The epigraph to the second part of Anton Shammas’s novel Arabesques, first published in Hebrew in 1986, reads:
Dresses of beautiful women, in blue and white.
And everything in three languages:
Hebrew, Arabic and Death.
These lines are from a poem by Yehuda Amichai, Israel’s unofficial poet laureate. It might seem at first a curious choice for Shammas, an Arab citizen of Israel who left the country shortly after the novel came out. He had come to realize, he told a journalist at the time, that as a Palestinian and a Christian, he would not be afforded equal rights by the state. “My case is hopeless,” he said. Since then Shammas, who is seventy-two, has lived in Ann Arbor, where he is professor emeritus of Middle Eastern literature at the University of Michigan.
Citing Amichai reflects Shammas’s intimate engagement with the two languages of his youth and the chasm—the “Death”—between them. It is also a testament to a literary capaciousness that is wholly in line with his moral stance toward language. Arabesques is his only novel, but Shammas is a gifted and prolific translator to and from Arabic, Hebrew, and English. In an academic paper from 2017, he analyzed written testimony of a Palestinian prisoner during the First Intifada in the late 1980s and its subsequent translation into Hebrew and English, and referred to the “violence” caused by linguistic omissions and mistranslations. Language for him is not merely political, then, as the cliché has it. It is perhaps the most powerful—and potentially corruptive—instrument an individual may wield.
There are references in Arabesques to other giants of Hebrew literature besides Amichai. A description of a lake in the novel bears linguistic similarities to Hayim Nahman Bialik’s poem “The Pool” (1905). A rooster calls to mind The Bridal Canopy (1931), a novel by S.Y. Agnon about a wandering Jew trying to collect enough money to marry off his daughter. There are echoes of the mute twins of Amos Oz’s novel My Michael (1968) (Shammas’s twins are both deaf and mute), and of the young Palestinian mechanic in A.B. Yehoshua’s novel The Lover (1977) who strikes up a sexual relationship with a Jewish girl. (In Arabesques, the lover is a photographer, and thus on a more equal social footing with his Jewish mistress.) Placed alongside such Israeli writers are Palestinian refugee songs and proverbs, and snippets of conversations between villagers. (“How far away is it?” “One cigarette.”) And there are more distant sources of inspiration, from Clive James and Willa Cather to Samuel Beckett and David Lodge. They include this gem from Walter Abish, on the unreliability of writers: “They seem to have a certain difficulty in taking pleasure from what they are doing.”
These disparate quotations and allusions appear like flickering lights in Shammas’s dazzlingly original book—as bracing now as when it was first published. Arabesques is a postmodern autobiographical novel about extended members of a single family whose lives are framed by two traumas: the failed Arab revolt against British forces in Palestine in 1936–1939 and the Nakba (Catastrophe) of 1948, in which the nascent Israeli military drove 700,000 Palestinians from their homes. Through his descriptions of the stories handed down from one generation to the next, Shammas vividly depicts his birthplace: the village of Fassuta in the Galilee, “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 is classic Shammas. He never lets us forget that every street corner, every olive grove, every young child, has an origin story. And his novel branches back in time to expose the roots of those stories, whether real or imagined. In response to a history that seeks to generalize, to deny the mass Palestinian expulsion, or else to turn its witnesses into faceless “survivors,” Shammas insists on the singularity of each of his characters: “Refugees is what they’ve begun to call us, and whoever has that name stuck to him will never be able to rid his flesh of it.”
How does one write about the Nakba? In Hebrew, no less? Shammas does so by being precise, at times to the point of seeming mundanity. (The year it occurred is remembered by the villagers primarily for its poor olive yield.) He also decentralizes his novel, as it were, by choosing to drown out his narrator’s authority with the voices of relatives and fellow villagers. Such a cacophony means that the reader keeps having to leaf back to make sense of the storyline. And even that might not suffice: the voices often contradict one another. When we first meet the narrator’s aunt, she is standing on a dock in the Beirut harbor in 1928, watching her husband set off for Argentina. Later we are told that this aunt had in fact lived and worked in Haifa until 1948, and had only then escaped to Beirut. Yet the effect of all this uncertainty isn’t the usual postmodern absence of truth. Rather, it is something more attuned to how collective memory takes hold within the family. Every version of the story recounts it at a slight remove. This only heightens the sense of an oral tradition, of errors and ellipses, of tales that have been rolled over and smoothed out over the years, like the workings of time on a stone.
At the heart of the novel is a mystery: What happened to a young woman named Laylah Khoury, who disappeared from Fassuta during the war of 1948, having apparently fled to Jordan? Laylah had been delivered as a young orphan, a “blond beauty,” to a family in Tyre, Lebanon, by a boy who will grow up to become the narrator’s father. One of the family’s young daughters is Hélène—the narrator’s future mother. Laylah therefore serves as the initial link between the narrator’s parents, and he feels driven to discover what became of her. But he never arrives at an answer. At one point he describes meeting, near Ramallah, a blonde woman named Surayyah Sa’id who he has become convinced is Laylah. She invites him into her house. He apologizes for disturbing her. She reassures him, “in the more friendly voice Arab women use when they are inside their own home.” Their meeting is in every way real. Then there is this: “But in fact I never set foot in the village of Silwad, and the whole trip to see Surayyah Sa’id is just a tale.” When the past revolves around a gaping wound, a novelist must give shape to the void.
