On Anton Shammas's "Arabesques"

Revisiting the first major book in Hebrew by an Arab writer

Ratik Asokan

Anton Shammas, photographed in 1988 in Paris, France. Credit: Ulf Andersen/Getty

Avraham B. Yehoshua’s “Facing the Forest” (1963) is among the best-known works of Israeli literature. The long story is about a fire watcher employed at a Zionist forest reserve, one of many planted across the country to “make the desert bloom.” Perched in a tower, he reads about the Crusades, ogles hikers, and avoids his nameless, mute Arab helper: “His tongue was cut out during the war. By one of them or one of us?” Things change when he learns that the reserve was grown atop his helper’s village, which was razed by Israeli forces. Overcome by guilt, he allows the Arab to burn down the forest, becoming strangely elated when the village’s outlines emerge “as in an abstract drawing.” Most critics have taken that ending at face value. “According to Yehoshua, the mute Arabs inhabit the subconscious of Israeli society and are subverting it from within,” Gershon Shaked argued in Hebrew Narrative Fiction, 1880–1980.

The Israeli-Palestinian writer Anton Shammas has a different reading of “Facing the Forest.” In “Diary” (1983), a piece of memoir, he suggested that the mute helper was an apt symbol for the psychological state of Israel’s Arabs, who had been isolated after the Nakba of 1948: “The system of Arab education in Israel, at least in my time, produced tongueless people . . . without a cultural past and without a future. There is only a makeshift present and attenuated personality,” he wrote. Shammas returned to the story in “The Morning After” (1988), an essay published a year into the First Intifada. That summer fires had been set in forests across Israel, allegedly by Palestinian arsonists. “One interpretation of that story observes that the only language tongueless Arabs can speak is the language of fire,” Shammas observed. “Why, then, should the tongueless, oppressed, battered, and dispossessed Palestinian speak in a language other than that of fire?”

The troubled relations between Israel’s Jews and Arabs have been the subject of Shammas’s slim but remarkable oeuvre. Over four decades, he has written a few dozen penetrating essays while prolifically translating poetry and fiction between Arabic and Hebrew. Yet his most lasting achievement has been imaginative: the sly, intricate, autobiographical novel Arabesques, published in 1986 and now reissued by NYRB Classics. The first major book written in Hebrew by an Arab, Arabesques cast a light on the lives of Israel’s Arab minority, then largely invisible in mainstream culture. The novel was lauded by the Jewish literary establishment, above all for its prose, which was praised as “rich, lyrical, and sinuous” and “a triumph for the Hebrew language.” Surprisingly, Arabesques was also welcomed by Arab intellectuals, who have generally displayed a pronounced “antagonism and disregard” for Hebrew texts written by Arabs, as the scholar Mahmoud Kayyal has noted.

What he envisioned was an Israel for both Jews and Arabs, one that treated its citizens equally, regardless of ethnicity or religion.

Yet there has been disagreement about the novel’s political meaning. Jewish and Arabic critics alike have tended to read the novel in identarian terms, drawing opposite conclusions. The former felt that the protagonist—a Christian-Palestinian intellectual named “Anton Shammas”—was less a character than a vehicle for Arab nationalism. The poet David Avidan put this starkly, judging that Shammas’s “preliminary problem, which a priori disqualifies almost all his claims, is his blurred and confused self-identity.” By contrast, the latter group, led by Lebanese poet Sharbal Daghir, painted Shammas’s decision to write in Hebrew as a betrayal of the Arab cause.

Arabesques is indeed about identity, but that theme is addressed with far more skepticism than its early critics allowed. Shammas’s protagonist lovingly recalls his upbringing in a remote Christian Arab village, but he distances himself, through humor and irony, from his community’s beliefs and customs. At the same time, he challenges the symbols—based around land, faith, suffering, and above all, language—that underpin Zionism. That double gesture is what makes the book subversive. “It enters a zone where no Palestinian or Israeli writer has gone before—the zone of the intersection with the Other,” the Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury notes in the afterword to the reissue.

