Theme and Coherence in Arabesques by Anton Shammas
Knowing the elements of Arabesques (1986), authored by Anton Shammas, clarifies the meaning of the ancient art form as well as enlightens the reader on the significance of the novel. His purpose, technique, and message are intertwined with the theme of Arabesques. The punning of arabesque fits the heterogeneous design of the book. First of all, an ‘arabesque’ is a quilted pattern with forms and shapes which are likened to nature. Arabesques trace its origins to Muslim artwork where the temples of worship would be decorated by them. Referring to one of the main characters, Michael Abyad, Shammas likens him to one who “has silently woven himself into my life where the magic thread of Shlomith has come undone and unravels in my hands (Shammas 2001). The fabric of society is woven by Shammas as a skilful knitter putting together apparent disparate pieces of material to form a new, synthesized one.
In this work of literature, Arabesques undoubtedly points to the root word Arab with which we culturally associate with Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab world. Shammas avows that “now I find that what I had imagined to have been only a web woven upon the warp of reality with the woof of fantasy was no longer obedient to his maker” (Shammas 2001). Spirituality and intricate beauty are interwoven in Arabesques since its context reflects a religious tradition and ultimately transposes a worldview. Muslims take arabesques to mean the infinite God and the diversified complexity of the universe. The arabesques designs come replete with repetitions, transitions, and uniqueness which encompass three major fields: Art, Calligraphy, Mathematics, and Religion.
In the microcosm, Shammas paints a picture of the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians through the relationship between Yehoshua Bar-On and a Palestinian. Shammas says that at first “they had commenced on mutual reservations, and progressed to loud arguments more” (Shammas 2001). The hot oil and water relationship is not surprising since both contend for land and espouse dissonant principles and religions. Palestine embraces Islam as the official religion while Israel accepts Judaism. Palestinians want to keep their land while Israel claims that Palestine’s land belongs to them. Differences do not provoke a willingness to set them aside, but rather the propensity to highlight them is higher. The Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) objective is to fight for the rights of the Palestinians who are attacked by the Israelis and to counterattack where necessary. This martial environment presses upon the reader strong social, and religio-political tensions. The warfare that prevails in the Palestinian nation is witnessed time and again through the speakers relating their woeful stories. Palestine is portrayed as, “a real minefield” (Shammas 2001). Bombs, bullets, death foul the air in Palestine. One Palestinian boy, Boolus, actually unearths in a blackberry patch a box of bullets and a firearm near a quarry (Shammas 2001). This image evokes how natural violence and firearms are to Palestine – as naturally-growing as a fruit in the soil. Nature is seen as only a revolting reminder of what goes on in Palestine; for example, when Shammas looks at some red flowers, he does not capture the beauty of the flower. “When spring comes we shall see the anemones flowering at Tal Hahl, as red as the blood which was shed by the fighters for Palestine” (Shammas 2001)219). Nature and the Gothicism of Palestine are inextricable. Shammas chooses to ponder the redness of blood which Palestinians have sacrificed in fighting for their territory.
