More Arab Than the Arabs: Iraqi Writers Join Israel’s Literary Canon

By Gabrielle Birkner

Published August 08, 2003, issue of August 08, 2003.
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For many Americans, Sami Michael’s novel “A Trumpet in the Wadi,” released this month for the first time in English, will serve as an entrée into literature written by Iraqi-born Jews living in Israel. But Michael’s work, which has become increasingly popular in the West, is only part of a rich array of an Iraqi-Israeli genre that is changing the character of the Israeli literary canon.

The literary tradition of Iraqi Jews — or Babylonian Jews, as they are sometimes called — dates back to the third century, when Jewish scholars living in present-day Iraq began to pen the Babylonian Talmud. Through the mid-20th century, Iraqi Jews remained among the most prominent writers in the Arab world.

Then, after a slew of violent antisemitic incidents during the 1940s and 1950s disrupted their relatively comfortable lives, most of Iraq’s approximately 140,000 Jews immigrated to Israel. There, Iraqi writers produced a critical mass of literature far beyond that of writers from any other country. Yet they faced a literary establishment — composed primarily of Ashkenazic and sabra writers — that was resistant to Mizrahi literature.

“We wanted to write about the past,” Michael told the Forward. “It was not greeted well by the establishment, who wanted literature only by Israelis writing about the Israeli experience.”

Over the past decade, though, a handful of Iraqi-Israeli writers and poets have moved out of the subgenre of Iraqi-Israeli literature into the national canon. A number of them, including Michael, Shimon Ballas, Eli Amir and poet Ronny Someck, have been scooping up prestigious literary prizes, and their books have been topping bestseller lists and filling out many high school and college curricula.

This burst of recognition, many observers say, is the result of the conflict in the Middle East and the unique position of the Iraqi-Israelis –– who are, in Michael’s view, “more Arab than the Arabs themselves.”

“It’s not just important for people to read books like ‘A Trumpet in the Wadi,’ it’s essential,” said Sasson Somekh, professor of Arabic literature at Tel Aviv University and the founder of the Society for the Solidarity of the Iraqi People, an Israel-based Iraqi cultural organization. “The book shows that the situation is more complex than just seeing the Arab as the enemy, and so creates a new promise for the future.”

Ironically, the Jewish-Arab connection, central to the work of Iraqi-Israeli authors, was originally seen as their handicap.

“I came from Iraq, from a world that the Israeli political and cultural establishment regarded not only as the enemy, but also as a backward world which had nothing worthwhile to offer,” said Ballas — author of the 1964 “The Transit Camp,” the pioneering work of Iraqi-Israeli fiction — during a speech last year at New York University. “This prejudice impelled me, as it impelled other immigrants from Iraq to do all we could to present a different picture of Arabic culture.”

It was a prejudice born of naiveté. “When they first arrived in Israel, many Jews from respected households in Iraq were sprayed with DDT and put in transit camps, where they lived in tin shacks or cloth tents,” said Nancy Berg, author of “Exile from Exile: Israeli Writers from Iraq.” “The bureaucrats who set up the intake process were as ignorant of the Iraqi Jews as they thought the Iraqi Jews were ignorant of everyone else.”

“The Transit Camp,” along with Michael’s “Equal and More Equal,” published about a decade later, Eli Amir’s 1984 novel, “Scapegoat,” and others, constitute what is often referred to as “sifrut hama’abarah,” or literature of the transit camp. These works highlight the hardships of being uprooted and replanted in Israel, where many deemed their culture inferior.

“My experience as an immigrant caused me to take a particular interest in people who live on the border between two worlds,” Ballas said. “Variations on the figure of ‘the Other,’ who remains different despite all his efforts to become accepted, appear in much of my writing.” In Ballas’s novel “Locked Room” — as in Michael’s “A Trumpet in the Wadi” — the author introduces a pensive, soulful and highly sympathetic Arab protagonist living in Israel.

Later works by Iraqi-Israeli writers, including Michael’s runaway bestseller “Victoria,” Amir’s “Farewell, Baghdad” and Ballas’s “Signs of Autumn,” portray Jewish life in Baghdad in the months and years leading up to the mass exodus of Jews from Iraq. And recently, there’s been a movement among Israelis of Iraqi descent to channel their Iraqi pasts.

For poet Ronny Someck, whose parents immigrated to Israel in 1953 when he was a year old, a seminal moment in his artistic development occurred in 1991, as he watched on television as bombs battered Baghdad during the first Gulf War. He later penned “Baghdad, February 1991,” a poem reflecting on his infancy in Iraq:

Along these bombed-out streets I was pushed in a baby carriage. Babylonian girls pinched my cheeks and waved palm fronds over my blond down… What’s left from then became very black like Baghdad and the baby carriage we removed from the shelter the days we waited for another war. Oh Tigris, oh Euphrates, pet snakes in the first map of my life, how you shed your skin and became vipers.

Gabrielle Birkner is a reporter at The Stamford Advocate.

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