Shammas was born in Fassuta, a small, predominantly Christian village in Galilee near Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. Deir al-Qasi, the neighboring Muslim hamlet, was cleared out in the Nakba. But Fassuta was spared by the Israeli forces, at the request of a Jewish cigarette merchant who wished to purchase the local tobacco. Overnight, the villagers became “Green Liners,” part of the seven hundred thousand Arabs who were now second-class citizens in “the homeland of the Jewish people.” Arab localities were placed under military rule, with special permits needed for travel. Civilian rule was only restored after the Six-Day War of 1967.

In one sense, Shammas grew up as an Israeli. In primary school, he recited the national anthem, waved the national flag, and on the fifteenth of Shvat, trekked with his classmates to plant trees on a nearby mountainside. However, his family was systematically excluded from the agrarian prosperity spreading around them. It was a confusing state of affairs, not least for his father, who tacked up a poster of David Ben-Gurion in his cobbler shop. Then again, they were the lucky ones. “The inhabitants of Fassuta were spared the fate of the wanderers, so there is always a feeling of shame lurking in their memories; the shame of having been privileged, of having been left on their lands, while the others had to carry the land in their memories and go,” Shammas wrote in a moving testimony, “At Half-Mast” (1991).

In 1962, Shammas’s family moved to Haifa, renting a two-room flat in a mixed Arab-Jewish slum. This is where his vexed relationship with Hebrew began in earnest. One evening, the twelve-year-old boy, who only knew “survival Hebrew,” was sent to buy toasted sunflower seeds from the local store, where the shop-owner asked him, “In melakh o blee melakh?” Anton was “struck dumb” by this repeated question, which meant “salted or not salted.” An Arab girl stepped forward to translate—and promptly spread the story among the neighborhood children. That steeled Anton’s resolution to master the “stepmother tongue” he would later fall in love with. “I didn’t know then that those seeds, albeit toasted, would sprout on my tongue. And I didn’t know then that once my tongue was exposed to the taste of those salted seeds, it would be craving for more,” Shammas wrote in “The Drowned Library” (2003), a luminous reflection on bilingualism.

By 1968, when he moved for university to Jerusalem, Shammas was fluent in both languages. As he put it a Hebrew poem, “Shetach Hefker” (1979):

I do not know.

A language beyond this,

And a language beyond this.

And I hallucinate in the no-man’s land.

He drifted in and out of university for six years. A misfit among the older Jewish students—they enrolled after military service—he spent most of his time in the library, catching up on world literature, little of which was available in Arabic. “The door that opened before me, through the Hebrew language, brought me to regions that would have been blocked before the village child I was,” he later wrote. He dropped out and worked as a translator, first for Israeli television, then bringing out Hebrew versions of contemporary Palestinian writing, including Emile Habibi’s seminal carnivalesque novels.

In the early 1980s, Shammas began adding his voice to debates in the Hebrew press. On the question of nationality, he took a realist position, supporting the “one-state solution” at a time when many Arab intellectuals demanded sovereignty over all of Palestine. What he envisioned was an Israel for both Jews and Arabs, one that treated its citizens equally, regardless of ethnicity or religion. On September 13, 1985, the eve of Jewish New Year, he spelled this idea out in a brief article, which did not go down well with Israel-Jewish intellectuals. Sami Mikhael, a Mizrahi Jewish novelist from Iraq, responded, “I am willing to fight shoulder to shoulder . . . against every injustice against the Arab minority. But, no more than that. I am willing to gamble my personal fate, but not my national fate.” Yehoshua was less equivocal:

I say to Anton Shammas—if you want your full identity, if you want to live in a country that has an independent Palestinian personality, that possesses an original Palestinian culture, rise up, take your belongings, and move 100 meters to the east, to the independent Palestinian state that will lie beside Israel.

