Month: December 2006

The Jews and the 1,001 Arabian Nights

It may come as a surprise to learn that the famous collection of stories known as The Arabian Nights is not Arab at all, but Persian. Even more surprising,some stories are of Jewish origin, contain Jewish characters, Jewish legends or Jewish proverbs. So popular were The Arabian nights among the Jews living in Arab countries that editions were published in Judeo-Arabic, ie Arabic using Hebrew letters. Expert Victor Bochman explains (via Drybones):

Almost 100 years ago, a Belgian orientalist, Victor Chauvin, declared categorically: “The Jews do not like the Arabian Nights” (“Les juifs n’aiment pas des mille et une nuits”). Chauvin was a leading expert on popular Arabic literature who had studied this cultural phenomenon for many years, but who was less knowledgeable about Jewish sources. During the 20th century, a great deal of new material has been published that has been found to disprove Chauvin’s assertion.

The present writer, who has studied this topic for some 30 years, will attempt in this article to present a survey of some of the most interesting observations and conclusions concerning the issue, to which there are three main aspects: 1. The Jewish contribution to the Arabian Nights; 2. Jews as personages in the Arabian Nights; 3. Jewish interest in the Arabian Nights.

The core of the Arabian Nights was a collection of Persian stories entitled Hezar Efsane (“Thousand Stories“), which was translated into Arabic, most probably in Iraq, as early as the ninth century. Some of the tales seem to be of Indian origin. The Arabic version, first named Alf Laila (“Thousand Nights”), was significantly enlarged in Iraq, Syria and later in Egypt. In the 12th century or possibly even earlier, it received its present name Alf laila wa-laila (“Thousand and One Nights”), a title which is virtually identical in both Arabic and Hebrew.

A most interesting fact is that the oldest documentary evidence of the latter title is preserved in a Jewish source – a notebook of a Jewish doctor and bookseller (unfortunately his name is not recorded) living in Cairo in the middle of the 12th century. This notebook was examined by the eminent Israeli scholar, Shlomo Dov Goitein (1900-1985), one of the world’s leading experts on Jewish-Arabic texts. Goitein was born and educated in Germany, emigrated to Palestine in the 1930s and was a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem for over 20 years.

The most popular version of the Arabian Nights developed into its present form in Egypt evidently at the end of the Mamluk period (15th to early 16th century). It became a virtual encyclopaedia of oriental folklore including folk tales adapted into Arabic of many different peoples as well as some authentic Arabic stories. It combined ancient Egyptian and Babylonian subjects with tales composed in the late Middle Ages.

This variegated collection of material includes some stories of Jewish origin. The longest of them is a fairy tale about a traveller named Bulukiya, and is a Moslem adaptation of old oriental and Jewish legends. Bulukiya, the son of an Israelite king, finds a book his father has hidden from him containing a description of the prophet Mo-hammed. Bulukiya embarks on a journey in order to find the prophet. He meets the serpent queen, who tells him how to obtain a herb giving eternal youth and immortality. In Jerusalem he meets a sage named Affan who knows the secret of Solomon’s Seal. He crosses seven seas, seeing numerous wonders and facing adventures, and reaches Kaf Mountain (considered by mediaeval Arabs to be the world’s end), meets the king Barakhiya, the archangel Gibrayil (Gabriel) and the prophet Khidr (usually identified as the biblical prophet Elias). The latter, in a flash, returns Bulukiya home. But our hero does not succeed in obtaining the longed-for herb.

This tale is borrowed from collections of prophetic stories, where it is attributed to Abdallah ibn Salam (a Jew from Medina who converted to Islam after listening to Mohammed’s sermons). One of the main motifs in the stories (the search for the elixir of eternal life) had already appeared in the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh (second millennium bce). The most probable origin of the story of Bulukiya seems to be the biblical passage about a Torah scroll found at the Temple of Jerusalem by the High Priest Hilkiah and brought to King Josiah by the scribe Shaphan (II Kings 22: 8-13). The name Bulukiya (not found in Jewish texts) might appear as the result of a misunderstanding of its spelling in some written sources of the Arabic story. Other proper names like Barakhiya are undoubtedly Jewish. Some motifs of this tale are also to be found in midrashic literature. While the cause for the hero’s travels might originally have been just the search for everlasting life, Moslem story-tellers might have added a more important motif, to their mind – Bulukiya’s desire to see the Prophet Mohammed.

There is also a cycle of short stories on pious Israelites – stories having their origins or parallels in talmudic and midrashic legends. For instance, one such story tells about an Israelite who lost his wife and two sons in a shipwreck. The waves cast him up on an island where he finds treasure and becomes king of the island. Ten years later, his sons (who also escaped from the ship but grew up in different countries) come to the island but do not recognize either their father or each other. Their mother, who was also saved and became the servant of a merchant, also arrives there with her master. The king orders his sons (who were also not recognized by him, and were taken into his service) to keep watch over the merchant’s ship. During the night, each of them tells the other his story, and thus they recognize each other as brothers. Their mother, being on board the ship, overhears her sons’ stories. The next day they appear together before the king and tell him the story, and thus the family is reunited.

