Discussed in this essay: Arabesques, by Anton Shammas, translated by Vivian Eden. NYRB Classics, 2023. 280 pages.
When Anton Shammas published his novel Arabeskot in 1986, it immediately caused a stir. How could a Palestinian, his mother tongue Arabic, write this sophisticated work in such beautiful Hebrew? According to Avraham Balaban in World Literature Today, Arabeskot received praise from the Israeli literary establishment specifically for the author’s “ability to use traditional Jewish sources as well as modern Hebrew texts as if he were a Jewish-Israeli writer.” Arabesques, the English version, sensitively translated by Vivian Eden—first issued in 1988 and rereleased this past January in a 25th anniversary edition—was also widely lauded. John Updike described it as “luminous”; William Gass called it a “beautifully impressive piece of prose”; The New York Times Book Review named it one of the year’s best works of fiction. But not everyone was pleased. In an interview, Cynthia Ozick described Shammas’s work as making a “mule” of the airborne “Pegasus” of the Hebrew language. The Yiddishist Ruth Wisse later claimed Ozick had been misconstrued; she only meant Shammas was “muling” the language when he used it for political purposes.
Indeed, Shammas’s semi-autobiographical novel was a political response to the conditions of his own life. He was born in 1950 into a Christian family in the Galilean village of Fassuta, whose residents managed to remain during the Nakba, when Zionist militias drove more than 700,000 Palestinians from their homes between 1947 and 1949. They were placed under martial law for almost 20 years, even as they were made citizens of the new Israeli state. Modern Hebrew, revived in the late 19th century as part of the Zionist endeavor to assimilate Jews from diverse geographic and linguistic backgrounds into a cohesive national identity, was and remains central to this ethnic consolidation of national belonging. The Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe once wrote that he pushed the English language “to carry the weight of [his] African experience”; Shammas was likewise trying to make Hebrew bear his Palestinian experience. In so doing, he was implicitly calling for Israel to become a state for all its citizens. In a 1989 essay titled “Your Worst Nightmare,” he said as much, responding directly to Ozick: “What I’m trying to do—mulishly, it seems—is to un-Jew the Hebrew language, to make it more Israeli and less Jewish . . . 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.”
Arabesques seeks to contest the Zionist enclosures of Palestinian life not only linguistically, but also formally. The novel alternates between two strands, “The Tale” and “The Teller”—both narrated by a Palestinian writer also named Anton Shammas, although the precise relationship between these strands is never clarified. Where “The Teller” follows Anton as an adult, as he leaves Jerusalem for Paris and then Iowa City in the 1980s, narrating his writing practice and therefore calling attention to the novel itself as a composed form, “The Tale” takes us into the life of Anton’s massive extended family in the Galilee—sprawling across generations, sliding back and forth through time, from the Palestinian uprising against the British administration in the 1930s up to Anton’s childhood in the late ’50s. The shape of this strand resembles the titular arabesque, the geometric decoration of Islamic ornamental tradition, often characterized by recurring patterns of scrolls, leaves, and intertwining foliage. Its structure recalls the Arabic classic One Thousand and One Nights, in which Shahrazad, a woman who volunteers to marry a king who plans to execute her, tells a series of winding, recursive tales, assembled over centuries, to delay her own demise. Shammas’s narrative is similarly shaped by reiteration: Stories wind back on themselves, images ring across pages—a glass of water recurs, a reflection in a slick of oil.
Shammas gestures toward the political meanings of this formal choice in a 1987 essay titled “Kitsch 22: On the Problems Between Majority and Minority Cultures in Israel,” in which he triumphantly contrasts the militant Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s derision of the arabesque as “a retarded art form” invented “because the Qu’ran forbade the depiction of real things” with Jacob Bronowski’s description of the Alhambra palace in Spain as a masterpiece emerging from the achievements of Arab mathematicians—in Shammas’s words, “the summation of all the possible symmetries in two-dimensional space, the product of a thousand years of mathematics.” Rooted in the principle of endless repetition, the arabesque appears simultaneously static and full of movement, and implies the possibility of infinity: More can always be added, and the pattern will retain its harmony. Where Shahrazad told an arabesque of tales, infinitely deferring closure in order to save her own life, Shammas uses the form to elaborate a sprawling and resilient peoplehood, not bound by geography or linear time, that exceeds the confinements imposed by the Jewish nation-state.
