Arab Novels, Jewish Characters

The flight of Jews from many Arab nations in the middle of the last century was no small event. However, Jewish characters—and I mean particularly from this 1950s, 1960s exodus—are rare in Arabic fiction.

They spring to mind because Ali Bader’s The Tobacco Keeper is all-too-briefly excerpted in Banipal 41, which finally arrived at my P.O. box.*

I needn’t have waited, as the excerpt, trans. Amira Nowaira, was also published on Banipal’s website. The excerpted chapter is from the point of view of a detached Jewish narrator, Yousef, as he watches the attacks on his Jewish neighbors: “He watched them as they lynched her to the ground, watched them as they stripped her of her clothing, as she screamed. He watched them place their feet on her head and stamp on it with full force.”

I don’t understand why the word “lynch” is used here, but otherwise the scene’s detachment is well-rendered in English.

This sympathetic portrait of an Arab Jew made me want to reach out to other creative, interesting portraits of Arab Jews. Certainly, there are a number of Arab Jews who have themselves written about this time in Arabic, such as the wonderful but marginalized Samir Naqqash, whose work can be found in English in the collection Contemporary Iraqi Literature. Most (all?) of these Arab Jews were living in Israel when they wrote their novels; most eventually tried their hand at writing in Hebrew.

A few other novels that come to mind:

St. Theresa, by Bahaa Abdel Meguid. The novel spends time inside the mind of an Egyptian Jew, Luka, and portrays his hopes and fears in a strongly sympathetic manner.

Beer in the Snooker Club, by Waguih Ghali. Edna is one of the great Egyptian characters; here, she is being forced out of Egypt, despite her great love for the nation and people.

Specters, by Radwa Ashour. While Ashour does not portray Israeli characters with much sympathy, she does make an effort to reconstruct the Jewish characters of her Cairo childhood.

Susannah Tarbush (@starbie99) adds:

on Jewish characters in Arab fiction, is Iraqi Khalid Kihstainy’s By the Rivers of Babylon @QuartetBooks 2008

There are other novels with sympathetic tentacles out to Jewish characters: Egyptian author Ibrahim Farghali’s The Smiles of Saints. Iraqi novelists Najm Wali and Jassim Al-Mutair.

And Palestinian authors, such as Ghassan Kanafani, have many sympathetic Jewish characters (Return to Haifa, others). But that is a different kettle of fish altogether.

*The P.O. box works! Oorah!