Anton Shammas is a Christian Arab born in the Galilee who has written his first novel in Hebrew. Defining himself not just legally but also culturally as an Israeli, he has said that the book is his “real identity card”—though a careful reading of Arabesques may persuade one that this identity card is not so readily decipherable: it contains a good share of ambiguities. Qualified Hebrew readers, while admiring Shammas’s feat, report that in the original his style is somewhat ornate; but if so, the translator has nicely chastened the prose into workable English. Unavoidably Arabesques raises some irksome though deeply interesting questions about Israeli literature, what it is and should be. Insofar as Shammas’s novel suggests a “larger” cultural significance, it is that a complex syncretism, ranging from Bialystok to the Galilee, seems to be evolving in Israeli literature.
Shammas evokes traditional Arab life as well as, more uneasily and obliquely, the political sensibilities of contemporary Arab intellectuals. The strongest parts of the novel, the beginning and the end, are set in the Catholic Arab village of Fassuta in the Galilee, a place that is laden with historical associations: “Our village is built on the ruins of the Crusader castle of Fassove, which was built on the ruins of Mifshata, the Jewish village that had been settled after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Harim, a group of deviant priests.” This seemingly innocent sentence introduces what will be one of Shammas’s subthemes, modestly and calmly suggested: the deep entanglement of Jewish and Arab claims and traditions in his homeland.
The novel’s title, apart from its possible pun, is also apt, with its evocations of brevity and decorativeness, both of which are features of Shammas’s storytelling. Quick “takes” or narrative segments cut across time and place to create the kinds of juxtapositions Faulkner has made familiar, while common objects—a key, a cookie jar, a barber’s chair—serve as emblematic links between narrative segments in a faintly Proustian way. Still another possible influence is Marquez, who seems visible in Shammas’s effort to lift village detail above the ordinary, endowing it with a historical, sometimes a “magical” dimension. But if Shammas has borrowed, he has made such devices his own, for he is a canny writer, mixing oral storytelling with modernist sophistication, or at least placing them in close relation. And he has the considerable advantage that the life he portrays is unfamiliar to most American readers, including those who may have read a few Israeli novels in which Arabs appear as shadowy “others.” Arabesques really brings, as novels were once supposed to bring, “news” from elsewhere.
There are bright, sometimes glittering little portraits of the customs and manners of Fassuta’s inhabitants over the past seventy-five years, quick and at times deliberately “torn” snapshots of family and clan. Shammas seems entirely aware of the dangers of “local color,” the irritating possibility that his book might move Israeli Jewish and American liberal readers to a kindly condescension. But this danger is…
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