Second Person Singular

by Sayed Qashu

Other authorsMitch Ginsburg (Translator)
Book, 2012



Call number




New York : Grove Press, c2012.


A highly respected Jerusalemite attorney embarks on a jealous search for his wife's ex-lover upon finding a love letter in her handwriting tucked inside a used Tolstoy book.

User reviews

LibraryThing member mkboylan
I am SO glad I read this book. It has given me still another perspective that I had not previously been much aware of. I've read a little (very little) about Palestine/Israel relationships, but most of that had been written by people who took a strong stance one way or the other. This novel is
Show More
written from the perspective of two Palestinians living in Israel not on the West Bank, who seem to be apolitical. One of them is an attorney with resources, the other a social worker with none, which further broadens the perspective. This is a story about identity development of two men living as a cultural minority. There were so many consequences of that that I had not thought about so much. There are the obvious issues of religious differences e.g. stores and businesses closed on someone else's holy day rather than your own. That requires planning. The discrimination also followed the usual patterns of employment discrimination, educational discrimination, neighborhood and real estate issues, etc. At one point it felt to me, from my American experience, that I was reading about a light-skinned person of color in the United States passing as white. The stress of doing so is of course enormous, such as having to hide family ties and background ties as well as language and grammar differences, lack of knowledge about majority values, history, myths, etc. These necessary secrets block the development of intimacy in relationships, which then feeds a vicious circle. As I continued reading I began thinking about other groups living this experience, which happens everywhere, such as Northern Ireland with Catholic vs. Protestant, poor white students with scholarships to U.S. ivy league colleges, women everywhere in a patriarchal culture. Mostly this then became a reminder to me of the ways we humans are similar rather than different, the pains of identity and separation and even discrimination that we all suffer in some way, although not to this extent perhaps. It reminded me that probably most of us "plain people" are not interested in fighting with each other, but more likely it is the political leaders owned by the wealthy that cause the fighting - reminds me it is a class issue more than religious or political. Yeah yeah I know - we let them. It is a very interesting book.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Litfan
This novel is incredibly well-written, with a well-balanced blend of wry humor, suspense, and profound depth. Set in Israel, it begins with an Arab attorney discovering a used book with a note inside, written in his wife’s handwriting to a Yontan. Stunned and suspicious, the lawyer embarks on a
Show More
search for this mysterious Yonatan and for the truth about his wife.

What ensues is an unflinching exploration of identity in a torn land. In a country where both Jews and Arabs reside, but are often divided by enormous chasms, questions of identity and loyalty loom large. The party line is that Jews and Arabs have equal treatment and equal opportunity, but the reality is thrown into sharp relief as one character pushes the confines of identity to their farthest limits, with life-altering consequences.

To say more about the plot would give away too much of the story. The writing is gripping and keeps you on your toes throughout, as nothing is always what it seems. While entertaining, it is also a thought-provoking meditation on a country tediously balancing itself between two cultures. Very highly recommended.
Show Less
LibraryThing member brenzi
I’m not sure how I heard about this book but it turned out to be quite the page turner. Gripping doesn’t begin to cover it. I had very little knowledge about the lives of Palestinians living in Jerusalem, where they are looked down on and regarded as less as a people. They have to learn the ins
Show More
and outs and how to maneuver the slippery slope that is life in Israel.

A highly successful, unnamed Arab lawyer seems to be feeling a bit out of sorts and not feeling very romantic with his wife. He actually has stopped sleeping with her and instead shares his child’s bedroom even though he’s not yet thirty. He finds a note inside a book, purchased at a local bookstore, which rocks his world and sends him into a tailspin.

Another young man, a social worker about the same age as the lawyer, feels he has made the wrong choice as far as his profession goes and takes a job as a caretaker for a man who was tragically and permanently injured in an unnamed accident and remains in a vegetative state.

These two lives intersect in an unusual and highly provocative way that results in a tense and confrontational meeting of the two men and takes the reader on a rollercoaster ride through one of the most compelling narratives I’ve ever read. Could not put it down.

I would’ve given it the full five stars but I had a slight problem with the last couple of paragraphs. I hope we hear more from this highly inventive writer. Very highly recommended.
Show Less
LibraryThing member SqueakyChu
This is an amazing story. It's a bit convoluted, but it has to be that way for it to work. The story is of the intersection of lives of Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews, but it's told in an excruciatingly detailed way to show how nuanced that relationship truly is.

