Luminous Tales of a Bygone Middle East


Yitzhaq Shami was born in 1888 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 texts at school but also spoke Arabic with his father and Ladino (the Spanish-derived language of the Sephardic diaspora, as Yiddish is the German-derived tongue of the Ashkenazic diaspora) with his mother. He may also have learned German in the two years he spent at a Western-style school in Jerusalem.

Shami made his living as a teacher in places like Haifa, Tiberias, Damascus and his native Hebron. He died in 1949, a year after Israel won its independence. The poet and fiction writer's literary associates were the predominantly Ashkenazic writers who came to Palestine in the first decades of the 20th century, like S.Y. Agnon and Joseph Chaim Brenner. But, while they wrote as exiles and pioneers, Shami wrote as a native. He published numerous articles on Jewish and Arabic culture, but just seven short stories, only now being made available to English-speaking readers. (The volume could have used more careful copy editing perhaps, but it does contain a helpful glossary.)

Four of the stories feature Sephardic 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 introduction, Arnold J. Brand points out a sharp contrast between the world in which Shami lived and that of his fiction: "Though Jews had lived among Arabs in Hebron for centuries, the city was virtually emptied of its Jewish population after the 1929 massacres. . . ." Although Shami was deeply disturbed 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 oeuvre in the context 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 cannot be measured in mere political terms. Even in translation (the four Sephardic stories have been rendered into English by Yael Lotan, the three Arab tales by Israel Schen, Aubrey Hodes and Richard Flantz), the magical beauty of Shami's prose shines through. The world he summons up is desolate, awesome and archaic in its landscape and its sensibilities.

Some of these stories have the inevitability, though not the happy ending, of fairy tales. "Hamamah: A Tale of the Arabian Desert" tells of a gallant Bedouin tribe famed for its horses: "Bred of the wasteland and the rugged rocks were they; and from them they acquired their impetuous nature and self-reliant spirit." When a powerful sheik sets his heart on Hamamah, the prize mare, her owner has no wish to sell her and the stage is set for conflict. Still more poignant is the story of "Jum'ah the Simpleton," an Arab shepherd mocked by his fellow humans but at home with his animals on the sun-baked hills of the Negev. The four stories with Jewish characters touchingly portray the sorrows of a barren wife, an elderly man being taken to live at an old-age home, a young man inadvertently responsible for an infant's death and a devout father who returns to his family after seven years to find them changed almost beyond recognition.

Shami's novella, "The Vengeance of the Fathers," was inspired by an incident in the early 1900s at a riot between groups of Palestinian Arabs at a religious pilgrimage. Shami's protagonist is the leader of the pilgrims from Nablus. Repeatedly insulted by the leader of the Hebronites, he is finally goaded into killing him. Fleeing, he holes up in Cairo, a shadow of his former self. Shami's descriptions of the settings, the misery of exile and the power of remorse are incandescent, fusing the insights of psychology with those of faith, as in this passage about the buildup to violence: "The Devil had driven his nose-ring through their nostrils, using them as tools . . . to profane the pilgrimage. . . . The passion for honor and revenge burning inside them darkened the light of their reason, dragging them and driving them from error to error. . . ."

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