Arabs are now writing novels about Jews (irritatingly referred to here by the controversial phrase ‘Arab Jew’) – maybe because their communities are gone. Is it nostalgia for days gone by? Or a more honest appraisal of the past? But still, they try to draw a distinction between ‘their’ Jews and Israeli policies. Interesting blogpost in the Guardian.
More honest about history? Iraqi novelist Ali Bader writes about the Farhud massacre of the Jews
For decades, Arab Jews went missing from Arabic films and
novels. This loud absence followed the Jewish exodus from Cairo,
Damascus and other cities around the region. Before the second world
war, Jews had seemed an eternal part of the Arab cultural fabric. In the
early 20th century, Baghdad’s Jews had made up one-third of the city’s
population, and were prominent in the arts, commerce and city
Things changed drastically in June 1941, when the riotous Farhud pogrom
killed around 180 of Baghdad’s Jews and wounded closer to 1,000. Over
the next decades, as the city’s Jewish residents emigrated or were
driven out, they also disappeared from Iraqi narratives. But when
acclaimed Iraqi novelist Ali Bader
was searching for the origins of contemporary violence in Baghdad in
his 2008 novel The Tobacco Keeper, he circled back to the Farhud
massacres. From there, he depicted the city’s vibrant early-20th-century
Bader, who also wrote about the city’s Jewish population in
his influential Papa Sartre, isn’t alone. Papa Sartre, published in
2001, was followed by more than 20 other novels and novellas that
foreground Arabic-speaking Jews.
From the 1950s through the 1990s, if Arab Jewish characters
appeared in Arabic novels, they were largely of two types. Either they’d
been crafted by Arab Jews living in Israel, such as Sami Michael,
or the characters reflected the situation of Israel and Palestine. The
war and occupation “kidnapped … an important part of the Arab world
history,” according to scholar Najat Abdulhaq. “And froze it.”
These stories remained largely frozen until about a decade
ago, when films and novels that put ordinary Arab Jews in the spotlight
began to appear, and were set in Syria, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, Egypt,
Iraq and Algeria. Among these are Syrian novelist Ibrahim al-Jubain’s
Diary of a Damascus Jew (2007), Egyptian novelist Mutaz Fatiha’s The
Last Jews of Alexandria (2008), Yemeni Ali al-Muqri’s The Handsome Jew
(2009), and Algerian Amin Zaoui’s The Last Jew of Tamentit (2012),
written in French.
These novels have been coming from across the region. “And I
don’t think that the writers had an agreement among each other – that
they had a workshop and then decided, ‘Come on, we’re going to write
novels about it!’” Abdulhaq said at a talk this summer.
Most of the novels are set in the middle of the last century
and are based on true stories. “Lastness” is a central trope. A cynic
might say that it’s now possible to write about Arab Jews because their
communities are gone.
But Bader, who was perhaps the first of this new wave, says
he was intentionally writing against official regime history. In 2001,
Bader said in an email: “Political discourse in Iraq was designed to
legitimize the [Ba’athist] revolution, by denigrating systematically the
previous eras.” This included the denigration of Jews and other
minorities. “All my novels try to invalidate the official version of the
history,” Bader said.
Other authors have had other motivations. Egyptian novelist
Kamal Ruhayyim, who grew up in Giza and well-to-do Maadi, worked as a
police officer in Cairo and Paris. When he began to write novels, he
turned not to crime scenes, but to memories of his Jewish neighbours.
According to his son Ahmed, Ruhayyim wanted Egyptians to remember this
important part of their history. He also wanted them to understand the
difference between Jewish communities and Israeli policies.