by Anton Shammas

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Arabesques Characters

The main characters in Arabesques are Anton Shammas, Laylah Khoury, and Michael Abyad.

  • Anton Shammas is the protagonist, narrator, and author of the text. He is deeply curious about his ancestral past and has a writer’s penchant for detail and anecdote.
  • Laylah Khoury was, as an orphaned girl, escorted to her new family by Anton’s father. Anton now believes she holds the secret of his namesake.
  • Michael Abyad is an American writer and researcher of Palestinian origin. As an adult, Anton meets Michael, whom he suspects may be his lost cousin and namesake.


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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 813

Anton Shammas

Anton is the protagonist and the central narrative voice of Arabesques. He is from a Maronite (Roman Catholic) Arab family and was born in the village of Fassuta in Galilee around the year 1950. He is a writer, though little of the novel deals specifically with his working life. At the age of twelve, he and his family move to the city of Haifa, in Israel. Anton clearly is a dreamer. As a boy and as a young man his thoughts revolve around family history, secrets, and the effects of history on the land and its people. He is a Christian Arab but also an Israeli citizen and identifies with the Israeli culture.

Laylah Khoury

Laylah Khoury is the orphan girl adopted by the Bitars. (Laylah is Arabic for “night.”) Her history fascinates Anton, because he senses that she is the key to a secret within the Shammas family regarding the “first Anton,” the son of Anton’s uncle Jiryes and aunt Almaza. This Anton reputedly died as an infant. Hanna, Anton’s father, escorts the ten-year-old Laylah north to Lebanon to the Bitar family. In 1948 Laylah, now a young woman, returns to Galilee during the Arab-Israeli War. She is deported to Jordan, where she then marries a Muslim man named Sa’id and converts to Islam, taking the first name Surayyah. She is the mother of deaf-mute twin boys, whom she cares for into adulthood. 

Michael (or Michel) Abyad

Michael Abyad is a Palestinian-American writer/researcher. Anton sees a photograph in Time Magazine of Michael at the site of the massacre in the Sabra refugee camp outside Beirut. Even before a definitive answer is given, Anton senses that Michael is the “first Anton,” his cousin who supposedly died as a baby but was actually adopted by the Abyad family and sent to America in 1948. When Anton finally meets him face to face, Michael tells Anton that he has himself written a manuscript about their story. Michael is a Doppelgänger presence, an alter-ego of Anton. In a metafictional sense, the question arises as to who the author of the Arabesques narrative really is: Anton or Michael. 

Hanna Shammas

Hanna Shammas is Anton’s father. By trade he is first a barber and later a cobbler. The text suggests he is a good man—responsible and devoted to his family. 

Elaine Bitar Shammas

Elaine Shammas is Anton’s mother. Unlike the Galilean Shammas family, the Bitars are Lebanese, living first in the city of Tyre and then in Beirut. In the mid 1930s as a young woman Elaine is sent south to Fassuta in order to teach French in a girls’ school. By this time, however, she has already met Hanna, who had gone to Lebanon to escort a young orphan girl who is to be adopted by the Bitar family.

Grandmother Alia

Alia is Anton’s paternal grandmother. The story opens at the time of her death in 1954. 

Jiryes Shammas

Jiryes Shammas is Anton’s paternal uncle. He and his wife, Almaza, are the parents of the first Anton Shammas, who is supposed to have died as an infant. Jiryes leaves Almaza and sails to Argentina, and Almaza must then give the baby up for adoption to the wealthy Abyad family, for whom she will work as a maid. 

Mlle Sa’da

Mlle Sa’da is a woman described as “a nun of sorts” who works for the church diocese and is made the headmistress of an orphanage. It is from this orphanage that Laylah is taken in order to be adopted by the Bitar family. Mlle Sa’da is an abusive woman, and late in...

(This entire section contains 813 words.)

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the story we learn that she molested Laylah repeatedly.

Abdallah Al-Asbah

Abdallah Al-Asbah is one of the soldiers of the Arab Rebellion against the British in the 1930s. A chance event places him in the Shammas family memory: he was a customer in Hanna’s barbershop during a shooting incident in the years of the rebellion. It is later learned that Abdallah becomes the father-in-law of Laylah/Surayyah.


Nawal is a girl in Fassuta with whom Anton has his first sexual experience.

Yehoshua Bar-On

Yehoshua is an Israeli writer who attends the International Writing Conference in the US, along with Anton and others. Initially, Yehoshua (the name is the Hebrew form of “Jesus”) wishes to write a book about Anton—a kind of cross-cultural study—but he seems to abandon the idea when conflicts arise between them.


Another attendee at the writers’ symposium, Zamira is Jewish and French but was born in Alexandria, Egypt. She is to some extent a symbol of a kind of unified diversity of cultures: she is at once Jewish, European, and Arab. Both Anton and Yehoshua are attracted to her, and the ensuing romantic triangle can be seen as a metaphor for the conflict over the Holy Land.