Anton Shammas depicts a gloomier and more realist view of Palestine than that of the Zionists, especially in his acclaimed book, Arabesques (1986). He details the macabre nature of wars, hostility, brokenness, toxicomania, attesting to a nation dizzy in turmoil, mystery, and confusion. One of the characters, Uncle Yusef, participates in an illegal, clandestine, smuggling trade where Palestine barters with Israel tobacco for drugs (Shammas 2001). This novel also bears witness to many disappearances, or suspected kidnappings. More repulsive histories of carnages emerge into the light, as the story is told of the Sabra and Shatila Massacre perpetrated by Phalangists, a radical Israeli Christian sect who murdered Palestinian refugee civilians between 16-18 September, 1982 in Lebanon. During this carnage, thousands die at these Palestinian refugee camps. Shammas mentions the Sabra and the Shatila massacre in west Beirut. It is widely believed that these deaths were reprisal killings for the assassination of political leader Pierre Gemayel. Another Palestinian group held accountable for bloodshed of several Israelis is the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The Palestinian Liberation Organization is a group established because of Israeli aggression. In Arabesques, Michael Abyad fights under this organization and works for the Palestinian Center for Research. Schulz, one political analyst states that: “The PLO was formed in Jerusalem by an Arab League in 1964 … where Palestine is the homeland of the Arab Palestinian people. It is an indivisible part of the Arab homeland and the Palestinian people are an integral part of the Arab nation”…the Arab people are seen as an organic whole (Schulz 1999)
Hence one sees that the Palestinian vision is to have a land of their own, where Palestine represents an ineludible goal worth fighting and dying for. Palestinian Liberation Organization appeals to a universal Arab Palestinian nationalism where Palestine is viewed as the Promised Land exclusively for Palestinians. Shammas attempts to answer the question, “Who are the Arab Palestinians?” through his novels. First of all, according to him, they speak a language of confusion. On the other hand, Jews believe that what they spoke was the language of Grace. Another characteristic of Arab Palestinians is that they are and will always be a separate entity from Jews. Relating to the death of a Jew and a Palestinian, Shammas reports that “under the black marble lay the two lost men, each in the darkness of his own tomb: a Jew of time and the Arab of place” (Shammas 2001). Time and place are as different as apples and oranges. They cannot be compared or associated together. Just like the Jews see themselves as victims, the Palestinians also view themselves as being terrorized; for example, Hanneh’s father is shot by a stray bullet in a spray of Jewish fire against supposed Palestinian terrorists (Shammas 2001). A new Palestinian identity is forged by the inevitable Israeli repossession and renaming of Palestinian lands. Uncle Yusef refers to a place at one time called Deir El-Kasi , which is located in Palestine, but then the time is known as ElKosh. This name change speaks volumes as Israelis maintain a view at Palestininan colonization, annexing it to Israel’s territory. ElKosh is an actual Israeli village which has biblical and political roots in Palestine. ElKosh means “God is my bow” however the more Arabic Deir El-Kasi. Deir is the Arabic word for monastery and Kasi means strength (otherwise rendered monastery of strength or strong fortress).
Shammas narrates some of the stories of the Arab Rebellion 1936-1939 where Palestinian Arabs decided that they wanted to put a check on the flow of Jewish immigrants, the possession of land by Jews, and for a more democratic, representative government. The reader sees Muhammad-Kareem who makes up his mind to enlist in the Palestinian army to fight back for his country. He proselytizes to Islam. Mahmood El-Ibraheem, his war name, ends up dying for his terrorist actions where he is hung by British police. Arabesques also references the British army’s presence which was positioned to stifle riot and maintain the peace in Palestine. Empowered to carry out the functions of the modern UN Peacekeepers by the Palestine Mandate, the British keeps a close surveillance of activities in Palestine. In any case, they try to stamp out rebellion after rebellion, uprising after uprising. Uncle Yusef tells of Abdallah al-Asbah a prime political figure in Palestine who is at the forefront of the Arab Rebellion in Palestine and in the novel, British authorities are searching for him. Arab rebels and the British Army often clashed violently with the British hanging some of the perpetrators and participants of the Arab Rebellion. This British Mandate of Palestine or Palestinian Mandate authorized British Colonialism thereby making Palestinians powerless on their own soil. The British Mandate of Palestine brought Palestine under British rule from 1917 -1948 when the United Nations (then the League of Nations), provided for Palestine’s government. In addition to being a hero during the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939, Abdallah al-Asbah also took part in the Great Syrian Revolt against French troops in Palestine in 1925. Interspersing the narrative with historic figures add to the credibility of the novel as life is Palestine comes to vivid life.
In Arabesques, the Palestinians are hostile toward Europeans and react against them. Their British colonists land with their soldiers on Arab soil and immediately begin to torment the Palestinian Arab people. Due to French occupation in nearby Syria and Lebanon, Palestinians are obligated to welcome the French. Francophone words and French culture pop up in the most unexpected places in Arabesques. Shammas catches an American singing “bits of English, rather than songs of rebellion in Arabic. He doesn’t belong this place” (Shammas 2001). Because of the bad blood between the English and Arabic, intoning an English song was cacophonous to the ear of an Arab since that would put into question his nativity and allegiance; therefore, that individual would be denied the sense of belonging in the life of Arab Palestine.
