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Anton Shammas : ערבסקות, (Arabesques)

As you will note from the title above, this book was written in Hebrew, not Arabic, though it is very much about the Palestinian experience. This naturally caused a certain amount of controversy. The book has been translated into several languages but not Arabic. It is essentially an autobiographical novel, whose narrator is called Anton Shammas.

Shammas goes back in time to tell the story of his family and continues to more or less the present day, i.e. the 1980s. We start with his grandmother who dies in 1954 when our narrator is four. Grandmother Alia complained all her life of the blind fate that had dumped her in the hands of the wayward Shammas family. Her husband first went off to Brazil for a year, leaving her holding a baby who would become Anton’s Uncle Yusef and then went to Argentina for ten years on the eve of World War I, this time leaving his wife with three daughters and three sons and no money. One of the sons, Uncle Jiryes followed in his father’s footsteps and abandoned his wfe, Almaza, who refused to accompany him and was also left holding a baby, Anton. Jiryes sent her a ticket but she refused to go. She never saw him again and he died in Argentina, with the rumour that he taken a local wife. Anton died very young, though there is a suspicion that he might not have died (this becomes a key sub-plot). Almaza never really recovered from her ordeal.

Anton’s family remember. A lot of this book is about memories. Locks of hair, notebooks, boxes, containing jewellery, clothing, and similar items abound and recall people and events . Anton himself, like other family members, goes off in search of the past and characters come and go. Way back during the British mandate, Anton’s father, a barber, gets a customer who is carrying a rifle which he keeps between his legs while he is being shaved. He is Abdallah al-Asbah, a Palestinian rebel , wanted by the British. His horses are killed on this occasion but he escapes. Allegedly, he is eventually killed by the British but he pops up long after he has supposedly died and Anton even tracks down his wife, whom he knows in another context.

We are given lots of stories of this nature, despite Uncle Yusef who used to say, It is better for a story not to be told, for once it is, it is like a gate that has been left ajar.

The novel is set in a place called Fassuta (Hammas’ home village), near a former crusaders’ castle, where, it is said, there is buried treasure for which an amulet and some magic words are needed to find it.

Many Palestinian novels not surprisingly feature attacks on the Palestinians by the Ottomans, the British and/or the Jews. While we certainly get some here, such as the story of Abdallah al-Asbah, they are far less frequent than in other Palestinian novels in the earlier part of the novel but, inevitably, in the later part, thr British and the Jews are out in force and we see,a s we have seen in other Palestinian novels, the Palestinians struggle to defend themselves in 1948 against superior, better organised and better armed forces. The British resort to torture to gain information. Anton’s family and much of the village are Christian. The Muslims comment Those people from Fassuta were never wholehearted, even when they gave us a bit of help here and there. The rebellion and everything that came in its wake passed right under the upturned noses of those Christians, and they didn’t lift a finger. And when they were kind enough to help out, they did it with a lot of fuss and far too much show. However, despite the religious differences, the two religions sometimes do work together as Uncle Yusef, a devout Catholic, runs a smuggling operation with the MuslimAl-Abed Fathallah.

However, while we are following his early life and, indeed the stories of some of his family members before he was born, we also move to the present day (i.e. the 19080s – the book was published in 1986) where there seem to be two main stories. The first is based in Paris where our hero is staying and involves a Jewish friend of his and a visit to the Père Lachaise cemetery where he finds Proust’s grave (a tribute to his use of Proustian memory?) which, interestingly enough is close to the grave of Mahmoud Al-Hamshari, a PLO representative, who died in Paris. It must have been the French sense of humour that granted both of them, the man of the lost country and the man of the temps perdu, nearly identical graves.

The other main story tales place at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he meets a host of other writers, his Jewish friend behaves badly, he mocks quite few of the various writer, has sexual adventures and quotes the well-known David Lodge statement: Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children. Life is the other way round. But he also comments I’ll write about the loneliness of the Palestinian Arab Israeli, which is the greatest loneliness of all.

Elias Khoury described this book as a novel written in a Hebrew that conceals its Arabic language but doesn’t erase it, while also quoting Clive James: Most first novels are disguised autobiographies; this autobiography is a disguised novel. While it it certainly is a fascinating novel, I found that it rambled around at times, not least jumping between 1980s Paris and Iowa and earlier Palestine. It does have a plot, about identities, and the story of a village, victims of the events of the Nakba as well as a detailed story of Shammas’ complex family and is certainly worth reading.

Publishing history

First published in 1986 byAm Oved
First English translation in 1988 by Harper & Row
Translated by Vivian Eden