Geographies of the Self: Text and Space in Anton Shammas’s Arabesques*

Christian Szyska

After its publication Anton Shammas’s Galilean family saga Arabeskot set in motion intense debates among literary critics about the Jewishness of Hebrew literature. [1] The interest among the general public for this semi-autobiographical novel of an Arab Israeli has been accompanied by ongoing scholarly debate.[1] All critics are aware of the central importance of the spatial dimension in Arabeskot. Like many postmodern texts the narrative’s intertwined threads confound a logic of chronologi­cal and a spatial continuity. In this vein, the representation of passages between different spaces as well as the traversing of boundaries are also fundamental to their structure and message.[1] The text assembles and thus deconstructs narratives which being either politically or religiously encrypted into space, engender partly overlap­ping and antagonistic geographies. These contesting maps were among the causes responsible for having brought forth the narrator’s predicament out of which he strives to escape. He accomplishes this by means of writing the “meandering paths” (ha-drakhim ha-mefutalim) — as one of the text’s recurring metaphors expresses it — as well as by employing his arabesque-like narrative devices. Furthermore, Arabeskot’s narrative technique enables the autobiographical narrator to explore the aspects of his fragmented self as well as to utilize language in order to create an heterotopic spacein which the self can be playfully explored and resituated. This study focuses on the literary representation of space in Shammas’s novel and the relationship between space and text.

When talking about the topic of space in Arabeskot, a novel written in Hebrew within the context of modern Hebrew literatureone inevitably needs to consider the very specific role of this topic in relation to modern Hebrew literature.[1] Here I will refer to Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi’s discussion about space in Jewish literature. She draws upon George Steiner’s thoughts who points out that during the situation of Jewish exile metaphors were used in order to localize “homeland” in the text as expressed in Heinrich Heine’s famous phrase of the “aufgeschriebne Vaterland” (transcribed Fatherland).The truth and the certainty of not being at homein the world in contrast to the “certainty of being at home in the word” is, according to Steiner, the legitimate heritage of the Prophets and the keepers of the text. Strug­gling with the text, each written text is an immigration, a coming home of the Jewish being to his or her self. This aliya(i.e. immigration or return), as DeKoven Ezrahi terms it, precedes the Zionist aliya which territorializes the word and zionizes Jew­ish literature and culture (1993: 469). Through the rites of reading, which are even more valued than those of the pilgrimage, the library becomes — for Steiner, “Israelin the search for truth.” The library is the sacred center of literacy privileged by Exile. Reading becomes an act of veneration. The emerging modern Hebrew, how­ever, undertook the other aliya; followed by the Zionist movementin its endeavor to territorialize the idea of a Jewish state. Characters in modern Hebrew literature embody various “tillers of the soil” who explore the country with the Bible in the hand as a code of memory and a guide. Country sceneries depict a wildernessthat expresses a yearning for nature as a sign of a normal relationship to space. Accord­ing to the Zionist myths, this space is empty or populated with Bedouins, the alter ego, a relict from a past long lost. Modern Hebrew literature strives to imbue con­crete space with an imagined space (DeKoven Ezrahi 1992: 484).

Conversely, the existence of Israelgave rise to a Palestinian literatureno less transfixed by the notion of space, hence developing a whole canon of nationalist literature and a storehouse of metaphors dealing with space — and with the soil — in order to buttress a Palestinian identity and to establish a map of Palestine.[1]

Arabeskot is a story about wanderings. Although it unfolds in the small Christian village Fassuta in upper Galilee, the family saga relates stories of flight, exile, and emigration.Each movement in space is connected to the fate of a particular member of the Shammas family.The story of each family member widens the scope of the family’s sense of territory which, before the establishment of the state of Israel, had extended from Khabab in the southeast of Syriaall the way to South Americawhere certain male family members had settled in the hope for a better life.In terms of its chronological progression the novel moves from the ancestors living under Ottoman rulein the 19th century, through the period of the British mandate, and passes from the war of independence in 1948 to the beginnings of the eighties.Against the backdrop of the family’s geography, the autobiographical narrator takes up the task of exploring the geographic realm marked out in these stories before staking out his own one.

Spaces in Vision

The visions of the nine-year old Elaine Bitar, the future mother of the narrator Anton, lay out an array of metaphors that play a decisive role in his association of space and identity.The fatherless child’s clairvoyant faculties attract the attention of the Lebanese clerics.With the help of a mandal, a spot of oil swimming on the water in a saucer, she is able to see future events as well as hidden places.In her visions she discerns the whereabouts of a hidden treasure and is also able to describe the library books in the clerics’ monastery (20).She chooses, however, not to dis­close a frightening vision concerning her and her son’s future:

 …a child dies and continues to live, it is her son and the son of another woman, a relative of hers, who came to inquire after his well-being.He changed his appearance and grows in her midst, a dead child grows inside of her, a corpse intertwines with her entrails, an upswelling of anxieties impel her to con­sider aborting him until these calm down and stop; twenty years later she will see… (20) 

She conceals this vision in herself just “like the plate with sweets was hidden behind the locked mirror.” Furthermore, one vision involves an “olive-colored bookcase” built into a thick wall out of which a dead child removes both a book and the par­ticular issue of a magazine which had published a report about her visionary capa­bilities as witnessed by the monks from the nearby monastery (20-1).

