In Translation: Arabesques by Anton Shammas (1986) by Anton Shammas

I first tried to read Arabesques when it was assigned in my Middle Eastern Lit class in college- that was more than a decade ago. The semester was almost over, I was swamped by all the other reading and writing that I had to do, and I was about 50 pages in when I just abandoned the poor book. It wasn't grabbing me by the shoulders, and its fragmentary nature left me frustrated. I absolutely hate leaving a book unfinished, but it happens sometimes.

I picked up the novel again a few days ago, determined to read it through, no matter what. After all, I've set a goal for myself that I'll read at least one translated book per month. Shammas's story was just as fragmentary and hard-to-follow as I remembered, but I gave it a chance this time, and it payed off.
Arabesques is a semi-autobiographical exploration of what it means to be an Arab Israeli writing in Hebrew. Take a moment to wrap your brain around that one. Shammas, an Arab Christian, chose to write in Hebrew, rather than Arabic, because, as he once explained in an interview, ''You cannot write about the people whom you love in a language that they understand; you can't write freely. In order not to feel my heroes breathing down my neck all the time, I used Hebrew.''

Moving back and forth between sections entitled "The Tale" and "The Teller," Shammas reconstructs the long and complex history of his own family's movements throughout Lebanon, Israel, and the Palestinian territories since the British Mandate following WWI. Interspersed are descriptions of Shammas's own contemporary journeys to Paris and Iowa to participate in an International Writer's Conference and what it's like to write about your home when you're living thousands of miles away.

Family history and tradition are major preoccupations in Arabesques because they define the writer's identity- who he believes himself to be and who he wishes to become. Living in a part of the world that has seen violence and shifting boundary lines for so long, Shammas's family has had to adapt to changing political environments in order to stay alive. The layers that Shammas creates from memories, histories, and folktales make Arabesques a richly complicated book. The title is absolutely perfect.

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