On the 90th Birthday of Sami Michael, an Iraqi-Jewish Writer in Israel

Sami Michael was born in Baghdad on August 15, 1926, when Baghdad had a thriving Jewish community:

imagesAlthough he enrolled in engineering school in Baghdad, he was also writing in Arabic and working as a political activist. According to biographical material on the Stanford website, “In 1948, due to his political activity, the Iraqi Court issued a warrant for Sami’s arrest, at which point his father had him smuggled to Iran. In 1949, Sami left Iran for Israel.”

Over 15 years, Michael made the slow switch to writing in Hebrew. He said in an interview with Claudia de Martino published in January 2010:

Back in Iraq, I was writing in Arabic and it took me 15 years to switch from Arabic to Hebrew writing. In those 15 years, I never published novels in Arabic, but many short and long stories. I also wrote for a newspaper for five years; I was on the editorial board of Arabic language newspapers. But the reason why I never published a single novel in Arabic is that authors in exile have to write in the language of the country in which they live, otherwise they do not find readers and most of them become frustrated.

For four years, Michael worked as an editor for Al Itihad and Al Jadid, invited by no less than Emile Habibi. But in 1956, disillusioned like many with Stalinist Russia, he left the Israeli Communist Party and the newspapers. He worked instead as a hydrologist, later going to study Arabic literature at the University of Haifa.

In 1974, at the age of 48, Sami’s first novel, Equal and More Equal, was published. He went on to publish more than a dozen more novels, plays, and works of nonfiction. His A Trumpet in the Wadi was published in English translation and staged as a play last year in Haifa. The novel sets a love story in an Arab neighborhood in Haifa between a Russian-Jewish immigrant, Alex, and a Palestinian Christian, Huda.

Michael’s Refuge, set among Israel’s communist party, is also available in English.

Michael is one of a small group of novelists committed to fully rendering both Palestinian and Israeli Jewish characters. He also translated Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy into Hebrew and was president of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

You can read a translation of a speech delivered by Michael at a conference in Haifa in June 2012.

Or listen to an excerpt from Michael’s “The First Day in Israel, Haifa”: