Diamonds have stories. Some of the most impressive specimens—the Hope Diamond, Koh-i-Noor, the Star of Africa—tell of emperors and queens, conquest and colonization. But sometimes, the story they tell is more grounded. Sometimes, a diamond’s story is that of a single family; of those it touched through the generations, and the lives and borders it crossed. That is the type of diamond Moshe Sakal writes about in his novel The Diamond Setter.
Sakal was working as an apprentice in his father’s jewelry store. “All of a sudden I became familiar with…incredible stories about diamonds, famous diamonds on the one hand, and on the other hand, my own family stories,” he says. “My father’s family came from Damascus, and my grandfather—he died years ago, but he always had this dream to take me with him to see Damascus. Unlike other immigrants who came to Israel who had bad memories…he had only good memories. Perhaps too good memories; he missed Damascus constantly.”
Like Sakal, his novel’s narrator Tom is working in a jewelry shop in Tel Aviv—his uncle’s—when he hears a story about a diamond. This diamond, however, is a part of his own family history, and it traveled to Israel from Syria when his family made the move decades earlier. But the more Tom learns about the diamond, the more complex its story and that of his family becomes. Investigating the various threads, he is eventually led to a young gay man who had just crossed the border illegally from Syria in order to visit the home of his grandparents who, originally from Jaffa, just south of Tel Aviv, were unable to return after Israel’s independence. Spanning generations, The Diamond Setter shines a light on a side of Israeli society that is often overlooked—both internationally and domestically.
Israel’s Jewish population today is roughly 50% Mizrahi, a catch-all term used to describe Jews from the Middle East and North Africa (as opposed to Ashkenazi Jews who come from Europe). But historically, their place within Israeli society has been underappreciated as Ashkenazis dominated the political and cultural scenes. “I prefer to say ‘Jewish Arab,’ ” Sakal interjects, “but some would actually say that Jewish Arabs no longer exist, because three generations have passed, and the Israeli melting pot has succeeded, and today we just have one Israeli society where everyone is simply Israel. And those people would also claim that there are no more Ashkenazi in Israel. But I see something else. Nowadays, the third generation of these immigrants are going back to their roots. For example, people are learning Yiddish and Arabic—they’re looking for the story of their families, their missing cultures. And it's not a vain gesture of nostalgia. They do it because they cannot know who they are if they don’t, and they do it because they feel confident enough as Israeli to look back without fear of feeling out of place. And I see this as a good thing.”
Sakal did extensive research for this novel, not only into his own family’s experience and that of Jews like him, but also of Palestinians. Fareed, the gay character who crosses the border from Syria, is also on a mission to understand his past. Surprisingly, however, this latter dimension didn’t attract much attention when the book was published in Hebrew in 2014.
“I was surprised but at the same time not surprised that the political dimension was not very much discussed regarding this book,” Sakal says. “Because I think, and I feel, that the Israeli public is not really willing to discuss subjects that are often taboo. I think most Israelis just don't want to discuss it, or even see it, when it’s right in front of their eyes. The critics didn't even engage with this subject. I think English readers will, however. I’m already seeing that.”
James McDonald is a British-trained historian and a New York–based writer.