Throughout “The Tale,” Anton likens the narrative to a textile, its threads pulled, unwound, and rewoven by many weavers. At first, the head weaver seems to be his Uncle Yusef, who has a “wrinkle in the mind” and a habit of exaggeration, but as the story progresses, it increasingly acquires a sense of an omniscience grounded in myth and rumor. Shammas makes clear that the material of this section is derived from an Arabic oral tradition, narratives retained in memory and passed through generations by repetition, hanging on fragments of image or phrase. The writing is playfully recursive and dense with allusion; Shammas drops threads and defers revelations, introducing and intertwining mysteries that motor “The Tale,” repeating elisions that create gaps in the weave of the arabesque.
Some are rooted in myth, such as the legend of Crusader treasure hidden in a cave, sealed and guarded by a rooster named Ar-Rasad, to which people have tried over the years to gain entry using magic and amulets. (At the novel’s end, the rock concealing the cave is destroyed by an Israeli bulldozer.) Others arise from family history, like the enigma of the narrator’s cousin, also named Anton Shammas, who supposedly died as a child but might actually have become Michel Abyad in Lebanon, and then Michael Abyad, who was photographed by Time magazine on a bicycle at the scene of the massacre at Sabra and Shatila, where Lebanese Phalangist forces under Israeli military oversight killed thousands—mostly Palestinians and Lebanese Shiites—in two refugee camps. Such winding patterns also unfurl in the sentences themselves, where prepositions, participles, and relative pronouns operate like hinges, allowing subclauses to continually unfold. For example, toward the end of the novel, as stories from Anton’s past (in “The Tale”) start to intrude on his relationship with his Israeli lover Shlomith in the present (in “The Teller”), he tells us:
This Michael Abyad has silently woven himself into my life, where the magic thread of Shlomith has come undone and unravels in my hands: like a rope slipping through one’s hands following a full bucket, whopping against the throat of the cistern and into the depths. And the surface of the water ripples for a while, until it returns to the mute language of mirrors.
Arabic prose lends itself to this expansive syntax; so, I’m told, does Hebrew.
The novel seeks to challenge the position that Hebrew is irrevocably entangled with Jewishness, and therefore has limited potential as a liberatory tool for a Palestinian.
Though “The Teller” proceeds more straight-forwardly and follows a linear time line that stands in stark contrast with the recursions of “The Tale,” it multiplies the arabesque’s complexity by slyly calling the novel’s entire project into question. In Paris en route to Iowa City, where he is traveling to attend an international writing program, he meets an Israeli author named Yehoshua Bar-On. (It’s difficult not to see this as a reference to the Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua, who once responded to an essay Shammas wrote criticizing the Law of Return by asserting that if he wanted full national rights, Shammas should “arise, take [his] belongings, and move one hundred meters east, to the independent Palestinian state that will exist alongside Israel.”) Bar-On wants to write about Anton, whom he refers to as “My Jew”: “My Jew will be an educated Arab . . . He speaks and writes excellent Hebrew, but within the bounds of the permissible . . . He might be permitted the Kaddish, as it were, but not the Kol Nidre.” Bar-On functions as something of a strawman. With the quip that Anton may be allowed to say the prayer traditionally recited during every service but not a liturgical declaration sung during the holiest days, he takes the position that the novel as a whole seeks to challenge: that Hebrew is irrevocably entangled with Jewishness, and therefore has limited potential as a liberatory tool for a Palestinian. At the same time, Shammas is also wryly acknowledging the stereotype of the “good Arab,” who speaks Hebrew well and earns his conditional inclusion in the Israeli state project—a stereotype Anton, and Shammas, risks fulfilling even while he tries to subvert it.
