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by Anton Shammas, translated from the Hebrew by Vivian Eden, afterword by Elias Khoury

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The January 2023 selection of the NYRB Classics Book Club

Chosen by The New York Times as one of the best books of 1988, Arabesques is a luminous novel that engages with history and politics not as propaganda but as literature. That engagement begins with the language in which the book is written: Anton Shammas, from a Palestinian Christian family and raised in Israel, wrote in Hebrew, as no Arab novelist had before. The choice was provocative to both Arab and Jewish readers.

Arabesques is divided into two sections: “The Tale” and “The Teller.” “The Tale” tells of several generations of family life in a rural village, of the interplay of past and present, of how memory intersects with history in a part of the world where different people have both lived together and struggled against each other for centuries. “The Teller” is about the writer’s voyage out of that world to Paris and the United States, as he comes into his vocation as a writer, and raises questions about the authority of the storyteller and the nature of the self. Shammas’s tour de force is both a personal and a political narrative—a reinvention of the novel as a way of envisioning and responding to historical and cultural legacies and conflicts.

Additional Book Information

Series: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 9781681376929
Pages: 280
Publication Date:


Arabesques is one of the finest novels about the 1948 Nakba, when an estimated three-quarters of a million Palestinians were forced out of their homes and off their land to make way for the Jewish state. Not only did Shammas powerfully describe these tragic events, but he did so in Hebrew instead of Arabic so that an Israeli public could finally confront this story too….In Arabesques, Shammas steers away from politics outright, and yet his novel, lyrical and subtle in its humor, is ultimately very political.
—Raja Shehadeh, The Nation

Has the dawning of self-consciousness ever been so delicately conveyed?
—Ratik Asokan, The Yale Review

Intricately conceived and beautifully written. . . . A crisp, luminous, and nervy mixture of fantasy and autobiography . . . [and] an elegant example of postmodern baroque.
—John Updike, The New Yorker

This book is a history of its author’s youth and the memoir of a family and a fabled region—Galilee. . . A beautifully impressive piece of prose.
—William H. Gass, New York Times Book Review

Arabesques is a classic of the exploration of identity. . . A Palestinian master of Hebrew, living at the seam between the ancient and the modern, between loyalties and appetites, Shammas has written beautifully about his search for design. He transforms fact into fantasy without changing a thing.
—Leon Wieseltier

Arabesques really brings, as novels were once supposed to bring, ‘news’ from elsewhere. . . This book has already added something notable to Israeli literature.
—Irving Howe, The New York Review of Books

If Hebrew literature is at all destined to have its Conrads, Nabokovs, Becketts and Ionescos, it could not have hoped for a more auspicious beginning.
—Muhammad Siddiq, Los Angeles Times Book Review

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