This is the context in which Arabesques was written. Shammas had drafted the novel’s first chapter in Arabic a decade prior and then put it aside. “I kept hearing the relatives breathing down my neck, watching over their stories,” he later said. When he returned to the project in 1982, it was on a Hebrew typewriter, partly because Arabic literature did not seem ready for the formal games he envisioned, partly to reach a Jewish audience, and most important, to stake a claim over the language—and, by extension, the state. As he told the American journalist Gerald Marzorati in 1988, the year Vivian Eden’s fine English translation of the book appeared:

What I had in mind with Arabesques, what I call it, is my identity card. In Israel, on your actual identity card, there is a space for nationality, and in this space you are “Arab” or “Jew.” With my novel I was trying to prove . . . that there is something which I think of as Israeli, which is not a matter of Arab or Jew, but a matter of living in a place called Israel.

In other words, Shammas had seized what Edward Said termed the “permission to narrate.” He was writing a national story, albeit from the margins. And he was writing not as an “Israeli Arab” or as an “Arab Palestinian,” as critics later alleged, but as a native son.

Arabesques is divided into two parts: “The Tale,” about the narrator’s childhood in Fassuta, and “The Teller,” about a sojourn he makes as an adult to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The two strands alternate in brief sections, though the former is given more space—and is, on the whole, more successful.

“The Tale” chronicles the lives of three generations of the Shammas family, from grandfather Jiryes, whose wanderlust takes him as far as Brazil, to the narrator, Anton, who observes his elders with a child’s mixture of love, fascination, and bewilderment. The relatives are quickly drawn, in vignettes that are by turns poignant and amusing. Of grandmother Alia, we learn: “She never threw anything away; instead, she accompanied her things through their metamorphoses. Her shabby dress became the karah, the round baking pillow upon which the thin dough is laid in order to set it on the hot tin dome of the oven, and when the pillow wore out it became a turraha, a poor man’s sitting mat, and when it was too worn for that it became a rag to polish shoes in my father’s cobbler shop.” Aunt Helene is first seen staring at the “slick of olive oil floating on the water in the saucer before her”—a mandal in which appear visions of the future so terrifying that “she didn’t dare allow them across the threshold of her lips or even the threshold of her heart.” Shammas rapidly cuts between the characters, using common objects—a key, an umbrella, a pouch of tobacco, a barber’s chair—as emblematic links. When Helene’s prophecies upset her brother, he tosses the saucer out the window, where the oil leaves an “inexplicable stain” on the limestone pavement, which can be made out in a photo of Anton’s mother taken two years later. An excuse to begin another story.

The relatives are quickly drawn, in vignettes that are by turns poignant and amusing.

While “The Tale” is structured backwards, digging deeper into the village’s past, there are several flashes forward, which give events a tragic undertone. For instance, a missed amorous encounter is made all the more painful when we learn that the couple “will meet many years later in the shadow of approaching death, and he will offer her a cigarette again, and again the cigarette will crumble.” Analeptic prolepsis (flashing forward to flash back) brings private and public remembrance together, as in the novels Gabriel García Márquez, whose influence Shammas has acknowledged. In a crucial scene, which is recounted from many perspectives, Helene watches British soldiers shoot an Arab militant’s steed: “Those shots were to ricochet through her memory as she heard the jubilant volleys in her honor fired by the men of the village when she came as a bride upon a white horse . . . early in February 1940.” (Compare that to the opening line of One Hundred Years of Solitude.) On occasion, Shammas slows down and dwells for pages on a cherished memory. At ten, Anton is lowered underground to desilt the house’s rainwater cistern:

Now the light dims in the square and I see the silhouette of my brother’s head looking down from above me. . . . I hasten to wade out of the pool to a surface that looks drier and more solid to me. As the rope is drawn upward I try to maintain my footing in the slippery silt while my feet sink deeper into it. After several attempts I manage to do so. Then I begin to be aware of the enchanted presence surrounding me, and the bliss of solitude permeates my anxiety.

Has the dawning of self-consciousness ever been so delicately conveyed?

