Once every few weeks Oscar Hayoun would stay at the same hotel in the Egyptian city of Tanta, which he visited as a traveling salesman for a pharmaceutical business. One day, in 1948, the shift manager at the hotel showed him a letter from the local chief of police, with the following instructions: “Do not allow Oscar Hayoun, a non-Muslim, to stay at this hotel,” the letter read.
“The shift manager had been my friend,” Hayoun wrote in his diary. “I was saddened by this and at a loss about my work in this town, probably the most important one with about 15 pharmacies.”
Hayoun hadn’t done anything to justify the humiliating treatment he endured in Tanta – except for being a Jew in a country that until 1948 had treated its Jews with respect and considered them an integral part of the social fabric. Similarly, local Jews saw themselves as an integral part of the national Arab identity. These were Muslims and Jews who shared a language, a culture and to a great degree a heritage as well, without tensions resulting from political differences, territorial disputes or broader international crises.
“Yaqoub [Oscar’s father] was for much of his life an accountant at a shipping company where he had many Muslim coworkers,” writes Los Angeles-based journalist Massoud Hayoun, Oscar’s grandson, in his new book, “When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History” (The New Press). The close relationship Yaqoub shared with his colleagues and the many experiences they had in common during the years when the State of Israel was still a distant vision, led, as described in the book, to certain gestures of a religious nature that today might be interpreted as acts of betrayal or assimilation. For example, the author writes, “[Yaqoub] fasted in public during Ramadan, out of respect for his work friends.”
Yaqoub was an observant Jew, a cantor in his synagogue, with a voice said to be as sweet as honey, who used to drink raw eggs in order to help his vocal cords, his great-grandson writes. Oscar walked four miles to the synagogue every Shabbat. Oscar’s future wife, Daida, who grew up in Tunisia and met him in Paris in the 1950s, was also always nostalgic for Muslim customs.
In particular, according to Massoud, Daida liked the holiness of the month of Ramadan. When she described the Arab customs she saw during her youth, the first thing she mentioned to her grandson was the meals to break the fast during that holy month. For her Ramadan wasn’t a religious holiday but a cultural experience that she shared with her Muslim friends, he writes.
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Journalist Massoud Hayoun, 31, was born in Los Angeles and raised by his mother. As a young man her father Oscar, who has passed away, left Egypt for the nascent State of Israel in 1949, but moved to Paris the following year; after marrying Daida, the couple moved to Los Angeles where Massoud’s mother was also born.
Until recently Massoud was a freelance reporter for the English edition of the Al Jazeera network. In an email interview with Haaretz, he describes himself as a believing Jew – “I went to synagogue regularly and fasted on Yom Kippur. I studied Torah and Talmud as a kid in Jewish school” – but primarily, an Arab.
“Like my ancestors, for as long as my family can remember, I am Arab. Of Jewish faith,” he explains at the beginning of his book. “I am Arab first and last. Judaism is an adjective that modifies my Arabness.” He emphasizes that the State of Israel does not constitute a reference point when it comes to describing his identity. He is also unwilling to compromise on a definition of Sephardi or Mizrahi (i.e., of Spanish/Portuguese, or Middle Eastern or North African descent), and writes, “My family is not from east of somewhere. To us, where we are from in North Africa is not an imagined East of an imagined West; it is the center of our world.”
Elsewhere in the book, he slams Western colonialism as well as Zionism: “French, British and Israeli administrations have repeatedly punished us for being Arabs. I’m Arab because this is what I and my parents have been told not to be.” He notes that the colonialist policy of the Arab world in the 19th and 20th centuries tried to separate Jewish Arabs not only from other Arabs, but from other Jewish Arabs. He claims that the colonial occupiers envisioned a family tree in which every generation of Jewish Arabs became less and less Arab. They separated Jews and Christians from Muslims, the rich from the poor. They created barriers in homes until the parents, with their style of dressing, their mannerisms and their language, began to look increasingly different from their children, he says.
In the book you discuss several women in your family who converted to Islam due to a romantic attachment, which led to their rejection and to the fact that they were never talked about again. Would you be willing to convert due to a romantic relationship? How important is it to you to raise your children in a Jewish home?
“I feel guilty that my elders were unable to find it within themselves to continue to allow them [the female relatives] to be part of our family. At the same time, it is claustrophobic to me to think that our family remained Jewish, even under the pressure of historical despotic, theocratic regimes, only for us to convert generations later just to get married. Islam and Christianity had a great influence on me because my family came from countries with a Muslim majority and I grew up in a country with a Christian majority. But I will remain Jewish until my final ‘Shema’” – a reference to the important prayer recited daily.
You describe your opposition to the terms “Sephardi” or “Mizrahi” in the context of defining your personal identity.
“I don’t disagree with others using them. My point is that identity should be interrogated, and that it should never be decided by consensus. There are people within the Israeli context who have found the term Mizrahi empowering, for instance. It is beautiful that the term Mizrahi includes non-Arabs from the so-called East, like Persians and Turks. For me, I say no: I am neither Spanish nor Eastern. The East, or the Orient, exists within a Eurocentric concept of the world, and I choose not to live in that reality.”
Do you think that Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state?
“I would like for Israel to prove to me, to its own citizens — especially the Palestinian ones, to Palestinians internationally and to the world – that it is a democratic state, in its actions. Until then, I don’t consider Israel to be a democracy.
“If Israel was in earnest concerned with the well-being of international Jews, it would do much more to ensure that the climate of hatred that continues to assault Jewish people internationally has no room to exist, instead of fueling it in the form of [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s administration’s policies and allegiances with [U.S. President Donald] Trump, [Brazilian President Jair] Bolsonaro, and company. Israel and the world owe us genuine, painstaking efforts to stamp out genocide and systematic dehumanization, wherever it is emerging, including in the case of the Palestinians.”
Have you been to Israel?
“As long as the Palestinian people continue to suffer without international acceptance of their rights to life and dignity, I will remain away from a land that is central to my faith and with which my family and communities have always had a connection. I pray to be able to go in my lifetime.”
Your grandfather, Oscar, dreamed all his life about immigrating to Israel, and when he came on aliyah in 1949 he left a year later and moved to Paris after being humiliated by the local Jewish community. He expressed regret for doing so.
“He was surprised to find himself at the near-bottom rung of Israeli society, especially after his life in bourgeois Egypt. He was thankful that he left an atmosphere that in some ways still persists, despite people of our background now comprising so much of Israeli society. He was thankful not least because at my synagogue in Los Angeles, there were more recent arrivals from Israel who had stayed much longer and explained that certain phenomena endured from those earliest days.”
And on the other hand, you live in a country that invaded Iraq and Afghanistan and tried to force Western democracy on Arab countries. Not to mention Trump’s decision to prevent the entry of citizens from six Muslim countries.
“Of course the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions are among the most tangible examples of modern-day conquest and its bloodletting. The Bush (Jr.) administration fully deflated the word ‘democracy’ in its invasion of Iraq. And the push for that sort of government must come from within a society and its people. The current U.S. administration’s overwhelming shortcomings make it absolutely impossible for Washington to, in seriousness, weigh in on good governance, anywhere. “I am most proud to say that I am Arab and stand together with other Arabs at this particular juncture in American and world history, where the U.S. administration has endeavored to ban our people for no practical purposes other than to appease a populist base. I firmly oppose everything about this administration’s [attitude] toward Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. and internationally. I oppose attacks on all immigrants and Jewish people provoked by this regime or inscribed into policy, not because I am an immigrant and a Jew, but because I am a human who paid attention in kindergarten, when they taught the basics of compassion.”