Long live the Falafel King

The startling authenticity with which Sara Shilo manages to evoke her characters’ lives in 1980s Ma’alot is no accident, the novelist says.

Sara Shilo 521 (photo credit: Dan Porges)
Sara Shilo 521
(photo credit: Dan Porges)

By Sara Shilo | Translated by Jeffrey Green | Portobello Books | 224 pages | $24.95
From the kitchen window of her home in Kfar Vradim, Sara Shilo has a panoramic view of Ma’alot and the surrounding Galilee villages. The view, tranquil and pastoral, is somewhat deceptive. The area has known more than its fair share of fear and apprehension, with its long history of Katyusha attacks and terrorist infiltration from neighboring Lebanon. It was one such event that set Shilo on the path towards writing her best-seller, The Falafel King Is Dead.
“I didn’t choose my subject, rather it chose me,” she explains.
She had played about with ideas for a book for a year and a half, but nothing concrete had emerged. And then one night in early 2000, there was a security alert.
“It’s not like it is in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv,” Shilo says. “A car goes round the streets with a loudspeaker, warning residents to go into their shelters.”
Down below in the valley, she could hear similar warnings from Ma’alot and the neighboring hamlets, in Hebrew, Arabic and Russian.
“It was as if the mountains were calling for everyone to go inside.”
Writing, in Shilo’s estimation, is not a mechanical act, but one that rises from within: “It is a way of thinking, a way to relate to one’s emotions.”
She was afraid but at the same time excited, a tension rising in her gut, and she could only think of one thing to do. “I left my children with my husband and went up to the second floor, to my writing room, and I felt, ‘This is it.’” The moment took her back two decades, to 1982 and a similar Katyusha threat in Ma’alot.
She had fled with neighbors to the local shelter, only to find it locked. Once more, she was in touch with the fear from many years before, and the only thing she knew to do with the eerie sensation was to write. “It was as if one had been searching for oil, and suddenly there is an explosion and it all comes gushing out.”
The Falafel King Is Dead is a story about absence, loss and fear. Set in an unspecified period in the late 1970s or early ’80s, six years have passed since the death of Masud Dadon, the “Falafel King” of Ma’alot. Times have moved on, but his family is still locked in the past. Simona, his Moroccan-born widow, is still unable to contemplate life without the center of her universe, even after six lonely years.
Kobi, her eldest son, is buckling under the responsibility of playing surrogate parent to his five siblings, including twins born after the premature death of their father. Itzik, betrayed by physical disabilities, can trust nothing and no one but is forced to rely on his younger brother Dudi for help with the most intimate of actions. Etti, on the cusp of womanhood, cannot see much further into the future than her mother, evidence of a life unfulfilled. In the span of a single day, the book explores how each tries to reconcile their hopes and fears, looking to the future without remaining prisoners of the past.
Fear lingers malevolently through much of the book. There is the constant apprehension of missile attacks from across the border; Rabbi Meir Kahane’s contentious legacy drifts through the book, his visit to the town playing on the anxieties of its residents. Between the individual narratives of the Dadon family emerges a powerful portrait of the past, but one that resonates all the more because so many things remain much the same.
“I started to write out of a sense of fear,” Shilo says. “It reminded me of what families, people must have gone through at the time.
But it also reminded me of stories that my mother told me about her childhood in Baghdad and the pogroms there. It made me think about how this fear passes through generations; that this fear is not just my fear about now, or about my children or friends or neighborhood, but about how it goes back generations, to the people who came here, many of them with some sort of trauma.”
Even today, fear dominates public discourse here: fear of the Iranian nuclear threat, fear of the Arab neighbors, fear of what will happen if territorial concessions are made to the unborn Palestinian state. In a sense, one can consider the emotional contortions of the Dadon family as representative of all these and more, a symbolic contemplation of the antecedents that have created a republic of fear.
Shilo agrees to some truth in this interpretation.
“I wanted to understand this fear and how it controls, how we react to it,” she says.
It is important to acknowledge that the fear is not without foundation, she continues. But for her, what is equally interesting is how the population is encouraged to respond to it.
“I wonder whether that weakness is a part of us, and whether politicians like Kahane managed to control people or lead them to war because of the fear that is so strong within them. It is not just fear about what is going on in the country, but also the fear that people brought with them to the country, as refugees.”
Despite the depressing, even distressing content, The Falafel King Is Dead ends on an optimistic note. There are always possibilities for breaking out of the rut that one finds oneself within, Shilo seems to suggest.
“I can’t say that people’s fears are not justified or authentic – because they are – but if one wants to overcome this situation that we are stuck in, these circles of war, we must be able to search for people to trust in; we can be flexible, we can’t just have the option of being either the victim or the aggressor.”
SARA SHILO was born in Jerusalem to a Syrian father and Iraqi mother, and educated at the Gymnasia high school in Rehavia. In 1976, at 17, she joined a Nahal settlement group in Ma’alot, a tiny development town with a population of just 3,000. At the time, Nahal groups were sent to the kibbutzim, but the group lobbied for a change because they felt that the kibbutzim were already well established and not in need of support.
“We were the first group to come to a development town. We knew that we didn’t want to to help the people and go, but to stay and become a part of the community.”
She remained in Ma’alot for 15 years, bringing up her five children and working in the community, managing the local arts center and later setting up and running a successful cross-cultural traveling puppet theater, at its peak performing to up to 2,000 children weekly across the diverse communities of Galilee.
Before all this, as a soldier, Shilo worked in a kindergarten, an experience that strongly informed the distinctive voices in her book.
The empathy that she evokes with her characters is perhaps its strongest aspect, allowing readers not merely to observe the Dadon family from a distance but almost to walk in their footsteps.
Shilo says that connecting with the reality of their lives was particularly important for her. While researching the book, she came across a newspaper clip reporting after the 1974 terrorist attack in Ma’alot. The journalist was invited to a home; but he described his host as the “mother of seven with one in the belly.” He did not even dignify her with a name.
“So I said, this woman must have a name, and not only a name but people must listen to her,” Shilo says. “It is easy for people to think they know how the other feels, how the immigrant or the Arab or the foreign worker feels.
But you don’t know; you can’t know if you don’t listen to them, you don’t know how they think and how they feel.”
What Shilo’s writing – in English translation as well as in Hebrew – manages to do is to evoke, with startling authenticity, the internal world of her characters, but without succumbing to paternalism. The emotional connection the reader is able to make with the Dadon family is tangible. Shilo speaks, with understandable satisfaction, about a conversation she had with a reader after the Hebrew edition was published in 2006. The woman, a war widow, found herself empathizing particularly with Kobi, the 19-year-old child-man. Like him, she had felt herself conflicted by the awesome responsibility of bringing up children more or less alone, thrust into the role before she was ready.
“It was nice to hear that she felt close to Kobi in particular, because if she saw him in the marketplace, she would never think that she had anything in common with him.”
For all this emphasis on lived experience, Shilo says that she is wary of the cult of reality, the tendency for autobiographical writing – and other forms of artistic expression – to be granted greater validity in the eyes of the public.
She acknowledges personal influences and impulses in her writing, but says that she prefers a more subtle means of expression.
“I think it is hard to translate what one has inside and to bring it out this way [as autobiography],” she muses. “Of course, I wrote things from my experience of life, but I feel that when I imagine or invent things, they are more precise than what I have inside. Symbolism has more meaning.”