The Pioneering Writer Giving Voice to Israel's Oppressed

After 70 years of writing, a collection of essays exploring the oeuvre of Sami Michael has finally been published. It takes us back to the source, to the pellucid waters of the spring from which Israeli protest literature still drinks.

Sami Michael.
Aya Efraim

“Nasich vemahapchan: Iyunim baproza shel Sami Michael” (“A Prince and a Revolutionary: Reading Sami Michael’s Prose”), edited by Yigal Schwartz, Gamma Books (Hebrew), 304 pages, 88 shekels

“A Prince and a Revolutionary,” a riveting collection that is the fruit of a conference devoted to Sami Michael at Northwestern University, in Illinois, in autumn 2015, stirs hunger, thirst – and amazement. Hunger to reread works by one of Israel’s leading writers; thirst for additional research literature that traces the conceptual development of his work and reveals his image as it arises from his fiction; and growing amazement at the silence of the Israeli literary establishment and at the way Michael has been ignored by scholars of Hebrew literature.

For me personally, reading Sami Michael’s work – irrespective of its humanistic, revolutionary and social orientation – is above all to riffle through a precious private family album. Michael sent my mother – his sister – every new book he wrote, inscribed with a personal dedication. After she died, when I was 9 years old, he started to send me his books with warm inscriptions – a custom he continues to this day.

Michael’s books are more than just important, fundamental works on the bookshelf of the struggle of the Mizrahim – Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin. His 1974 novel, “All Men are Equal, But Some Are More,” deals with the roots of the discrimination, racism and inequality in Israeli society. Michael dedicated it to “My father, Menashe.” For me, each rereading of it evokes the image of my grandfather, who never recovered from the shock he felt after emigrating from Iraq to Israel, and became a shell of a man.

“Victoria” (1993; English translation 1995), the groundbreaking feminist novel that assails Mizrahi society’s patriarchy and the suppression of women both in the community and in the home, puts my grandmother at the center of its plot; my mother, Linda, also appears by name in the book. And my dear friend Juliano Mer-Khamis – the Israeli Jewish/Palestinian actor, director and filmmaker, who was assassinated in Jenin in 2011, age 52 – will live on forever together with his parents in the melancholic and heart-wrenching novel “Refuge” (1977).

For the past 15 years, Michael, who turned 90 last August, has served as the president of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. His highly developed sense of justice stems from the same moral impulse and revolutionary fervor that fires his social activism. And it is the human being as such who is also at the heart of his writing.

“A Prince and a Revolutionary” consists of 15 essays (13 in Hebrew, two in English), which offer a renewed, comprehensive and in-depth reading of Michael’s oeuvre, as it interconnects with his personality and his humanistic-radical worldview.

The opening article, by Prof. Yigal Schwartz, who is also the volume’s editor, describes Michael’s novels as socially oriented, conversing with the European tradition of realism and naturalism (Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, de Maupassant and others) that influenced the young Michael in Iraq. Schwartz casts Michael’s work in a new light against the background of his socially oriented writing and “his direct confrontation with the Zionist meta-narrative.”

Moving Mizrahi voice

Sami Michael was born Camal Menashe, in Baghdad on Aug. 15, 1926, into a well-established Jewish family. His father, who worked as a broker between importers and merchants in the textile business, was an autodidact and bibliophile. The Jewish high school Camal attended was one of the most prestigious educational institutions in Baghdad; boys and girls studied together there in a modern secular atmosphere. At the age of 15, Camal joined the communist underground in Iraq, working against the regime and in support of democracy and human rights. He was in charge of Communist Party-affiliated groups at high schools, was active in poor Shi’ite neighborhoods and served on the editorial staff of underground journals. For a year he attended the American University in Baghdad and wrote for the local press.

In 1948, the state issued a warrant for his arrest, and he fled to Iran. Compelled to go underground and change his name, he purchased the ID of a dead man named Samir, later adopting the name in its shortened form after realizing that it had saved his life. He renewed his political activity in Iran, prompting Iraq to demand his extradition. He went underground again and a few months later arrived in Israel.

