1: Short story excerpt, Orly Castel-Bloom’s “Ummi Fi Shurl,” 1993.
This conversation occurs between the unnamed narrator of the story, who has been suffering from some unspecified anxiety or emotional distress, and an apparently homeless woman she encounters underneath a bench in a park. Stung by something under the bench she is sitting on, the protagonist thinks she may have been the victim of a black widow spider. It turns out, in a dark comedic moment typical of Castel-Bloom, that a human widow dressed in black has pinched or bitten her. The black widow claims to be the protagonist’s mother, and proceeds to ask her questions about herself, in particular about her heritage. The Arabic conversation that follows is a kind of grammar-book exercise that repeats itself in a closed loop.
This conversation, from which the title is drawn, is the center around which the story hinges. It brings together the themes of family, identity, language, and motherhood, but its formulaic format functions to alienate the speakers from one another rather than bring them together.
Suggested Activity: Have students read the entire story, or read it out loud to them. Then have them focus in on this excerpt and identify some of the main themes of the story that are expressed within it. For each theme that they identify, ask them to trace the moments when it is expressed in this conversation. Have them draw a web or map of the themes they have identified and how they are connected through the conversation between the two women. What are the links between each theme? Are there multiple connections? Can you create a coherent narrative or a backstory for these characters out of the relationship between the themes?
For more sophisticated students, have them re-write the story from the perspective of the black widow, the woman under the bench. How would she describe the protagonist? How does she recount their conversation? Why was she under the bench?
Source: Orly Castel-Bloom, “Ummi Fi Shurl,” trans. Dalya Bilu, in Ribcage: Israeli Women’s Fiction, eds. Carol Diament and Lily Rattok (Hadassah, 1994), 259-262.
Editor's note: We have not been able to make contact with the rights holder for Dalya Bilu's translation. Any information about the current copyright holder for this material would be welcome and appreciated.