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Luminous ales 0 aBygone Middle E t

by Yitzhaq Shami
Labyrinl hosl
$12,234 pages, paper
itZhaJ Shami was born in
18'88-in-the ancient town of
Hebron, the burial place of
Abraham and Sarah. His parents
were Orthodox Sephardic Jews.
Young Shami read the traditional
Hebrew tcxts at school but also
spoke Arabic with his father and
Ladino (the Spanish-derived ian-
guage of the Sephardic diaspora,
as Yiddish is the German-derived
tongue of the Ashkenazic diaspo'ra)
with his mother. He may also have
learned Gedllan in the two years
he spent at a Western-style school
in Jerusalem.
Shami made his living as a
teacher in places like Haifa, Tiber-
ias, Damascus and his native He-
bron. He dic9 in 1949, a year after
Israel won its independence. The
poet and fiction writer's literary as-
sociates were the predominantly
Ashkenazic writers who came to
Palestine in the first decades of the
20th century, like S.Y. Agnon anti
Joseph Chaim Brenner. But, while
they wrote as cyjles and pioneers,
Shami wrote as a native. He pub-
lished numerous articles on Jewish
and Arabic culture, but just seven
short stories, only now being made
available to English-speaking read-
ers. (The volume could have used
more careful copy editing perhaps,
but it docs contain a helpful glos-
Four of the stories feature Se-
phardic Jews, and three, including
one that is really a 'novella, feature
Arabs. They are remarkable for the
sympathy the author shows
toward all his characters. In his in-
troduction, Arnold J. Brand points
out a sharp contrast bet'Ncen the
world in which Shami "lived and
that of his fiction: "Though Jews
had lived among Arabs in Hebron
for centuries, the city w.}S virtually
emptied qf its Jewish population
after the 1929 massacres...." Al-
though Shami was deeply dis-
turbed by this event, Brand notes,
"his stories reflect a world free of
these hostilities."
But, while it may be tempting to
look at Shami's oerwre in the con-
text of Middle East politics, only
the most naive of optimists would
pin hopes for a lasting peace on
the fact that a gifted writer could
portray Jews and Arabs with equal
empathy more than half a century
ago. The value of these stories can-
not be mp.asured in mere political
tenns. in (the four
Sephardlc stones have been ren-
dered into English by Yael Lotan,
the three Arab talcs by Israel
Schen, Aubrey and Richard.
the beauty at
Shamr s prose shmes through. The
rln hp "ummo
--- v ': :" ': Idll;;,
awesome Its land-
scape and Its
. these stones have the
mevitabllIty, though not the happy
· f f' tal' ,h·
en mg, 0 aIrY es. AAU.LuUmau.
A Talev'of the Arabian Desert" tells
of a gallant Bedouin tribe famed
portray the sorrows of a barren
wife, an elderly man being taken td
live at an old-age home, a young
man inadvertently responsible for
an infant's oeath and a devout
ther who returns to his family after
seven years to find them changed
almost beyond recognition.
Shami's novella, "The Ven-
geanee of VIe Fathers," was in-'
spired by at1 incident in the early
1900s at a riot between groups of'
Palestinian Arabs at a religious pil-
grimage. Shami's protagonist is the
, leader of the pilgrims from Nablus.
Repeatedly insulted by the leader
f 'h H b- '. . hI>; f 'Ii.
0 lee lonllCS, <8 .Ina.)
• d' kill' h'
goaae mto . 1m: ,.eemg,
holes UP. 111 CalIO, a.,snactow. of
for its horses: ,"Bred of the self. .Sham1s descIlIk
land and the ruogl>d' rocks were tlOns oftEe settirtgs, the misery of
and from they acqUired and the of are
their impetuous nature and sclf. Incandescent, tho
reliant spirit." When a powerful of WIth those of faIth,
sheik sets his heart on Hamamah, as 111 thIS passage about the"
the prize marc, her owner has no buildup to violence: "The Devil
wish to sell her and the stage is set' had driven his nose-ring through
for conflict. Still more poignant is, their nostrils, using them as tools
the story of "Jum'ah the Simple- ... to profane the pilgrim-
ton," an Arab shepherd mocked by 'age. . . . The passion for honor
his fellow humans hut at home and revenge burning inside them
with his animals on the sun-baked darkened the light of their, rcason,
hills of the Negev. The four stories dragging thein anc1 driving them
with Jewish characters touchingly from error to error. ' "
-- ...-_.-
Digitally signed by
Joseph H Zernik
DN: cn=Joseph H
Zernik, o, ou,
email=jz12345@earthl, c=US
Location: La Verne,
Date: 2009.12.30
21:18:28 -08'00'