We have become so accustomed to thinking of religion as a place of singularity in human identity that Diary of a Jewish Musilm gives all the shock in translation that author Kamal Ruhayyim surely intended in the original:
It was — as I have written earlier — beginning about a decade ago that films and novels that foregrounded ordinary Arab Jews began to appear, set in Syria, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, Egypt, Iraq and Algeria. Among these were Syrian novelist Ibrahim al-Jubain’s Diary of a Damascus Jew (2007), Iraqi novelist Ali Bader’s The Tobacco Keeper (2008), and Ali al-Muqri’s The Handsome Jew (2009). The latter two were widely discussed and also longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.
Kamal Ruhayyim’s Exhausted Hearts: The Muslim Jew (2004) was among the first of these new novels. Exhausted Hearts, translated by Sarah Enany and published in English as Diary of a Muslim Jew (2014) was the opening novel in a trilogy. The second, published in 2008, was translated as Days of the Diaspora (2012). The third, Days of Return, was published in Arabic in 2012 and hasn’t yet been translated.
So why did Ruhayyim, who has worked as a policeman in Cairo and Paris, decide to bring Arab Jews back into Arabic narrative arts? Like other authors who have recently written novels featuring Arab Jews, Ruhayyim is not descended from Jewish parents or grandparents. But Ruhayyim’s son Ahmed said that his father has long believed that Jewish Egyptians formed an important part of the Egyptian community, and “he wanted to write a book so the Egyptians remember them and keep their memory immortal.”
The first novel in Ruhayyim’s trilogy, Diary of a Muslim Jew, met with both acclaim and readerly interest. It won a State Encouragement Prize in 2005 and was republished in 2009 after the second novel in the trilogy was released.
The books follow the life of Galal, the “Muslim Jew”, so-called because of his dual religious life. His father’s family is Muslim, while his mother’s is Jewish. Charmingly, the first book opens from the point of view of infant Galal, who is given a six-month-old’s body and an adult’s narrative voice.
Galal is born in the middle of the twentieth century, when the situation for Egyptian Jews is becoming less and less tenable, a moment also sketched out in Waguih Ghali’s seminal 1964 novel, Beer in the Snooker Club. Galal’s Muslim father dies in the Suez War of 1956 without ever meeting his son. At this point, the two halves of Galal’s family don’t yet know each other, and it is a month before Galal’s mother hears that her beloved husband is dead.
Although the opening is pegged to a historical moment, the story barely engages with official history. Instead, it focuses on the characters’ interior lives, most particularly the conflicts that arise between Galal and his mother.