Reuven Snir : “The aim of my project is to save Arab-Jewish culture from oblivion”

Is Arab-Jewish culture doomed to diseappear ? Faced with the demise of a tradition of more than 1,500 years, Reuven Snir plans to write a book on modern Jewish Arabic belles lettres. Within this project, Reuven Snir was in residency at IméRA in 2020 with the research project : “Prophecies of a Madman in a Cursed City”: The Birth & Demise of the Arab-Jewish Literature.

 Anwar Shā’ul (1904-1984), one of the last Arab-Jewish poets.

Reuven Snir is professor of Arabic Literature, Department of Arabic Language and Literature, University of Haifa, IMéRA Fellow in 2020.

IMéRA : How did you come to be interested in the birth and the demise of the Arab-Jewish Literature ?

Reuven Snir : The trigger to my project was a specific episode happened while working as a news editor at the Voice of Israel, Arabic section. It was on 14 December 1984 when sitting at the news desk I was informed by one of our correspondents 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,” in brief jack-of-all-trades. It seemed obvious for us at the news department 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. I was speechless.

And then, over the years, many other Arab-Jewish poets and writers 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 themutually exclusive religious 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 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. The aim of my project is to save Arab-Jewish culture from oblivion.

IMéRA : Has there always been strong relationships between Jewish and Muslim creative writers?

Reuven Snir : Judeo-Muslim symbiosis began at the very birth of Islam, in which process the Jews played an important role; the Qur’ān provides a solid testimony to this. Arab Jews had an intimate knowledge of the holy book of Islam and its source texts and they would play an active role in shaping medieval Arab-Muslim civilization by serving as an intermediate link between Hellenistic-Roman civilization and modern civilization. Medieval Arab-Muslim civilization was to be an admixture of cultural elements; it would invariably manifest pre-Islamic roots alongside the Islamic religion itself as well as a basis in Greek humanism and in various cultural elements of the ancient heritage of the Near East. Therefore, it is not mere coincidence that the flowering of Jewish culture in the Arab world should occur at the very time that Islamic civilization was at its apogee. Nor is it strange that Jews often preferred writing in Arabic rather than in Hebrew, even when dealing with the most sacred matters of Judaism, which had the effect of making their literature virtually unavailable to Europeans. Arabized Jews had no conscious motivation behind the widespread use of Arabic, as in view of their extensive adjustment under Islam, and the degree to which they identified themselves with its culture, nothing is more natural than that they should use in their writings the language which served them in every other need.

Now, we are witnessing the demise of Arab-Jewish culture. A tradition that started more than fifteen hundred years ago is vanishing before our eyes — Arabic is gradually disappearing as a language mastered by Jews. The image of an hourglass pops up before us: the grains of sand are quickly running out. We all know that the chapter of Arab-Jewish symbiosis has more or less ended. For example, I was however astonished at the time during the 1980s when I was aware that poets and writers who had immigrated to Israel from the Arab world, mainly during the 1950s, were forgotten in the Israeli society and culture and plummeted into total oblivion despite their wide cultural and social reputation in the Arab world before their immigration to the new Jewish state. But soon I realized that it was not a one-sided exclusion ― the literature that Arabized Jews produced has also entirely been relegated into the margins of current Arab culture and its scholarship, as I have shown in my studies. For example, when Dār al-Sāqī in Beirut published in 2002 my Arabic book on the Iraqi poet ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Bayyātī (1926-1999) ― Rak‘atān fī al-‘Ishq: Dirāsa fī Shi‘r ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Bayyātī [Two Rak‘as in Love: A Study of ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Bayyātī’s Poetry] (Beirut: Dār al-Sāqī, 2002) ― it was without any reference to my Jewish or Israeli identity or my academic affiliation, but the publisher also omitted the book’s dedication, which was to my father, who “was born in 1921 in Baghdad, an Iraqi of the Mosaic faith, and who passed away in 1979 in Haifa longing for the banks of the Tigris.” The respected Arab publisher imposed censorship on my deceased father’s longing for Iraq. My project aims to show the complicated history of Jewish-Muslim encounters and try to correct misconceptions that have been prevailing during recent decades. The demise of Arab-Jewish culture is by no means predestination, but in order to change the course of current development both Jewish and Muslim cultures should change the way they refer to the other against the background of the rich joint cultural heritage.

