The Diamond Setter – a novel

Moshe Sakal, The Diamond Setter, Keter, May 2014 

Forthcoming translation into English in 2017 by Jessica Cohen, Other Press publishing house, USA

Inspired by true events, this best-selling Israeli novel traces a complex web of love triangles and family secrets across generations and borders, illuminating diverse facets of life in the Middle East.


Israeli edition / Designed by: Ada Rothenberg / (Click to enlarge)

The Diamond Setter tells the story of Fareed, a young man from Damascus who crosses illegally into Israel and makes his way to Yaffo in search of his roots. In his pocket is a blue diamond known as “Sabakh,” which once belonged to European royalty and eventually wound up in the hands of the Turkish Sultan, who gave it to a beautiful Jewish singer with whom he was enamored.

The diamond also plays a part in a love triangle that takes place in the novel’s past-tense: a Jewish couple from Syria meets Laila, an enchanting young Muslim woman from Yaffo. Indifferent to their religious differences, they sustain a passionate romance throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s, meeting regularly in a Lebanese resort town. Roaming freely within the single geographic expanse that was still viable in those days, they cling to their sense that they are all equally at home and that nothing could be more natural than their love.

As nationalist sentiment rears its head around them and their future grows unclear, and though dimly recognizing that they must one day leave their beloved Damascus for Tel Aviv, the Jewish couple remains devoted to the impetuous Laila. Fearing she might leave them, they nevertheless fail to foresee that national borders will soon be sealed shut and they will lose her forever, forced to live worlds away in neighboring states. In the summer of 2011, when Israel is rocked by a turbulent social protest movement, with tent camps set up around Tel Aviv and Yaffo, the diamond is still safe in the pocket of Fareed—who is none other than Laila’s grandson. His pilgrimage to Yaffo is motivated in part by the family secret his grandmother revealed to him. Having brushed away the border with just a few steps, he sets off to restore the diamond to its rightful owner. And in a mirror image of his grandmother’s history, Fareed finds himself involved in his own love triangle, with an Israeli soldier and his partner—the narrator of the book.

Following the blue diamond’s tortuous path and the personal stories of its various custodians, Sakal’s moving mosaic of characters, locales and cultures spurs us to reconsider life in the Middle East in an era when the region was seeped not only in blood but in love.

Selected reviews from the Israeli press, August 2014:

Haaretz, by Edna Shemesh:
“…Reality bursts with such force into Sakal’s book… We find a strange and surprising symmetry between literature and reality—which sometimes falls into the writer’s hands like a ripe fruit. This symmetry is carefully woven into the story among the lives of the characters conjured by Sakal from the materials of his imagination and the materials of his life.

…While reading The Diamond Setter, I frequently wondered who the true hero of the novel was: Menashe the jeweler? His family’s life, interlaced with that of a Syrian family originally from Jaffa? The daring free love affair that occurred in the distant past, which now lives on only in memory and imagination, between a Jewish couple, Rafael and Adela (Menashe’s parents), and Laila, a young Arab woman from Jaffa?  This love triangle played out in the open expanses between Damascus and Beirut, Baghdad and Jaffa, Mount Lebanon and the Jerusalem hills. Is the blue diamond itself a protagonist? Or is this story’s true hero the city of Jaffa, also known as Yafo, or ‘Bride of the Sea,’ with its long-gone exotic ways, a parable for the past of the Middle East itself, now soaked in blood, in loss and in memory? Quite possibly the answer is that all of these are the novel’s protagonists because they are all inextricably intertwined into one tapestry, and the author seems to have devoted equal attention and importance to them all.

