“Prophecies of a Madman in a Cursed City”: The Birth & Demise of Arab-Jewish Culture, by Reuven Snir
Reuven Snir is a professor of Arabic language and literature at the University of Haifa teaching courses on Arabic poetry, mysticism, Arab-Jewish Arab-Jewish culture, and cultural identities. In residence at IMéRA from January to July 2020 onto the topic : “Prophecies of a Madman in a Cursed City”: The Birth & Demise of the Arab-Jewish Literature. See more about Reuven Snir HERE. Photo : Christophe Delory.
On 14 December 1984, I was sitting at the news department of the Voice of Israel, Arabic section. Our correspondent had just informed us that the Iraqi-Jewish poet Anwar Shā’ul (born 1904, al-Ḥilla, Iraq) had passed away in Kiryat Ono, near Tel-Aviv. During the first half of the 20th century, Anwar Shā’ul was a typical renaissance personality in the formative stage of the new Iraqi state. He was a writer of poetry and fiction, a journalist who published and edited periodicals, a translator and a man of theatre and cinema, a lexicographer and an educator, and in fact an encyclopedist – “a master of a thousand crafts” or jack-of-all-trades.
Anwar Shā’ul (1904-1984)
Therefore it seemed obvious for us at the news department of the Voice of Israel to broadcast the news of his death along with a detailed biography. Over the internal telephone network, I called the news editor at the Hebrew section; it was important, I thought, to inform Israeli citizens that one of the last Arab-Jewish poets was gone. “Anwar who?!” I could hear her shriek. I explained briefly. “It doesn’t interest our listeners!” she said.
And then, over the years, many other Arab-Jewish poets and writers passed away – their names are certainly unknown, all of them passed away in total anonymity, several of them were isolated and desperate, sometimes lacking the minimal means for existence. Gradually I began to understand that there was a kind of unspoken agreement between the two national movements, Zionism and Arab nationalism – each with the mutually exclusive support of a divine authority – to perform a total cleansing of Arab-Jewish culture. The national struggle over the same piece of territory has not hindered the two movements from seeing eye to eye in this respect, despite the difference between them – the one inspired by European colonialism and the other, an anti-colonial venture. Both of them have excluded the hybrid Arab-Jewish identity and highlighted instead a “pure” Jewish-Zionist identity against a “pure” Muslim-Arab one. During the last decades, we have been in fact witnessing the demise of Arab-Jewish culture – a tradition that started more than fifteen hundred years ago is vanishing before our eyes. Until the 20th century, the great majority of the Jews under the rule of Islam adopted Arabic as their language; now Arabic is gradually disappearing as a language mastered by Jews. The current demise of Arab-Jewish literature coincides as well with the collapse of Arab-Jewish identity
I started to investigate Arab-Jewish culture only at the late 1980s, after my parents’ death, when I felt the need to search for my family roots. My parents were born in Baghdad and immigrated to Israel in 1951; I was born two years later. As a Sabra, a native-born Jew, in the Israeli-Zionist educational system, I had been taught that Arabness and Jewishness were mutually exclusive. As Arab-Jewish children, we were educated in schools to be hesitant toward the culture of our own parents; in this case “their culture” was the culture of “the enemy.” Trying to conform to the dominant Ashkenazi-Zionist norm, as a child I felt ashamed of the Arabness of my parents. For them, I was an agent of repression sent by the Zionist establishment, whose “excellent” training returned me to the enemy camp – my family – where I completed my mission in a way that only children can do with their loving parents: I forbade them to speak Arabic in public or to listen to Arabic music in a way the neighbors could hear. Like almost all Israeli-Jewish children of my generation, my sole cultural heritage was the Zionist-Ashkenazi one and the Holocaust was my decisive marker of historical and cultural identity. I eventually learned Arabic at high school and then at the Hebrew University, but the language was taught through the lens of perceived Israeli national security needs—in the spirit of the slogan “know the enemy.”
In retrospect, I remembered that my father was an ardent admirer of Arabic poetry. For my edification, he would punctuate his stories with Arabic verses, even though at the time I understood little and cared even less. When I started to study Arab-Jewish culture, I tried to recall something of the verses my father used to recite to me during my childhood. There was one particular verse he had recited over and over again. I remembered that it had something to do with camels and water and the feel of its music was still with me, the melodic resonance of al-kamil meter. At long last, I “rediscovered” the verse; it was probably the verse attributed to the blind ascetic poet Abu al-‘Alā’ al-Ma‘arrī (973–1058), the poet whose Risālat al-Ghufrān (The Epistle of Forgiveness), according to some scholars, influenced the Divine Comedy of Dante (1265–1321).
كالعيس في البيداء يقتلها الظما والماء فوق ظهورها محمول
Like camels in the desert, dying of thirst, While carrying the water on their back
When I managed to discover the verse, I suddenly understood what my father had for many years been (rather unsuccessfully) trying to convey to me regarding my dismissive attitude during my childhood towards my own personal cultural heritage. Looking back, until the early death of my parents, Arab culture was always in the air. My parents used to speak the Baghdadi dialect of Judaeo-Arabic at home, even though my brothers, my sister, and I always responded in Hebrew. My father would recount to us his memories from the golden age of the Jews in the City of Peace and there was, as well, a real, palpable taste of Baghdadi life at our home: the delicious Baghdadi dishes my mother would cook and the riveting songs of the great singers, the Iraqi-Jewish Salīma Murād (1905-1974) and her Iraqi-Muslim husband Nāẓim al-Ghazālī (1921-1963), to which our parents would listen, enthralled, over Arab radio stations.
My current project in IMéRA, institut d’études avancées de l’université d’Aix-Marseille, comes against the backdrop of my personal experiences as well as my research during the last three decades on Arab-Jewish culture and identities that produced dozens of articles and three books, the first of them in Hebrew ‘Arviyut, Yahadut, Tsiyonut: Ma’avak Zehuyot ba-Yetsira shel Yehude ‘Iraq [Arabness, Jewishness, Zionism: A Struggle of Identities in the Literature of Iraqi Jews] (Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute, 2005), and the others in English: Who Needs Arab-Jewish Identity? Interpellation, Exclusion, and Inessential Solidarities (Leiden: Brill, 2015) and Arab-Jewish Literature: The Birth and Demise of the Arabic Short Story (With an Anthology of 16 Translated Short Stories by Arabized Jews) (Leiden: Brill, 2019). The aim of my project is to write the history of modern Arab-Jewish literature that involves the complex relationships between Jewish creative authors, especially in Iraq and Egypt, with Muslim authors. The project bears the symbolic title of a book by Samīr Naqqāsh (1938-2004), Nubū’āt Rajul Majnūn fī Madīna Mal‘ūna (Prophecies of a Madman in a Cursed City) (1995). Naqqāsh was the greatest of the Arab-Jewish writers in modern time, in my view one of the greatest of Arab writers in the second half of the 20th century but unfortunately you will hardly find many who read his literary output. Why? Because he is a Jew. Metaphorically, Naqqāsh passed away in Israel without possessing the most elementary means for honorable survival. “I don’t exist in this country,” he said before his death, “neither as a writer, citizen, or human being. I don’t feel that I belong anywhere, not since my roots were torn from the ground [in Baghdad].”
Because of Naqqāsh’s towering figure in Arab-Jewish culture, here are as well some sections from interviews with him some years before his premature death.