IMéRA : What led you to come to IMéRA to work on this project ?

Reuven Snir : During more than thirty years of academic activities investigating Arab-Jewish culture, I have spent short or long periods of research at various international academic centers around the world such as Oxford University (2000&2008), Heidelberg University (2002), Leipzig University (2015), and the University of Gothenburg (2016), as well as institutes for advanced study such as Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (2004-2005), Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University (2009-2010), and Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, Penn University (2018-2019). I published dozens of articles and several books, all of them using original material in both Arabic and Hebrew, the languages in which Arab-Jewish authors created their literary works, and generally referring to studies in English. In recent years I started to use studies in French, especially when referring to North-African Jewish authors, such as Albert Memmi (1921-2020), who was one of the first who published specific essays on the complicated Arab-Jewish issue. Gradually I noticed that I was totally unfamiliar with the French academic community and its scholarship on the topic and this was the primary reason for submitting my application to IMéRA. Also, Marseille has been very attractive to me as a city similar in its human, geographic, and climatic nature to my birth town Haifa, and the multi-cultural social mixture of the city and its environment. During my stay at IMéRA I very much enjoyed the atmosphere of the city and the pluralistic academic life among the fellows.

IMéRA : Under what conditions did you conduct your research in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic?

Reuven Snir : The social distancing and confinement following the Coronavirus crisis disrupted the academic life at IMéRA and prevented the fellows from presenting their projects in the Community Building Seminar (CBS). I was the last fellow to lead a regular CBS at IMéRA on March 12, 2020, before the fellows shifted to virtual seminars via the Internet. Nevertheless, I continued working on my project, prepared the material and started to write the first chapter of my book according to my research project. In addition, encouraged by Thierry Fabre, Director of IMéRA’s Mediterranean program, I completed a short article to be published in French translation in the magazine Esprit presenting the issue of Arab-Jewish literature and its current demise. This will be my first French publication on the topic of my project. During my tenure as a fellow at IMéRA, I also finished two articles. The first is “’A Handful of Lentils’: Maryam al-Mullā as an Iraqi-Jewish Feminist Activist for Women’s Rights” – the article deals with Jewish women’s involvement in Arabic literature in Iraq concentrating on the work of Maryam al-Mullā (1927-2013). She worked at the schools of the Jewish community in Baghdad and at the same time was also politically active, especially after her marriage in 1948 to the journalist Salīm al-Baṣṣūn (1927-1995). As Iraqi patriots identifying with the Arab causes, they were by no means Zionist and refused to immigrate to Israel with the mass emigration from Iraq of the 1950s. They preferred to remain in Iraq and prove that it was the only place for the Iraqi Jews but October 1973, the political situation left them no option other than to emigrate from their homeland to Israel. One of al-Mullā’s most known literary contribution is the story “Ma’sātuhu Mathal” (His Tragedy, a Proverb) (1951) which deals with the topic of the relationship between the sexes in the Iraqi traditional society. Written in standard literary Arabic (fuṣḥā), the story starts with a popular Iraqi proverb in the vernacular that the protagonist, ‘Āmir, used to recite tens of times every day: اللي يدري واللي ما يدري حفنة عدس (He who knows, knows and he who doesn’t know, a handful of lentils).

The second article is “’Religion is for God, the Fatherland is for Everyone’ An Arab-Jewish Author Struggling for Women’s Rights” – the article concentrates on the Iraqi-Jewish Anwar Shā’ul (1904-1984), who 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 and “a master of a thousand crafts” or jack-of-all-trades. The focus of the article is on the struggle of Anwar Shā’ul for women’s as evident in his story “Banafsaja” (Violette) (1928), which addresses the issue of the status of women in a traditional society. The story, which, according to the author, was based on a case he knew from real life, is about the attractive and charming Banafsaja (Violette), who studied science and literature and used to walk the streets with her face uncovered. She falls in love with a young man, but her family intends, against her will, to betroth her to a wealthy man who is over forty years old, while she is only nineteen. The girl decides to fight back ― she, according to her words, is not “a piece of merchandise in the market place to be bought and sold according to their wishes.” Locking herself in her room, she refuses to take part in the ceremony, and when her father threatens to break down the door, she responds with the following: “You may break down the door of the room, Father, but you cannot break down the door of my heart.”

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