The central image around which the field of metaphors clusters, is that evoked by the Hebrew word for wardrobe, aron.Besides wardrobe, aron comprises several other meanings, all of which prefigure the narrator’s worlds and, more specifically, his relation to space.For instance aron comprises the meaning of the Ark of the Convenant (as aron ha-brit) as well as the place where the Torah scrolls are kept in a synagogue (aron kodesh).Elaine’s vision of the monastery’s library emphasizes the family’s Christian identity which is shown by its faith and by its veneration of the Bible. Aron also connotes coffin, i.e. aron ha-metim (literally: box of the dead).Death is a central theme in the novel; again and againArabeskot confronts the reader with its imagery.Elaine’s vision about the “dead-living child which grows inside of her” even casts a metaphorical link between aron and the womb.In her vision, Elaine’s feelings toward the unborn child are ambivalent for she has her doubts about carrying through with the birth.Accordingly, she hesitates about granting him a place in herself as well as on earth.The dead child, however, de­mands its space as it were by enmeshing itself into her stomach.

Considering the various intertextual levels of Arabeskot, Elaine’s vision alludes to the Annunciation scenes in Luke1: 26-36.This reference is even more important if we consider that the novel in it’s course repeatedly links female characters with the Virgin Mary, the mother of the Redeemer.As we will see, all these characters appear when the autobiographical character lives or witnesses a thresholdsituation and are instrumental in supporting his re-birth and in assigning him a place.Elaine’s vision discloses another important feature of Arabeskot: the above men­tioned multiple “schizophrenic” personality of its narrator protagonist as expressed in the Doppelgänger-motif.In the course of the novel the role of the Doppelgänger is bestowed on several characters, each of whom mirrors certain qualities of the narrator thus broadening the spectrum of his self-reflection.Mirrors which serve as interfaces between different worlds and a means of self-reflection are found in this scene, namely the mandal and the locked mirror (ha-re’i ha-na’ul) appearing in the vision.Yet, Elaine loses her clairvoyance and thus her connection with other per­ceptual realms. For Anton, though the locked mirror appearing in one of her last visions turns out to be the door of a particular wardrobe in which the key of the aforementioned bookcase is hidden. This key opens up for him — in an analogue to his mother’s visionary prowess — new ways to another world of self-reflection.

The established semantic scope of aron comprising wardrobe — womb— coffindetermines the novel’s beginnings.Its opening scene does not describe the autobio­graphical character’s birth as a possible entrance into his life rather, it recounts Anton’s memories about how Abu Jamil has used the wood of an old wardrobe to fashion a coffin for Anton’s grandmother Alya who had died the day before (9). This scene introduces the autobiographical character in his childhood’s world, the parental house, the village and the landscape surrounding it.And what is even more important, it unleashes the chain of stories that fills these spaces with the character­istics of a home thereby transforming them into places.The second scene relates the agony of the father twenty-four years later.The attendant priest supplicates the Virgin Maryto open the doors of grace for the soul of the moribund father.The rhythmic bumping caused by a passing train accompanies the father’s death acousti­cally, thus making it strangely redolent of a birth-scene.A white moth, an omen for good or evil, symbolizes the soul’s entering the beyond by flying out the room through the door (9-10).The father’s death sets in motion the narrator’s search for identity.During the ceremonies performed on the fortieth day following the death, Anton decides to take up the search for the lost part of an amulet that had been cir­culating among the family members for a long time.This signalizes his desire to re-assemble “parts of the treasure map” i.e. to recollect the map of his own identity (201-2).In “The Story” sections of the novel each episode of the adult autobio­graphical narrator is devoted to the search for Suraya Sa’id/Laila Khoury, whom he finally finds in a refugee-camp in the West Bank wearing the second part of the amulet as a necklace.

Aside from the novel’s commencement many scenes depicting thresholdsitua­tions use the imagery of death.That holds true as well for the narrator’s birth.Al­though the narration is somewhat undramatic, it is clear that the delivery was diffi­cult and that only the midwife’s skillfulness saved Anton’s mother’s life. Anton’s birth reminds Elaine of her erstwhile vision (30).

Childhood Worlds

The world of Anton’s childhood is invested with metaphysical meanings.The Shammas family farmstead is grouped around a rock called Duwara which, accord­ing to a legend, hides the entrance to a cave guarded by a spirit-like rooster with crimson feathers.The villagers tell stories about the cave and how it is filled with treasures left by the crusaders.Moreover, it was precisely in the vicinity of this rock where the little Anton hears that he was named after his aunt’s dead child who later “reappears” in the figure of Michael Abyad (17).

Tools and pieces of furniture are souvenirs from places like Beirut, Damascus, and Argentina.Owing to the founding of the state of Israelin 1948, these little articles evoke memories about the people who first acquired them, how they were brought back to the village and about the family’s lost geographies.The novel re­lates stories which do not only concern the domestic space but are also tied to the surrounding landscape. These stories illustrate that the little Anton’s homeland car­ries the traces of multiple inscriptions.An often quoted example is the explication of the etymology of Anton’s village Fassuta.The history of the toponym is pre­sented as being a kind of amalgam deriving from the ancient Hebrew name Mifshata[1] and the Latin name Fassove which refers to the crusader castle erected there.[1] Arabeskot cites a poem by Eleazer Kalir about its early dwellers, the Ko­hanim Harim, a group of Jewish heretics exiled from Jerusalemafter the destruction of the second temple who came there seeking asylum (15).Thus from its very be­ginning, Fassuta is marked as a place of exile.The English translation of Arabeskot (Shammas 1988: 11) quotes a Latin source describing the place “Bellum videre quod Sarracenie vocatur Fassove”, thus providing additional knowledge about how medieval Muslims called the village.An account of how places are renamed in modern times is revealed in the stories about the neighboring village Deir al-Qasi, from which the Muslim inhabitants were expelled in 1948.Its Hebrew name Elkosh provides evidence of the Israeli re-mapping of space.