Politics is a subtle presence throughout the story. The narrator’s parents’ courtship unfolds during the 1936–1939 Arab Rebellion, when guerrillas waged an armed struggle against the British Army, which then controlled Mandatory Palestine. In the scene mentioned above, his father, Hanna, then a barber, shaves a man who turns out to be the rebel commander Khawaja al-Asbah. Hanna looks out the window to catch a glimpse of his future wife, who is on her way to the school where she teaches, when the British soldier’s shoot Asbah’s horses. The client is gone by the time he looks back: “In the barbershop my stunned father still holds the razor and gazes at the place at which Al-Asbah had gazed as he sat there, given over to the pleasures of getting shaved.” Later, in 1948, in perhaps the novel’s finest scene, the menfolk of Fassuta arrange themselves in a semicircle near the village entrance and welcome the invading Israeli army with a dance:

They broke into the “Dabkeh Shamaliyeh,” a wild Galilean dabkeh, which had in it something of the joy of those who had been passed over by a fatal decree, and something of the pleasure of submission by the weak, and something of fawning before the stranger, and something of the canniness of the villager who draws the most unexpected weapon at the most unexpected moment.

The tone here is at once scathing and forgiving, which reflects Shammas’s deep ambivalence toward his native culture—a feeling shared by many postcolonial intellectuals of his generation.

If “The Tale” paints a portrait of a backwater community, “The Teller” is about an individual searching for his place far from home. Set in the 1980s, this section is about a summer that “Anton Shammas” and a dozen other international writers spend in the serene environs of Iowa City. The various anecdotes—a party at which the sozzled Irish novelist takes off his clothes; a visit to an Amish village; the Christian Arab’s flirtation with an Egyptian Jew—are charming but lack dramatic purpose and emotional depth. Nor do the secondary characters come to life, least of all the A. B. Yehoshua stand-in, “Yehoshua Bar-On,” who picks fights with the other writers and voices the clichés of liberal Zionism. Shammas’s prose, which in “The Tale” is warm and layered, in “The Teller” grows clipped and incessantly witty.

Early in this section, the narrator learns that a cousin who shares his name, who was thought to have died as a child, in fact survived and was adopted—or, rather, was kidnapped from the hospital—by a wealthy Lebanese family. This other Anton grew up to become a PLO spokesman and, as it happens, lives half the year in Iowa City. The meeting between the two Antons—exile and Green Liner; militant and intellectual—is meant to carry a political implication. But the scene doesn’t come off, because the namesake is little more than an idea, in contrast to Philip Roth’s use of Nathan Zuckerman’s various doppelgängers in The Counterlife, a novel that also explores issues of identity through the prism of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (and, curiously, was published in the same year).

How are the two halves of Arabesques connected? In interviews and essays, Shammas has hinted at how the novel’s structure might be read. Back in 1988, he pointed out to Marzorati that “The Tale” and “The Teller” unfold in different temporal registers: time is “jumbled and swirls around” in the former but is more or less linear in “The Teller.” This contrast, in turn, was meant to capture the difference between how rural Palestinians and urban Israelis construct their self-identity. Shammas elaborated on this idea in “Amérka, Amérka” (1991), a searching reflection on the two cultures that shaped him:

In a culture with an oral background of storytelling, where choices continue, even in postcolonial times, to be made for you (be they by God, fate, nature, or the ruler), you don’t enjoy the luxuries of the novel’s world, where characters make their own choices and have to live, subsequently, with the consequences, sleeve size and all. The storyteller’s world revolves around memory; the novelist’s around imagination. And what people in places like the Middle East are struggling to do, I think, is to shrug off the bondage of their memory and decolonize their imagination.

Seen in this light, Arabesques is a classically postcolonial story. The novel’s two sections embody different cultural ways of being-in-time, both of which exist within the narrator’s psyche. His struggle, then is to “shrug off the bondage of memory” that ties him to Fassuta, where people are ruled by fate. The problem is that in Israeli Arabs do not quite have the “freedom to make their own choices.” Maybe that is why he has a “blurred and confused sense of self-identity,” as Avidan grandly noted.

