SECOND PERSON SINGULAR

SAYED KASHUA

“Second Person Singular” follows two main characters, one  “the lawyer,” the other Amir Lahab, a poor Arab from the occupied territories who moves to Jerusalem to study and become a social worker. The lawyer, too, is from a small village in the territories, and as their stories unfold, it becomes clear each is trying to leave not only class, but a large part of their Arabic heritage behind.

Amir lands a job as a caretaker for a comatose Jew about his own age, working the overnight hours in the young man’s house shared with his wealthy mother. Trouble begins when the lawyer buys some second hand books. The comatose young man’s name is inscribed in the book from which falls a note in the lawyer’s wife’s handwriting. “I waited for you, but you didn’t come,” the note says. “I hope everything’s all right. I wanted to thank you for last night. It was wonderful. Call me tomorrow?” This drives the lawyer completely insane with jealousy as he imagines his wife with another man.

Both the lawyer and Amir leave their villages in flights from their pasts, and as steps to different futures. The lawyer is ambitious , he works hard to become accepted among upper-class Arabs in Israel, and by Jews, as well. Though his rise as a criminal defense lawyer isn’t driven by a social conscience. He has constructed a persona, pursued his career simply because it buys him the social access and acceptance he so craves. A liberal in conversation with the self-important crowd with which he socializes (premarital sex is fine, gays should be treated as equals, women are victims across the Arab world), the small-town traditionalist within bubbles to the surface when he talks himself into being a cuckold.  Amir is driven by fear of returning to his village and his mother’s scandal-wracked past. He goes one step further than the lawyer in trying to create a new sense of self: He assumes another identity completely, begins to speak only Hebrew, and forges a career in Jerusalem as a Jew.

An unusual story coming out of Israel and Palestine. A good read.

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