Just like the family members’ sense of geography is created through their stories, the village and its surroundings are invested with narratives.An oral variant of the Banu Hilalsaga known in Galilee gives an account of how the famous warriors put up their camp close to the village.The legend links the village to the geography as mapped in the epos about the forays and travels of the legendary tribe. One of the referential palimpsestual texts, the gospel of Luke, resurfaces at this juncture of the narrative when the local saga about the Banu Hilal merges with the biblical allegory of the sower and the story about the sending of the seventy apostles.[1] The heteroge­neous narrative, furthermore, skillfully illustrates how space is enriched with stories in becoming place.When after their long journey, the Banu Hilal shook off the dust from their boots, this piled up to become the hill known as Tel Hlal.Besides this dust the ground also became covered with seeds that grew into trees in whose broad branches birds sang about faraway lands (104-5).

The episode about cleaning the cistern provides another variant of Elaine’s vi­sion of the dead-living child, though at this point it is projected into Anton’s child­hood world and given an additional metaphorical layer.Anton’s repelling down into the cistern resembles a return into the uterus.A neighbor’s daughter of almost the same age, Nawal, joins him in an act of support.Their encounter takes on the form of a sexual initiation, as it awakens Anton’s libidinous consciousness.Besides juxtaposing the mother’s vision to an imagery of the home as a womb, the story extends the Doppelgänger motif to include female characters.And indeed, many of the narrator’s alter egos are female.When Anton at a later point in time on his quest for the amulet finally finds Suraya Sa’id/Layla Khouri, their likewise erotically charged meeting synaesthetically evokes the memories of his encounter with Nawal, thereby linking the metaphors of identities with memories of home.

On the other hand, the description of Anton’s childhood worlds shows a clear tendency to an internalization of space.The country scenery which Reuven Snir has already discussed might serve as an illuminating example: The narrator is sitting on the window sill meditating about the movements which interrupt the pastoral idyll (37).[1] Snir (1995: 172) values this passage as being a “Hebrew description of Israeli country scenery”, and grants that its skillful descriptiveness is just as equal a mas­tery as the prose of Jewish authors in modern Hebrew literature.A fundamental difference is that the quoted scene is the memory of a bygone landscape, whereas Jewish authors use country scenery either in order to express their utopian and ro­mantic visions of landscape or to integrate the new Jewish life into a particular space.Writing these scenes recalls the autobiographical narrator’s memories about Uncle Yusef.He is a crucial character in Arabeskot, since he is the source of most of the family stories.Furthermore, Uncle Yusef instructed Anton how to use the plough.When the narrator later writes down this particular childhood memory, his one hand is holding a writing implement and his other hand counts off the parts of the plough, “As a kind of prayer in the memory of Uncle Yusef” (56-7).Here the act of writing does not only textualize memory, but the highly symbolic instrument of territorialization also becomes — the moment the narrator enumerates the plough’s parts — a holy text, a prayer.The window sill where the narrator is sitting actually serves as the bab al-sirr, a secret door, the emergency exit which one finds in each traditional Arabic house.The narrator tells us that there was another secret door, the door of the olive-colored bookcase built into one of the house’s thick walls (58).As predicted in Elaine’s vision, this particular bookcase was Anton’s and his elder brother’s library.The use of the imagery related to wardrobes and furniture recalls, of course, Gaston Bachelard’s (1960: 108-9) findings in his phenomenological in­terpretation of space in literature.According to him, wardrobes are spaces of iden­tity and inwardness, spaces of a secret psychological life.When Anton and his brother learn how to open the bookcase, they start to explore their identities and the inward aspects of their selves.Furthermore, they gain access to other worlds, such as the world of literature, just as their mother was able to gain access to other worlds with the help of the mandal (17).The way into these worlds remains their secret since they alone know how to get the key to the bookcase: from the dish with the sweets behind the mirrored door of the wardrobe which belonged to their mother’s dowry.As the vision had predicted, Anton discovers the issue of the magazine that had reported about his mother’s extrasensory perception.This does not only certify the credibility of his mother’s vision, it also underscores the importance of the other book he finds in the bookcase: the Arabic translation of Willa Cather’s My Antonia.The famous American pioneer novel about the friendship between Jim Burden and an immigrant Bohemian girl called Antonia Shimerda fascinates the young reader to such an extent that he learns whole passages of it by heart.It is not only the name that indicates that Cather’s character Antonia becomes the narrator’s double in lit­erature rather, her fate as an immigrant girl mirrors Anton’s experience in regard to the shift in language and even in space. In this way twinned with Cather’s character, for Anton the novel becomes his personal guide to the life of letters.

His search for the Hebrew translation of the book in a public library in Jerusa­lem, leads to his first encounter with Shlomith, who is to become his Jewish lover (86-7). Anton’s encounter with Nawal relocated Elaine’s initial vision into his childhood world and translated the image of the wombinto that of the cistern be­neath the parents’ house. Now the visionary image of the library unites Anton with Shlomith in a world of literature.The metaphorical scope of aron is completed when it also encompasses the library.Additionally, Anton’s search for the Hebrew translation of My Antonia expresses his hope to ground his emotional relationship to the text and its world in the linguistic and cultural context of Jewish Israeli society.This displays a movement aiming at a situation similar to the imagery employed by George Steiner who regards the library as a sacred center of Jewish Identity.Con­sidering the tendency of territorialization in modern Hebrew literatureand its ideo­logical implications as shown above, the tragic dimension of Anton’s endeavor becomes clear: his attempt to enter Hebrew literature ends in failure.The reasons for this become apparent during his journey to Iowa City.

