“Maybe We Can Never Go Back”: An Interview with Moshe Sakal




MOSHE SAKAL GREW UP in Tel Aviv, the grandson of Jewish immigrants from Egypt and Syria. The author of five Hebrew novels, including Yolanda, which was shortlisted for Israel’s Sapir Prize and translated into French, Sakal is a recipient of Israel’s Levi Eshkol Prime Minister’s Literary Prize for Authors and Poets, as well as of a Fulbright grant, and he was an Honorary Fellow in Writing at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.

Originally published in Hebrew in 2014, The Diamond Setter is the first of Sakal’s novels to be translated into English (by Jessica Cohen); it was released by Other Press in 2018. Tracing the story of a precious blue diamond as it travels from 1930s Damascus to present-day Jaffa, Sakal’s novel reflects on the complex history of this fraught region, exploring themes of forbidden desire and the danger of border crossings. Centered on an eclectic cast of characters and interweaving several narrative strands, The Diamond Setter considers the power of memory in the ongoing search for one’s roots. 

As part of his book tour across North America, Sakal visited Stanford, where I met up with him to talk about his novel. He describes The Diamond Setter as a work of autofiction, loosely based on family history, lore, and legend.

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SHOSHANA OLIDORT: The story of a precious blue diamond lies at the center of this novel, but it is also just an anchor, a way to keep the story moving forward. Why did you choose a diamond?

MOSHE SAKAL: I worked as an apprentice in the diamond industry, and I became familiar with these gems. They always tell a story. Each diamond has a tale full of tragedies and passions and lies. For a writer, this is a gold mine. I was drawn to the story of the blue diamond because it had traveled from India to France and then to Britain before finally making its way to Turkey, close to my own terrain. There’s also a curse involved, which some people believe and others do not. This allowed for a certain tension in the story. And the book itself is structured like a diamond, with each character representing a facet of the jewel.

The other motif that reverberates throughout the novel is that of love triangles. The first involves a straight Jewish couple and their female, Arab lover in 1930s Damascus; the second features a gay, Israeli-Jewish couple and their Syrian-Palestinian, male lover in 21st-century Jaffa. Can you talk about your decision to include not one but two sets of love triangles?

The love triangles in this story are structured and constraining, something that causes both pleasure and pain. Within the confines of this structure, beautiful things can happen but everything stays between the angles of the love triangle. I believe in artistic conventions; when a poet writes a sonnet, they can put very audacious content into the strict structure. I believe in magic that happens out of constraints.

People say if you’re a writer you can write anything. This is not true; writing is dangerous. To be a writer, you have to be daring and to have courage. In my story, the love triangle begins with a border crossing. I had read in the newspaper about a teacher from Damascus who crossed the border into Israel. With one step, this teacher erased one of the strictest borders in the world. His story gave me the courage to introduce border crossing into my novel. While writing about this, I realized that when borders are open interesting things can happen.

So, the love triangle presents both a set of constraints and the possibility of openness. Can you talk about this paradox?

I have this yearning for the openness of my grandparents’ Middle East. Even though I can live openly in Israel as a gay person, I am not satisfied with my surroundings. I long for open borders, for a queer Middle East in which you can roam freely in every sense. In Israel, I see too many borders between people, countries, cultures; I don’t see enough diversity. We’re third-generation immigrants and we live our lives as Israelis, but so many stories and languages were forgotten, and sometimes I feel like the price was high. So I do the only thing that I can do: I tell these stories. There’s really no difference between me and someone who goes back to stories from Warsaw, Yemen, or Morocco. The stories are different, but it is the same act of returning.

Memory is central to the novel, as it is to Jewish history and tradition, with the oft-repeated biblical injunction to remember and not to forget. In a particularly evocative passage, an elderly woman, once a sought-after singer in Damascus, warns her young nephew that memory, like the past itself, is not fixed or permanent: “Do you think we can hold on to everything that happens to us? You’ll grow up and discover that your body changes, and you change on the inside, too, and all the things that happened to you — there is no proof that they really did happen. Even memory does not always last.” Can you talk about the way memory and the obligation to remember plays out for second- and third-generation Jewish immigrants from Arab countries?

The generation of my parents is often called the silent generation — the mute generation — because they were obliged to forget, to deny their story. My father always told me: “Son, you should know you were never discriminated against.” Unlike other Jewish immigrants from the Arab countries who were sent to absorption camps when they arrived in Israel, my grandfather, Moshe Sakal, came from Damascus and bought an apartment in Tel Aviv, and my father grew up quite wealthy. It was only when I was 30 years old, after having published three books and having lived in Europe working with Shoah survivors, that I realized I knew nothing about my own family. Both sides of my family, from Egypt and Syria, were forced to forget their past when they came to Israel. To be Israeli in the 1950s meant not to be anything else — not French, not Moroccan, not Russian, not Yemenite. Being Israeli was the sum of all negations. And I can understand why, because the society was young and fresh and starting from scratch.

When, at 30, I realized that I knew nothing about my family, I felt ashamed and started to go back to these stories. I wanted to know them and make them not be forgotten. Both Yolanda (which has been translated into French), about the Egyptian side of my family, and The Diamond Setter are inspired by and based on stories of my family. I’m the eldest son, and so I still knew my grandparents and others of that generation. When I went to funerals of the very last family members of this generation, people I didn’t know approached me and thanked me, saying that if not for my work these stories would have been forgotten. I hadn’t told these stories before because I didn’t think they would interest anybody in Israel, because these stories were not part of the Israeli story.

This is a story about roots and about return, but as one of your characters puts it, the lingering question is, “Do we have anywhere to go back to?” Or, as another one asks: “What good will come of digging into the past?”

There is this odd feeling of looking at your own photograph from 10 to 15 years ago. You stare at this person and you wish to be there. But what is there, even? It is a place in time. It’s scary to go back, and I think that going back always involves pain. What my book suggests is that maybe we cannot ever really go back. Because the place we want to go back to, it’s not the same place; no matter what we do, or how we try, it can never be the same place in time.

What about digging into the past — what does it offer you and your characters?

When I asked my grandmother, who was born in Damascus, to tell me about her past, about how she met my grandfather, she replied, in a mix of Hebrew and Arabic, “My son, what for?” My response was, “If I don’t know who you are, I don’t know who I am.” I go back not to dig into the past but to know who I am in the present. I was told to forget, but I insist on putting what was supposed to be forgotten into words. It’s not that I live in the past, it’s that, if I can’t fill my memory with something, it would be like having no roots, and how can I flourish in the present without roots? For a decade (while writing Yolanda and then The Diamond Setter) I was living my grandparents’ lives, their passions. Now I feel like I can move on and live my own story, to be a father, a real one, not just an author of books.

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Shoshana Olidort is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Stanford University. Her research focuses on poetry as a mode of performing identity through a consideration of five 20th-century Jewish women poets.


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