The Lost Worlds of Anton Shammas’s “Arabesques”

The Lost Worlds of Anton Shammas’s “Arabesques”

Body and Soul

Anton Shammas and the lost hope of Arabeseques.


Arabesques, the first and only novel by the acclaimed Palestinian writer Anton Shammas, was originally translated into English 35 years ago, in 1988. It was a time of great turmoil and hope, with the Palestinian Intifada entering its second year, and it was also a time when the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian solidarity seemed to show more promise than they had at any other time. As though in confirmation, Shammas’s novel appeared, with its array of Israeli and Palestinian characters reflecting on one another and their relations in a wide range of locales. Perhaps most important, the novel managed to narrate the story of the Nakba in Hebrew to a Jewish Israeli public. When I read it back then, it represented a bold and promising departure suitable to the revolutionary times that Palestine was going through.

Now reissued by New York Review Books in an excellent translation by Vivian Eden and with an afterword by Elias Khoury, the novel has found its way into my hands once again. My second reading confirms what I thought in my first: that Arabesques is one of the finest novels about the 1948 Nakba, when an estimated three-quarters of a million Palestinians were forced out of their homes and off their land to make way for the Jewish state. Not only did Shammas powerfully describe these tragic events, but he did so in Hebrew instead of Arabic so that an Israeli public could finally confront this story too.

Palestinians attempting to write about the Nakba have always faced a quandary when it comes to conveying the trauma: If they tell too much, or tell it too compellingly—let alone advocate for the right of return for the refugees of 1948—they may encounter not a few difficulties in publishing.

In Arabesques, Shammas steers away from politics outright, and yet his novel, lyrical and subtle in its humor, is ultimately very political. Narrated in the voice of the young (and somewhat fictionalized) Shammas, a scene from the chapter “The Tale Continued” offers a good example of how he handles the predicament of the Palestinians who were driven from their villages and turned into refugees. Referring to the ever-looming fear and possibility of another Nakba, Shammas describes the cobbling of shoes by his father:

For a man to be able to walk a long way he needs a sturdy sole sewn correctly to the upper of his shoe. Though my father was not to attain full refugeehood, ever since then he took care that every pair of shoes that came out of his workshop would serve its owner for many long years of walking, in rain and in heat, over stones and through mud, in their going farther and their coming hither, for if the decree of wandering passed over you the first time, no one will swear to you, upon the head of your little daughter Catherine, that it will the second time.

Earlier, Shammas describes stopping at a West Bank checkpoint that had been set up in 1980s, during the 13th year of the Israeli occupation:

All these thoughts rise to the surface of my mind on the outskirts of the village of Beitin, near the military checkpoint, to the accompaniment of the stonecutters’ saws and the beat of the masons’ mallets. They swathe the scene in a mysterious veil of primal rhythm as they rise from either side of the road, pitching a canopy of sorts over its length, and the line of cars creeping towards the checkpoint goes under the canopy and blends into the pacing of the sentries and the rhythm dictated by the blows of the stonemasons’ mallets.

Throughout the novel, Shammas uses a mix of fact and fiction entwined in a structure reminiscent of A Thousand and One Nights, and thus the narrative meanders like an arabesque. The section he calls “The Tale” presents, via quasi-magical incidents, the story of the author’s extended family in their Upper Galilee village of Fassuta, in Haifa and Ramallah, in Syria and Lebanon. (The novel’s epigraph reads: “Most first novels are disguised autobiographies. This autobiography is a disguised novel.”) This part of Arabesques contains one of my favorite passages, the sensuous description of a young Anton being lowered into a cistern to clean it:

I breathe in the chill of the mildew and the ancient odor of the stones and the dark scent of the silt rising from the bottom of the cistern, suffusing the space around me with the feeling of porous ground waiting to touch the soles of my feet as I am dropped farther and farther down…. Now the light dims in the square and I see the silhouette of my brother’s head looking down from above me and asking whether I have arrived safely and can I untie the rope…. Then I begin to be aware of the enchanted presence surrounding me, and the bliss of solitude permeates my anxiety.