Spaces of Passage

“The Teller: Père Lachaise”, being the exposition of “The Teller” sections of the novel (69-100), at first appears to be the narrator’s stopover in Paris on his trip >from Jerusalemto Iowa City where he intends to participate in a international writers’ conference. The chapter is set in the famous Parisian graveyard “Père Lachaise.” As in the novel’s beginnings, this chapteris closely related to death.As a graveyard, the location represents a thresholdbetween different worlds and spatializes the metaphorical scope as evoked by aron.Here the novel’s play of memories, mirror­ing, and projections culminates in the narrator’s walk in the graveyard’s labyrinthine pathways that brings about the narrator’s redemption. Lawrence Durrel’s The Alex­andria Quartet figures prominently as one of the many intertexts resonating in Père Lachaise.[1] The narrators’ situation in both texts is rather similar: the autobiographi­cal narrator writes “harhek mi kol” (far from all this) just like Durrel’s narrator jots down his thoughts “far from it”, i.e., at a considerable distance from the course of the events at the beginnings of the tetralogy (69; Durrel1968: 17, 210). Both works cast four different characters who relate the events.By means of the four characters, the chapter “The Teller: Père Lachaise”, however, unfolds different aspects of the narrator’s self: the narrator, his Lebanese cousin Nadia, the Jewish Israeli writer Yehoshua Bar-On, and Amira, a French writer of Jewish origin from Alexandria.The sections told from the narrator’s perspective all deal with his emotional state and memories which he recalls in the wake of the events taking place during the stopover in Paris.The common subject of his memories are related to passages such as deaths of family members as well as difficult run-ins with Jewish society.[1]

The figure of the Israeli-Jewish writer Yehoshua Bar-On openly parodies Abra­ham B. Yehoshua.[1] Through him the chapter discusses both Anton Shammas’s encounter with the intellectual discourse in Israeland the territoriality of the Hebrew language and touches upon the limitations with which a Hebrew-speaking Arab writer faces with regard to this kind of discourse.[1] Bar-On is the single character appearing in Père Lachaisewho uses the first person in the rambling of his flow of consciousness.Using monological and determining speech, Bar-On expatiates on how he could create an Arab writer character who writes in Hebrew.Bar-On imag­ines that he would limit this fictional writer’s lingual proficiency in the sense that the writer would use Hebrew in the boundaries of the permissible (be-gvulot ha-mutar). These boundaries as Bar On defines them are visible in the Jewish prayer of mourning, the kadish. The Arab writer might speak its Hebrew parts, while its Ara­maic phrases are forbidden to him (82).[1] The same holds true for Yiddish(90). In spite of several attempts Yiddish never completely underwent the processes of na­tionalist standardization for the supporters of Hebrew contested the claims of those who wanted to promote Yiddish as a national language (Breslauer 1995: 59ff.). Franz Kafka, for instance, marveled at Yiddish with regard to its being a subversive language which resisted been forced into any classificatory and grammatical scheme (Kafka 1951: 122). When obliging his character to confine his language to the na­tionalist idiom, Bar-On binds him into the differences inherent in and perpetuated by the Jewish-Israeli discourses on language, and concomitantly, on space.[1] Obviously differences and limitations are not effective outside the nationalist idiom of Hebrew. They do not work in other Jewish languages and dialects such as Aramaic and Yid­dish. Thus it seems logical that Bar-On intends to cast his character against a back­ground of intertexts which are taken entirely from modern Hebrew literature.[1]An Arab character who uses hybrid languages such as Yiddish or Aramaic and is cre­ated on a multivalent intertextual background might slip away from the differences and classifications inherent in the national idiom.These limits imposed by the us­age of language characterize the predicament of the Arab author living and writing in Israel.As a result, the situation is encapsulated in a spatial metaphor. Alluding to Dante Alighieri’s theory about the Hebrew language Bar-On uses the image of the “Babylonian tower of confusion in the language of grace”, which the Arab writer will integrate into Bar On’s plot (83).[1]This allusion contains a certain irony if we consider that, according to Dante’s theory, the Hebrews inherited the Hebrew lan­guage “ut [my emphasis] Redemptor noster, qui ex illis oritorus erat secundum hu­manitatem, non lingua confusionis, sed gratiae frueretur” (Dante 1957: 36).[1] Ac­cording to the logic in Dante’s theory, Bar-On’s figure appears to gain messianic characteristics.On the other hand, Bar-On knows that his character will realize that the “solitude of the Arab resembles the solitude inside a coffin(aron ha-metim), which provides space just enough for one human being” (84). One might conclude that Bar On’s monological discourse attributes to what is metaphorically described by aron.By associating the discourse with the Jewish – Israeli character Bar-On, the autobiographical character frees himself of these boundaries.

The Lebanese cousin Nadia serves as the narrator’s third counter-self.Together with her husband and son she spends a short stay in Paris for thetreatment of her ectopic pregnancy.When the narrator first meets her the encounter resembles an Epiphany of the Virgin Mary(92).Owing to this, she becomes associated with Elaine, her ectopic pregnancy is a variation on Elaine’s vision of the dead-living child.In contrast to Elaine’s child Anton who had intertwined himself into her inert, Nadia’s ectopic pregnancy withholds prenatal space from the fetus.After the sur­gery and the death of the fetus, Nadia imagines the child to be like a little astronaut hovering in outer space whose supply hose suddenly breaks (77).[1] Anton succeeded in claiming his prenatal space and, after birth, struggles to gain a place on earth.The price to be paid for this place, however, is his life in a state of limbo.If one wants to find a political interpretation of the imagery, this condition reflects to a certain extent the situation of an Arab living in Israel.Limited by discursive and geographical boundaries he becomes a member of the strange species of an “Arab Israeli.” The fate of Nadia’s fetus, however, displays another solution to the prob­lem: the ectopic pregnancy clearly defines the boundaries between life and death.Contrary to the fetus her first born son Eliasis alive.

