Arabesques Summary

Arabesques is a book—part novel, part memoir—by Anton Shammas that traces the complexities of the author’s family history and homeland.

  • In the “Tale” sections, Shammas evokes describes Anton's upbringing in Galilee, traces the stories of his elders, and pursues the mystery of his namesake.
  • The ”Teller” sections follow Anton, now an adult and a writer, in his travels in Paris and Iowa City, where he attends a writer’s conference and meets the man who may be his cousin and namesake.


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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1097

Anton Shammas’s Arabesques is a complex work dealing with the interrelationships and cross-generational conflicts among members of the author’s family and other residents of Palestine, Lebanon, and Israel throughout much of the twentieth century.

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Shammas organizes his novel into a series of sections alternately labeled “The Tale” and “The Teller.” The multi-chapter “Tale” segments give us the principal storyline, told in the first person by Anton Shammas, whose role as a version of the author himself is foregrounded by his identical name. Anton, born around 1950, is from a Lebanese-Palestinian family who are Maronite (Roman Catholic) Christians.

The narrative proper begins in 1954 with the death of Anton’s paternal grandmother, Alia. This event is the fulcrum of the action, and from this central point the story moves backwards and forwards in time. Anton tells of Alia’s life: she was born in 1874, and her husband was fourteen years older. On the eve of World War I, Jubran, Alia’s husband and Anton’s grandfather, vanishes for about ten years, “leaving behind three daughters and three sons, all of them hungry.” Of the three sons, Hanna is to be Anton’s father. The Shammas family lives in the village of Fassuta in Galilee, where Hanna works first as a barber and then a cobbler. In 1936 Hanna is tasked with escorting a young orphan girl named Laylah Khoury to Lebanon, where she will be adopted by the Bitar family. As a result he meets and eventually marries one of the Bitar daughters, Elaine, who will be Anton's mother.

In Anton’s pre-history and childhood two primary elements stand out. Of special significance is the reference to a boulder in Fassuta that is said to conceal a cave in which a mass of golden treasure lies, having been buried there by the Crusaders. But perhaps Anton’s most significant reflections involve a mystery within the Shammas family of the previous “Anton,” the son of his Uncle Jiryes and his wife, Almaza. That Anton had supposedly died as an infant in 1929 and became the narrator’s namesake.

Evidence emerges gradually that the first Anton possibly did not actually die. The key to the mystery is Laylah Khoury, the blonde orphan girl Anton’s father had taken to be raised by the Bitars. Anton becomes obsessed with the story of what has become of Laylah. It is revealed that in the late 1940s Laylah married a man named Sa’id and converted to Islam, taking the first name Surayyah. The story jumps forward to the early 1980s when Anton, now a man of about thirty, travels with a friend to a village in the West Bank where he believes Laylah/Surayyah is living. Anton describes a meeting with her in which she reveals to him that the “first Anton” is still alive. But after this chapter, Anton reveals that the meeting did not actually occur and that it was merely “a tale.”

Anton turns his attention to a man named Dr. Michael Abyad, an American shown in a Time Magazine photograph of the aftermath of the destruction at the Sabra refugee camp outside Beirut in 1982. His aunt (by marriage) Almaza had worked as a maid for the wealthy Abyad family after her husband, Anton’s uncle Jiryes, left her and sailed to Argentina—much as Grandfather Jubran did to Grandmother Alia.

At this point in Arabesques the principal...

(The entire section contains 1097 words.)

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