Tel: Arafat’s Elephant (2002)

One of the many Jonathan Tel‘s talents is that he can use different voices. Every single one of the 17 short stories,none of them longer than ten pages, in “Arafat’s Elephant” is written from a different perspectives and covers a different area of life than then others. I have to admit I haven’t been reading many short stories recently for two reasons. One of them was, because coming from a single author the stories often were to similar to each other. This book proved that they don’t have to be. The other reason for me not reading much short fiction was that I want to avoid disappointment. If I like a character or a story I want to enjoy them for the length of a book. I was afraid that short stories would rob me from this satisfaction. (And if I don’t like them, than why bother?).

Tel’s stories however were rich enough not necessarily wanting more. They all told an interesting story AND they had something to think about too. I will list below all the stories with a short summary. I will not share the ending or the secret in them, so I would not fully spoil your appetite for this book. But I will put down in a few words what I think the worthy idea was in them. If you think it might ruin enjoying the book for you stop reading now.

  • A story about a bomb – about a story written from the perspective of a suicide bomber – question of responsibility in literature
  • Ibrahim Kuttan is innocent – about a Jewish boy who pretends to be an Arab to avoid the draft – a question of identity
  • Beautiful, strong, and modest – a young orthodox woman walks to the first date with her future, arranged husband – the definition of shame
  • I may be a ghost but I’m not a slut – a woman wants a paramedic sitting in a cafe to deliver her suicide note – recognition of desperation
  • Alte zakhen – a woman attends a Saturday afternoon ball in a hotel in Jerusalem in June 1948 – looks can be deceiving
  • Her hero – a woman travels around the world to find the man she served with in the army and who is supposed to be dead – the idea of a hero lives in us and not outside
  • Hatikvah – two Jewish youth from different part of the world meet in Israel but then their paths diverge – how the national anthem is a connection in world Jewry
  • Mr. Fig and Mr. Pinapple – a man regularly buys fruits from a grocer and has a female shopping buddy – innocence is in the eye of the beholder
  • Love and coffee – tracking down the woman who works in the factory that supplies coffee for the army, because she puts short poems in the coffee boxes – the world’s response to you depends on how you approach the world
  • The chair at the edge of the desert – a man takes care of two old women, the only people left at an abandoned kibbutz – people’s motivations are mysterious and ever changing
  • Shabah – a man working at a warehouse that gives chairs to new immigrants tells the story of how a torturer buys a chair – sometimes a chair is more than a chair
  • The camel-hair-coat – two guys who are in the army reserve are called back for duty soon after one of them became and internet millionaire – easy come, easy go
  • Spleen; or, the goy’s tale – an orthodox man buys some treif (non-kosher) meet when he learns that according to halacha (Jewish religious law) he is not Jewish – friendships can be found at unorthodox places
  • Did Moshe Dayan have a galls eye? – a treatise made up mostly of testimonies about the existence, nature, color and other attributes of the glass eye that might have been behind Dayan’s eye-patch – the authority of some sources is questionable
  • Shaking hands with Theodor Herzl – Herzel stays with a family in Israel and every member of the family has an agenda with him – famous people can have private life too
  • A tooth for a tooth – dentist tells the story while treating a patient on how and why he extracted the healthy teeth of a Moroccan Jew – strict interpretation of biblical commandments does not always coincide with everybody’s common sense
  • Arafat’s elephant – a wealthy Palestinian tells the story of how his ancestors took care of the Sultan’s elephant – the futility of self-sacrifice

I enjoyed the variety of these stories. These little nuggets didn’t paint a comprehensive picture of life in Israel, but they sure covered enough territory and lifestyles to get a sense of it.

The book at

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