Eliascarries the marks of his namesake.According to aggadic tradition, the Prophet Elias prepares the advent of the Messiah; in Jewish popular belief he is an important figure who eases deliveries. [1]In the New Testament he is associated with John the Baptist.In Islam the figure evokes similar connotations. Initially, the nar­rator seems to dislike Nadia’s son and his characteristics.Only after the three of them visit the Père Lachaisecemetery, does he overcome his reservations.Just as the priest’s prayers to the Virgin Maryopened the gates of grace through which Anton’s father could enter the beyond, Père Lachaise becomes the scene of the nar­rator’s rebirth and his redemption from limbo.On their walk through the labyrin­thine graveyard, Nadia, Elias, and the narrator pass by the tombstones of famous writers. Each tomb serves as a station on the narrator’s way to salvation, the Way of the Cross as it were in reverse. Although it evokes the Passion and the Resurrection, the scene moves the setting from Jerusalemto Paris or — more specifically — into the realm of literature.When talking about his unsuccessful love to Shlomith, Nadia leads him to the tomb of Abélard and Héloïse.In the face of the forlorn lovers who were only reunited in death, the narrator finds solace from his lovesickness.He recognizes that his love for Shlomith is of no avail.[1] Then he gropes for the scar on Nadia’s stomach which had resulted from the ectopic pregnancy operation. This act sets him free from his dead half which used to keep him in limbo.

When they try to find Elias, who had suddenly disappeared, their search brings them to the tomb of Alan Kardec.[1] Alan Kardec’s brand of spiritualism conceives of death either as passage to another incarnation or as one to a better world.Its adherents believe in contacts between spiritual worlds and this actual one.[1] The biblical Prophet Elias and his relation to John the Baptist play an important part in the Kardecist theory of reincarnation. [1]Near Kardec’s tomb Elias encounters the legendary spirit of the supernatural world associated with the Shammas family:the rooster with crimson feathers which slightly injures his face.After Elaine and now Nadia had lost their clairvoyance, only Elias remains in the possession of such pow­ers and it is only through him that the contact to these magical other worlds is maintained.The walk in the cemetary Père Lachaiseis again associated with Elaine’s vision, when the narrator imagines how his lover, the librarian Shlomith, would have walked between the graves, arranging flowers and wreaths, just as she had once organized the books on the shelves in Jerusalem(97).In asking about the relation between death and books the text associates the graveyard with the library and rebirth.

After the encounter with the crimson rooster Eliasseeks refuge in the arms of Amira who is the fourth character in Père Lachaiseembodying the hybrid nature of the autobiographical narrator.In many respects she personifies his own personal ideal. When she talks to her lover Dhimos, her dialogical discourse contrasts sharply with Bar-On’s soliloquy. Like Justine in Durrel’s tetralogy she is an Egyptian Jew from Alexandria who now lives in France.But she is unlike Justine, who in the end flees her Bohemian life in Alexandria in order to seek refuge in a Kibbutz in Pales­tine and live close to the earth (Durrel1968: 191-3).Amira’s hybridity is the source of her creativity as a writer (84). In the realm of language she represents the oppo­site of the narrator moving from Hebrew into the Arabic.When thinking about the inscription on her father’s grave Hebrew appears to her as the language of death. On the other hand, she tells her lover that her father’s Hebrew has merged with her Arabic (84). The closeness becomes ever clear, when the narrator and Amira meet in Iowa City during the international writers conference.Together they compose the first version of “The Teller: Père Lachaise.”

When it becomes clear that Père Lachaiseis a piece of fiction created by the novel’s characters, the chapter is identified as another fictional world than the rest of the novel. The cemetery — according to Michel Foucault the heterotopic space par excellence (Foucault 1991: 68ff) — becomes a spatial metaphor for the thresholdleading to the heterotopic realm of literature.[1] This underscores the interpretation that the narrator’s re-birth or redemption is located in the realm of language and literature where his monological limitations dissolve into the polyphony of dis­courses that can coexist there.

The following chapter of “The Teller” part also marks “The Teller: Père Lacha­ise” as a fictional world different to that presented in the course of the events of the “The Teller” sections.Here Anton visits Père Lachaise as well, but the aim is now the tomb of Marcel Proust.On his way he passes by the gravesite of Mahmoud al-Hamshari. While Rachel Feldhay Brenner regards the proximity of the two tombs as a metaphor for the “historical likeness between Jews and Palestinians,” (1993: 432) Yael Feldman rejects this interpretation.She interprets the text as regarding Proust and al-Hamshari as not sharing anything at all except for similar black marble tomb­stones, and sees an analogy between Jewish and Middle Eastern Christian experi­ences (1999: 383). We can, however, make sense of the similarity between the two graves when drawing a parallel to the other two black stones mentioned in the novel.One of them is the tombstone of Theodor Herzl in Jerusalem, that Abu Shakir, the owner of the quarry close by Fassuta had skillfully excavated (36-7).The other black stone is the Ka’ba in Mecca with which Abu Shakir compares his product (37).All of the four stones are objects of veneration and pilgrimage (37).God’s stone in Mecca and Herzl’s in Jerusalemsymbolize centers of the Muslim world and the materialized utopia of the Jewish state respectively.Both of them represent overlapping inscriptions into space which lead to conflicting boundaries.Mahmoud al-Hamshariwas killed by the Israeli secret service because he was accused of or­ganizing the Munich massacre in the 1972 Olympic games (Calahan 1995: chapt. 3).Needless to say that the grave of the “martyr for the Palestinian cause” documents the territorial claims of the Palestinians.Yet the narrator is not drawn to this, but proceeds to the tomb of Marcel Proust.The “man of the lost time” as the novel names him, is considered to be the inventor of the literary representation of inner time and the exploration of inwardness. Anton’s pilgrimage to his grave implies a rejection of the other places symbolizing religious and political ideologies that strive for the cultural homogenization of their spaces.In these spaces a hybrid identity like his would only be a disturbing element.