Shammas is challenging one of the central tenets of Zionism, namely that Jews have a mystical prior claim to the land that supersedes that of the indigenous Palestinians.

Yet Arabesques is not a simple parable about modernity replacing tradition. While Shammas is clear that the good peasants of Fassuta must “decolonize their imagination” if they are to survive the modern world, which has arrived in the form of Zionism, he also suggests that these premodern people have much to teach Jewish Israelis, particularly about the land they share. Early in “The Tale,” the village mason, Abu Mas’ood, wins a contract from Technion (the Israeli state’s famous institute of technology) to quarry out the black rock needed to construct the grave of Benjamin Ze’ev Herzl, the ideological architect of modern Zionism. The irony of this job is not lost on Mas’ood:

There are two great black stones in the world, the late Abu Mas’ood used to say, the black stone of the Ka’bah in Macca, which was quarried by almighty Allah himself, and the black stone on Herzl’s tomb, which was quarried by the mortal Abu Mas’ood himself, and both of them are sites of pilgrimage. Allah, however, does not have an official document from the Technion to prove that he quarried His stone.

This is a gentle send-up of Israel’s image as a heroically self-reliant nation: much of the country, after all, was built by cheap “Arab labor.” At a deeper level, Shammas is challenging one of the central tenets of Zionism, namely that Jews have a mystical prior claim to the land that supersedes that of the indigenous Palestinians. In 1996, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took this idea to its logical conclusion, when he ordered the opening of a new gate to an ancient tunnel connecting the precincts of the Western Wall to the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem. Standing in the shaft, Netanyahu felt that he had touched “the foundation stone of our national existence, without exaggerating.” No doubt another Abu Mas’ood dug up that stone. (This anecdote is drawn from Shai Ginsburg’s 2006 essay “The Rock of Our Existence.”)

Shammas’s “identity card” was a surprise bestseller in Israel. However, the novel’s political lessons were mostly lost on its intended audience. In the three decades since the publication of Arabesques, the country has moved progressively rightward. The number of settlers in the West Bank has increased from a few hundred thousand to more than a half million. Meanwhile, even nonviolent forms of Palestinian opposition have been branded as terrorism. In 2018, the Knesset declared “the right to exercise national self-determination” to be “unique to the Jewish people”—in essence treating Palestinian Arab inhabitants as if they were merely guests on the land. By then, Shammas was long gone; he relocated with his Jewish wife to the United States in 1992. He has not written another novel, perhaps because the non-ethnic Israeli readership he envisioned never materialized. Today, then, Arabesques reads less like a provocation and more like an elegy, if not for an Israel in which Jews and Arabs coexisted—that never was—but for an Israel in which coexistence seemed possible.

Shammas has not given up on literature. Since moving to the United States, he has published a number of essays that reflect on the deteriorating situation in his homeland. Remarkably, some of these articles were written in English, including “Palestinians Must Learn the Art of Forgetting” (1993), a response to the Oslo Accords, which includes this unflinching passage:

For all those Palestinians who, in the last 45 years, kept hoping that their displacement and exile were a grave injustice that somehow would be acknowledged and rectified, it’s time now to master the art of forgetting. They now have to forget the names of those 400 villages razed in 1948; they now have to forget the way the name Yafa is spelled and forget the other Arab names of the land; they now have to forget their cartography and start memorizing the Israeli nomenclator’s map.

Shammas has also kept up his translation practice. In 2006, he brought out Hebrew versions of the spare, plangent verse of Taha Muhammad Ali, whose family was displaced from their ancestral village in the Nakba. In “Warning” (1988), Ali writes some lines that might well apply to his Hebrew translator. The English version is by Peter Cole:

What seems to you
so nimble and fine,

like a fawn,
and flees
every which way,
like a partridge,
isn’t happiness.
Trust me:
my happiness bears
no relation to happiness.

One might add that Anton Shammas’s sadness bears no relation to sadness either.

Ratik Asokan is a writer and translator based in New York.
Originally published:
February 20, 2023


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