In one of the novel’s most moving scenes, an evacuation order is sent out to the residents of Fassuta. The narrator’s aunt, fearing the long road ahead with nothing to help the family advance except for a single starving donkey, rushes to feed the animal, giving it whatever sacks of barley remain in her home. Then word arrives that the Israeli commander has been duly bribed, and the order is rescinded. Only now does the woman realize what she has done:
My uncle’s wife went to the stable and took a stick. She went back to the voracious donkey and began to beat him, first with blows of rage because the family’s supply of barley was gone, then with blows of anger at herself, for having rushed to pay the beast for work he hadn’t done, and finally with blows of stifled sobbing because of the Arabs and the Jews and the rebels and the soldiers and the wars and the refugees and pitiless Fate and poverty and her bellyful of it all, and especially because she wanted to stop beating him and she couldn’t.
The Palestinian trauma of 1948 is here distilled into a single image of a poor woman and her “bellyful of it all.” But there are others: a great-uncle with a “wrinkle in the mind” who flattens tins of olive oil, hoping to construct an armored vehicle out of them to protect his son. Or the villagers who break into a dabkeh dance to signal their surrender, kicking up a white layer of dust that “did not distinguish between the conquering soldier and the conquered villager.” Arabesques, which Shammas once said was “written in Arabic in Hebrew letters,” reads as a paean to both languages and as a lament.
Everything I’ve described so far is, implausibly, only part 1 of the novel. Its title is “The Tale,” and its narrator is called Anton Shammas, who shares many biographical similarities with the author. His family moves from Fassuta to Haifa when he is a small child; he travels to a university in the American Midwest; he becomes a writer.
But something changes in the novel’s second part, “The Teller.” The narrator’s attempt at a family memoir is stifled. The story splinters. We are now in the present day, with short, numbered sections that switch from first to third person and move among different characters. One is Amira, a Jewish Frenchwoman originally from Alexandria, whom the narrator, now a grown man, befriends in Iowa City as part of a group of visiting international writers. Another is Nadia, a young mother living in Abu Dhabi. When we meet her she has just terminated an ectopic pregnancy, and there are indications that she is haunted by the procedure, though frustratingly little insight is gained into either woman. Nadia also happens to be a distant cousin of the narrator—or, to be precise, of a character based on the narrator.
Here things become even more confounding. The first-person perspective is in this second part given to a middle-aged Israeli novelist by the name of Yehoshua Bar-On—about as close to A.B. Yehoshua as you can get (down to the names’ reversed acronyms in Hebrew). This is no coincidence. In 1985, a year before the novel’s release, Shammas published an article in Hebrew in which he called on Israel to respect the national aspirations of its Palestinian citizens. In response Yehoshua publicly castigated him, writing that if he wished to live in such a state he should “move one hundred meters east”—in other words, out of Israel and into the future Palestine.
Whatever criticism the genial Shammas had until then withheld is here let loose, with a stroke of satiric brilliance, in the figure of the solipsistic Bar-On. Bar-On might have liked to write about the wife who left him, he tells us. Or about the son who got into unspecified trouble with the law. But he senses that “there has to be an Arab this time, as some sort of solution to some sort of silence.” (Note the vapid pretense in that repetition.) Bar-On is also part of the Iowa delegation, but his real reason for traveling, he divulges to the reader, is to get close to the narrator: he is attempting to write about an Arab man he nicknames “my Jew.” “My Jew will be an educated Arab. But not an intellectual,” he smugly thinks. “He speaks and writes excellent Hebrew, but within the bounds of the permissible.”
When we encounter Anton Shammas next in the novel, he appears in the third person. We come to realize that this is not really the narrator, but rather him as filtered through Bar-On, replete with misleading biographical details that we know he purposely fed to Bar-On about himself. As another visiting writer in the group says about the two men, “They haven’t decided yet who is the ventriloquist of whom.”
If the crafting of Bar-On seems a touch cruel, it’s a cruelty evenly dispensed: Shammas soon produces another satirical sketch, this time of a Palestinian author so drenched in cologne that he nicknames him Paco, after the fragrance Paco Rabanne. (This had me laughing out loud, recalling a particular ex. Did the brand ever make it as big elsewhere as it did in the Middle East?) At one point Bar-On decides to jettison Shammas and write about Paco instead. He explains this decision by admitting himself unable to grapple with ambiguity: “My former hero does not define himself as my enemy, at least not in the accepted sense of the word. And that makes it hard for me.”