But Jewish elements in the Arabian Nights are not limited only to complete stories. Some Jewish legends have been added to tales of Indian, Persian or Arabic origin. Especially interesting is a legend concerning King Solomon’s power over the genies, or djinns. The most ancient Jewish sources reflecting this legend are the apocryphical “Book of Solomon’s Wisdom” and the “Antiquities of the Jews” by Flavius Josephus. This power is also described in the Targum Sheni (“Second Translation”) of the book of Esther. Although this post-dates the Koran, it is based on earlier Jewish tradition. Legends concerning Solomon’s power over demons were already known to pre-Islamic Arabs; for instance, one prominent sixth-century Arab poet, Nabigah, told that Suleiman ibn Daud (the Arabic equivalent of the Hebrew name Shlomo ben David) had punished disobedient demons. The motif of punishment was mentioned in the Koran and was later developed in prophetic stories and historical works. This motif also appears in two fairy tales included in the Arabian Nights: those of “The Fisherman and the Genie” and “The Brass City.” In both tales, there is a legend about Solomon putting disobedient demons into copper jugs and throwing them into the sea. One such jug is caught by the hero of the first tale; the second tells about an expedition organized by the Caliph Abd el-Malik ibn Marwan (early eighth century) in order to retrieve the jugs.

There are also proverbs of Jewish origin in the Arabian Nights. For instance, the following proverbs are quoted in the tale of Sindbad the Sailor: “The day of death is better than the birthday, and a living dog is better than a dead lion, and the grave is better than poverty.” The first two proverbs are directly taken from Ecclesiastes (7:1 and 9:4); the third is similar to an aphorism repeated in several Jewish legends: a poor man is considered as a dead one.

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New anti-Holocaust denial website launched

A new websitehas been launched to fight Iranian Holocaust denial propaganda.

The purpose of the website is ‘to confront Internet-based Iranian propaganda head on’.

“Our vision,” say the website operators,” is to place this website in the top rank of Internet search engines for the words ‘Iran’ and ‘Holocaust’. This way, our site stands a chance of reaching Internet searchers before they find Iranian propaganda. This site will chronicle international indignation towards Iran’s escalating hate campaign; it will shine a bright light on the regime’s motives and oppressive government; and at the same time, it will link to other campaigns so motivated individuals may find opportunities to respond that are suitable to their time and level of commitment. With approximately one billion Internet users, would you prefer if web searchers found Iran’s information weapons or a critical response to them? “

Website helps Jews mourn dead Tehran relatives

The International Herald Tribune reports on Shahram Avraham Farzan’s unique website (featured on ‘Point of No Return‘ last September). His website allows Iranian Jews to ‘visit’ the graves of their relatives in the Tehran cemetery of Beheshtieh. (With thanks: Albert)

“I think in an ironic way this Web site makes you feel like you have not left your dead behind,” (the Iran-born novelist Roya) Hakakian said. “When you are able to reach back to your dead, then there’s a sense of being alive and not having entirely vanished.”

The undertaking was somewhat accidental for Farzan, who returned to Iran in 2002 to place a marker on his father’s grave.

Nearby, he saw the grave of a family friend and decided to snap a photo for the friend’s relatives. In other parts of the cemetery, he saw poorly maintained graves, and others being moved for construction.

Farzan continued to take photos for the next 10 weeks, covering about 70 percent of the graveyard and spending thousands of dollars before returning to the United States.

Farzan would often haul buckets of water in the wintry cold of Tehran to wash the graves before snapping shots of them.

“I thought it would be a good gift for the families of these people,” Farzan, 51, said. “A mitzvah.”

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How one woman helped save 3,228 Syrian Jews

The amazing storyof how one Canadian teacher saved more than 3,000 Syrian Jews – immortalised in a book by Harold Troper – is picked up by Haviv Rettig in the Jerusalem Post.

It was a news item in that newspaper which first aroused Judy Feld Carr’s determination to do something about the plight of Syrian Jews. But even now many details of the smuggling operation she masterminded remain secret. (With thanks: Albert)

In 1972, Toronto high school music teacher Judy Feld Carr came across a news article in The Jerusalem Post that told of the tragic deaths of 12 young Syrian Jewish men who ran across a minefield while attempting to flee Syria across the Turkish border.

“I saw the article and I couldn’t get over it,” Carr recalled last week in a phone interview with the Post 34 years after that fateful publication. The daughter of an independent-minded fur trader from Sudbury, Ontario, she could not sit helpless while Syria’s Jewish community suffered. “So my late husband and I decided we had to do something about it.” And she did. Spectacularly. Over the next 28 years, Carr masterminded from her Toronto home an international smuggling operation, complete with elaborate secret codes, meetings overseas with foreign agents and extensive bribes for Syrian officials, which rescued 3,228 Jews from persecution.

