Life & Culture

Arabesques Book review: Twisting time and place and politics

Anton Shammas' breakthrough novel cleverly interweaves the imagined and the remembered


By Anton Shammas
New York Review of Books, £21.73

Anton Shammas was born in 1950, to a Palestinian father and a Lebanese mother. In 1962, the family moved to Haifa.

In 1968, Shammas moved to Jerusalem and studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He left Jerusalem in 1987 and now lives in the United States, where he teaches and works as a translator of Hebrew, Arabic and English.

Arabesques was his breakthrough novel, originally published in Hebrew in 1986, and has now been republished.

The title is significant. The arabesque is a form of artistic decoration consisting of surface decorations based on rhythmic linear patterns of scrolling and interlacing foliage, tendrils or plain lines, and the word becomes increasingly significant as the book develops, as Shammas writes of stories “twisting and twining in the infinite arabesque of memory”.

Arabesques starts off as an apparently straightforward memoir of a young man who grows up in a rural village in the British Mandate and writes about his large, extended family. It is a powerful story about family and place, especially the rural world of small villages where he grew up.

It is a traditional world of fortune tellers, cobblers, seamstresses, holy men and priests, an interweaving world of Christians, Jews and Muslims, which becomes increasingly violent as the Muslims are expelled from their villages in 1948.

These early chapters are full of moments of high drama: the novel begins with two deaths, the author’s grandmother and then his father; an uncle leaves for Argentina to make his fortune but his wife, Almaza, never joins him; she stands and watches as he sails off and their first-born son soon falls ill and dies (the author is named after him).

Increasingly, however, the novel moves back and forward in time between the 1920s and 1980s. One moment the reader is in a Palestinian village in the early 1950s, the next moment we are in the same village decades later. When Almaza dies 50 years after her son’s death, the pillow upon which he had laid his head during his last days was to be placed in her coffin with her but it had disappeared.

The novel not only moves through time, it also is constantly on the move from one place to another.

A character moves to Argentina, the narrator spends time in Paris and then in America, but the book’s centre of gravity moves between the Galilee Valley and Beirut, Haifa, Alexandria and Jerusalem. You are never quite sure where you are in space or time.

Arabesques becomes increasingly political and literary, reflecting on the expulsion of Palestinians from their traditional communities (without ever addressing the antisemitic riots and the invasions of the new state of Israel) and referring to Israeli writers like AB Yehoshua, Amos Oz and Amichai and great modernists like Proust.

It is full of tricks and complexity. Is it an autobiography or a novel, or both? It cleverly interweaves the imagined and the remembered. Arabesques will delight some and frustrate others, just as the novel’s politics will.

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