1, Issue 1 (November2006 / Cheshvan 5767)
Jewish of Arab Origin and Culture
By Naim Kattan
is Jewish and who is Arab? It is easier to identify the Jew rather
than define him: He accepts his origin and indicates his birth,
either through his practice, or by affirming his affiliation.
A person is Jewish by history, tradition or practice. A Jew can
be part of a community and still be of different nationality
or citizenship than the other members. And those who avoid declaring
themselves as Jews, who attempt to hide or conceal their origin,
are often called upon by others, because we are also Jewish through
the eyes of others. The existence of Israel had an impact for
the many Jews who were indifferent to their origins. It is enough
to attest of one's sympathy for this state to implicitly affirm
a feeling favorable to a certain origin, if not an adhesion or
a sense of belonging.
say who is Arab is more complex. Arabic is first a language,
the language of the Koran, a sacred language, through which
Allah spoke to the Prophet. Yet, this language existed before
Islam. At school, I learned the muallaqat, the poems
that were publicly exposed in Mecca's fairs and markets. Mohammad
belonged to a tribe, Koresh, which was Arab, mainly through
the language. The pre-Islamic era was named jahaliyya,
or ignorance; and, in the Koran, Mohammad warns against poets.
The Koran revealed itself through a simpler language than that
of the poets, and was supposed to become the popular language
of the time. From then on, Arabic became associated with Islam.
For Muslims, whatever their country, the Koran can only be
read in Arabic and prayers are only conducted in this language.
Yet, today, the majority of Muslims--Indonesians, Iranians,
Turks, Africans, etc.--do not speak Arabic. After the Ottoman
rule over the Arab world--which lasted almost five centuries
and was followed by Western rule, notably Great-Britain and
France--the nahda, the Arab world's awakening, which
had initially consisted of a renewal of Islam, was significantly
influenced by the West. The protagonists of Arab literature's
rebirth, at the beginning of the 20th century, counted many
Christians, mostly Lebanese such as Gibran, Mikhael Naima,
Ilya Abu Madi and many others. In Egypt, Albert Cossery, Georges
Henein and Edmond Jabes, like the Lebanese Salah Stetie, Amin
Maalouf and Venus Khoury Ghata, among others, chose to write
directly in French. Hence the question is, Is one Arab by his
language, religion, place of birth? The answer cannot be clearly
Iraq, Jews spoke Arabic, and had, just like the others--Muslims,
Christians, from the North or the South--their own dialect.
The written language, used in schools and in the media, was
the same for everyone. We had to learn it at school. The young
Iraqi literature owes a lot to Jews like Anwar Shaul, Mourad
Michael and Meir Basri. In the thirties, a group of young Jewish
intellectuals founded one of the first literature reviews in
1941, a pro-Nazi government, under Rashid Ali al-Gailani, took
power and declared war against Great-Britain. Its defeat was
followed by the farhud, a pogrom that ended the feeling
of belonging the Jews felt for this country. They are the descendants
of Babylon's prisoners, who lived there for twenty six centuries,
and to whom we owe the Talmud of Babylon. The trauma generated
by the farhud's overthrow was never overcome.
years later, the Iraqi government gave the Jews the right to
give up their citizenship and to leave, leaving behind their
properties and valuables. Israel welcomed them in difficult,
sometimes painful, conditions. The alternative was to remain
in their country and endure harassment and persecution. In
Israel, they managed to overcome the obstacles, and today they
actively participate to various political, economical and cultural
us come back to Arabs. During World War I, T.E. Lawrence, working
for Great Britain, supported the Arab nations' uprising against
the Ottomans. At the end of the war, Great Britain and France
divided the region in two, and established apparently independent
governments. The Arab countries' nationalism showed the aspirations
and ambitions of the rising middle classes, which were increasingly
supervised by military forces. The Nazi propaganda promised
liberation from the colonial yoke, and was welcomed by Gamal
Abdul Nasser and Anwar Sadat in Egypt. At that point, to be
an Arab took a political meaning, beyond religion. Great Britain
was fully aware of this. In 1943, the Minister of Foreign Affairs,
Anthony Eden, gave a speech to the Commons, in which he clearly
expressed Great Britain's sympathy for a union between Arab
nations. London was looking to rally the Arabs against Nazi
Germany. In 1945, five countries founded the League of Arab
Nations. From the start, the nationalism that united them was
distinctly political and their enemies were mostly Zionists.
if the protagonist of the impulse to awaken was the Islamist
Al-Afghani, the political nationalism that emerged during World
War II was secular and often referred to as socialist. Its
mastermind was Michel Aflaq, a Christian who taught at the
American University of Beirut and who published the magazine Al-Tali'a.