There is a popular notion that the Arabs of Palestine are uneducated, uncultured, and to a certain extent, not human. This idea comes into being since “My Jew” emphasizes that although he has some Arab blood, he is educated, knows enough Hebrew and French to effectively communicate and get by (Hever). Shammas puts distance between himself and the traditional Arab; nevertheless, desiring to mould an Arab who upholds a well-rounded character, not bitter, human and warm, “he does not gallop on the back of a thorough bred mare as was the custom at the turn of the century, nor is he a prisoner of the IDF (Israeli Defence Force), as was the custom at the turn of the state” (Shammas 2001).
In this narrative, Arabs are classified as wild, savage, itinerant nomads who in earlier times transported themselves on horseback – aiming to conquer the world for Islam by sword. Shammas observes a pure Palestinian whose strength lies in his pure simplicity and lack of cynicism (Shammas 2001). These new expectations which classify the new Arab suggest that the current Arabs who populate Palestine are the total opposite. Arabs are quick-tempered, volatile, cold, simple, and idyllic to the point of being unrealistic. The Arab from Palestine that Shammas envisions also does not hold radical beliefs, such that he has to be arrested as a revolutionary rebel by the Israeli forces. More in favour of a Palestine with pacificist Arabs, Shamma imagines an Arab Palestinian who has reconciled himself to Israeli dominance.
Palestinian movement, on the basis of this evidence, endorses widely divergent perspectives from the Israelis which ultimately arraigns them one against the another. Each group claims the land of Palestine as his own territory; each has the same method to get what it wants: by any means necessary, by trick or treachery, by hook or crook. Both perspectives embellish Palestine as the much yearned-for motherland and both attempt to justify their actions, politically and religiously.
Palestine Facts. British Mandate Arab Revolt 1936-39. http://www.palestinefacts.org/pf_mandate_riots_1936-39.php
Schulz, Helena Lindholm. The Reconstruction of Palestinian Nationalism: between revolution and statehood. Manchester University Press, United Kingdom, 1999. P 26.
Shammas, Anton. Vivian Eden. Arabesques. University of California Press, California, 2001.
Unconventional Autobiographies: Arabesques and Persepolis
In the novels Arabesques by Anton Shammas and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, autobiographical narrative is created through the use of unconventional styles of writing. Shammas’s use of the novel as the platform in which his autobiography is told goes against all preconceptions of how an autobiography is normally written. As Rachel Brenner points out, Shammas’s “arabesque-like quest for his double, epitomized in the metaphor of multiple self-reflections, comments ironically on the human tendency to shape one’s worldview according to territorial, theological, and linguistic boundaries and zones” (Brenner 443). An interesting result of the use of this format is that several parallels develop within the plot, muddling the distinction between truth and farce for the reader. Conversely, Satrapi reveals her childhood in graphic novel form, a revolutionary means of autobiographical narration — especially in the Middle East, where it had never been used before as such, and especially not by a woman. In this format, illustrations function alongside the text to convey the impact of the situation. Nima Naghibi and Andrew O’Malley affirm that “Persepolis manages to challenge the reader’s expectations of the medium” (Naghibi & O’Malley 245). Whereas in Arabesques the stories of the past help form the narrator’s self-identity, Persepolis employs a more direct, linear account of the people and events around her in order to create her sense of self.In the preface of his novel, Shammas quotes Australian author Clive James in stating that “most first novels are disguised autobiographies, [but] this autobiography is a disguised novel.” In saying this, Shammas reveals that Arabesques is an autobiography above all else, but it nonetheless has novel-like elements to it in that parts of it may be fictionalized. Through the countless stories of the narrator’s beloved Uncle Yusef and the history and adventures of the Shammas family, the personality of Shammas (the narrator) is discovered. Uncle Yusuf’s stories are the most revered by Shammas, evident in the way he describes them as “flow[ing] around him in a swirling current of illusion that linked beginnings to endings… the reality to the tale” (Shammas 226). Every version of every story that Shammas tells is connected to the entire Shammas story, functioning to establish his own separate identity.Unlike the more abstract nature of Arabesques, Persepolis uses a form of narration that is much different but equally complex in that the undertones in the graphic images that accompany the text are quite deep and symbolic of more than what is initially seen on the surface. The text is centered on the key issues in Iran during the time immediately after the Shah’s dethronement, but the graphic images paint an image into the reader’s mind of exactly what the narrator thinks, making it easier to relate to her thinking. In this way, Westerners