The main themes in Arabesques include otherness, the illusion of truth, and victimization.
- Otherness: Shammas’s intersection of identities—he is an Israeli Arab Christian who writes in Hebrew—places him at adds with the standard ethnic, national, and religious stances of his region.
- The illusion of truth: The book blurs the distinction bewteen fact, fiction, and memory even as its narrator seeks to draw those same distinctions.
- Victimization: The dynanimc between victim and victimizer plays out at the political and personal levels.
Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The theme of Otherness is an essential element of Arabesques and in many ways defines the protagonist and the narrative voice. Anton Shammas is an Arab, a member of a people who at least since 1948 have considered themselves defeated and victimized in the context of Israel. But he is also a Christian, a minority segment of the Arab population that has been historically persecuted during periods when Arab lands were part of the Muslim-controlled Ottoman Empire. Finally, Anton is an Arab Israeli. This is a different status from that of being merely “Palestinian”—or even that of most Arabs who are Israeli citizens—because Shammas writes in Hebrew and is in some sense a supra-national figure. Though the author does not self-consciously emphasize his anomalous position, there is no doubt that he is influenced by it, especially in his obsession with Laylah Khoury, the mysterious Arab orphan who migrates between the Christian and Muslim worlds and who is perceived as holding the key to Anton’s own identity.
The Illusion of Truth
The novel repeatedly poses questions as to what is real, what has been transformed by memory, and what has been transformed by the imagination. A primary symbol of this theme is the boulder in Anton’s village that is said to conceal a golden treasure left by the Crusaders—it is unclear whether such a treasure is real, partially real but altered through time, or entirely fictive. In general, most of the action of the book takes place before the narrator, Anton, is born. In the case of past events, it is often unclear whether Anton is forging details, reinterpreting them, or conveying second- and third-hand accounts. Finally, the final truth about the “first” Anton, the baby said to have died and after whom the protagonist is named, is left ambiguous. Even the identity of the real narrator, the one telling us the story, is in doubt. After all, at the conclusion Michael Abyad gives Anton a manuscript of his ownstory of the “fictitious name” of the person Anton believes him to be. Thus there is a possibility that Arabesques is Michael’s story, disguised as Anton’s.
Arabesques blurs the usual distinctions among literary genres. Readers may wonder whether the book is a novel, a memoir, or a historiography—or all three. Moreover, readers may wonder to what extent those modes can truly be separated. Shammas implicitly poses these questions while spinning an intricate narrative, a literary equivalent of an arabesque: a complex visual design of interwoven patterns. The title conveys a double entendre: in addition to the novel’s arabesque form, the principal characters are Arabs, and the book is as much a chronicle of twentieth-century Arab history as it is the personal story of the Shammas family.
Shammas confronts readers with the ambiguity of what it means to be either a victim or a victimizer. The massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps outside Beirut in 1982 is a central event in the novel, though it is alluded to only through a photograph Anton sees in Time Magazine depicting Michael Abyad as he surveys the destruction. As Anton muses on the identity of Abyad, his cousin Ameen tells him that Abyad, if he really is their relative, should not be sympathizing with the Muslim victims of the massacre (who were killed by the Christian Phalangists). Ameen reasons that it was Muslims who had relentlessly persecuted and massacred Christians for centuries. Though Shammas does not focus preeminently upon the ongoing Israeli-Arab conflict, the same theme of victimization and its significance is implicit in the novel’s historical context: the historically persecuted...
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Jewish people are triumphant and regain the land which had belonged to them in the past.
The theme of victimization on a personal level affects the female characters of multiple generations. Grandmother Alia, Aunt Almaza, and Laylah Khoury are all victims of abandonment, and Laylah is a victim of molestation.
The Brotherhood of Humanity
In the subplot dealing with the International Writing Program, Shammas depicts a gathering of writers from different parts of the world: the Middle East, the Philippines, China, the Netherlands, Ireland, and elsewhere. That they convene in a place as peaceful as the American Midwest, in Iowa City, frames the United States as a haven from Europe and Asia. It also enables Shammas to show that there is an essential likeness among all people, regardless of their backgrounds and nationalities. But amid this likeness and harmoniousness, there is also the potential of conflict, and the quasi-triangle that develops among Anton, Amira, and Yehoshua is itself a metaphor and metonymy of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Thus brotherhood in some sense leads to its opposite. To put it another way, love and conflict can be viewed as two sides of the same coin.
History as Circular
In his reference to the Crusaders and to the religious wars of the 1860s in Lebanon, Shammas links the present turmoil of the region to that of the distant past. In this way, he examines history as a repetitive process. Different peoples across different eras fight over the same land again and again.
The land has been variously ruled by Arabs, Turks, Europeans, and Israelis—and by Muslims, Christians, and Jews. This higher-level action is mirrored by the personal and familial conflicts the author observes. For example, Anton’s grandfather abandoned his grandmother Alia on the eve of the First World War and went to South America, not to return for another ten years. We see this abandonment repeated by Anto’s Uncle Jiryes, who leaves his wife Almaza alone with her baby, the first Anton. There is also Anton’s tense affair with Shlomith, a Jewish woman. And at the heart of these actions—both by nations and individuals—there is a deeper mystery that is reflected in the unknowns of Shammas’s story: the identity of Michael Abyad; the secret of the ancient cave upon which the great boulder rests; and the history of the mysterious Laylah, who is in some sense the key to Anton’s own inner and repetitive conflicts.