Friday, October 31, 2014

Jews make a come-back in Arab novels

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 administration.

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 Jewish population.

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.

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