Spaces and Literature

After his visit to Marcel Proust’s tomb the narrator travels to Iowa City.Together with Yehoshua Bar-On he arrives at the dormitory “Mayflower” where a woman named Mary Nazareth receives the participants of the international writers’ meeting.Again it is a hardly disguised Virgin Marycharacter who now assigns Anton a “place”.

The scenes of Anton’s arrival in Iowa City are interwoven with whole para­graphs taken from Willa Cather’s My Antonia. This famous pioneer novel – the first book Anton ever read and which he has loved ever since – becomes, after directing him to Jerusalem, his guide to the Midwest.[1] The opening scene of My Antonia, which is quoted at length (123-4; comp.Cather 1935: 5-7), also serves as a subtext to Anton’s meeting with Michael Abyad at the close of the novel’s “The Teller” sections.At this point Michael Abyad gives Anton the folder with the fictitious autobiography adjuring him to “do something with it” (233-4).[1]There are other borrowed scenes from Willa Cather’s novel such as the orphan Jim Burden’s travel to his grandparents who live in the scarcely populated Midwest. While the rhythmic bumping of the passing train lent the initial scene of the father’s agony an atmos­phere of travel and transition, Jim Bur­den feels how the bumping of the train still resonates in his body when he walks with his grandmother to his new home.And just as Jim perceives the landscape as raw material to build a country (126, Cather 1935: 14), the narrator now experiences (world?) literature as the realm that provides the spaces for his stories.The interna­tional writers’ meeting, where literature becomes a kind of lingua franca, relieves Anton of his discursive limitations. I regard his liberation out of the confines of the monological discourse as the reason for his sudden ability to write about his child­hood home.[1]As the text explains, what makes up a home are not the places, things, and scenes which the narrator has already described rather, home does not just con­sist of these places but of the smells, feelings, images, and movements stored in memory; home “touches your skin from the inside” (133). Here the text establishes a linkage between the boundaries of the home and the narrator’s epidermis. The boundaries of both are instrumental in demarcating the space of the self which the narrator is now able to explore. The addressee of his letters, his Jewish lover Shlo­mith, cannot but read his writings in secret.When the secret correspondence be­comes obvious, she asks him to refrain >from sending letters.Even in Iowa City, there are pitfalls on his road to rebirth and redemption. Not only does someone steal his Hebrew language type writer, but also the first draft of “The Teller: Père Lachaise” which he and Amira had written together disappears.Both are discovered later, the typewriter in a washing-machine while the draft is returned to him anony­mously. This might be an ironical allusion to the possibility of “cleansing” Hebrew from its ideological implications.The thief is not found but Anton suspects the Palestinian writer “Paco” while Amira suspects Bar-On.

The liberation of Anton’s writing and language contrasts to Bar-On, who is later excluded from the group.The more Anton integrates into the society of writers, the more Yehoshua Bar-On – after a short-lived friendship with Paco – becomes iso­lated. In the end he even feels compelled to leave the conference secretly.

“The Teller” section comes to a close with Anton’s and Michael Abyad’s meet­ing. The scene transmutes the enigmatic Doppelgänger-motif into the postmodern Borgesian construct of a fragmented author character(Cf.: Feldman 1999: 337), The closing scene of “The Story” section shows another attempt to liberate space from ideologies and histories and to loosen the alleged tight binding of identity and space. After Anton returns from the writers’ conference, he witnesses the blasting of the legendary rock, the duwara, in the yard of the parents’ house.Having found a place in literature, the stories surrounding his identity does not need anymore in­scriptions in physical space. Although the blasting is successful, the myth remains in the sight of a crimson feather falling to the ground.That David, a Jewish Israeli, dynamites the rock, lends the scene a utopian flavor.The novel does not end with­out alluding to another death: that of the story-teller Uncle Yusef.It is, however, the first death in the novel to which Anton is not a witness.After having freed himself from the indeterminate state between life and death death itself lost its grip on his imagination.

This article was first published in:

Erzählter Raum in Literaturen der Islamischen Welt / Narrated Space in Literature of the Islamic World, eds. Roxane Haag-Higuchi & Christian Szyska, Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz, 2001, S. 217-232.

Christian Szyska wrote several articles on Arab autors such as Najib Mahfuz, Najib al-Kilani, Ahmad Ra’if. Publikations: “On Utopian Writing in Nasserist Prisons and Laicist Turkey” in “Die Welt des Islams” 35(1995), “Desire and Denial: Sacred and Profane Spaces in ‘Abd al-Hamid Jawdat al-Sahhar’s Novel In the Caravan of Time in JAIS 2 (1998/9), also see (Desire and Denial by Christian Szyska ). The authors is working on a large projekt on Islamist Intellectuals and Literature.


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Darwish / Qasim /Adonis 1984: Mahmud Darwish, Samih al-Qasim, Adonis, Victims of a Map, trans. by Abdullah al-Udhari, London, Al Saqi Books, Distributed by Zed Press.

