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.
Last Updated September 5, 2023.
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.
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 storyline is offset by a secondary narrative beginning in the first of the sections titled “The Teller.” The scene shifts to Paris, where other characters are introduced: Amira, a Jewish young lady who is French but born in Alexandria; and an Israeli writer named...
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Yehoshua Bar-On, who wishes to make Anton the subject of a book on “the Israeli Arab.” The connecting element among Anton, Amira, and Yehoshua is that they are all headed to the American Midwest in order to attend a writers’ symposium.
When the narrative of “The Tale” continues, the action shifts back to 1948 and the defeat of the Arab forces by Israel. The setting is the Shammas family’s home village, Fassuta, an Arab community that is now part of Israel. The focus of the action is a resident named Abu Shacker. A mysterious informer, whose face is hidden by a burlap mask, passes Shacker by, although it is assumed that Shacker will be turned over to the Israelis. Despite their expectation of being deported, the residents of Fassuta offer a ransom to the Israelis and are allowed to remain in their village.
The subsequent “The Teller” sections of the novel are subtitled “The Mayflower,” the name of the hotel in Iowa where the travelers gather for the International Writers Conference. Anton meets writers from Ireland, the Philippines, the Netherlands, and China, as well as others from the Middle East. A romantic triangle of sorts develops among Anton, Yehoshua, and Amira, although Anton’s thoughts are partly occupied by a married Israeli woman named Shlomith, with whom he has been in a relationship. The American setting, with its relative newness and innocence, is placed in deliberate contrast to the home countries of the European and Asian attendees. The section’s most pivotal developments are that Anton is told by Shlomith that her husband has discovered the letters Anton has sent her and that a “man named Michael Abyad is interested in meeting” him.
But the proposed meeting is delayed in the narrative. The “Tale Continued” sections recount more of the Shammas family history before Anton’s birth, including his father’s purchase of property in Haifa as early as 1947. However, because of the war, the Shammas family does not move to Haifa for another fifteen years. The narration of Anton’s pre-history runs parallel to his own journey, and in the “Tale Concluded” there is a merging of past, present, and future. Anton locates and speaks at length with Surayyah Sa’id, the former Laylah Khoury. Surayyah tells Anton the story of the baby adopted by the Abyads. What has so far been only inferred is only now established as “truth.” And—in Iowa—Anton finally meets with Michael Abyad, in whom he believes he has found the “first” Anton, another version of himself and a kind of older Doppelgänger. But the absolute facts of Michael’s—and the “first” Anton’s—origins are still open to interpretation. It is a mystery like that of the boulder covering the Crusaders’ treasure. In the epilogue the boulder is finally exploded, but what it reveals within the cave is as much in doubt as the story of the two Antons.