The protagonist of the story, a
Show More
nameless Arab from the Triangle area east of the Green Line, currently lives with his wife and their two children in west Jerusalem where he is a practicing crimimal lawyer. The other important character, who is not named until nearly the end of the story, is a social worker who comes from a similar albeit even poorer background. The social worker who also studied and now works in west Jerusalem encounters an awkward situation which compels him to flee his job and turn his part-time job as caregiver for a Jewish young man, an invalid, into a full-time job. By chance, the lawyer encounters a note in a book with the name of the social worker's patient on it. The contents of that note drive the lawyer into a frenzy as he suspects his wife wrote it.

I don't want to give away too much of the plot because it is so well interwoven that the fun of the story is simply discovering what comes next. I have read novels by this author before, but this is the best one by far probably because of its complexity. By the last third of this book, I simply could not put the book down until I found out what happened at the end.
Show Less
LibraryThing member brianfergusonwpg
During the first part I began to wonder whether this book could be a good thing, even though skillfully written and highly intelligent. The writer primarily writes in Hebrew though he is Arabic. This was dispelled as the characters developed their respective, strange dimensions. It was eerily
Show More
suspenseful, though not belonging to that genre specifically. It portrays both humanity and inhumanity, mostly from the Arabic citizen point-of-view and vividly evokes personal fear and loss.

Too bad there isn't a version in Arabic, the English translation is pretty sleek.
Show Less
LibraryThing member ubaidd
Sayed Kashua is an Israeli Arab (or is it Arab-Israeli?) writer who writes in Hebrew and has seemingly gained quite a following. I picked up Second Person Singular partly on whim and partly on the premise. I'm glad I did.

Kashua tells the story of an Arab-Israeli lawyer, living in Jerusalem, trying
Show More
to fit into Israeli society while serving his Palestinian clientele. The lawyer buys a used book and finds in it a note that he is certain was written by his wife. The discovery kicks off an obsessive search for the recipient of the note. The author does a terrific job of portraying jealousy and how trapped we are by our cultural moorings. There is much playing with ideas of identity and fitting into a culture different from the one you were raised in. As with any art originating in that part of the world, SPS has some political commentary, but it is nuanced and non-confrontational. In his portrayal of relationships between the Jewish and Arab peoples of Jerusalem, Kashua's writing reminded me of Naipaul's 'the world is what it is' perspective in A Bend in the River.

There is much to like in this book, I'd rate it right up there with Intimacy by Hanif Kureshi and Kinshu: Autumn Brocade by Teru Miyamoto, two of my favorite 'relationship' novellas.
Show Less
LibraryThing member auntmarge64
The lives of two Arab-Israeli men in Jerusalem intertwine when one of them finds a letter to the other written in his wife's handwriting and hidden in a used book he buys. The husband, identified throughout only as "the lawyer", immediately wants to kill his wife but decides to investigate first,
Show More
and he uses his contacts to track the man down. The second man, who met the wife only twice, years ago and before her marriage, is unaware of the furor and has been living an unusual life as a social worker and photographer. He is considerably more likable and interesting than the lawyer, who concedes that his main concern is not whether his wife was a virgin when they married but whether his acquaintances would condemn him if she hadn't been.

More important than the plot, and this seemed deliberate to me, were the descriptions of Arab-Israeli life: institutionalized poverty; lack of education, training and job prospects; general disdain towards themselves, and anger and distrust towards Jewish Israelis. The Jews, of course, dislike and distrust them, too, and with their great power and wealth they maintain the second-class lives of the Arab Israelis. Minimal slots (sometimes only one) are designated for Arabs in medical facilities, educational institutions, and presumably elsewhere. Transportation is third-class. Opportunities are less than minimal, and only those with luck (the lawyer) or by deception (the social worker) can make any headway. Both these characters hail from villages in the Triangle, an Arab-populated area some Israelis have proposed trading to Palestine for the area of the West Bank that Jews have illegally colonized. You can imagine that it's not a popular idea with Israeli citizens of Arab descent, who view Israel as their home and who fear even worse conditions under Palestinian rule - not to mention the racism inherent in the plan.