Much of Carr’s work remains secret. “Even today, more is hidden than known, and we still cannot expose in detail many of [Carr’s] rescues,” noted a recent article in IICC Magazine, the journal of the Israeli Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center. Edited by former senior IDF intelligence officer Brig.-Gen. (res.) Ephraim Lapid, IICC Magazine quoted “foreign sources, who revealed that Carr was involved in the creation of a secret and secure information network with extensive connections,” both with “official and secret sources in Israel and private ones in America.”

The story began as a local philanthropic initiative. Distraught over the news article, Carr and her husband, Dr. Ronald Feld, organized lectures and a study day on Syrian Jewry. The participants learned of the persecution of Syrian Jews at the hands of the local Arabs and the regime, some of which continues to this day. They learned of the 1947 pogroms in which Arab mobs smashed homes and synagogues in the 2,500-year-old Jewish community of Aleppo; of laws from the 1940’s barring Jews from purchasing land; of the Muhabarat (secret police) surveillance of Damascus’s Jewish quarter; of the arrest and reported torture of Jews suspected of attempting to leave the country; and of the fact (recently cited in a 2001 US State Department human rights report) that Jews are the only minority in Syria whose religion is denoted in their passports and identity cards.

But, once they understood the problem, “we didn’t know what to do,” Carr said. “So we decided to do what we knew best from [campaigning for] Russian Jewry. We decided to call Syria.” It took almost three weeks (“We were about to give up.”) and the help of a Moroccan Jewish phone operator in Montreal to finally get a phone call through to Syria. “The Syrians would shut the line to Canada as soon as we asked for a Jew,” Carr recalled.

She finally reached the home of a Jewish woman who was on the payroll of the Muhabarat. Luckily, the woman’s husband was the only one home at the time, and though the call from Canada “almost gave him a heart attack,” he divulged the name and address of Rabbi Ibrahim Hamra, who would become the Chief Rabbi of Syria.

Following that initial gambit, Carr and her husband “knew we couldn’t call again, and it wasn’t a good idea to write a letter. So we came up with an idea to send a telegram in French [which is widely spoken in Syria] asking if Rabbi Hamra needed religious books. We prepaid the answer.” Ten days later came the response, a veritable shopping list of Jewish books. And so began Carr’s communication with the Syrian Jewish community.

Toronto’s Beth Tzedec synagogue, the largest in Canada, established the Dr. Ronald Feld Fund for Jews in Arab Lands, and Carr used donations to this fund to finance her work. “We had no overhead, no executive directors, no salaries. We didn’t have dinners, cocktail parties, fundraising,” she recalled. “We only printed thank-you cards.” Even so, she said, she received quiet financial help from Jews throughout North America. “It spread by word of mouth across Canada from British Columbia to Newfoundland. Then there was a fund in Baltimore that sent their money,” she said.

At its outset, the Beth Tzedec fund “was only a link to the rabbi in Damascus, and later on to rabbis in Allepo and Kamashili,” the only three towns in Syria where Jews were legally permitted to reside – and even then restricted to ghettos, forbidden to own cars or to travel. “The rabbis wanted books, tefillin (phylacteries), tallisim (prayer shawls),” Carr related.

Soon, the telegrams and Judaica shipments became a code.

“I started inserting words into the telegrams, like ‘who’s in prison?'” she related. “Then the rabbi would answer with a name, [hidden] inside my address.”

In order to verify that the rabbi had received the books, Carr would write one verse of psalms inside a book, and Rabbi Hamra would reply with the next one. Eventually, the verses became a way of discussing events, and Carr began to receive updates and news from the community. As the code developed it took on additional elements, including terms taken from Chinese cooking and alcoholic beverages. Carr herself was codenamed “Gin.”

The operation was expanded to Aleppo when another Toronto woman, Hanna Cohen, whose brother was a rabbi in Aleppo, decided to visit him, “taking her life into her hands.” Carr recalled that Cohen was arrested and interrogated, but then returned to Canada. She carried with her, hidden in her clothing, a letter for Carr “from the rabbis in Aleppo begging for books and begging to get out of Syria.”

And so, the network grew steadily. Through Syrian Jews who had escaped to Canada on their own, Carr slowly developed a network of contacts in and outside Syria. She communicated with Syrian government functionaries, judges and even Muhabarat officers, all of whom were brought together by the knowledge that there was money to be made in “selling Jews” to Judy Carr.

She used this network to “to ransom the [Jews] and to pay off people on the escape route and negotiate prices.” She funneled bribe money to Syrian officials through third parties and negotiated the Jews’ release personally. Over time, with the cooperation of Israel’s secret services, Carr had operatives moving in and out of Syria as well as ready in Turkey and Lebanon to collect escaping Jews and ferry them safely to Israel or elsewhere.”

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