‘The Swimming Contest’ by Benjamin Tammuz

The Swimming Contest by Benjamin Tammuz, 1951

The magic trick:

Establishing a sensory-rich scene of nostalgia early in the story to contrast with later events

In the mood to be gutted?

Is your day going in a such a way that smashing all of your emotions with a giant sledgehammer sounds like it might make for a good evening activity?

Read “The Swimming Contest” then.

The story is separated into three sections, covering probably about 20 years – from the Mandatory Palestine territory to the very early days of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

The story does its real work in the first section, wherein our Jewish narrator recounts in great detail his memory of a childhood trip north to an Arab family’s house. The writing is rich and layered with sensory observation and language – the smells of food, the temperature of the taxi seats, the courtyard “throbbing with life.” It’s beautifully done.

The idyllic scene sets up the contrasts that make everything else the story wants to do possible.

Which, as you might guess, is where the emotional sledgehammers lie.

And that’s quite a trick on Tammuz’s part.

The selection:

We jogged along pleasurably and restfully in our seats till the city lay behind us and the horses were drawing the cab laboriously along the track of reddish sand lined with hedgerows of cactus and acacia. Waves of heat rose from the sand, settling beside us onto the cool seat. The sun must already have dipped into the sea, for beyond the orange groves the skies glowed crimson and a chilly dusk descended all around. Suddenly the horses stopped and made water on the sand in unison.
Again the cab lurched forward. A quiver rippled the horses’ hides as their hooves struck a stretch of limestone-paved road, lined by cypresses on either side. Before us stood an archway of whitewashed stone, enclosing a large, closed wooden gate with a small wicket set in it. Near the wicket stood a girl of about my age, wearing a white frock and with a ribbon in her hair. As the cab drew up at the gate she bolted inside, and the cabman said, “We’re there!”

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