As soon as 1947, he created the base for the al-Ba'ath party,
which took over the power in Syria and Iraq. As soon as he
came to power, Nasser, for his part, wrote a book demonstrating
that he was dreaming of transforming the mosques into places
for political gathering. He instituted socialism, like Ben
Bella in Algeria and Habib Bourguiba in Tunisia did. Thus,
Arabism became a vector of social transformation, but it still
remained a political affirmation of identity. What place could
a Jew have in such gatherings? If he was not openly Zionist,
he could potentially be, and was therefore considered an enemy,
declared or not. Christians such as Boutros Ghali and Tariq
Aziz participated to the Egyptian and Iraqi governments without
disturbing the nationalist assertion. Eventually, the socialism
paraded by several Arab states collapsed, along with the nationalism
it was supposed to lead. Opposition from the left was decimated;
another one was born, based on a glorious past that was unquestionable,
and Muslim fundamentalism came out as the only way towards
change and a new reign. Even when it is kept under cover, like
in Egypt and Tunisia, fundamentalism continues to be destructive.
only way a Jew could be heard in this mess was if he loudly
denounced Zionism and Israel--extremely rare phenomenon, but
it did happen. Forced, more or less openly, to leave his country,
it became quasi impossible for a Jew to define himself as Arab
without asserting his adhesion to a form of nationalism that
holds Zionism as its main enemy. For who was born there, the
Arab language and culture remain part of him. About twenty
years ago, an index of Arabic books published in Israel revealed
that a quarter of them were written by Jews. Isaac Bar Moshe
and Samir Naqqash, who were originally Iraqi, continued to
write in Arabic, thus disassociating language from place of
birth. Naturally, one would expect from a Jew who became Israeli
to adopt the country's language. The majority of Iraqi Jews,
such as Sami Michael, Shimon Ballas and Lev Hakak, adopted
Hebrew as their language of expression. In Iraq, Jews learned
Hebrew as the language of prayer and Torah.
personally started writing in Baghdad, publishing short stories
and articles in Arabic, and participating to the creation of
two literary reviews, Al-Fikr al-Hadith (Modern
Thought) and Al-Waqt al-Dha'i (The Time Lost).
Gone to Paris in 1947 to study at the Sorbonne, I continued
to write in Arabic during seven years as a correspondent of
the Iraqi daily Al-Shaab, among other things. When
I arrived in Montreal in 1954, it seemed absurd to continue
writing in Arabic, without a connection to an evanescent and
invisible public. I had to go through five years of silence
to become a francophone writer. What do I have left of the
'Arab'? I still read books in Arabic and devote some of my
literary chronicles to the Montreal journal Le devoir (The
Duty) to Arab writers, whose writings were translated
into French or who chose to express themselves directly in
that language. Among my writings, I can point to novels and
short stories, in which the action takes place in Baghdad,
and to essays, in which I try to analyze the link I have with
my mother tongue and origin. I can clearly assert that the
Arab culture is also and still mine, even if I became francophone,
Canadian, montrealais through the language I express
myself in, my interests, and the substance of my writings.
The same applies to other Iraqi Jews like Elie Kedourie, who
adopted English, or those aforementioned, who adopted Hebrew.
Moreover, Arabic remains a cultural link between writers of
different countries who, over the last few years, have been
rediscovering themselves first Lebanese, Egyptian, Iraqi, etc.
creates a mosaic among different countries, different life
experiences, without causing fusion. Cultural unity, if there
is one, originated from recorded, admitted and assumed differences.
Hence, the Jew who was expelled or forced to leave his birth
land can stay connected to his birth culture while still being
able to declare himself Israeli, American, British, French,
and, in my case, Canadian. Other elements can add up and intervene
in my sense of belonging. I wrote a book, Les villes de
naissances (Birth Cities), in which I state that
I was born successively in three cities: Baghdad, Paris and
Montreal. The latter became my elected place, a city that understands
all the others.
During a recent trip to Alexandria, I realized that this city, once cosmopolitan,
is now essentially Egyptian and Muslim. The Arabic language is evidently very
present, not only as the language of Egypt but also as the language of Islam.
The reminders of Islamic belonging through Koranic quotes are everywhere, in
every bus, every cafe, every street corner. From age 15 and over, all women
wear the veil. I observed that Islam took over from Arabism, which had lost
its political efficacy in uniting Arabic speaking countries. This makes the
presence of Christians and the few Jews that remained in Arab countries problematic.
Hence today the citizen of Alexandria is an Egyptian Muslim, Arab by culture
and language, even if the present configuration of the Arab culture is not
yet established. How will I situate myself? Jewish, Canadian, francophone?
My mother tongue is Arabic and my culture of origin is Arab. My case is not
unique. It is the case of thousands, even maybe millions of Christians and
Muslims born in Arab countries and installed in Europe and in the Americas.
A Jew can certainly keep the Arab culture as part of his inheritance. He can
express himself in that language. It all depends on if he can find interlocutors.
Naim Kattan was born in Baghdad, educated at the University
of Baghdad and the Sorbonne, and has lived in Montreal since
1954, where he was the head of the Writing and Publication Section
of the Canada Council. He is the author of several memoirs of
Iraq, including Adieu, Babylone and Les fruits arraches,
as well as many essays.
- Global Jewish Magazine 2006