Thicker than Oil

Israeli Family on the Periphery

The Falafel King is Dead by Sara Shilo (Portobello, 12.99 pounds) tells the story of a family in a remote town in the north of Israel beset by poverty, tragedy, and the constant threat of Katyusha missiles overhead. Simona Daddon became the head of the family when her husband Masu’d, a fellow Moroccan immigrant, collapsed in his hole-in-the-wall falafel shop on the day that the ultranationalist political figure Rabbi Meir Kahane came to town to galvanize the masses. Simona, who narrates the novel’s opening section, works in a kindergarten and struggles to keep enough couscous and chickpeas on the fire to feed her six hungry children. Her hardworking and blindly ambitious oldest son Kobi effectively takes the place of her husband seven months after Mas’ud’s death, when Simona gives birth to twins. The twins refer to Kobi as their Papa, a lie that torments eleven-year-old Etti and her mischievous older brothers Itzik and Dudi, who are preoccupied by their efforts to train a falcon named Delilah to poke out the eyes of any potential terrorists. Narrated from the alternating perspectives of Simona and her children, the novel circles like the airborne Delilah ever closer around the secrets that both bind the family together and threaten to tear it apart.

Shilo’s novel, a #1 bestseller upon its original Hebrew publication in 2005 and the recipient of several premier literary prizes in Israel, is most remarkable for its extraordinary use of Moroccan-Arabic vernacular, much of which is sadly lost in the English translation. The original Hebrew title literally means, “No elves gonna come,” a refrain translated throughout the book as, “No cleaning elves are coming to help us today.” Rather than attempt to mimic the dialect, the translator elected, perhaps wisely, to render the characters’ words and thoughts in brutally raw, evocative passages like the following, in Simona’s voice: “When a man gets into you for the first time, it’s supposed to be an amazing moment; when you open up down there, you become a woman. But no, that’s nothing. All you did was let him into a little room at the entrance, with a red ribbon for him to tear, as if he’s the mayor or the head of the Council at the opening of a new building. It’s all about honoring him and his ego, so he’ll be nice to the child who comes from you, rather than kill it in jealousy.” The real moment of opening up, says Simona, is when a woman gives birth: “What are you supposed to make of it all? There’s only one explanation: you came into this world to bear the people who will live in the world after you leave it. Your job is to suffer and shut up. That’s how you become a mother. You learn to close your mouth tight, to keep all your pain inside you, and not to scream.”

Other screams, too, are stifled in this novel, but the power of Shilo’s work is paradoxically her ability to make voices heard: she turns our attention to characters who live in that part of Israel known as the “periphery,” outside of the Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and even the kibbutz towns which dominate the Israeli literary landscape. Shilo narrows our focus to a single, shattered family whose complicated, cluttered love transcends borders and border towns, reminding us that blood is thicker than the greasiest falafel oil, and some truths resound even more deeply than a missile’s sonic boom.

Ilana Kurshan