As in A Thousand and One Nights, there is the main tale and then many subsidiary tales. After Arabesques’ first section, a family memoir covering the author’s youth, we arrive at a section called “The Teller,” which is narrated by Shammas and a fictional Jewish Israeli novelist named Yehoshua Bar-On. Later on the “tale” is picked up and continued. In this section, we move from the world of Palestinians in the West Bank, Israel, and Lebanon to Paris and then Iowa, focusing on Shammas’s relationship with Bar-On and with several Jewish and Arab women.

Shammas is now a literary editor attending the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa; meanwhile, Bar-On arrives in Iowa City for the sole purpose of observing Shammas, whom he fondly calls “my Jew” and wants to use as a model for the character of an “educated Arab” in his next novel.

The two strike up a relationship of sorts, even as Bar-On continues to astonish Shammas, explaining: “I don’t think I’ll ever have this kind of opportunity again—to be under the same roof with a person like that in ideal conditions of isolation.” When Shammas replies wryly, “I’m just another ‘intellectual,’ as you call your educated Jews,” Bar-On laughs and then apologizes: “All I want is to get to know you from up close, while at the same time preserving a certain amount of aesthetic distance between us, for the sake of objectivity, you know.” “I shall try my best not to disappoint you,” Shammas answers. “This time I’m going to sculpt a well-rounded character,” Bar-On muses. “A nice hefty Arab, human and warm.” He goes on to elaborate:

My Jew will be an educated Arab. But not an intellectual. He does not gallop on the back of a thoroughbred mare, as was the custom at the turn of the century, nor is he a prisoner of the IDF, as was the custom at the turn of the state…. He speaks and writes excellent Hebrew, but within the bounds of the permissible. For there must be some areas that are out of bounds for him, so nobody will accuse me of producing the stereotype in reverse.

Later, Bar-On writes, “I’m thinking about a motto for the whole thing…. I’ll write about the loneliness of the Palestinian Arab Israeli, which is the greatest loneliness of all.” He thinks of the opening line for his projected novel: “Having come to Jerusalem from his village in the Galilee, he learned that, like the coffin, the loneliness of the Arab has room enough in it for only one person.”

The scenes between Bar-On and the fictionalized Shammas are deftly illustrative of the discourse of power relations between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority in 1980s Israel as it manifested itself in the treatment of Arabs in Hebrew fiction. What Shammas (the novelist) is doing here is reflecting on two things: first, the control over the representation of Palestinians that the hegemonic Israeli culture exerts, and second, the continual attempts by the Arab-affairs “experts” who work in or with the Israeli security apparatus that controls the Palestinian population to define the Arabs living in Israel.

At the end of the novel, the fictionalized Shammas asks himself how he “would have responded if Bar-On had not been breathing down my neck, and whether the situation of Bar-On not breathing down my neck is at all possible, for better or for worse.”

Rereading Arabesques more than three decades after it first appeared threw me back to that more hopeful time in 1988 when it seemed natural for Shammas to use Hebrew, the language of the enemy, to write his novel. And when such questions as the identity of the Israeli state could still be debated, before the takeover by Israel’s right wing and the passing of the Basic Law, which defined Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. The absence of hope and the drastic deterioration in relations between the two nations that have since ensued are also reflective of the course that the two languages, Arabic and Hebrew, have taken.

When Arabesques was first published, Shammas wrote that it was “an Arab story in Hebrew letters.” The fact is that Hebrew and Arabic are so similar that at one point Hebrew was written using Arabic script and Arabic using Hebrew script. Now the two languages are farther apart than ever, reflecting the distance that has arisen between the two nations. Writing in 2017 about translating into Hebrew the poems of Taha Muhammad Ali, whose village of Saffuriyya was destroyed in the 1948 war, Shammas noted: “The main challenge for me…was in making the language that had turned the life of Taha Muhammad Ali and the lives of more than eight hundred thousand Palestinians, in 1948, the year of the Nakbah, into a trauma; in making it pause and listen to the voice of his trauma.” Was this also what Shammas had tried to do in his novel almost three decades earlier? If so, it appears that by now he has given up hope that this will ever happen.

