re unpredictable and can be aggressive. Honor is desperately important tot hem…Arabs are more impulsive, more animalistic…it does not mean that we should be occupying them, that is not what it means, but it’s such a shame that they don’t change, that they can’t really be trusted.” (p 285).
Amir’s feelings of cultural separateness at Bezalel are far from relieved when he goes home to “the Triangle” to visit his mother and adoptive grandmother. There he remembers his fellow Arab childhood tormentors who teased him mercilessly for being a village “outsider” and now somehow still have power over him: “I couldn’t figure out how it was that these overgrown kids could still intimidate me…you idiots, you assholes, if only you knew what I know…the peak achievements of your lives are to be in charge of a construction site or to make your Jewish clients happy…none of you will ever manage to escape from the trap in which you were born…and especially you, the men, who think you’re so tough and manly…you are the very essence of human trash. Keep on prancing with your guns, keep on puffing up your chests while you do the Debka dance at weddings, keep on marrying virgins and let them preserve your honor and your male delusions…” (274).
These few examples surely demonstrate Kashua’s mastery in conveying complexity and the ability of a person to hold several viewpoints – some of them contradictory – at once. Far from being the “same old” left-wing novel about the plight of Palestinian Arabs, Kashua has a compelling read, regardless of politics. The political overtones here work more to draw in the reader, and get readers more and more invested in the lives of Amir and the lawyer as the novel progresses. And I would say that the book even hedges more toward the right-wing side of things, with Amir’s thoughts about Bezalel’s affirmative action, the lawyer’s annoyance at his dinner party lecture topics, and so on.
What of the title itself? I want to mention that the one-word chapter titles are part of the prose, too, usually naming an item that is somehow significant in the upcoming chapter. While in the first section, the items are fairly ordinary – “bed,” “letter,” “discussion,” in parts two and three they seem to become more random and more intriguing: “jelly,” “rotary telephone,” “spoon, lemon wedge, lighter.” Their seeming randomness is delightful as one hunts in each chapter the mention of that item.
For me, the grammatical category of “second person singular” in regard to anything Hebrew brings to mind the Ten Commandments. One of their grammatical peculiarities is that they are written in second person singular, as though God/Moses is speaking individually to each person, yet they were delivered by God/Moses to the whole group of Israelites (thus one would expect them to be in second person plural). Maimonides explained this away by saying God originally spoke them just to Moses. But others have used this for more symbolic and metaphorical thinking. In his recent book The Ten Commandments, David Hazony writes of this idiosyncrasy:
“In the original Hebrew grammar, each [commandment ] appears in the second person singular: You, the individual, shall not murder or steal…The Ten Commandments are…the establishment of every person as a responsible sovereign in his own world, who has the power to represent the moral vision one arth, but who as a result must take ultimate responsibility for his own life, and for the values and morals that underlie each and every action he takes…we can make a good society, but only if we insist on being good people and if we raise our children to be good people as well…we know it is possible, because in some cases we have risen above the barbaric basin from which the West emerged – rampant murder and theft being examples where Western societies have worked hard to stamp them out and teach their wrongfulness….”
With Amir’s disgust at his fellow villagers “prancing with your guns” and the lawyer’s wish to simply give his children the western education that was so hard for him to get – is is possible Kashua had these ideas in mind as he wrote this?