Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Israelis are more Middle Eastern than Arabs think

The Israelis are more Middle Eastern than Arabs think, Egyptian journalist Khaled Diab discovered on his recent trip to Israel. It's welcome news, and can only help promote understanding. But even an alcohol-imbibing liberal Arab like Khaled does not see Middle Eastern Jews as 'dispossessed'. That epithet is reserved for Palestinians. It is as if the Moroccan and the Iraqi Jews whom Khaled met parachuted into Israel out of the blue. Nothing remains of their 'narrative' except nostalgia.

"Landing in Tel Aviv at an airport called Ben Gurion had all the makings of an Egyptian spy thriller. And for those in search of "intrigue", my first introduction to Israel did not disappoint. Although Egyptian-born, I was travelling on my Belgian passport. Airport security had obviously been alerted about my imminent arrival and an official welcoming party was waiting when I stepped off the plane.

"When I left the airport two hours and four interviews later, my first encounter with an Israeli taxi driver confirmed that I had very much landed in the Middle East. He was a Moroccan Jew who had moved to Israel as a teenager and could shame any Cairo cabbie with his colourful use of curses and expletives and his love of Umm Kalthoum, the Arab world's legendary singing diva. The only western thing about this scene was that he had turned on the taxi's meter.

"The Israeli family I stayed with for a few days reminded me in so many ways of home. Like the traditional set-up in Egypt, several generations of the same family live together on the same plot, flowing in and out of each other's spaces, sharing intimacies, food and resources, etc. The key difference was that they were less patriarchal and more egalitarian than most Egyptian families.

"I don't understand how Europeans can leave home so early and stay so distant from their families," said an exasperated Zipora, the mother, sounding just like one of my Egyptian aunties, over a sumptuous lunch she had prepared to feed twice the assembled people, just like another of my aunts.

Throughout my time in Israel, it was constantly driven home to me that the joking description in Egypt of Israelis as our errant "cousins" had a very distinct ring of truth to it. After all, about half the Jewish population of Israel came from Arab countries - that's not to mention all the 1.2 million Palestinian holders of Israeli passports.

"One Iraqi Jew I met in Jerusalem could do a passable imitation of the Egyptian vernacular so popular in films and music across the region, loved travelling to Egypt, was a professional oud player and sang in Arabic at weddings and barmitzvahs.

"Israelis share with Arabs - particularly their Mediterranean neighbours - a keen sense of Middle Eastern hospitality, a love of conversation and large gatherings and spontaneity in public spaces. But just as Arabs do not realise just how "Middle Eastern" Israelis are, I discovered that Israelis are also largely ignorant of just how '"western" millions of Arabs are. But, then again, in a conflict, it's tempting to portray your foe as everything you're not.

"I found it entertaining that at a barbecue where no one was drinking except me with my solitary glass of wine, everyone seemed convinced that "secular Arab" was some sort of mythical creature, a semantic impossibility. Some guests looked at me with unrestrained dismay when I recalled the amount of drinking that went on at the Cairo parties I used to host or attend.

"Do you have alcohol in Egypt?" one confounded guest actually inquired, causing me almost to choke on my wine. "Of course, it's not the same with the Palestinians," another confidently asserted. We later drank a toast to his memory at a local bar in Ramallah over the surprisingly good Palestinian beer.

"The idea that there are sizeable minorities of Egyptians and other Arabs - counting in the millions - committed to secular ideals, gender equality, sexual liberty, etc, was entirely contrary to the vision that most Israelis I met entertained of the Arab world being a seething ocean of Islamic fanaticism.

"Of course, there are differences, and plenty of them. Whereas a relative minority are socially liberal in Egypt, a relative majority are so in Israel. An openly permissive city like Tel Aviv would be hard to find anywhere in the Middle East, with the exception of Beirut.

"Another key difference between Egypt and Israel is the sheer diversity of the Israeli population. Egypt's 75 million citizens are largely homogenous, despite some religious and racial variations. Israel is like a racial microcosm of the world - a fairly unique riot of ethnicities, races and cultures. And the fact that it has succeeded in managing all this diversity to construct a functioning society and a competitive economy is remarkable. Israel also leads the region in science and the knowledge sector.

"Despite a certain lack of contemporary confidence, Egypt, the oldest nation in the world, has the security of an ages-old identity that has the permanence of the Nile or the pyramids. Whereas Egypt is the land of the rooted, Israel - in contrast - is the land of the displaced controlling millions of dispossessed."

Read article on 'Comment is free' in full


Anonymous said...

Although Khaled Diab does not insult or abuse Israel, he mainly praises those things that he can somehow claim to be derived or originated from the Arabs. Nothing that is purely Jewish or European is praiseworthy. And anything that is praiseworthy must be ascribed to the Arab influence. Perhaps when aimed at an Arab audience this is a prudent emphasis, but he writes for a British newspaper.

Altogether, I find his mixture of sly self-congratulation with implied disdain for non-Arab facets of Israeli life rather repellant.

bataween said...

On the other hand, Khaled is at pains to emphasise that a great many Arabs are western-style secular liberals - like him. These are 'European' values he finds praiseworthy.