When he wrote Arabesques in Hebrew, Shammas said, he was trying “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…. As English is the language of those who speak it,” he added, “so is Hebrew.” But in the end, it didn’t work; his effort proved to be in vain.

For Palestinians, Hebrew remains what Shammas described in that 2017 essay: “the language of the occupier, whose implicit objective over some one hundred and twenty years of Zionism, has always been to suppress, delegitimize, outlaw, and annihilate the Palestinian Arabic. Hebrew, for the Palestinians, has always been the violent language of occupation and dispossession, the violent language of destruction used as a weapon for the unmaking of the body and soul of Palestinian subjects.”

A recent publication titled Hebrew–Arabic Phrase Book for Army and Security: Conversational Arabic Dialect Using Hebrew Transliteration, supports this. The book is full of commands and has chapters on such topics as “Arresting,” “En Route to a Target,” “Questioning Passers-by,” “Violent Entry Into a House,” “Interrogation,” “Curfew Announcements,” and “Entering a Village.” The book does not have a single Arabic script.

The divergence between the two languages, both in pronunciation and vocabulary, went hand in hand with the effort to create a new geography for the West Bank by replacing the names of land features with ancient biblical names and establishing new towns and cities populated exclusively by Israeli Jews—an effort driven by the infusion of large amounts of capital, mainly from the United States. It also went hand in hand with the rise of a Jewish state that used Hebrew to suppress Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, to control every aspect of their lives and issue orders demolishing their homes.

What happened to the two languages reflects the larger picture. With the demise of the two-state solution, and with the Israeli government in de facto control of the entire area of Greater Israel, the gulf between Hebrew and Arabic has only widened. The hope reflected in Shammas’s experiment of writing a Palestinian novel in Hebrew now seems to have vanished almost entirely; certainly there are no similar experiments happening in the other direction. As the Israeli columnist Yossi Klein noted in a 2013 article in Haaretz, “Being raised on a certain image of the Arab did something to us: Today it is hard to find Arabic speakers in Israel who are not Arabs or who were not born in a Muslim country. Ninety percent of the Arabs in Israel speak Hebrew, while only 3 percent of Israeli-born Jews speak Arabic. Last year only some 2,000 Jewish high-school students took the matriculation exam in the language of 20 percent of their country’s residents. The teenagers who took that test in Arabic did not see it as a bridge: They saw it as a weapon, and most of them, presumably, were inducted into Unit 8200.” (This is the Israeli Intelligence Corps unit, established in 1952, responsible for signal intelligence collection and code decryption.)

In the same 2017 essay, Shammas confessed that by 2005 he was already a tired, retired, and beat-up translator who had spent several decades of his life translating texts to and from Arabic, Hebrew, and English. “It wasn’t just that my translator’s energies were depleted,” he wrote, “but rather that my personal attitude toward Hebrew, as a writer and translator, had been totally reconfigured, to say the least. Disillusionment is a nice word, but I’m afraid it doesn’t even start to describe my state of mind. It wasn’t only a feeling of an outsider or an outcast but probably something close to what an alienated tourist feels in a foreign land.”

As I read this, I thought it also captures how I often feel in the West Bank, where I’ve lived my entire life, as Israel persists in making changes to the geography of the territory by building Jewish settlements and alternate roads that are turning us Palestinians into strangers in our own land.

Shortly after writing Arabesques, Shammas left Israel and emigrated to the United States. He has published a number of brilliant essays but never another novel—and his only novel has never been translated into Arabic. One of Israel’s greatest successes was in the revival of the Hebrew language. And yet today it has enshrined this achievement in proclamations like the Basic Law, which declares that “Hebrew is the language of the State” and thus adds insult to injury by refusing to recognize Arabic—the language spoken by 21 percent of the population (roughly 2 million people)—as another legitimate language of the state.

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