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!


  1. ah, i love edna.
    there are jewish characters in moroccan fiction, but i can’t at the moment think of any names.

  2. Ali Muqri’s recent novel “al-yahudi al-Haali” should be mentioned, though I don’t know if anyone is translating it. It has received very favorable reviews in various places, including al-quds al-arabi in London…I for one would love to translate it, even without having read it in Arabic yet, having worked on a little of his non-fiction prose and given his empathetic and insightful work on the ‘akhdaam’ communities in Yemen.

  3. ُthanks! I will see if I can drive up to NY and meet him! cheers!

  4. Hello, I came across your site and I was hoping someone could help me find a book that was written awhile back at least 20+ years. It is the story of a young child that left for school with one parent (going to work) I believe and upon their return home, the wall had been closed off they could not contact their family. I cannot remember if it was a boy or girl but I am sure i picked it up at a library and that it was an older book.
    Thank you,
    Patricia L Varela

  5. I read this novel in Arabic, really it is amazing, and very attractive. otherwise the importance of this novel comes from the importance of Ali Bader himself, he is today one of the best young Arab novelists, so when he writes about the Jews, this means a shift in the mood of the New Arabic generation

Comments are closed.