Di­a­monds Are For­ever, Love Tri­an­gles Aren’t

Forward Magazine - - Reviews - By Ra­nen Omer-Sher­man

THE DI­A­MOND SET­TER By Moshe Sakal Trans­lated by Jes­sica Co­hen Other Press, 304 pages, $15.95

I you en­joy richly plot­ted in­ter­gen­er­a­tional sto­ries in­spired by true events, Moshe Sakal’s “The Di­a­mond Set­ter” o ers boun­ti­ful plea­sures. Born in Tel Aviv and now a res­i­dent of Ja a, Sakal is the scion of a Syr­ian-Egyp­tian Jewish fam­ily whose col­or­ful his­tory is art­fully em­ployed in this cap­ti­vat­ing tale. Though this is the first of his books to be trans­lated to English, Sakal is the au­thor of sev­eral crit­i­cally ac­claimed nov­els o er­ing stir­ring ex­plo­rations of Is­raeli so­ci­ety, es­pe­cially no­table for their sen­si­tive por­traits of im­mi­grants cop­ing with rad­i­cally new so­cial and psy­cho­log­i­cal re­al­i­ties. His new novel im­merses read­ers in a wide stra­tum of Jewish Is­rae­li­ness but also opens up the broader Mid­dle East, of­ten to star­tling e ect.

The cat­a­lyst here is the re-emer­gence of a fab­u­lous blue di­a­mond named “Sabakh,” which has a his­tory that in­cludes Euro­pean and Turk­ish roy­alty, a renowned Jewish chanteuse and, most re­cently, Fa­reed, a young Syr­ian man from Da­m­as­cus (whose pa­ter­nal grand­par­ents fled Pales­tine). Rest­lessly search­ing for his fam­ily’s roots, Fa­reed car­ries a sec­tion of the di­a­mond in his pocket. Af­ter cross­ing the bor­der il­le­gally, he is soon swept up in the be­wil­der­ing cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal con­tra­dic­tions of con­tem­po­rary Ja a and Tel Aviv. The fact that Tom, pri­mary ob­server and nar­ra­tor of the sur­pris­ing twists and turns of this ser­pen­tine tale, also hap­pens to be a writer hard at work on a novel ti­tled “The Di­a­mond Set­ter” in­ten­si­fies this story’s edg­ily play­ful na­ture (es­pe­cially when other char­ac­ters feel com­pelled to cri­tique the mer­its of a scene we’ve just read).

And yet some­how it all co­heres. Work­ing as an ap­pren­tice at his un­cle’s jew­elry shop in Tel Aviv, Tom wit­nesses a dra­matic rev­e­la­tion when a customer sud­denly re­veals the fam­ily’s lost blue di­a­mond. Sub­se­quently, Tom and his boyfriend, Honi, be­come in­volved with Fa­reed (whom Sakal point­edly ren­ders as cos­mopoli­tan as the Is­raeli men, a

lover of Al­bert Ca­mus, Paul Auster and Ra­dio­head). As the story deep­ens we are car­ried back in time to an­other polyamorous re­la­tion­ship be­tween three lovers whose in­tense a ec­tions chal­lenge taboos and bound­aries in their own time. Not­with­stand­ing Tel Aviv’s rep­u­ta­tion as a tol­er­ant haven, there have been sur­pris­ingly few close and fa­mil­iar ren­der­ings of gay and les­bian life in the con­tem­po­rary Is­raeli novel, and “The Di­a­mond Set­ter” o ers an ap­peal­ing por­trayal of the com­plex in­ter­ac­tions of LGBTQ char­ac­ters, both Jews and Arabs.

Evok­ing the tit­u­lar di­a­mond, this in­tri­cate novel re­fracts light from many an­gles, and Sakal is par­tic­u­larly strong in ex­am­in­ing each char­ac­ter’s re­al­ity from the per­spec­tive of an­other’s. For ex­am­ple, the fa­mous Š‹ŒŒ Tel Aviv “tent city” so­cial protests are a vivid pres­ence, but from the eyes of Pales­tinian char­ac­ters be­set with more se­ri­ous trou­bles, these ap­pear to be the mere tantrums of spoiled chil­dren. Brim­ming with un­ex­pected and rev­e­la­tory jux­ta­po­si­tions, “The Di­a­mond Set­ter” can be very witty, es­pe­cially when­ever cer­tain dis­tant his­tor­i­cal or leg­endary events take on ironic new res­o­nances. In the hands of a lesser writer, keep­ing up with the shift­ing cul­tures, time pe­ri­ods and cast of myr­iad char­ac­ters would im­pose a heavy bur­den on read­ers, but not so here. And through his provoca­tive por­trayal of that love tri­an­gle in­volv­ing Jews and Mus­lims in the Œ’“‹s, Sakal poignantly evokes a seem­ingly im­pos­si­ble Mid­dle East, a time when one might board a train in Pales­tine that ar­rived from Cairo, and dis­em­bark in Beirut.

Sakal’s Arab and Jewish char­ac­ters rest­lessly seek out each other’s worlds. Yafa’s past is en­tranc­ingly ren­dered in lan­guage so richly evoca­tive and sen­sual that it of­ten con­jures up Nahum Gut­man’s beloved paint­ings of his Ot­toman child­hood. For ex­am­ple, “In Yafa, bare-chested young boys charged around on horse­back, and ex­pert oars­men dressed in bil­low­ing black trousers and white shirts ma­neu­vered small boats all the way out to the huge steamships that could not squeeze into the port.”

At one point, a char­ac­ter draws a provoca­tive com­par­i­son be­tween the work of the first-cen­tury Jewish sage Honi the Cir­cle Maker and Grindr (the pop­u­lar app de­vel­oped for gay and bi­sex­ual men) in lan­guage that seems to slyly un­der­score Sakal’s own sense of mis­sion as an artist: “You’re draw­ing a cir­cle around your­self. And not just that — your cir­cle can go beyond walls, beyond bor­ders, even.” Sakal once re­marked in an in­ter­view that Is­raeli cul­ture finds it­self at a cross­roads and must de­ter­mine “whether we long for a separatist cul­ture, a kind of mono­lin­gual, mono-cul­tural autarchy which ex­ists within a ster­ile, iso­lated and closed cir­cle, which will nec­es­sar­ily lead to xeno­pho­bic art, crazed by per­se­cu­tion. Or whether we seek to have a proud cul­ture that pre­serves its unique­ness, but also knows to look di­rectly at what goes on around it and is not afraid to look up at the lofty peaks of the cul­tures of the world.”

Boldly cham­pi­oning this lat­ter vi­sion, “The Di­a­mond Set­ter” takes read­ers on a glo­ri­ously im­mer­sive jour­ney into dif­fer­ent cul­tures and worlds that may trans­form the way they think about iden­tity in Is­rael and well beyond.

Ra­nen Omer-Sher­man is the Jewish Her­itage Fund for Ex­cel­lence En­dowed Chair of Ju­daic Stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Louisville. His most re­cent book is “Imag­in­ing the Kib­butz” (Penn State Univer­sity Press, 2015).


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