Nine. Yahalom min Ha’Yeshimon [Diamond from the Desert] by Sami Michael
2015, Kinneret Zmora Bitan, 328 pages. Written in Hebrew, read in Hebrew.
We’re in Baghdad, some time before or after the second world war (the novel doesn’t specify when exactly it’s taking place). Kamal is a teenager from a relatively wealthy Jewish family. His father is a merchant, his mother is a homemaker, and they are just about to move from their house in the inner city to another, bigger house in a wealthier suburb. For that purpose, Kamal’s mother hires a maid from a poor family that resides in the poorest neighbourhood in town, a neighbourhood of raggedy houses made of sheet metal walls and tarp.
Kamal’s mother decides to name the girl Almassa, which means diamond in Iraqi Arabic (according to the novel) — this is the origin of the title — and takes her into her house, treating her more as a daughter and less as a maid.
Kamal is growing to be a young man, and while receiving the attentions of several neighbours and fellow female school mates, he falls in love with Almassa, however the doctrines of the time and the traditions of both of Kamal and Almassa’s heritages try to prevent them from being married. A happy ending is provided for both of them, and it manages to provide them with a certain prize for the journey they have embarked on, while still either maintaining their stature in the world, or the stature that they deserve — but perhaps it’s not the happy ending they have intended.
The main plot is supported by several sub-plots that involve Kamal himself, his Father, his other relatives and his friends, which help paint the Baghdad of the thirties, or forties, in very vivid colours.
Sami Michael, the author of this book, is on the front line of Israeli authors and can easily be counted as one of Israel’s top ten influential authors in recent history. His place in that list is reserved mostly due to his pioneering and championship of narrating the lives and histories of middle eastern immigrants in Israel, before and after its independence.
In this book, there is a hint of autobiography which has not been explicitly mentioned anywhere in the book or in any press that supported the book release. But when reading it, I got the sense I’m missing some crucial connecting pieces between the main story arc and the surrounding stories, missing pieces that constantly gave me the feeling that I had to be there to understand, instead of giving me the feeling that I am there.