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Arabesques by Anton Shammas: A Novel of Identity, Memory and History
Arabesques is a novel by Anton Shammas, a Palestinian Christian writer who writes in Hebrew. It was first published in Israel in 1986 and translated into English in 1988. It is considered a groundbreaking work of literature that explores the complex and multifaceted aspects of Palestinian identity, history and culture.
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What is Arabesques about?
Arabesques is not a conventional novel with a linear plot and a clear genre. Rather, it is a hybrid form of fiction that combines autobiography, historical narrative, folklore, poetry, literary criticism and metafiction. It blurs the boundaries between reality and imagination, between fact and fiction, between past and present.
The plot of Arabesques
The novel revolves around the narrator, Anton Shammas, who shares his name and some biographical details with the author. He tells the story of his family and his village in Galilee, from the Ottoman era to the present day. He also recounts his personal journey as a writer and a traveler, from Israel to New York to Iowa.
The novel is divided into four parts, each corresponding to a different season and a different location. The first part, "Winter", takes place in New York, where Anton meets his cousin Alex, who has escaped from an Israeli prison after being accused of terrorism. The second part, "Spring", takes place in Iowa, where Anton attends a writers' workshop and falls in love with an American woman named Barbara. The third part, "Summer", takes place in Israel, where Anton returns to his village and confronts his family's past and present. The fourth part, "Autumn", takes place in Paris, where Anton meets his uncle Yusuf, who has been living in exile since 1948.
The style and structure of Arabesques
The novel is written in a rich and poetic language that blends Hebrew, Arabic, English and French. It also incorporates various literary forms and genres, such as letters, diaries, essays, poems, songs, jokes, anecdotes and quotations. It uses multiple narrators and perspectives, shifting from first-person to third-person, from omniscient to unreliable.
The novel also plays with the conventions of fiction and reality, breaking the fourth wall and addressing the reader directly. It questions the authenticity and authority of its own narration, revealing its sources and influences, its gaps and contradictions, its inventions and revisions. It challenges the notions of identity and memory, showing how they are constructed and reconstructed through stories.
The themes and motifs of Arabesques
The novel explores various themes and motifs that relate to the Palestinian experience, such as displacement, exile, resistance, survival, belonging, hybridity, diversity and creativity. It also reflects on the role of literature and language in shaping and expressing one's identity and culture.
Some of the recurring motifs in the novel are the arabesque, the olive tree, the map and the book. The arabesque is a decorative pattern that consists of interlocking geometric shapes and floral motifs. It symbolizes the complexity and beauty of the Palestinian culture, as well as its connection to the Arab and Islamic heritage. The olive tree is a sacred and ancient plant that represents the Palestinian land, history and resilience. It also signifies the family tree and the genealogy of the narrator. The map is a visual representation of the geography and politics of the region, as well as the personal and collective journeys of the characters. It also implies the changing and contested borders and boundaries of Palestine and Israel. The book is a medium of communication and expression, as well as a source of knowledge and inspiration. It also refers to the novel itself, as well as its intertextual relations with other books.
Who is Anton Shammas?
Anton Shammas is not only the narrator and the protagonist of Arabesques, but also its author and its subject. He is a Palestinian Christian who writes in Hebrew, a minority within a minority within a minority. He is also a renowned writer, translator, editor and critic, who has contributed to the Israeli and international literary scene.
His biography and background
Anton Shammas was born in 1950 in Fassuta, a Christian Arab village in Upper Galilee, Israel. He grew up in a bilingual and bicultural environment, speaking Arabic at home and Hebrew at school. He studied English literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and began his literary career as a poet, publishing his first collection of poems in 1974.
He later moved to Tel Aviv, where he worked as an editor for several literary magazines and newspapers. He also translated many works of literature from Arabic, English and French into Hebrew, including those by Mahmoud Darwish, Edward Said, Samuel Beckett and Marcel Proust. He received several awards and honors for his literary achievements, such as the Prime Minister's Prize for Hebrew Literature in 1987.
In 1987, he published his first and only novel, Arabesques, which was a critical and commercial success in Israel and abroad. It was translated into more than a dozen languages and nominated for several prestigious prizes, such as the National Jewish Book Award in 1988. It also sparked controversy and debate among critics and readers, especially regarding its political implications and its linguistic choices.
In 1989, he moved to the United States, where he taught Hebrew literature at various universities, such as Princeton, Michigan and Stanford. He also continued to write essays, articles and reviews for various publications, such as The New York Times, The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
His literary influences and achievements
Anton Shammas is widely regarded as one of the most original and influential writers in contemporary Hebrew literature. He has been praised for his innovative style, his poetic language, his intercultural sensibility and his literary erudition. He has been compared to writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie.
