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Volume 1, Issue 1 (November2006 / Cheshvan 5767)
Article 6/9

Jewish of Arab Origin and Culture
By Naïm Kattan

Who is Jewish and who is Arab? It is easier to identify the Jew rather than define him: He accepts his origin and indicates his birth, either through his practice, or by affirming his affiliation. A person is Jewish by history, tradition or practice. A Jew can be part of a community and still be of different nationality or citizenship than the other members. And those who avoid declaring themselves as Jews, who attempt to hide or conceal their origin, are often called upon by others, because we are also Jewish through the eyes of others. The existence of Israel had an impact for the many Jews who were indifferent to their origins. It is enough to attest of one's sympathy for this state to implicitly affirm a feeling favorable to a certain origin, if not an adhesion or a sense of belonging.

To say who is Arab is more complex. Arabic is first a language, the language of the Koran, a sacred language, through which Allah spoke to the Prophet. Yet, this language existed before Islam. At school, I learned the muallaqat, the poems that were publicly exposed in Mecca's fairs and markets. Mohammad belonged to a tribe, Koresh, which was Arab, mainly through the language. The pre-Islamic era was named jahaliyya, or ignorance; and, in the Koran, Mohammad warns against poets. The Koran revealed itself through a simpler language than that of the poets, and was supposed to become the popular language of the time. From then on, Arabic became associated with Islam. For Muslims, whatever their country, the Koran can only be read in Arabic and prayers are only conducted in this language. Yet, today, the majority of Muslims--Indonesians, Iranians, Turks, Africans, etc.--do not speak Arabic. After the Ottoman rule over the Arab world--which lasted almost five centuries and was followed by Western rule, notably Great-Britain and France--the nahda, the Arab world's awakening, which had initially consisted of a renewal of Islam, was significantly influenced by the West. The protagonists of Arab literature's rebirth, at the beginning of the 20th century, counted many Christians, mostly Lebanese such as Gibran, Mikhael Naïma, Ilya Abu Madi and many others. In Egypt, Albert Cossery, Georges Hénein and Edmond Jabès, like the Lebanese Salah Stétié, Amin Maalouf and Venus Khoury Ghata, among others, chose to write directly in French. Hence the question is, Is one Arab by his language, religion, place of birth? The answer cannot be clearly established.

In Iraq, Jews spoke Arabic, and had, just like the others--Muslims, Christians, from the North or the South--their own dialect. The written language, used in schools and in the media, was the same for everyone. We had to learn it at school. The young Iraqi literature owes a lot to Jews like Anwar Shaul, Mourad Michael and Meir Basri. In the thirties, a group of young Jewish intellectuals founded one of the first literature reviews in Iraq: Al-Hassid.

In 1941, a pro-Nazi government, under Rashid Ali al-Gailani, took power and declared war against Great-Britain. Its defeat was followed by the farhud, a pogrom that ended the feeling of belonging the Jews felt for this country. They are the descendants of Babylon's prisoners, who lived there for twenty six centuries, and to whom we owe the Talmud of Babylon. The trauma generated by the farhud's overthrow was never overcome.

Ten years later, the Iraqi government gave the Jews the right to give up their citizenship and to leave, leaving behind their properties and valuables. Israel welcomed them in difficult, sometimes painful, conditions. The alternative was to remain in their country and endure harassment and persecution. In Israel, they managed to overcome the obstacles, and today they actively participate to various political, economical and cultural spheres.

Let us come back to Arabs. During World War I, T.E. Lawrence, working for Great Britain, supported the Arab nations' uprising against the Ottomans. At the end of the war, Great Britain and France divided the region in two, and established apparently independent governments. The Arab countries' nationalism showed the aspirations and ambitions of the rising middle classes, which were increasingly supervised by military forces. The Nazi propaganda promised liberation from the colonial yoke, and was welcomed by Gamal Abdul Nasser and Anwar Sadat in Egypt. At that point, to be an Arab took a political meaning, beyond religion. Great Britain was fully aware of this. In 1943, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Anthony Eden, gave a speech to the Commons, in which he clearly expressed Great Britain's sympathy for a union between Arab nations. London was looking to rally the Arabs against Nazi Germany. In 1945, five countries founded the League of Arab Nations. From the start, the nationalism that united them was distinctly political and their enemies were mostly Zionists.