can enjoy reading this book and understand it quite well even though the issues are not what the typical American experiences because the way it is written is a relatively common means of writing in the West. Naghibi and O’Malley affirm this claim that, “while Persepolis provides a perspective on events unfamiliar to the Western reader, the comic book form it assumes is itself automatically familiar” (Naghibi & O’Malley 232). Marji’s character and her struggle to form her identity become more relatable to the average American because they don’t have to picture and imagine the people that she meets, the events she goes through, and the actions that she commits or others commit against her; they are all illustrated, so this difficulty in relating to the character virtually disappears, and her struggle to find her own political and religious standpoints is focused on instead (Satrapi 96).The definition of an arabesque is a circle of events that never progress from one initial point to a distinct final destination (Brenner 440). Due to the “arabesque” nature of Shammas’s autobiography, which is evident in his elaborate yet disjointed stories, the ambiguity becomes very difficult for the reader to follow and accept everything as true, which is what an autobiography is in theory supposed to do. That quality thus changes the whole perception that is held of the autobiography, making it — as Shammas pointed out from the very beginning — a fictionalized autobiography. Perhaps the fact that the story is told in Hebrew adds to this fictionalization of the entire novel. “Hebrew is central to the ‘métissage,’ or ‘crossbreeding,’ as the languages “braids” or interconnects [Shammas’s] formative self and his evolving westering self” (Brenner 433). As a Palestinian Christian living in Israel, Shammas feels torn and divided as to whose “side” he belongs on and where he lies in the midst of all of the tension. Through the use of the language of the “enemy,” the Jew, Shammas is expressing the manner in which he searches for his identity.In contrast to the fictionalization of the autobiography in Arabesques, Persepolis’s use of illustrations draws the readers to the narrator more closely because they have less difficulty in understanding the political and religious aspects of the plotline. It is not easy for most Westerners to imagine a country full of so many religious-based rules and so much political oppression, revolution, and violence. Professors Naghibi and O’Malley affirm that the “‘cartooniness’ of [Satrapis’s] drawings encourages the reader to see herself in Marji, to see the self in the other, to erase all differences in a gesture of ‘cultural understanding’” (Naghibi & O’Malley 238). Although there is a separation of church and state in this country because Marji is an innocent child still forming her own opinions while living in a country where everyone is both politically and religiously oppressed, the reader can nevertheless understand her and connect to her.It was pointed out earlier that by writing in the tongue of the enemy, Shammas is trying to find his own identity as a Palestinian living in Israel. However, in doing so, he is also breaching the divide between the two ethnicities, proving that the two can coexist peacefully as friends. By telling the Arab story in the tongue of its enemy, Shammas not only creates controversy, but also instills the notion that a connection between the two is possible. Brenner contends that “the language starts to heal the conflict by mediating between the dominating majority and the dominated minority” (Brenner 435). In his view, Israelis (the “dominating majority”) and Palestinians (the “dominated minority”) can find a middle ground to end the tension between them, and this is via language. This idea of joint domain is key in narrowing the divide between them and bringing them closer together on a common basis. By using Hebrew, Shammas helps ameliorate the strain that has split Arabs and Israelis for two-thirds of a century. Nevertheless, by using the rival language, Shammas is shedding light on the peaceful nature of the Arabs, nullifying all Western viewpoints that Israel is the sole peaceful nation in the Middle East. Shammas’s sense of identity is created by reflecting on the peaceful nature in which the two ethnicities can coexist, just as he strives to find his place amongst a country that is governed by “the other.” Through the use of language, the reader experiences the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict as Shammas does, and therefore gains a better understanding of the relationship between the two nations and the possibility of friendship between them.Unlike Arabesques, Persepolis feeds all of the information to the reader directly, and does not require the reader to analyze and interpret for his- or herself the significance of every event presented in the narration. Even though the graphic novel format of the autobiography seems like a very basic form of writing, it actually augments comprehension of the novel for the reader. It is much more complex than what meets the eye. For example, on the top of page 5, an image of veiled and non-veiled women is shown, representing those for and against the ensuing revolution of 1979. This panel is very powerful in the way that the women are illustrated. The