Monday, February 09, 2015

A Jewish scholar teaches in Abu Dhabi

 It could have been the opportunity of a lifetime to demolish Arab misconceptions about Jews, but Mark R Cohen, to my mind, only manages to reinforce existing prejudices against Zionism, Israel and exaggerated notions of peaceful coexistence during his semester teaching at Abu Dhabi University. Here is an extract from his report in the Forward:

Apart from Emirati students, I met Muslims from such countries as Yemen, Jordan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Iraq. In response to an invitation from the Arab Cultural Group at NYUAD to lead a program for them, I screened the prizewinning documentary “Forget Baghdad.” The film, by Samir Jamal Aldin, an Iraqi Shiite living in Switzerland, features interviews in Israel with Iraqi-born Jews, like the famous writer Sami Michael, about their memories of Iraq and its once cosmopolitan capital. In the film, the Iraqi Jews speak nostalgically — in Arabic, not English or Hebrew — about their lives there before emigration in 1950 and 1951.

In late October, the filmmaker himself met for lunch with students and faculty at my invitation when he happened to be in town for the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. As we dined in the cafeteria, discussion got around to the tepid reception that “Forget Baghdad” met in Israel. My own suspicion is that the warm nostalgia for Iraq that the Iraqi-Israeli interviewees expressed and the complaints they voiced about their harsh life upon arrival in Israel offended Zionist sensibilities.

Samir shared a telling anecdote. When the film was finally shown in Israel, he was present at the screening. As the film ended and the lights went up, viewers in the audience of Arab-Jewish background jumped to their feet shouting at the Ashkenazim in the audience, “See what you people did to us!”

Jews in Islamic Life: Near East studies scholar Mark Cohen lectures on the Cairo Geniza to a male-only audience at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Women attending a different college campus were able to listen to the lecture by remote access.

Jews in Islamic Life: Near East studies scholar Mark Cohen lectures on the Cairo Geniza to a male-only audience at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Women attending a different college campus were able to listen to the lecture by remote access. (Photo: Mark R Cohen)
Samir described himself as completely taken aback by this fierce reaction, unaware as he was of the longstanding hostility between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim in Israel.

The biggest surprise of my stay was to find myself teaching Arabs a noncredit course in Judeo-Arabic, the form of Arabic spoken and written (in Hebrew letters) by Jews in the Arab world down to modern times.

The course resulted from a conversation I had with a senior from Yemen. Back home, he had discovered and bought a book containing an Arabic transcription of a Judeo-Arabic travel account of Yemen, written in the 19th century. I volunteered to teach him the language. Word spread, and soon 11 students turned out for the class, most of them Arabs or non-Arab Muslims. They found Judeo-Arabic utterly fascinating. I had them learn the Hebrew alphabet, and, as a first text, I gave them two suras from the Quran, which I transcribed into Hebrew letters. I also showed them an image of a Geniza fragment of the Quran in Hebrew letters, from the 11th or 12th century.

One Muslim-Arab student was perplexed. Why, he asked, would Jews have wanted to read the Quran?

This gave me an opening to speak about Jewish-Muslim coexistence in the Middle Ages and about Jewish acculturation to Islamic-Arabic culture. Jews read the Quran, I said, because they recognized the similarity between Judaism and Islam. Writing in Arabic in the introduction to his prayer-book, the great 10th century rabbinic sage Saadia Gaon of Baghdad referred unselfconsciously to the Torah as “sharia” and even as “Quran”; to the direction of prayer toward Jerusalem as “qibla,” the Arabic term for facing Mecca, and to the hazan, or cantor, as the “imam.” Jews read the Quran, I added, despite a medieval Islamic prohibition against non-Muslims teaching their children the holy book of Islam.

At the end of the semester, the same Muslim student came to thank me for offering the course. “My aunt,” he told me candidly, “couldn’t understand why I was doing this. She said I was being a traitor.” I responded: “I understand your aunt’s feelings. Given what is happening today between Israel and Palestine, it’s hard to believe that there ever was a time when Jews and Muslims coexisted and shared similar cultural interests.”

This young Muslim’s exposure to Judeo-Arabic taught him otherwise.
The Geniza provided another platform for speaking about Jewish-Muslim coexistence in past times. In November, Amitav Ghosh, the celebrated Indian writer, and his wife, biographer Deborah Baker, visited NYUAD as writers in residence. I had been Ghosh’s historical consultant for his Geniza-based book, “In an Antique Land.” In Abu Dhabi we collaborated on a public program for the NYUAD Institute, where, in the presence of a sizable audience, we were interviewed about the Geniza and about his book.

Independently, I also gave a lecture on the Geniza to NYU alumni living in the Gulf. I showed the respective audiences an image of a Geniza merchant’s letter and talked about the importance of the Geniza for understanding that, for all their statutory legal inferiority, the Jews lived securely among Muslims, traded with them and experienced minimal discrimination most of the time.

In general the Muslim students I met at NYUAD — whether they were Emiratis, from another Arab country, from Pakistan, Bangladesh or Africa — were very curious about Jews, Judaism and Jewish-Muslim relations, while thirsting at the same time to be disassociated from the murderous Islamic extremism that plagues the world today. Some 30 students and faculty showed up at one event to which I was invited to speak about Jewish-Muslim relations. There, a Muslim student from Pakistan spoke passionately in defense of the true Islam, which, he said, has been distorted by groups like the Islamic State, or ISIS.

Another student at this gathering — an American, if I recall correctly — posed what he apologetically called an “aggressive” question about Israeli repression of Palestinians. He was probably surprised by my unapologetic response, in which I expressed my own critical view of the policies and actions of the Israeli government.

1 comment:

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

There is no fool like an academic fool.