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The Diamond Setter: A Gloriously Immersive Journey Into Modern Israel

The Diamond Setter
By Moshe Sakal
Translated by Jessica Cohen
Other Press, 304 pages, $15.95

If you enjoy richly plotted intergenerational stories inspired by true events, Moshe Sakal’s “The Diamond Setter” offers bountiful pleasures. Born in Tel Aviv and now a resident of Jaffa, 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 offering 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 effect.

Israel at 70

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 Jaffa 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 affections 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” offers 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 2011 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 1930s, 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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