Inspired by true events, this best-selling Israeli novel traces a complex web of love triangles and family secrets across generations and borders, illuminating diverse facets of life in the Middle East.
Below Moshe discusses the genesis of The Diamond Setter.
A Note From the Author:
I began writing The Diamond Setter in 2008, shortly after starting work as an apprentice in my father’s jewelry shop, not far from Plonit Alley in Tel Aviv. For three years I sat every day at a small workbench and learned the art of jewelry making.
One day the shopkeepers of the old storefronts in the building learned that it was to be converted into a boutique hotel. My father refused to get worked up. He’d spent more than four decades in the shop that had been opened by his father, Moshe Sakal, who arrived in Tel Aviv from Damascus, and he firmly believed that no financial calculations or real estate deals could uproot his little business. But sometimes the winds of change are stronger than willpower. As fate would have it, on the day I wrote the very last line of the novel—in January of 2014—my father shuttered the family business and moved to its new, more spacious location in a nearby street.
During my days as a jeweler’s apprentice, I immersed myself in books about diamonds and precious stones. Their tales seemed like human adventures, and I followed my curiosity and amusement to track down the histories of these treasures, which had surfaced in India or South Africa and made their way through a succession of owners—both royalty and commoners—whose fates they either blessed or cursed.
I also began researching other topics central to the novel, including the intertwined histories of Tel Aviv and Jaffa throughout the twentieth century, and the stories of immigrants from Syria and Egypt, in which I often found a fascinating blend of East and West. In the summer of 2011, while I studied places that no longer exist, and contemplated people long gone, the social protest movement began simmering in Israel. Ironically, the movement was inspired by the popular uprisings in neighboring countries that Israelis had turned their backs on for generations.
While on hiatus from The Diamond Setter, I wrote another novel, Yolanda, which is largely based on the life of my grandmother, a native of Cairo. The book depicts a group of Egyptian-born Levantines who have lived in Israel for six decades or more, yet still, feel exiled there. They exist in a sort of double Diaspora, having lived as Francophones in Cairo, and then filled with nostalgia for Cairo once they came to Israel.
In The Diamond Setter, unlike in Yolanda, there is no ignoring the characters’ immediate geographic sphere. My Syrian grandparents’ family had always talked about the days of open borders, when the people who dwelled in this region—at least those who belonged to a certain class—could move freely from one country to another, traveling from Jaffa to Cairo, from Beirut to Haifa, from Hebron to Damascus. Anyone who lived in Palestine before 1948, when the State of Israel was established, had tales of brave relationships that survived even the bloodiest of times, love affairs and friendships between Jews and Arabs, and cooperation—economic and otherwise—even as the two nationalist movements hardened their stances and stepped up their acts of hostility.
When I was about ten, I once walked past a house on Sha’arei Nikanor Street, in Jaffa, with my father. I remember him pointing and saying, “This is where Grandfather’s best friend lived.” That memory, as well as the story of Hassan Hijazi, a young Syrian teacher who managed to get into Israel in 2011 and make his way to Jaffa, where he explored his family’s roots, contributed significantly to my writing. I was fascinated not only by Hijazi’s courage but by the symbolism of his act. He gave my story a dimension it had lacked and allowed me to complete the plot and integrate multiple facets of this country and its surroundings. Syria has changed course since then and is now mired in a bloody civil war whose end, as I write these words, is nowhere to be seen. I often think about Damascus, my grandfather’s beloved city, and about his dream of traveling there with me—a dream that will never come true.
While writing The Diamond Setter I also finally learned Arabic, from a Jaffoite named Ali al-Azhari. I was amazed by all the raised eyebrows when people heard how I was spending my summer (“Arabic? What for?”), even when I explained that it was my father’s native tongue, the language of our neighbors, a rich and beautiful language.
Another source of inspiration was Yehuda Burla’s book Chanteuse, about the young female singers and musicians who performed in Damascus during the latter days of the Ottoman Empire. These performers, whose stories Burla staunchly recounts without any reproof or moralizing, were Jewish-Arab geishas of a sort, conducting relationships with eminent Arab men. The Jewish community disparaged and condemned them, yet there was also a measure of esteem and gratitude since the young women were able to give their community significant help in times of economic hardship and political challenges.
A fellowship from the Fulbright Foundation’s United States-Israel Educational Foundation to support my participation in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa enabled me to conduct comprehensive research on Palestinian refugees throughout the Arab world from 1948 to the present.
My grandfather, Moshe Sakal, was born in Damascus near the end of the First World War, and as a young man he taught French at the Alliance Française and worked at the stock exchange. He also wrote fiction, in Arabic, some of which was published in the Syrian press. The term “coexistence” does not begin to express the way my family lived in Damascus. They were, quite simply, locals. When they came to Israel, they were fortunate enough not to be sent to one of the Ma’abarot (Israel’s notoriously harsh “transition camps” for new immigrants in the 1950s), as they had the means to purchase a small apartment in Tel Aviv. Were they subjected to socio-economic discrimination? No. Did my father, who grew up in the heart of urban Tel Aviv, suffer from racism? Not at all. And yet something was missing. And that thing, which I have only recently begun to acknowledge as having left a void in my family, was the bond with Arabic culture and language, the affinity between the old and new homes.
Some might view this sort of loss as the inevitable collateral damage of immigration. Be that as it may, my writing is informed by my awareness of the hollowed roots in my family, and by memories of my grandfather, who stopped writing on the day he came to Israel.
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