The notion of a thwarted autobiography is amplified with the introduction of yet another writer, a mysterious American named Michael Abyad. There are indications that Abyad used to be called Anton Shammas, and that he is in fact an older cousin of the narrator whom everyone had presumed dead (and after whom the narrator was then named). A chance photograph of Abyad that appeared in the pages of Time in 1982 suggests that the “original” Anton Shammas may be living after all. When Abyad meets the narrator in Iowa toward the end of the novel, he thrusts a document into the narrator’s hands. That document consists of “The Tale” that we have just read—“my fictitious autobiography,” Abyad calls it. Whose story is it, then? Does any story have a single owner? “Take this file and see what you can do with it,” Abyad instructs the narrator. “Translate it, adapt it, add or subtract. But leave me in.”
Arabesques received near-unanimous praise in Israel when it came out. One critic called it “perhaps the most Israeli novel ever written.” Sentence by sentence, Shammas provides quiet, beautifully noticed portraits of pain: “The old man sat in the back seat wrapped up in his own soul.” “The silence of the poor in their hour of togetherness with the meager food on their table.” The rote letters of immigrants, which begin with some variation of “I am fine and I lack for nothing except for the sight of your shining faces.” But critics also remarked on the novel’s ornate Hebrew, a stylized language so virtuosic and rich that its similes can run for entire paragraphs. One reviewer urged readers not to be “completely captivated” by Shammas’s technical prowess.
No doubt such reviews were tainted by prejudice. (One rarely finds similar warnings about the flourishes of, say, Amos Oz.) But the language of Arabesques does at times seem to obscure the truthfulness of its writing, and its imagery calls too much attention to itself. Here’s an example, of a long-held secret finally told:
It would have been better if the story had remained curled up like a caterpillar in the cocoon of silence forever. But now the cocoon has hatched and the butterfly of the story, with a magical flick of its wings, has shaken off the webs of years of forgetfulness.
The novel’s English translation (first published in 1988), by Vivian Eden in close collaboration with Shammas, skillfully pares down many such excesses (though not in the passage above). The novel opens with a description of two deaths that happened twenty-four years apart: of the narrator’s grandmother and then of his father. This is my translation of the Hebrew: “The moth that circled above the dying body twenty-four years after that April morning had been flicked against the wall, and now flew out, as it flew in, through the barely open door.” Eden’s economical translation is: “A moth was circling above a dying body twenty-four years after that April morning.”
The English is elegantly trimmed (no door, no flicking), nicely paced, and ultimately more accessible than the original. (“The head” in the original helpfully becomes “My father’s head” in translation.) Still, to read Shammas solely in English is akin to staring at a postcard of a landscape one cannot travel to. Gone is the novel’s formal inventiveness, the thrilling sense that Shammas has managed to accomplish something with Hebrew that no other novelist had before. “What I’m trying to do,” he once wrote,
is to un-Jew the Hebrew language, to make it more Israeli and less Jewish, thus bringing it back to its Semitic origins, to its place. This is a parallel to what I think the state should be. As English is the language of those who speak it, so is Hebrew; and so the state should be the state of those who live in it.
The title of Arabesques is not merely a clever pun. It refers to an intricate architectural pattern of interlacing lines. The design lends the novel its shape-shifting form. At one point the narrator recalls his uncle Yusef, whose stories “were plaited into one another, embracing and parting, twisting and twining in the infinite arabesque of memory.” That is a faithful description of the novel’s conceit.
In 1975 the French theorists Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari published a slim, dense, and influential book, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. In surveying the works of Kafka—a Prague Jew writing in German—they arrive at a thesis that goes something like this: There exists a separate category in literature for books written by minorities in the language of the majority. Such books are by definition political: their “cramped space” does not allow otherwise, Deleuze and Guattari write. Even when dealing with individuals, the emphasis of these works is necessarily on the collective. They keep coming up against certain impossibilities—of writing in German, say, or of not writing at all—which they are nevertheless able to surpass. They are imbued with “deterritorialization,” or the uprooting of a practice, such as writing, from its natural point of departure.
Deleuze and Guattari argue that these works belong to a “minor literature” not because of their quality, but because they are written by minorities carving out places for themselves within the language of the hegemon. Explicit in this theory is the idea that writing a minor literature is a revolutionary act. “How to become a nomad and an immigrant and a gypsy in relation to one’s own language?” they ask, as if in a challenge to all writers.
Shammas has met this challenge. So have a handful of other Palestinian authors writing in Hebrew, the most famous of whom perhaps is Sayed Kashua. As an Israeli, when I read Shammas and Kashua these days, something clenches in my throat. Both of them left the country—Kashua in 2014. Israel now has the most fundamentalist and reactionary government it has ever known. One can only read with terrible sorrow the Hebrew of these writers, which appears to be not so much written on paper as etched on skin. It’s a disappearing Hebrew, a generous, lived-in, and inclusive Hebrew, and the literary world should mourn its absence.