Portrait of a Spy

Interview with Ari Shamron

Ari Shamron, the legendary spymaster from the acclaimed Gabriel Allon series, answers the ten questions from the Pivot Questionnaire made familiar by James Lipton, host of “Inside the Actors Studio” on  Bravo.

By Daniel Silva

It was a few minutes past ten p.m. when the phone in my Jerusalem hotel room finally rang. I let it ring two more times before answering. I’d been waiting for three days to have a word with Ari Shamron, and didn’t want to seem too eager.

“Is this Daniel?” asked the voice at the other end.

“Who else would it possibly be?”

“A friend? A cousin? How should I know?”

“You should know,” I said, unable to conceal my irritation, “because this room is thoroughly bugged.”

“You have a vivid imagination, Daniel.”

“It’s a professional affliction.”

“This is your lucky night. He’s agreed to see you.”


“Now, of course.”

“It’s late.”

“Not for him. He hasn’t slept in years.”

“Where should I go?”

“There’s a car in front of the hotel. Get in it.”

The line went dead. I dressed quickly and went downstairs. The “car” turned out to be an armored Peugeot limousine with bulletproof windows. Judging by the smell of stale smoke, it was Shamron’s.

It was a cloudless night, and the sky above Jerusalem was awash with stars. We headed down the Judean Hills toward Tel Aviv, then north toward Nazareth. By the time we reached the Sea of Galilee, it was approaching midnight. Shamron’s fortress-like villa was just outside Tiberias, overlooking the lakeshore. As we eased slowly up the steep drive, I could see him standing along the balustrade of his famous terrace. He remained that way for an uncomfortably long moment after Rami, the chief of his security detail, announced my arrival.

“This is a first for me,” he said finally. “I’ve never spoken to a reporter for any reason other than to mislead one of my enemies.”

“I’m not a reporter,” I said defensively. “Not anymore.”

“Once a reporter, always a reporter.”

He turned to face me. He was smaller than I’d imagined and obviously in dreadful health. Even so, he was still not someone I would care to meet in a dark alley.

“How many questions are there?” he asked, his tone accusatory.

“Ten,” I replied.

“Like the Commandments?”

“They’re nowhere near as important as the Commandments, Mr. Shamron.”

“Then why wouldn’t you give me them in advance?”

“I wanted your responses to be spontaneous.”

He frowned. A professional spy, Ari Shamron regarded spontaneity as the vice of weaker minds.

Annoyed, he sighed heavily and raised a liver-spotted hand toward a pair of comfortable patio chairs. I sat in the chair on the right, the one usually reserved for Gabriel, and admired the view of the lake. Shamron’s old Zippo lighter flared, and a cloud of acrid smoke drifted into my face. I resisted the impulse to wave it away. Gabriel had warned me that Shamron was easily irritated.

“You saw him in Cornwall?” he asked after a moment.

I nodded.

“He was well?”

“As well as could be expected.”

Shamron smiled sadly. “All right,” he said, “let’s get this over with. What’s the first question?”

“What is your favorite word?”

“Are they all going to be so trite?” He deliberated a moment before answering. “Peace is my favorite word. I’ve never known a single days’ peace in my life. Not in Poland. Not here. I would like to know what peace feels like before I die.”

“What is your least favorite word?”

“How did Gabriel answer that question?”

“I’d rather not say.”

Shamron regarded me suspiciously. “My least favorite word is ‘no.’ Now that I’m old, it seems to happen with far greater frequency.”

“What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?”

“A problem no one else can solve.”

“What turns you off?”

“Answering personal questions.”

“What sound or noise do you love?”

“I loved the sound Adolf Eichmann made when I clamped my hand over his mouth that night in Argentina.” Shamron squeezed my forearm. “It was a most satisfying sound.”

“What sound or noise do you hate?”

“The sound of the telephone ringing late at night. It is rarely good news.”

“What is your favorite curse word?”

“That depends on what language I’m speaking.”

“Your first language is Polish?”

“Yiddish, actually.”

“So what is your favorite curse word in Yiddish?”

“It is not translatable.”

“What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?”

“My mother wanted me to be a rabbi.”

“Did you ever consider it?”

“I built a country for my people instead. And then I spent the rest of my life defending it.”

“What profession would you not like to do?”

“I could never be a therapist. I don’t like listening to people complain.” He tapped his cigarette impatiently against the side of his overflowing ashtray. “By my count, you have one more question.”

“If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?”

“God and I confer on a regular basis,” he said, smiling. “Our conversations are private, and they will remain so.”

I closed my notebook. He seemed disappointed.

“Are you sure there’s nothing else you wish to ask me? This will be your only chance.”

I opened my notebook and said, “Tell me about that night in Argentina. The night you captured Eichmann.”

Shamron lapsed into silence. When finally he spoke again, it was with the voice of a younger man. “It was raining,” he said, gazing out at the black waters of the lake, “and very cold. The moment Eichmann stepped off that bus, I knew it was him … ”


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