A good story set in an appalling society.
Show Less
LibraryThing member rab1953
For a view into the minds of two Palestinian Israelis, who could be stand-ins for an upper and lower class of Palestinians, this is a revealing story. Initially, it seems to be a mix of social satire in the case of the affluent lawyer who remains unnamed throughout, and personal angst in the case
Show More
of the young social worker whose Arab name is close enough to a Jewish name that he sometimes slips into the unexpected luck of mistaken identity.
It becomes clear early on that the whole story is one of identity – mistaken, appropriated, constructed, rejected identities within Arab and Jewish Israeli society, where it seems identity determines not only one’s social standing but much of one’s self and emotional health.
The lawyer is a bit of a caricature – he thinks he has to struggle constantly to maintain a position at the top among the Palestinian lawyers, although why he has to be at the top is not evident. But it is his identity as a bright, self-made affluent Israeli from the villages, and he fears losing his status to the young lawyers coming behind him. He is so centred on Europeanized Israeli culture that it is a shock, and not entirely convincing, when he suddenly turns into the stereotype of a wife-abusing traditional tribal misogynist who sees wife’s virtue as key to his identity and his social standing. His obsession perhaps underlies how the tribal culture remains close to the surface of some Israeli Arabs, and it threatens to destroy the very status he wants so much.
The social worker, Amir Lahab, I found a much more sympathetic character. His back-story, although not detailed, shows true pathos, someone who is rejected in his own culture because of his father’s actions, and who, as a result, rejects that culture, including his mother who wants him to become part of the village. With no culture, he has no future, or at least does not know what it could be. So he takes a dead-end job, which turns out to offer him the miracle of a new identity that fits him well. Significantly, in his new identity he finds success taking realistic photographic character portraits of Arab Israelis in the old town of Jerusalem.
The contrivance that brings the lawyer together with Amir may be improbable, but it sets a suspenseful edge to the stories, and offers the contrast of their two positions: one clinging to a newly created identity while the old identity pulls him back, while the other rejects the old identity and slips into a new one totally at odds with his old identity.
The only problem I have with the book is that the happiest outcome seems to be with the Arab Israeli who turns into a Jewish Israeli. This seems to suggest a message that I hope Sayed Kashua did not intend, that Arab Israelis might find happiness only when they abandon their old (tribal) culture and fully integrate into the new culture, secular but Jewish. Perhaps Kashua intended to imply that Israeli Arabs need to overcome their tribal traditions to fit into a modern culture, but it seems to imply that there is nothing to be valued in the traditional Arab culture. In fact, Kashua shows nothing positive in Palestinian culture – as it appears in the book, it is all tribal, misogynistic, narrow and without ambition. Perhaps Kashua does intend to imply that, and certainly those factors are worthy of criticism, but it does seem to me (an outsider who really knows nothing of Palestinian or Israeli culture) that that must be overstating the situation. I think there must be something between tribalism and abandonment, and not the self-satisfied self-deception of the caricatured lawyer.
Nevertheless, I liked reading this book. It presents a convincing picture of Israeli Arab life in Jerusalem that I haven’t seen before, it’s engaging and the characters are interesting.
Show Less
LibraryThing member coolmama
I was so very glad to read a book that takes place in Israel from an Arab's perspective.

This novel had two interconnected plotlines: in the first, an unnamed lawyer who has overcome poverty rises to be one of the top-notch lawyers in town. One day, he buys a book from a second hand bookstore and a
Show More
note falls out that is in his wife's hand. Is she having an affair? He becomes obsessed with finding the owner of the book, and of his wife's infidelities.

At the same time, Amir has suceeded in University, and is a social worker for drug addicts. He is a lonely drifter, without any friends or relationships. He takes a second job as a carer to a severly disabled man, Yonantan, who attempted suicide, failed, and is living with the dreadful results. Over time, Amir takes over his identity.

I thought the book was beautifully written at first, with intese decriptions of what is like to be an Arab in Israel, and also invisible.

However, by the second third of the book, I was sort of lost, as I did not understand the motivations for any of the main characters. I was also expecting more of the intersection of Amir and the lawyer. It left a lot of unanswered questions for me.
Show Less

Original language



0802120199 / 9780802120199
Page: 0.1601 seconds