But Anton’s relationship to Bar-On—and, by extension, to the Israeli literary establishment—is characterized not by a simple antagonism, but instead by an intricate ambivalence. Anton plots with a Jewish Alexandrian writer named Amira to co-write a story and attribute it to Bar-On as an act of spirited revenge; he also deliberately eludes Bar-On, avoiding him and telling him lies. Yet when Bar-On, frustrated by Anton’s attempts to evade him, switches his focus to a writer from Nablus nicknamed Paco whom he says “speaks much more to [his] heart” because “he is still a pure Palestinian, whose strength resides in his simplicity and his lack of cynicism,” Anton is hurt. Having resented his enemy’s attention, Anton feels betrayed by the loss of it. He cannot excise Bar-On’s attention from his sense of self: We might say that the unwieldy intertwinings of the arabesque form allow for no such pure disentanglement.
This fraught intimacy he feels toward his Jewish Israeli counterpart, a mingling of antipathy and attachment, has an unlikely narrative precedent in a particularly memorable moment in “The Tale,” which constitutes the book’s most protracted episode and functions as a kind of primal scene. Ten-year-old Anton has been tasked with clearing the silt from
the cistern before the rainy season in Fassuta, and the episode begins with the flavor of a sexual awakening: “I had a troubled sleep that night, anticipating the adventure awaiting me. In my dream I am lowered down into the dimness, pulled up and drawn back into the light, lowered and pulled up, in and out, back and forth, between the anxiety and the pleasure of discovery that lurked at the bottom of the pit.” When morning comes, he is lowered on the real rope:
I breathe in the chill of the mildew and the ancient odor of the stones and the dark scent of silt rising from the bottom of the cistern . . . I try not to think of the approaching meeting between the soles of my bare feet and the crust over the silt and murky water lying in the pool at the center of the rounded and sloping floor. My eyes have become accustomed to the dimness, and I see my own reflection in reverse rising toward me from within the dark mirror of the pool. Then with a shake of the rope my feet sink into the mirror, which shatters into a myriad of fragments glimmering in the darkness and then begins to build anew the reflection of the square of light that is above my head.
It’s a masterfully vivid passage: The play of light on the “dark mirror” at the bottom of the cistern rises toward us, too, and the fragments that shatter as Anton’s feet enter the water endow the stone well with intense reality. The episode exposes the interplay of self and alterity, desire and loneliness that characterizes the whole novel. When the neighbor’s daughter, Nawal, is sent to help him, Anton is first embarrassed, then resentful—“this enchanted world,” he reflects, “which I alone inhabited . . . would come to an end once I, against my will, had to share it with someone else”—until, finally, he comes to help Nawal balance on the rope, with an awakening, erotic touch. The cistern becomes another motif in the arabesque of the book, and this sentiment reverberates later, like sound inside a well, when Bar-On, contemplating Anton as the subject of his novel, muses on “the loneliness of the Palestinian Arab Israeli” and hits upon an opening line: “Having come to Jerusalem from his village in the Galilee, he learned that, like the coffin, the loneliness of the Arab has room in it for only one person.” But Bar-On is wrong. The loneliness of the Arab is not fortified and fixed; on the contrary, it is constantly being invaded by others, producing the complicated erotics of proximity that mark Shammas’s own experience of Israeli colonialism.
If the loneliness of the Arab is constantly invaded by the Israeli, then the Israeli narrative, too, is open to reappropriation by the Palestinians they seek to control.