He has also been recognized for his contribution to the development of Palestinian literature in Hebrew, a genre that emerged in the late 20th century among Palestinian citizens of Israel who write in Hebrew rather than Arabic. He has been seen as a pioneer and a mentor for other Palestinian writers in Hebrew, such as Sayed Kashua, Ala Hlehel and Ayman Sikseck.
He has also been influential in promoting dialogue and understanding between Israeli and Palestinian cultures through literature. He has participated in many literary events and initiatives that bring together writers from both sides of the conflict, such as the Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest) and Breaking the Silence (Shovrim Shtika). He has also advocated for peace and justice in his writings and interviews.
His views on Palestinian identity and culture
Anton Shammas has expressed his views on Palestinian identity and culture in various ways throughout his life and work. He has identified himself as a Palestinian Christian who writes in Hebrew, a complex identity that reflects his personal history and his political stance. He has also challenged the binary oppositions that often define the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, such as Arab/Jew, East/West, victim/oppressor.
He has argued that Palestinian identity is not monolithic or homogeneous, but rather diverse and heterogeneous. He has emphasized the plurality and multiplicity of Palestinian voices, experiences and perspectives. He has also highlighted the commonalities and connections between Palestinians and other peoples in the region and beyond.
Recommendations for further reading
If you enjoyed reading Arabesques by Anton Shammas, you might also like these books that are related to the topic or the genre of the novel:
The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine. A novel that tells the stories of a Lebanese-American man who returns to Beirut to visit his dying father, and of his ancestors who lived in the Middle East for centuries. It is a novel that mixes history, mythology, folklore and fiction.
Gate of the Sun by Elias Khoury. A novel that narrates the life and love of a Palestinian fighter who is in a coma after being shot by Israeli soldiers, and of his friend who tries to keep him alive by telling him stories. It is a novel that depicts the history and tragedy of the Palestinian people.
The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany. A novel that portrays the lives and struggles of various characters who live or work in an old apartment building in Cairo. It is a novel that explores the social and political issues of contemporary Egypt.
Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie. A novel that follows the fate and adventures of a boy who was born at the exact moment of India's independence from British rule, and who has telepathic powers that link him to other children who share his birthday. It is a novel that blends realism, magic, history and fantasy.
The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk. A novel that chronicles the obsessive love of a wealthy Turkish man for a poor distant relative, and his collection of objects that remind him of her. It is a novel that reflects on the culture and history of Istanbul.
Here are some frequently asked questions (FAQs) about Arabesques by Anton Shammas and their answers:
Why did Anton Shammas choose to write in Hebrew rather than Arabic?
Anton Shammas has said that he chose to write in Hebrew because it was his natural and spontaneous language, as he grew up speaking it at school and reading it in books. He has also said that he wanted to challenge the stereotypes and prejudices that associate Hebrew with Jewishness and Arabic with Arabness. He has also said that he wanted to create a dialogue and a bridge between the two cultures through literature.
How did Arabesques influence other Palestinian writers in Hebrew?
Arabesques influenced other Palestinian writers in Hebrew by opening new possibilities and perspectives for them. It showed them that they could write in Hebrew without losing their Palestinian identity or culture. It also showed them that they could experiment with different forms and genres of fiction, and express their views and experiences in creative ways.
How did Arabesques contribute to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?
Arabesques contributed to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process by raising awareness and understanding among Israeli readers about the Palestinian people, their history and their culture. It also contributed by creating a space for dialogue and exchange between Israeli and Palestinian writers, intellectuals and activists. It also contributed by promoting a vision of coexistence and cooperation between the two peoples.
What are some of the challenges and difficulties of translating Arabesques into other languages?
Some of the challenges and difficulties of translating Arabesques into other languages are related to its linguistic complexity and diversity, its intertextual references and its cultural specificity. For example, how to render the mixture of Hebrew, Arabic, English and French in the original text? How to convey the meaning and effect of the quotations from various sources? How to adapt the cultural terms and expressions to different contexts?
What are some of the criticisms and controversies that Arabesques faced?
Some of the criticisms and controversies that Arabesques faced were related to its political implications and its linguistic choices. For example, some critics accused Shammas of being disloyal or traitorous to his Palestinian people by writing in Hebrew or by portraying them in a negative or stereotypical way. Some critics also accused him of being elitist or alienated from his Palestinian culture by using a sophisticated or foreign language or by adopting a Western literary style.