The lawyer, the social worker, the identity crisis

Divergent plotlines converge to reveal some uncomfortable truths about the two Israeli Arab protagonists in Sayed Kashua’s satirical novel.

August 2, 2012 13:10
A group of Arab men talking

A group of Arab men talking 521. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)


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There is sometimes the understandable temptation to confuse an author and his work. Take Sayed Kashua, for example.

Newspaper columnist, screenwriter, acclaimed novelist – ostensibly a successful minority Arab in a majority-Jewish milieu. When he writes about challenged Arab Israelis striving to shape a place for themselves in an unforgivingly unsubtle world – the young boy from Tira in Dancing Arabs, the conflicted Arab journalist of Let It Be Morning – it can be easy to mistake his work as a roman à clef, thinly veiled riffs on the theme of his experience as a minority in Israel.

This would be a shame, and a waste. Personalizing his fiction would be to miss the point. Kashua, after all, doesn’t want the reader to pick an argument with him; he would prefer, one senses, that the reader pick an argument with the social condition that he presents unflinchingly.

Second Person Singular – a finalist for the 2011 Sapir Prize for Fiction and recently translated into English – features two Arab Israeli protagonists, poles apart temperamentally and socially at first blush, but with much more in common once one eases aside the protective carapace. And both are in need of such protection.

The first, an unnamed lawyer – to whom the book refers, helpfully, as the Lawyer – runs a successful practice in Jerusalem, drives an expensive car and lives in an expensive house. Leila, his wife, is doting and docile, her job as a social worker more hobby than vocation in his opinion. He has a superiority complex, it is fair to surmise; he certainly places himself above the east Jerusalemites who make up the bulk of his practice.

“The Israeli Arabs with independent careers are the ones who avoid beating a path back to the villages of the Galilee and the Triangle,” he muses. “Lawyers, accountants, tax advisors, doctors – brokers between the noncitizen Arabs and the Israeli authorities... they will always be seen as strangers, somewhat suspicious but wholly indispensable.”

He has even coined a name for people like him and their place in the multifaceted Arab social order: immigrants.

Nonetheless, there are the traces of uncertainty in his self-perception – the selfconscious dinner parties with fellow upwardly mobile Israeli Arabs, the monochrome uniformity to his liberal, nonthreatening political and social ideology.

He buys the books that he thinks people in his position ought to be reading. It’s not quite an act, this consciously unconscious effort to be a part of the crowd. In any case, social ambition is not limited to Israel’s Arab population. But for the Lawyer, it does demand the relegation of uncomfortable thoughts to the emotional hinterland.

Amir Lahab, by contrast, wears his heart on his sleeve. He is accustomed to the sensation of not belonging, whether in the Arab or the Jewish world. He and his mother, his only close relative, are refugees of a sort, running from the prejudice visited upon them by an unsympathetic community. He is a drifter, but unfortunately not a dreamer. A social work degree from the Hebrew University leads nowhere, and he stumbles into a part-time job as a caregiver for a young Jewish man in a persistent vegetative state. The books and music and photographs of the invalid surround him, a window to a world unfamiliar to Amir despite the ambiguities of his name and bearing. The invalid’s mother is a vaguely disconcerting presence in the background, sometimes detached and sometimes eerily perceptive about the emotional state of her son’s caregiver.

Much as we may deny it, identity is a fragile construct, one often governed by forces beyond our control. Second Person Singular hinges on a random event that brings the two men together and challenges their conception of self. Browsing through a book purchased in his favorite secondhand bookshop, the Lawyer comes across what appears to be a love note in Leila’s hand. The note is not addressed to him; the book belonged to someone called Yonathan, most certainly not an Arab.

The Lawyer’s self-assurance is swept aside, replaced by long-suppressed fragility and uncertainty. He can only restore order by making sense of his wife’s betrayal. And as fate would have it, the only way to do so is to track down a diffident Arab from the Triangle with a degree in social work, named Amir Lahab.

Second Person Singular is a curious book.

Kashua’s writing style at times seems laboriously detailed, extraneous detail bordering on the long-winded. But while the style may appear didactic at times, the substance is anything but. It isn’t entirely a matter of subtlety and nuance, even though Kashua does encompass a wide range of personal experience between his two principals. A sardonic sense of humor – not entirely unexpected to those familiar with, for example, his popular sitcom Avoda Aravit – runs malevolently through the book. And sometimes this pushes into uncomfortable territory for both characters and readers. But then, questions about identity – questions about the tension between the private and the public selves – aren’t intended to reassure.

Given their centrality to the plot, Kashua’s female characters do come across as somewhat unformed at times. Leila makes an unarticulated and not entirely convincing transition from independent-minded social work student to complaisant mother and wife. And Ruchaleh, the mother of the disabled Jewish boy, evinces a pragmatic – subversive, actually – turn of mind toward Amir that seems at odds with what we are at first led to expect from her.

But it is a matter of perspective. And perspectives – how we view ourselves, how we view that amorphous and often ill-defined entity called the Other, how we want to be viewed by others – give the book concrete shape. As the author alternates between his anonymous Lawyer and an intimate and personal Amir, both challenged by the way they think the world views them, we are constantly reminded that things often are not the way they seem.

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