If the loneliness of the Arab is constantly invaded by the Israeli—as Anton’s experience is extracted to serve Bar-On’s own narrative ends—then the Israeli narrative, too, is open to reappropriation by the Palestinians they seek to control. Shammas’s use of Hebrew activates the subversive potential in these violent entanglements. In reference to Laylah Khoury—an orphan delivered by the narrator’s father to Beirut, who may or may not have converted to Islam after the Nakba and be living as Surayyah Sa’id in the West Bank—Anton asks: “if the chapter about Laylah Khoury was a closed one in my family’s story, why should I let myself open the diaspora of a past already sealed by forgetfulness?” Where the translation has “diaspora,” Shammas actually uses the phrase “אדמת הנכר”—admat hanekhar (the land of the stranger)—a more direct biblical allusion to exile. But if these terms normally refer to a population scattered outside the homeland, here the image is paradoxically of a diaspora that is contained in time, repressed, forgotten. In claiming the biblical reference, Shammas not only blurs the boundary between Jewish and Palestinian narratives, and complicates the usual order of the spatial and temporal, but also confuses what is inside and what is outside, what is diasporic and what is at home. Palestinians in exile often express longing for الداخل (al-dakhil, the interior)—yet here it is the outside, the diaspora, that is sealed.
Arabesques has never been translated into Arabic. While Shammas has joked that this is because he didn’t want his mother to read it, I suspect he felt the meaning of the work—composed in a Hebrew haunted by Arabic, the mother tongue—was too bound up in its linguistic double vision. In this passage and throughout the novel, Shammas upends the familiar enclosures of the Hebrew language, prying it open so that it might address not only those Palestinians who are physically displaced, but also Palestinian citizens of Israel who are still living on the land. For they too exist in a kind of exile, alienated from their history by a state that denies the reality of the Nakba and which, after the decades of martial law that isolated them from the rest of the Arabic-speaking world, has continued to isolate them culturally through, for instance, banning the import of books from Syria and Lebanon. Their history is sealed like the cave of Ar-Rasad, hidden in the earth beneath their feet, requiring a magic word (an Arabic one) to unseal it. It is a history that links them to the West Bank through networks of trade and family that far predate the founding of the Israeli state, as well as to Lebanon, and to other neighboring Arab countries, often named as enemies of that state. It is a history that is at once diasporic and repressed, and it inevitably returns.
When Shammas expressed this hope that the Jewish settler-colonial state should metamorphose into a pluralistic democracy in 1989, he did so against the backdrop of a seemingly imminent political transformation; the First Intifada, the largest sustained grassroots Palestinian uprising since Israel’s founding, had recently begun. But Shammas soon grew more pessimistic. By 1992, he had left his home in Jerusalem for Ann Arbor, Michigan, never to return—or write another novel. (It would eventually become clear that the famously never-ending peace process that followed the intifada was a sham—or “a conversation between the sword and the neck,” as Palestinian writer and revolutionary Ghassan Kanafani once described the prospect of negotiations.) Shammas’s political disappointment coincided with a change of heart about inhabiting Hebrew. In a 2017 essay in Critical Inquiry titled “Torture into Affidavit, Dispossession into Poetry: On Translating Palestinian Pain,” Shammas explains that he wrote his novel “before the first intifada in 1987—before Muhammad Subhi Ibrahim, Ahmed Jit, and thousands of others were tortured in Hebrew”; now his attitude toward the language had been “totally reconfigured”: “Disillusionment is a nice word, but I’m afraid it doesn’t even start to describe my state of mind.”
In that same essay, Shammas writes that his novel was published at a time “when things and prospects and plans . . . were different.” Still, as with all great novels, the life of Arabesques exceeds the era of its emergence. The two-state solution, with its logics of discrete division, has not looked viable for a long time. As Israel continues its de facto annexation of swaths of the West Bank, which has been whittled down into a series of enclaves only nominally governed by the Palestinian Authority, new forms of Palestinian resistance are taking shape. During the Unity Intifada of May 2021, Palestinians of all legal statuses—across Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank—undermined Israel’s divide-and-conquer strategy by rising up in unified multiplicity against the occupation. In this moment, we have much to learn from Arabesques’s refusal of closure. As Anton says when confronted with the tangled movement of his own narrative: “a story that had apparently come to its end is exposed to a capricious thread, which will draw it into unexpected regions in an adventure whose outcome we cannot foresee.”
Isabella Hammad is the author of The Parisian and Enter Ghost. She has received the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Palestine Book Award and a Lannan Foundation fellowship, among other prizes.