Sunday, May 17, 2009

Another Guardian nostalgia trip by Rachel Shabi

This nostalgia-soaked piece in The Guardian is the latest fruit of the amba-addicted Rachel Shabi's publicity machine for her controversial book Not the enemy. Shabi usefully breaks down the 'white-colonial' stereotype by pointing out that Mizrahim (she irritatingly calls them Mizrahis) are half of Israel's Jewish population; but although more nuanced and less political, this offering still cannot resist denigrating but misleading generalisations and digs at the 'European ruling minority'. For instance, hebraizing your name was not an exclusively Mizrahi phenomenon: one David Green did it too. He is known to us as David Ben-Gurion. (With thanks: Niran)

"Those reservations about being far from "home" (I was never sure which one - Iraq or Israel) were sometimes nudged by the sort of migrant experiences that were typical of British life in the 1970s. Back then, Britain wasn't especially interested in my parents being Iraqi, or Israeli, or whatever. Perhaps they were just "foreign" - at any rate, that was how I tended to perceive them as a child. There were long trips in search of pitta bread and long waits for visiting relatives to bring us bottles of amba, the radioactively bright mango pickle that Iraqis seem addicted to. My mum admits that she would go to a pet-food shop for the unhusked sunflower seeds that she'd roast for us to crack open between our teeth as a snack. ("Yes, that's right, for the budgie," she'd tell the shopkeeper.)

I didn't realise then that the seed-cracking was a hallmark oriental habit - or that, in early Israel, public transport operators were so confounded by the carpets of seed husks that lined the buses, courtesy of passengers, that they erected signs to discourage the practice. When I was young, I didn't know the pet-shop story, either. Had my mum told me then, I'd have been embarrassed, as I was by all things that made me appear "foreign". A migrant kid, I assumed that blanding out my background would somehow make me more British, whereas all it could possibly achieve was to make me more bland.(..)

"As it turns out, scores of Israeli children were experiencing something similar at that time. Approximately half the population of Israel is from Arab or Muslim countries: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Yemen. Known as Mizrahi ("Eastern") or Sephardi Jews, they arrived in Israel during various periods following its creation in 1948. Jews of Mizrahi origin were for many years the majority in Israel - until the arrival of just under a million migrants from the former Soviet bloc during the early 1990s reshuffled the ethnic pack. Mizrahis grew up in a Jewish society that was desperate to yoke to Europe and belittled the Arab world as an uncivilised cultural desert. The majority Mizrahis were assumed by the ruling European minority to be bearers of an inferior culture that should not come to represent or define the Jewish state. And, inevitably, many of those Mizrahi children internalised this story.

"Interviewing for my book, it was easy to understand the Mizrahis who described how they had spent childhoods faking their own identities - in a country that encouraged its Mizrahi population to ditch those "backward" oriental habits. One professor told me he'd badgered his father into changing the family surname to something that wasn't a telltale mark of Mizrahi origin, and now feels shame each time he visits his father's grave and sees the bogus name on the headstone. Another, of Moroccan origin, described how she invented a French persona for herself, forbidding her parents from speaking Arabic or playing oriental music. Others described how they erased their guttural oriental accent: vocals that are integral to Hebrew - a Semitic language, the sister of Arabic, but which Israel decided would be tonally "wrong" for the Jewish state. (I remember how I used to practise my English vowels until they lost the slightest foreign twang.) And these stories repeat so many times over in Israel - recollections of masked origins, buried roots, trashed biographies; blanded-out backgrounds.

"This wasn't uniformly the case. Countless Mizrahis retained their home culture in Israel, often in defiance and against the odds. When their Europeanised co-nationalists pronounced Mizrahi culture to be inferior, some just said: "And who are you, exactly, to decide on that?" Meanwhile, many of those Mizrahis who did sever roots are now trying to reconnect with those forsaken origins - reclaiming their real family names, reinstating the oriental vocals, rediscovering their home culture. Yair Dalal, a world-acclaimed Israeli musician of Iraqi origin, describes a realignment process that occurs when he sends his Mizrahi students home to practise a piece of oriental music. "They come back a week later and say: 'My dad started to sing the song I was playing.' And that's the connection. That person is back on track."

Read article in full

More Shabi smears on BBC Radio 4 (13th May). Comment thread here

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I can't stand Ms Shabi, she has an anti-Israeli agenda and will ignore any evidence that does not fit her own prejudiced viewpoint.

For instance Turkey and Iran are not 'Arab Lands' so the title of the book is invalid.

Also the immigrants from the Soviet states had groups like Bucharians who in no way see themselves as Ashkenazim.

In my opinion she is a corrupt and dangerous person who is held up in the UK as some kind of expert on Israel, she is very, very far from this.

Michael Kenyon