We Arabic Jews
Read Sami Michael’s novel “Victoria” and tell me we were not Arab Jews. Read Albert Memmi, Naim Kattan, Sasson Somekh. Respect.
It’s a no brainer. How could we live in what became Arab lands under Arab rule, for a thousand plus years without becoming Arabic?
We were not Jewish Arabs but Arab Jews, as Albert Memmi unpacks in What is an Arab Jew? (“Jews And Arabs”).
My parents were Arab Jews, from deeply rooted Iraqi and Egyptian Jewish communities predating the Muslim Conquest in the 7th century.
My mom and dad, Khatoon Sharbani/Katie Sherbanee originally from Sharharaban on the Iraq/ Iran border, and Moussa/Maurice Wahba from Mansoura via Mitghram and further back, farmers, fellahin in Moustai.
Jewish communities lived under Muslim rule for over a thousand years, a very long time. There is no way to pretend away the reality of Arabic Jews.
My mother was lucky to get out of Baghdad at age 18 for Bombay in 1943, two years after the Farhud. My father had the opportunity to leave Egypt for Japan in 1939. He was a visionary, he knew back then, it was “over for Egypt’s Jews.”
They met and married in India where I was born. We became stateless soon after reaching Japan when Egypt cancelled all Jewish passports in the 1950’s. Stateless for twenty years, I inhabit their past, their cultural identity, Arabic and Jew.
I grew up with their culture as an Arabic Jew in Japan. I grew up with my mothers’ family, filling our home with our mother tongue, Judeo Arabic Iraqi, Arabic food, and my father’s love for Farid al-Atrash, Abdel Wahab, Umm Kultoum, on the record player.
Our tiny Jewish community of Kansai in Kobe Japan in the 1950’s into the 1960’s was mostly Syrian and Iraqi Jewish dialect speaking Jews.
When I got to the USA on Red Cross Papers at eighteen, I was seen as an anomaly. How I could be a Jew if my parents were Egyptian/Iraqi. Oh! So, you are Arab, not Jewish?”
And then the other more recent “Jews were never Arab” chorus.
To the first of course I am a Jew. Jews go back some three thousand years in my parents’ native lands.
Yes, some Jews in Arab lands came later than those of us who were indigenous and never left. They don’t have to identify as Arab Jews.
And, Yes, we were never Arabs, we were Jews. No matter how many centuries our communities existed in these lands, no matter, unless we converted to Islam. A thousand-plus years was not enough.
Simply put, we were never allowed the status of “Arab.”
And yet, how can a people live for centuries in a majority Arab culture, sharing language, music, superstitions, curses, food, customs, not be “Arabic?” We blended. “Like chameleons,” my mother said. To a point.
With of course, our cultural and religious particulars. We were traditional/Orthodox Jews, we were Arabic-speaking kosher-eating synagogue-going Jews.
In my parents’ childhood, middle-class Jews went to French Catholic or the Jewish Alliance Israelite schools all over the region. Like my mother in Baghdad and my father in Mansoura, they had a bilingual education, in Arabic and French. At home, my mother spoke the Iraqi Jewish dialect, my father Egyptian Arabic.
I was born to Arabic Jews who were disowned by their native lands while we were foreigners in Japan. I will never have that sense of belonging most of my relatives who survived the maabarot have now as Mizrahi Israelis.
Memmi’s Arabized Jews of Tunisia and Sami Michael’s impoverished Arab Jews of the Jewish quarter in Baghdad are a thing of the past. Neighborhoods change. Almost overnight populations shifted.
Arab Jews became Israel’s Mizrahim. Our heritage is carried in the Mizrahi presence in Israel. It is no longer shameful to be an Arabic Jew in Israel. Mizrahi culture is increasingly hip. Jo Amar, Zohar Argov, Zehava Ben, Shlomo Bar, Ofra Haza, were early pavers. Today Dudu Tassa, A-WA, Eyal Golan, Sarit Hadad, and more, have reclaimed the music.
Israeli food, driven by Middle Eastern, Yemenite, North African tastes is no longer defined by schnitzel. Arabic, no longer an unwanted tongue brought in by Arab Jews, is sexy and embedded into everyday Hebrew.
Identity shifts. Arab/ic Jews existed in Arab lands. For the most part with bowed heads, second class status, persecution at the whim of rulers, seen as filthy polluters. Nostalgia aside, it wasn’t idyllic.
For the first time since the Romans renamed our Homeland and put too much disaster in our lives, we Jews can be full on both native and Jew in Israel.
But don’t erase. We were Arabic before we earned a new identity as Mizrahim, in Israel. Without apology, without confusion, without hiding, and without explaining myself/ourselves, to the point of exhaustion, I/we are Arab Jews.