Even if the protagonist of the impulse to awaken was the Islamist Al-Afghani, the political nationalism that emerged during World War II was secular and often referred to as socialist. Its mastermind was Michel Aflaq, a Christian who taught at the American University of Beirut and who published the magazine Al-Tali'a. As soon as 1947, he created the base for the al-Ba'ath party, which took over the power in Syria and Iraq. As soon as he came to power, Nasser, for his part, wrote a book demonstrating that he was dreaming of transforming the mosques into places for political gathering. He instituted socialism, like Ben Bella in Algeria and Habib Bourguiba in Tunisia did. Thus, Arabism became a vector of social transformation, but it still remained a political affirmation of identity. What place could a Jew have in such gatherings? If he was not openly Zionist, he could potentially be, and was therefore considered an enemy, declared or not. Christians such as Boutros Ghali and Tariq Aziz participated to the Egyptian and Iraqi governments without disturbing the nationalist assertion. Eventually, the socialism paraded by several Arab states collapsed, along with the nationalism it was supposed to lead. Opposition from the left was decimated; another one was born, based on a glorious past that was unquestionable, and Muslim fundamentalism came out as the only way towards change and a new reign. Even when it is kept under cover, like in Egypt and Tunisia, fundamentalism continues to be destructive.

The only way a Jew could be heard in this mess was if he loudly denounced Zionism and Israel--extremely rare phenomenon, but it did happen. Forced, more or less openly, to leave his country, it became quasi impossible for a Jew to define himself as Arab without asserting his adhesion to a form of nationalism that holds Zionism as its main enemy. For who was born there, the Arab language and culture remain part of him. About twenty years ago, an index of Arabic books published in Israel revealed that a quarter of them were written by Jews. Isaac Bar Moshe and Samir Naqqash, who were originally Iraqi, continued to write in Arabic, thus disassociating language from place of birth. Naturally, one would expect from a Jew who became Israeli to adopt the country's language. The majority of Iraqi Jews, such as Sami Michael, Shimon Ballas and Lev Hakak, adopted Hebrew as their language of expression. In Iraq, Jews learned Hebrew as the language of prayer and Torah.

I personally started writing in Baghdad, publishing short stories and articles in Arabic, and participating to the creation of two literary reviews, Al-Fikr al-Hadith (Modern Thought) and Al-Waqt al-Dha'i (The Time Lost). Gone to Paris in 1947 to study at the Sorbonne, I continued to write in Arabic during seven years as a correspondent of the Iraqi daily Al-Shaab, among other things. When I arrived in Montreal in 1954, it seemed absurd to continue writing in Arabic, without a connection to an evanescent and invisible public. I had to go through five years of silence to become a francophone writer. What do I have left of the 'Arab'? I still read books in Arabic and devote some of my literary chronicles to the Montreal journal Le devoir (The Duty) to Arab writers, whose writings were translated into French or who chose to express themselves directly in that language. Among my writings, I can point to novels and short stories, in which the action takes place in Baghdad, and to essays, in which I try to analyze the link I have with my mother tongue and origin. I can clearly assert that the Arab culture is also and still mine, even if I became francophone, Canadian, montréalais through the language I express myself in, my interests, and the substance of my writings. The same applies to other Iraqi Jews like Elie Kedourie, who adopted English, or those aforementioned, who adopted Hebrew. Moreover, Arabic remains a cultural link between writers of different countries who, over the last few years, have been rediscovering themselves first Lebanese, Egyptian, Iraqi, etc.

Language creates a mosaic among different countries, different life experiences, without causing fusion. Cultural unity, if there is one, originated from recorded, admitted and assumed differences. Hence, the Jew who was expelled or forced to leave his birth land can stay connected to his birth culture while still being able to declare himself Israeli, American, British, French, and, in my case, Canadian. Other elements can add up and intervene in my sense of belonging. I wrote a book, Les villes de naissances (Birth Cities), in which I state that I was born successively in three cities: Baghdad, Paris and Montreal. The latter became my elected place, a city that understands all the others.

During a recent trip to Alexandria, I realized that this city, once cosmopolitan, is now essentially Egyptian and Muslim. The Arabic language is evidently very present, not only as the language of Egypt but also as the language of Islam. The reminders of Islamic belonging through Koranic quotes are everywhere, in every bus, every cafe, every street corner. From age 15 and over, all women wear the veil. I observed that Islam took over from Arabism, which had lost its political efficacy in uniting Arabic speaking countries. This makes the presence of Christians and the few Jews that remained in Arab countries problematic. Hence today the citizen of Alexandria is an Egyptian Muslim, Arab by culture and language, even if the present configuration of the Arab culture is not yet established. How will I situate myself? Jewish, Canadian, francophone? My mother tongue is Arabic and my culture of origin is Arab. My case is not unique. It is the case of thousands, even maybe millions of Christians and Muslims born in Arab countries and installed in Europe and in the Americas. A Jew can certainly keep the Arab culture as part of his inheritance. He can express himself in that language. It all depends on if he can find interlocutors.

About the Author
Naïm Kattan was born in Baghdad, educated at the University of Baghdad and the Sorbonne, and has lived in Montreal since 1954, where he was the head of the Writing and Publication Section of the Canada Council. He is the author of several memoirs of Iraq, including Adieu, Babylone and Les fruits arrachés, as well as many essays.

© Covenant - Global Jewish Magazine 2006

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