Jewish-Arab Slam Poet a Hit in Person and on YouTube

'Regrettably, if you write in Arabic you only reach an Arab audience,' says Lucy Ayoub.

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Lucy Ayoub: 'My mother converted but Jews don’t recognize that, so I often hear: ‘Great, you’re one of us. You can’t escape that.'
Lucy Ayoub: 'My mother converted but Jews don’t recognize that, so I often hear: ‘Great, you’re one of us. You can’t escape that.'Credit: Rami Shllush
Shachar Atwan
Shachar Atwan
Shachar Atwan
Shachar Atwan

The Bascula art center in Tel Aviv was filled to the brim. Just like on any other “Poetry Slam” evening (in which amateur poets compete in friendly contests of recited poetry) over the last four years, tickets sold out on this night last month before the doors even opened. Following four young men who took turns on the stage, reciting their poetry with passion, it was Lucy Ayoub’s turn. Her voice was quiet as she read out “the battle of looks,” a sort of ballad to a security officer at Ben-Gurion Airport, tensing up at the presence of a young Arab woman from Haifa.

“You’ll never convince me! For some of you I’ll always be the Arab’s daughter while for others I’ll be ‘bint al-Yahudiya’ (daughter of the Jewish woman), so don’t suddenly tell me I can’t be both,” she read out. Her voice remained calm and assured while expressing these powerful words, reading them with winning grace, unhesitating and fearless. When she finished, the audience enthusiastically applauded her.

Ayoub is the daughter of a Christian Arab man and a Jewish woman who converted to Christianity. She was born in Haifa’s Hadar neighborhood 24 years ago, attending a Catholic school in Haifa as a child. She says she always wrote stories and poems, in Arabic and Hebrew, and her house was filled with little notebooks containing her writings.

“My mother converted but Jews don’t recognize that, so I frequently hear: “Great, you’re one of us. Your kids will also be Jewish. You have no way of escaping that,” she says. “I never tried running away from it. I don’t really care. I often encounter requests to define myself or to place myself within some framework. They say that if I was baptized, I’m Christian. But I’m an atheist and it means nothing to me that I was baptized. On the other hand, culturally I like the atmosphere and spending the Christian holidays with my family. I celebrate Jewish holidays with my grandmother and uncles.”

This was Ayoub’s fifth appearance at Poetry Slam, after winning the competition on two occasions. Her first appearance at the competition was last March, where she delivered a no less volatile poem called “I have a confession to make.” It also dealt with her being an outsider due to her Arab origins, mentioning her split identity, at least as seen in the eyes of the Israeli public.

The key line in the poem – “you don’t look like one” – is one Lucy has used many times in the course of her life. Her poem also noted the sense of relief her religion evokes in Jews, who relate to the “dangers of assimilation” felt by Israelis. She wonders how a people living in the land of its forefathers feels threatened by assimilation, after spending two millennia in exile. She closes with the question of how a country, as Jewish, secular or democratic as it may be, can still feel that love could be a threat.

This line sizzled through social media when it first appeared. Endless numbers of surfers shared it and it was watched on YouTube thousands of times, with racist and violent comments also appearing on Ayoub’s Facebook page. She says, however, that the vast majority of responses were very supportive. “I think it touched on many issues people have. Some people could identify since they also hear this a lot – you don’t look Yemenite, you don’t look Arab, etc. Some people shared since they saw themselves as being on the other side.”

In her poems Ayoub has managed to capture an elemental Israeli experience: people who don’t necessarily look the way they’re expected to look, according to an archetype created in the Israeli melting pot. Whether this is the reason for public interest in the video clip, media interest in Ayoub has also grown. Aside from a brief appearance on a morning show and an invitation by the producers of the reality show “Big Brother” (which she declined), Ayoub will begin working this summer as a correspondent and presenter in the digital division of the new public broadcasting corporation that is now taking shape, appearing before millions of viewers. Next October she’ll start her studies in philosophy, economics and political science, in a program for distinguished students at Tel Aviv University. “It’s like dancing at two weddings – it’s diverse and graceful and uplifting. It’s as well-branded as an Oxford University program for outstanding students,” she says.

A poem called “A sinkhole under Jerusalem,” which she read at the Poetry Slam club in Haifa, was written six months ago during the height of the “lone wolf intifada.” “It angered me. I felt that an entire city had been afflicted by the Jerusalem Syndrome, with no religion spared, with everyone being crazy. My friend and I sat on some hill drinking coffee and talking about this. We agreed that something needed to be done about that city. We realized that even if the city was sitting on top of a sinkhole and was totally destroyed, it wouldn’t solve the problem. People would come along and divide the sinkhole, this is yours and this is ours. What nonsense.”

Writing for Jews and Arabs alike

After completing high school, Ayoub joined the army, serving as a simulator instructor in the air force. The draft was compulsory, not a voluntary decision. “In principle, Christian Arabs aren’t obliged to serve but the state ignored the fact that my mother had converted. If she was Jewish, so was I, meaning I had to enlist,” she explains.

However, there is another explanation. “I was the third one at home to get the draft notice. My older brothers enlisted, and each one had their dilemmas. I was raised on the values of this country, my grandparents are Holocaust survivors and my uncles served in the army. I had to decide if I wanted this. My father had good neighborly relations with Jews. My parents gave me total discretion to choose what I wanted to do. Ultimately there was a wish to feel part of a collective, along with the curiosity of a 17-year-old to see what it’s all about. Since then my thoughts about military service have become more critical. I understand that there’s no single truth. In all, it was a very positive experience.”

When asked about her choice of Hebrew she replies that she finds it easier. “Most of the literature I’ve read has been in Hebrew. I’m simply much better at it, although that’s not a good description. In high school I actually excelled in Arabic. I was one of the best pupils and I always loved reading Arab literature and poetry. However, I never felt I could write at a sufficiently high level in Arabic.” What language did you use in your childhood notebooks?

“Mainly Hebrew, but don’t make it sound like I’m shaking off my Arab character or yielding to the occupation,” she says laughingly.

The next morning she contacted me and explained that after reflecting some more on the topic, she’s concluded that her answer told only half the truth. “It’s also connected to the target audience. I talk about Israeli phenomena and appeal to the Israeli public. Regrettably, in today’s reality, if you write in Arabic you only reach an Arab audience, but if you write in Hebrew you in some way appeal to everyone.”Since that March evening Ayoub has developed complex relations with “I have a confession.” In retrospect it sounds incomplete to her, but also because it’s taken on a life of its own and turned her into the voice of a certain public.

“Most of the things I write about are things that happen here daily but not necessarily related to identity issues. I write about many things that preoccupy me, a lot about fears. I always think about it and just today I wrote something about it – I envy people who believe in God or something. In the end it all comes down to fear. I’m amazed by the fact that people aren’t constantly afraid of death.”

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