For Jews From Arab Lands, Nostalgia Is a Two-way Street

What does being an Arab Jew mean? Israeli film and music increasingly embrace explorations of the Jewish Arab diaspora's cultural roots.

Ran Mendelson

In May 2007, Jerusalem’s Ben Zvi Institute for the Study of Jewish Communities in the East held a conference called “Jews, Arabs — and the Hyphen Separating Them: The Controversy on Eastern Jewish Identity.” It was incredible to see how much emotion and aggression one little hyphen was capable of releasing — a hyphen that supposedly created some sort of forbidden link between these two “opposites,” Jews and Arabs. Some participants, like some members of Israeli society in general, could live quite well with the hyphen, which gets along nicely in the term “Jewish-American,” while others were comfortable with “European Jewish,” without insisting on any hyphen at all between them. Anything but Jewish-Arab!

The question of what it means to be Jewish-Arab, or even what it means to be solely Arab, could fill a book. Is “Arabness” a political, territorial or a sociolinguistic category? Any such question has more than one answer. But one thing seems beyond dispute, irrespective of political affiliations: Jewish-Arab culture and Judeo-Arabic languages existed for centuries and are enjoying a revival, or the start of one, today.

The 12th-century philosopher Moses Maimonides wrote his many works in Judeo-Arabic (Arabic written in Hebrew characters and peppered with Jewish expressions and concepts), while the Jewish poets of medieval Spain were deeply influenced by classical Arab poetry.

But it seems there is always someone to dismiss their significance, or at least their relevance to relations between Jews and Arabs today. They would focus on Islam’s “death culture,” its suicide bombers, oppression of women, technological backwardness, persecution of minorities and hatred of Jews, and not on cultural collaboration more than 1,000 years ago.

Instead, let’s look at modern Arab states. For the past 150 years, in almost every Arab country where Jews lived, they contributed to artistic life, whether in music, literature or, as in Egypt especially, in film. The second and third generation of Jews who immigrated to Israel from these and other Muslim states now seek to preserve this complex identity. Rita issued an entire album of songs in Persian, as did Dudu Tassa in Iraqi Arabic. Neta Elkayam has composed songs in Moroccan Arabic and sings songs made famous by Jewish-Arab singers from throughout the 20th century. In Nissim Dayan’s latest film, “Farewell Baghdad” (“Mafriah Hayonim,” also known as “The Dove Flyer”), all the dialogue is in the Arabic dialect spoken by the Jews of the titular city.

The return of the Kuwaitis

This is not a completely new phenomenon. Jewish musicians who immigrated to Israel from Muslim lands often seemed strongly connected to those countries. For example, even if the late Shoshana Damari was the consummate Land of Israel singer, no one forgot that she was first and foremost Yemenite, and she had an obligation to sing in Yemenite Arabic as well as in Hebrew. Many other Israeli singers have also sung in Arabic, including Ofra Haza, Etti Ankri and Berry Sakharof.

Today the projects are greater than in the past, entire albums and feature films in Arabic, but to me the real significance is the quality of these projects and how they responds to developments in the Arab world, beyond Israel’s borders. For example, Tassa’s new album, “Dudu Tassa & the Kuwaitis,” contains new arrangements of songs by the most important Iraqi composers of the 20th century, brothers Saleh and Daoud Al Kuwaiti.

The pair — Daoud was Tassa’s grandfather — are still considered the drivers of the renaissance of modern Iraqi music, and many of their compositions are today considered examples of “authentic” Iraqi music. Tassa created new versions of their popular songs, which every Iraqi knows, and released an album that sounds a lot like contemporary Arab rock. The Iraqi musician Ilham al-Madfai, who is now based in Jordan, has also recorded new versions of the Kuwaitis’ songs, which he performs throughout the Arab world. At a concert he gave in Ramallah about four years ago, it was moving to hear the Palestinian audience sing songs by the pair of Jewish brothers.

Dayan used two of the Kuwaitis’ songs in the soundtrack of “Farewell Baghdad.” One is sung in the film by the Israeli Arab musician and actress Mira Awad, who plays the most important female Iraqi singer of the 20th century, Salima Murad, a Jew.

“Farewell Baghdad” is based on Eli Amar’s novel, “Mafriah Hayonim” (“The Dove Flyer”). Depicting the final days of Iraq’s Jewish community in Iraq, the movie can be interpreted as having been created in a contemporary Arab cultural context. This is because the nostalgic yearning of many Jews from Arab lands for their countries of origin — a yearning that is often mocked and dismissed — has significance in that it is often shared not only by Arab-Jewish people but also by the same “genuine” Arabs who stayed in those countries.

Missing the Jews

Even as Israelis from Arab countries feel nostalgic yearning for their countries of origin, one can also see Arab artists expressing their longing for the Jews. It is no accident that “Farewell Baghdad” was preceded by “Where Are You Going Moshé? (“Où vas-tu Moshé?,” 2007). This action film was made in Morocco by the Moroccan director Hassan Benjalloun, with a mostly Muslim cast.

The movie, about a Jewish community in a Moroccan village that is forced to move to Israel because of rising tensions, is full of yearning for the Jews of Morocco, who to Benjalloun symbolize a time when his country was more open, liberal and pluralistic.

So too, “Tinghir–Jerusalem: Echoes from the Mellah,” a documentary by the Moroccan Berber director Kamal Hachkar, was created out of a yearning — real or imagined; it makes no difference which — for the Jews who lived in the Berber village of Tinghir and the era they symbolize.

Egypt’s relations with Israel and with Jews are perhaps more complicated than those of any other Arab state (because, inter alia, it was the first to sign a peace treaty with the “Zionist entity”). Yet in recent years, Egypt has also been experiencing a wave of nostalgia for the Jews and the time they lived there. After years of completely confusing the categories of “Jewish” and “Israeli” in Egyptian popular culture, over the past few years Egyptian artists have been treating the difference between them with more care in an effort to distinguish between the “Israeli enemy” and the Egyptian Jew, who is regarded as a native son as long as he has nothing whatsoever to do with Zionism.

Signs of this can be seen in the television drama “El-malek Farouk” (King Farouk), which was broadcast on Arab television during Ramadan in 2007 and included several Jewish characters, including a female friend of Queen Nazli and the Jewish cabinet minister Musa Qatawi Pasha.

Marwan Hamed’s “The Yacoubian Building,” made at around the same time, opens with scenes of the communities of foreigners and of Jews who lived in Egypt until the 1952 coup by the Free Officers Movement. The entire film expresses longing for that period, and its protagonist believes that Egypt was more beautiful, cleaner, more modern and more pluralistic at that time.

During Ramadan 2009, an entire drama series on television was devoted to the Jewish film star and singer Leila Mourad. Other Jewish characters, including Mourad’s well-known relatives and other artists, also appeared in the series.

In addition, two documentary films about the Jews of Egypt were made in recent years. One is “Salata Baladi” (2007), whose director, Nadia Kamel, researches the history of her mother’s Jewish family and films family members in Israel as well. In the other, “Jews of Egypt” (2012), the young director, Amir Ramses, investigates the history of Jews whom Gamal Abdel Nasser expelled from Egypt in 1956. The film was released precisely when the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt, and at first, commercial screenings of it were forbidden. But following public pressure to allow it to be screened (including a Facebook page calling for it), the Muslim Brotherhood government, which later fell, retracted the decision.

Orit Pnini