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Feldhay Brenner 1999: Rachel Feldhay Brenner, “‚Hidden Transcripts’ Made Public: Israeli Arab Ficton and Its Reception,” in Critical Inquiry 26: 1, pp. 85-108.

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Gass 1988: William H. Gass, “Family Fable in Galilee: ARABESQUES by Anton Shammas,” in The New York Times, April, 17, 1988, Sunday, Late City Final Edition Section 7; p. 1.

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Hever 1990: Hanan Hever, “Hebrew in an Israeli Arab Hand: Six Miniatures on Anton Shammas’s Ara­besques,” in Abdul R. JanMohamed and David Lloyd (eds.), The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse, Oxford et. al., Oxford University Press.

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Hummel 1988: Reinhard Hummel, Reinkarnation. Der Glaube an die Wiedergeburt, Freiburg et. al. Herder Spektrum.

Jacobs 1998: Neil G. Jacobs, “Introduction: A Field of Jewish Geography,” in Shofar 17: 1, pp.1-18.

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Kafka 1951: Franz Kafka, Tagebücher,ed. Max Brod, Frankfurt, S. Fischer Verlag.

Kardec 1987: Allan Kardec, The Gospel According to Spiritism, trans. by J. A. Duncan London, The Headquarters Publishing Co ltd.

Kritz 1990: Reuven Kritz, Erev rav: al sfarim, sofrim,ve-sugyot sifrut, Tel Aviv, Pura Books.

Morahg 1988: Gilead Morahg, “Facing the Wilderness. God and Country in the Fiction of A. B. Ye­hoshua,” in Prooftexts 8: 3, pp. 311-31.

Shammas 1979: Anton Shammas, Shetah hefker, Tel Aviv, Ha-kibbutz ha-me’uhad.

Shammas 1986: Anton Shammas, Arabeskot, Tel Aviv, Am Oved.

Shammas 1988: Anton Shammas, Arabesques, trans. by Vivien Eden, New York, Harper.

Shammas 1990: Anton Shammas, “Exile from a Democracy,” in John Glad (ed.), Literature in Exile, Durham et. al., Duke University Press.

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Snir 1995: Reuven Snir, “‘Hebrew As the Language of Grace’: Arab-Palestinian Writers in Hebrew,” in Prooftexts 15, pp. 163-183.

Snir 1997: Reuven Snir, “’Ani hozeh be-shetah ha-hefker’: yotsrim arvim-filastiniyim ba-lashon ha-ivrit,” in Balshanut Ivrit 41-2, pp. 141-153.

van Leeuwen 1999: Richard van Leeuwen, “The Poet and his Mission: Text and Space in the Prose Works of Mahmud Darwish,” in Stephan Guth, Priska Furrer, and Johann Christoph Bürgel (eds.), Con­scious Voices: Concepts of Writing in the Middle East, Beirut, Steiner (Beiruter Texte und Studien: 72).

  • I would like thank Matthias Radscheit and Rachel Feldhay Brenner who commented on earlier drafts of this paper. Special thanks to Sebastian Gault who patiently edited the article. For the discussion and the reception of Arabeskot among Israeli critics see Kritz 1990: 363-373.

[1] Hanan Hever studies Shammas’s creative writings both in terms of Deleuze/Guattari’s concept of a minor literature based on Kafka’s thoughts on „kleine Literaturen“ and the Hegelian master–slave re­lationship (Hever 1990).Rachel Feldhay Brenner traces the development of the Arab Israeli artist as represented in Arabeskot (1993) and analyzes the critical response to Emile Habibi, Shammas, and Atallah Mansur in Israel(1999).Reuven Snir examines the position of Shammas’s and NaÝÐm ÝArÁÞidÐ’s work in the Hebrew literary system in terms of polysystem theory and states that both writ­ers, remain marginalized due to the incompatible and even hostile cultural systems >from whence they come, although they aesthetically prefer Hebrew as a language of literary expression (1995, 1997).In a recent discussion of the novel’s multiple intertextual layers, Yael Feldman speaks of a postmodern multivalent text and cites as one of many pieces of evidence the schizophrenic nature of the ostensible author who surrounds the narrator protagonist Anton Shammas with several alter egos (Feldman1999: 337).

[1] Compare Reuven Kritz’s reading of the novel’s titleArabeskot.According to him the etymology of the Hebrew word Arabeskot epitomizes the notion of wandering especially if one considers how the word entered the Hebrew language after it passed from Arabic through Italian, French, and other European languages, each of them bestowing upon it certain nuances (1990).A summary of the novel is found in Gass 1988 and in Kritz 1990: 241-267.

[1] For studies in Jewish geography compare Jacobs 1998 and DeKoven Ezrahi 2000, esp. pp. 141-233.

[1] As one of many examples compare Darwish / al-Qasim / Adonis 1984.An interesting study about the relation of space and text in the poems of Mahmud Darwish undertakes van Leeuwen 1999.

[1] According to Höhne 1981 the ancient Jewish name of the place was Mafsheta.

[1] Compare Feldhay Brenner 1993: 437.

[1] Compare Luke8: 5ff, 10: 11,13: 19.I would like to thank Rachel Feldhay Brenner for drawing my attention to this.

