Najat Abdulhaq on the Emergence of the ‘Arab Jew’ in Contemporary Arabic Literature

This past summer, as part of a workshop on “The Possibilitiies of Arab-Jewish Thought,” Najat Abdulhaq spoke about “Rethinking Narratives: The Emergence of the ‘Arab Jew’ in Contemporary Arabic Literature,” a talk recently posted to SoundCloud. Abdulhaq discusses the phenomenon and speculates about reasons behind this blossoming of new novels: 

najat_abdulhaq“I think it’s a phenomenon that started in 2006, 2007,” political scientist and economist Abdulhaq said as she opened her talk. The authors of these books, she said, are for the most part “not Arab Jews.” Abdulhaq said there were difficulties with this terminology, but in any case: “They are not them, they are not their grandchildren, they are not related to them directly.”

This new interest, she said, is not limited to novels. “Not at all. The avant garde were the [Arab] filmmakers.”

Yet Arab Jewish characters have recently appeared in a wide range of recent novels. Abdulhaq went on to list off a number of recent novels, in order to demonstrate the breadth of the phenomenon. These are a few; several of them are already in translation:

Diary of a Damascus Jew, Ibrahim al-Jubain, 2007

The Tobacco Keeper, Ali Badr (2008, trans. 2012)

Diary of a Jewish Muslim (2008, trans. 2014) and Days of Diaspora (2010, trans. 2012), and also Dreams of Return, Kamal Ruhayyim

The Last Jews of Alexandria, Mutaz Fatiha (2008)

The Handsome Jew, Ali al-Muqri (2009)

Jewess in My Heart, Khawla Hamdi (2012)

The Last Jew of Tamentit, Amin Zaoui (2012)

The Maze of the Last One, Mohammad al-Ahmed (2013, trans. 2014)

Tattoo, Rasha Adli, (2014)

Abdulhaq also said that she knew about others, for instance by a Libyan author, but the print run was so small it was difficult to find. She also mentioned Egyptian novelist Nael Eltoukhy’s blog, as he writes about translating Hebrew literature into Arabic, including Hebrew writers with Arab backgrounds.

This is not just a few disparate novels, Abdulhaq says. It’s a phenomenon because it’s not limited to one country. “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 that she found, in the novels, “Common aspects despite big differences in the details. All of them tried, in one way or another, to reconstruct Jewish figures in the countries like Iraq or Egypt or Tunisia or in Syria also. And most of them are based seemingly true biographies. They have been changed for fiction, but meeting authors and talking to them, yes they know, or they heard or they met someone, and they did the research. It also depends how deep it is, but there is a connection.”

These novels, she said, don’t fit with the official discourse of Arab Jewry. And, importantly, “they do not concentrate on conflict. They do not narrow the whole issue…to the Arab-Israeli conflict. From my point of view, the whole issue of the Arab Jews was a hostage of this conflict. The conflict like kidnapped a history of an important part of the Arab world history. And froze it.”

These authors, she said, “go beyond it, and they start questioning.”

The authors are certainly not drawing on official histories, she said. For the most part, she said, the histories of Arab Jews are not studied at Arab universities, with some exceptions, like the AUC’s Prof. Khaled Fahmy.

Abdulhaq threw out some ideas about why this topic might now be appearing: the historical dynamic, nostalgia (“maybe this wish of, ‘We had so good time when we were all together and we loved each other”), and some Arab Jews, such as Ella Shohat, resisisting Israel’s apartheid measures.

Abdulhaq wondered: “Are we dealing with a post-nationalist discourse, which is finding its place in novels?”

Audience members at the talk suggested other possibilities. Yasir Sueliman, Chair of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, suggested that novelists are always looking for new topics and subjects, and they’re looking for things that haven’t been dealth with in the past. This might also go a way towards explaining the attraction.

Others suggested that authors could be writing for translation, or that this was not post-nationalist, but rather a more inclusive form of nationalism.

Abdelhaq also suggested that, “Most of the novels [that she mentioned] have amazing sales numbers,” which I’m not sure about. Yet certainly a number of them have been well-reviewed, and have been listed for prizes, such as Ali Badr’s and Ali al-Muqri’s novels.

In the end, Abdelhaq raised more questions than she answered, which is the better way to go, really. You can listen to the talk here.

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9 comments

  1. Thanks for this. Haven’t seen the talk yet, but to the list in your writeup we could also add the seminal works of Ammiel Alcalay (After Jews and Arabs; Keys to the Garden); Shimon Ballas (Outcast, etc); Nissim Rejwan, and many more. From a teaching point of view: definitely enough for a rich semester-long syllabus. Add a unit on Arabs who write in Hebrew (Anton Shammas, Sayed Kashua) and it becomes totally irresistible. Aside from its intrinsic interest, might this be a promising strategy to get some of our less literary Arabic language students (the ones whose interest in the region is mainly political) to cross over into Arabic literature?

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    • She did mention others, of course Waguih Ghali’s earlier depictions of Jewish life in Cairo among them. I think she intended to focus on how the narrative was developing in Arabic in the last decade, although of course Amin Zaoui writes in French and is published in France.

      And indeed, I think a very interesting course could be made of it. Rejwan could be read with Tobacco Keeper or Man in a White Sharkskin Suit with Diary of a Jewish Muslim, etc.

      Although, as she notes, with the books on this list, their politics aren’t foregrounded. I was just poking through Goodreads reviews of Ruhayyim & some commented that they were expecting more “history” (a history lesson?) and not so much touchy-feely human stuff.

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      • Jewish muslim? how can someone have two religions at the same time?!?! jewish , hebrew and israeli may be different things.first is a religion,second is a language and an ethnic group and last a nationality that englobes several ethnic groups.you can be hebrew and muslim , israeli and muslim but never jewish and muslim!

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        • Clearly I cannot speak for the author. But there is one striking possibility which crosses my mind. This is in relation to certain passages in Al-Qur’an which define Muslim as literally One Who Submits (to the God). These passages state that the act of submission is what makes you a Muslim, and goes on to state that devout Christians and Jews are Muslims, as they are submitting themselves (to the Will of God). In this context, then, Muslim may not necessarily mean one who practices Islam as expressed in Al-Qur’an, but one who is Muslim by virtue of practicing Judaism or Christianity. [I’ve often wondered whether the context is such that the word “Muslim” has multiple connotations, and that in the absence of capital letters (Arabic does not have capital letters), a Christian or a Jew would be a “muslim” (lower case context) while “Muslim” (upper case context) would signify the follower of the religion we now refer to as Islam (contrast a time when the term Mohammedan was the common nomenclature).]

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          • In the novel, the protagonist’s father (and father’s family) is Muslim and his mother (and mother’s family) is Jewish. He is caught between.

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    • I’m very much looking forward to using Ali al-Muqri’s al-yehudi al-hali as the basis for a half-semester mini-course with the second-year MSc Intensive Arabic students at Edinburgh next Jan/Feb – lots of juicy material both within the book and stemming from the theme in terms of history and society. Yummm…

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