Above all, The Diamond Setter is the story of a place – both a physical location and the emotional space it occupies in the protagonists’ hearts. With beautiful and loving language, Sakal looks through the eyes of [his characters] to tell a story of Jaffa and Damascus in the early part of the last century, and today. The pages exude the aromas of a vibrant life that has since vanished, a detailed portrayal that arouses a sense of yearning not unlike the phantom pain of an amputated limb.”Read more (Hebrew): Click Here

Yotam Shwimmer, Ynet (Yedioth Ahronoth):

The Diamond Setter comprises tangled family stories, a character (or characters) that may be seen as representing the author, and a number of mysteries that are deftly revealed at a gradual pace. Sakal leads his readers down the story’s winding paths, stimulating their appetite for reading. …The Diamond Setter is a novel bathed in mystery, with a plot involving a diamond that originated in 17th century India… It is also a story about two families, about passions and family secrets. Sakal has devised a fascinating family mythology that spans many years before reaching present-day Tel Aviv – Jaffa in the summer of 2011, at the height of the social protest movement. As in all his work, here too Sakal’s great love of storytelling is evident.” Read more (Hebrew): Click Here

Yiftach Ashkenazi, Haaretz:

“[an] excellent book… Instead of writing about the difficulties, Sakal focuses on the beauty in everything… The book can be described as continuing the Romanticist tradition… A writer like [Sakal], who writes beautifully (which is not to be taken for granted in today’s Israel), flourishes in this genre and provides an unusual experience of reading and beauty… Sakal’s book embodies beautiful and original writing that is no less committed to the reality of our lives”. Read more (Hebrew): Click Here

Shay Doron, Nana 10:

“Artfully combining divergent writing styles, points of view and periods, Sakal blends different domains of Israeliness into a uniquely Israeli cocktail that is original and refreshing… The Diamond Setter is a rich and delightful novel that opts to observe and retell the history of the place where we live, and of the people who lived here before us, through love rather than war… Sakal creates a glorious mosaic of eras and people, places and cultures, and at the same time offers a renewed consideration of our lives in this place—where today walls are built, and once there were no borders.” Read more (Hebrew): Click Here

Tsur Ehrlich, Makor Rishon:

“We have here an arabesque. In form, The Diamond Setter is a spiraling, winding story with vertical and horizontal symmetry. In content, it paints a Middle Eastern, Arabic, fragrant, seductive, mysterious expanse. It is a book whose writing is part of its plot, where the narrator is a fantasy of its author, the hero is a diamond, and the story-teller is a writer and jeweler’s apprentice who alloys nations and religions, blends three families into two and two into one, and weaves it all into one Oriental ring. … The Diamond Setter is a paean to a world without borders. To the good old Middle East, or a new and promising one … One could view this novel as a post-Zionist fantasy, or rather a pre-Zionist one. But it is more aptly read as a post-political fantasy.”

The Jerusalem Post:

“…It is also where a nameless young writer finds himself working after coming back from a long stay in  New York. At first, he doesn’t think he will like his new  job with his uncle, but then he finds that it is just the  place for a young writer to be – a place full of strange  and heroic stories, told by uncle Menashe and by his customers; a place where history comes alive, exotic  places are described, and secrets come out into the open.  A wonderfully-written novel, sweeping and engrossing.”

Reuven Miran – Writer & literary critic:

“It is no simple feat to tell such a complex story in such a fluid, human way, while maintaining the tension and the overarching ‘message’: beyond all the state borders and the political conflicts and rivalries, human beings are ultimately human beings.

I will admit that I admire the perseverance shown by this talented writer in constructing a novel that is an entire world, the product of his imagination yet containing grains of reality. It is a miraculous act of creation, and further proof that a fine author is a small god who creates beings and their world. The Diamond Setter is an amalgam of people who have been forced into separation by history, but whose willpower, integrity and love can overcome even the greatest obstacles.”

Reshet Bet – Kol Yisrael (Israel Radio):

“Recommended and praiseworthy.”

More links (Hebrew):

Yedioth Acharonoth: Click here

Time Out: Click here

Reshet Aleph, Kol Israel, interview: Click here

Israel Today: Click here

Makor Rishon: Click here

Sixsties (Shcoken group, Haaretz): Click here