veiled women have their heads upright and their eyes closed, hinting either that they are ignorant of what is happening to them or that they think they are better than the unveiled women. The unveiled women, on the other hand, look quite angry as they are chanting “freedom,” a step in the push for women’s rights, which were virtually neglected after the Revolution. In a way, this image could be seen as an example of Marji’s search for her own religious identity that she tries to form throughout the course of the novel. Another example of a powerful image that Satrapi uses to develop her individuality is that of Karl Marx being compared to God on page 13. The image itself is actually quite comical, but it is a good representation of Marji’s search for her own political identity. Without the use of these images, the text alone would not have been able to suffice for the comparison between the two men; with the images, however, Marji’s struggle to find herself becomes more easily interpreted by the reader. By using images, Persepolis helps the reader see what the author sees and know what she knows. Thus, the format of the novel contains an element of universality that does not exclude anyone from understanding its meaning and the author’s experiences — making it, in other words, a true autobiography.Although the graphic novel format of Persepolis is unique and makes it easier for readers to comprehend many of the events and recurring themes of the novel, there are other factors that make it enticing for Western audiences. One example of this is that Westerners, especially Americans, love to hear firsthand accounts of political and religious plights from different parts of the world, particularly the Middle East. Naghibi and O’Malley agree that this is true; however, they also contend that Americans love especially to hear from individuals who are from countries belonging to the so-called “Axis of Evil,” “especially in an autobiographical form that promises to disclose the intimate secrets of an exotic other” (Naghibi 225). Because Satrapi’s story is an autobiography taking place in Iran during the Islamic Revolution of 1979, there is a greater interest in the topic itself, and the firsthand account that it supplies the Western reader of the political and religious conflicts occurring in the country is extraordinary and fulfilling.Another reason as to why the novel appeals to Westerners may be that although Marji does not pick sides in the debate on whose lifestyle is better (that of the West versus that of the East), she does share many Western ideologies and viewpoints on certain topics, the most predominant being pop culture: she enjoys listening to punk rock and Michael Jackson, and acts like a typical rebellious American preteen or teenager. As we see the development of Marji from a toddler to a 13-year-old, she goes through several changes in her personality, and her opinions and standpoints on certain topics constantly fluctuate as she sees and hears new things, ultimately causing her to learn from her experiences. The first time the reader witnesses Marji’s confrontation between something Western and Eastern is right on the first page when she is trying to decide how she feels about the veil and veiled women. The Western reader is in the same place as the narrator because they are both clueless about the cultural ways of the East and would like to know more about them. Marji’s innocence and naïveté make it very easy for the readers to relate to Marji, just as they could when she showed her appreciation for Western things as well.Both of the novels, Arabesques and Persepolis, use a unique means of writing to universalize the underlying implications of their stories. Shammas’s use of abstract stories of his family and their past interlace to eventually form his own identity. By writing the novel in Hebrew instead of Arabic, Shammas establishes a peaceful aura around his autobiography in that he doesn’t express his situation as simply a nasty brawl amongst Jews and Arabs. Instead, he implements a nonviolent method of integrating the two cultures that define him as a Palestinian living in Israel. Conversely, Satrapi’s approach to depicting the political and religious conflict in Iran differs from Shammas’s in that the format of the autobiography is a graphic novel written in comic book-style. Through this medium of writing, the reader, especially the Western reader, can more easily understand and relate to Satrapi’s character and the obstacles that she goes through as a result of the Iranian Revolution. That makes Persepolis a little easier to comprehend and possibly even easier to identify with than Arabesques, but ultimately, both novels attain their goals of seeking their own identities. By overcoming multiple difficulties politically, socially, and religiously, they discover themselves.Works Cited:Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis. United States: Pantheon, 2003. Print.Naghibi, Nima and O’Malley, Andrew. “Estranging the Familiar: ‘East’ and ‘West’ in Satrapi’s Persepolis.” ESC 31.2 (2005). Print.Shammas, Anton. Arabesques. United States: University of California Press, 2001. Print.Brenner, Rachel Feldhay. “In Search of Identity: The Israeli Arab Artist in Anton Shammas’s Arabesques.” Modern Language Association 108.3 (1993). Print.