[1] “A flock of goats goes out to pasture, like a shimmering black stain, getting farther and farther away, growing smaller and spreading out again and dwindling until it vanishes over the horizon, leaving a wake of dust.A man on his donkey is crossing the valley.A woman walks with a large bundle of fodder on her head, which she has pulled from among the tender tobacco plants.A farmer plows his field with a double-shafted plow hitched to a horse, and goes from one side of the field to the other.Furrow by hidden furrow, he gets nearer to me.Despite the distance, I interpret the motion of the farmer and his plow and his horse as a sort of self-assigned homework that I am doing for Uncle Yusuf, who, when he felt like it, would take me down to the field with him and teach me the secrets of working the land, and the names of the parts that make up the wonderful plow” (56-7, translation quoted in Snir 1997: 172).

[1] Many intertextual references from Durrel’s novel can be found in Arabeskot.Compare for example the character of Hamid, the one-eyed servant of Durrel’s narrator (Durrel1968: 53) who prepares the flight of Justine and Amm Sayyid, the servant of Amira’s family in Alexandria (71).

[1] Compare, for instance, the destruction of his “village world, which he carried in his mind as if it were in his pocket,” when he meets some young Jewish Israelis (86; cf. Balaban 1989: 419). Other examples would be the encounter with Shlomith in the library in Jerusalem(86-87), the narrator’s writing between the traces of two women (69), his father’s death (74-75) which sets in motion his search for identity,as well as his Uncle Yusef’s illness (85-88). A reference to a passage in language is found in the narrator’s dream when he vainly tries to remember the Hebrew word for „help“ (75).Compare the reading of this particular dream in Feldhay Brenner 1993: 440.Interestingly this particular scene is reminiscent of Willa Cather’s Antonia who during a walk tries to warn her friend Jim Burden about an approaching snake and inadvertently shifts to Bohemian when calling him(Cather 1935: 45).

[1] Compare Feldhay Brenner 1993: 435ff.Anton Shammas had some debates with A. B. Yehoshua about the Jewishness of Israel, cf. Hever 1990: 274-5.

[1] For the discussion of Shammas’s and Araidi’s usage of Hebrew and their position in Hebrew literaturecompare Hever 1990, Snir1995 and 1997 and the references given there.

[1] Cf. Feldhay Brenner 1993: 346f.

[1] Compare the discussion of the relation of language, nation and space in Schammas 1995: “Nations who have a state, can have a claim to a language, a voice, a discourse. […] On the other hand, stateless nations cannot have a claim to a language, but have to make do with a dialect, that has no voice, has no discourse. And what turns a dialect, Palestinian or otherwise, into a language — to quote a famous aphorism — is an army, an air-force, and a navy. Short of that, a dialect, in this waning age of nation-states, is doomed to remain a noise, a pseudo-nationalistic gibberish.The Palestinians of Israelwill never have an army, let alone an air-force or a navy.For better or for worse, the solution for their problems has to be found within the very frame that has been responsible for the creation of their problems in the first place.”

[1] Compare the references to works of Amos Oz, Moshe Smilanski, S. Yizhar, and A. B. Jehoshua (76, 82).

[1] A. B. Yehoshua discussed in both his literature and his essays the relation of God, Judaism, and space. Compare Morahg 1988.

[1] The quotation can be found in De Vulgari Eloquentia I vi 5-7.See: Dante Alighieri (1957,VI: 36) Shammas repeatedly employs the image of the Babylonian tower of confusion and the language of grace in order to describe his situation as an Arab Hebrew writer.In Shammas (1990: 85) he gives the following translation of the quotation above. Interestingly, the translation quoted by Shammas skips or modifies the phrases added here in brackets: “… in order that our Redeemer [who in his second human nature descended from this people (i.e the Hebrew people C.S.)] might use [or enjoy, C.S.], not the language of confusion, but of Grace.” He emphasizes that, on the one hand, his creative writing in the language of the conqueror leads to a dead end, but, on the other hand, his writing is his vengeance(1990: 85-6). Compare the discussion about the colonized subject’s subversion of the hegemonic language in Feldhay Brenner 1994: 435-6 and Snir 1995: 163-183.

[1] One might see here an allusion to the famous novel The Pessoptimist of Emile Habibi.At its beginnings the narrator meets an alien obviously coming from outer space (Habibi 1980: 7).

[1] Cf. Encyclopeadia Judaica 632ff.

[1] The fate of Abélard and Héloïse evokes of course the Arabic stories of the udhrite lovers, whose usual fate was to be reunited only after death.Eliastherefore names Abelard “Abu Louise”.The Platonic lover usually receives the name of his beloved as a second name (Cf. Jayyusi 1983: 421).Amira later asks Anton whether he is composing poems for Layla, the beloved of Majnun and one of the most famous characters in Arabic literature (131).

[1] Nadia mentions that Eliaslikes the tomb of Victor Noir most.This might be a delicate detail since the sculpture lying on the tomb represents the dying young journalist.The sculpture naturally represents the victim’s last erection in the moment of death.Nowadays some visitors expect to increase either their sexual potency or their fecundity by touching the sculpture’s nether regions.

[1] The Kardecism and its reincarnation teachings perceive death as a passage from one ontological level to the other.After death the individual is transformed into an ethereal body, which looks back on life while standing on a white stone.If the ethereal being recognizes him/herself, he/she will be reincarnated on a higher level (Hummel 1988: 81ff.).

[1] Cf. Kardec 1987: 45-49.

[1] For literature as „Heterotopia“ Cf. Görling 1997.

[1] The Hebrew expression used for Midwest ma’arav ha-tikhon inverts mizrah ha-tikhonMiddle East.

[1] Compare the discussion of the question of authorship in Feldhay Brenner 1993 and Feldman 1999.

[1] The search for his world of childhood is a recurrent motif in the writings of Shammas.Cf. his poetry in shetah hefker (1979).

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