Initially Michael settled in Jaffa, but when the writer Emil Habibi offered him a position at the Haifa-based Communist Party newspaper Al-Itthihad, he moved to the northern city. He lived in the Arab neighborhood of Wadi Nisnas and published a regular column in Arabic under the pseudonym “Samir Mared” (“Samir the Rebel”), as well as short stories and articles in the party’s monthly journal Al Jadid.

Prof. Orit Bashkin, who teaches modern Middle East history at the University of Chicago, considers Michael’s early, socially conscious writing in Arabic, in her Hebrew-language article, “From Red Baghdad to Red Haifa.” Michael described the discrimination and neglect in the ma’abarot – the transit camps the Israeli government erected to house the influx of refugees in the state’s early years. He felt the pain of his relatives and acquaintances who were housed in the camps, and documented their social and political exclusion and the racism of the state authorities. Concurrently, he served as a roving reporter in Israel’s Arab villages, all of which were under the rule of the military government (which lasted from 1948 to 1966). In his articles he protested the absence of equal rights for Israel’s Palestinian citizens.

According to Bashkin, “Michael believed that literature must be committed to the needs of the society. Inspired by the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, he wrote stories that belonged to the social-realism genre.”

His Arabic-language stories reflect the anguish of all Mizrahi immigrants, not only the Iraqis. In the plot of one story, written in 1949, the father of a Mizrahi youth is killed when a guard at an immigrant absorption camp mistakes him for an Arab. Another story, from 1955, portrays a Moroccan youngster who is contemplating suicide.

GPO

I hope these stories will someday be translated into Hebrew for the benefit of Israeli readers.

In 1955, disenchanted by Soviet government policy, Michael left the Communist Party. “Human beings are not noble enough to implement the noble idea of communism,” he told me in one of our conversations years later.

After graduating from the University of Haifa (where he studied psychology and Arabic literature), Michael began to write literature in Hebrew. For 25 years he worked in the Israel Hydrology Authority. His struggle to write in Hebrew as he worked at the authority resonates in the character of Yosef, an exiled writer from Iraq, in the novel “Water Kissing Water” (2001). Trying to adopt a new language for his writing, Yosef agonizes, “It’s hard to depict reality in a language that’s foreign to you.”

‘Furious reactions’

Michael’s first book in Hebrew was the 1974 novel “All Men Are Equal, But Some Are More,” published when he was 48. Michael was the wellspring for the development of Mizrahi literature and the radical intellectual and literary discourse that imbued the struggle of second- and third-generation activists in the Sephardi Democratic Rainbow movement. Echoes of this can also be identified in the work of the contemporary Ars Poetica group. “All Men Are Equal” was not the first novel to document life in the transit camps – “but none of the others,” Michael recalls in an interview cited in the book, “brought down on [their authors] the wrath of the veteran Israeli public in such a storm of furious reactions.”

Michael deliberately used direct, provocative and colloquial language that made no concessions to critics and did not minimize his biting assessment of white racism in Israel. He was acutely critical of the discrimination, racism and inequality here, and depicted an affinity between Israel’s Arabs and Mizrahim, countering the Zionist narrative suggesting that Jews in Arab lands were subjected to unyielding hatred. He also dared to appropriate one of the most emotionally charged words of the Israeli ethos, “holocaust.” Relating the death of the protagonist’s family in a transit camp fire caused by the negligence of the state, he writes, “How could I bear this horrific holocaust with only my own powers?”

In 1975, he published his first book for juvenile readers, “Storm Among the Palms.” His second novel for adults, “Refuge,” appeared in 1977 (English translation, 1988), followed by the semi-autobiographical “A Handful of Fog.” That year also saw the publication of his second novel for teenagers, “Tin Shacks and Dreams.”

Thereafter came “Trumpet in the Wadi” (1987; English translation, 2003); “Victoria” (1993), “Water Kisses Water” (2001); “Pigeons at Trafalgar Square” (2005); “Aida” (2008); “The Flight of the Swans” (2011); and “Diamond from the Wilderness” (2015). Betwixt and between there were more books for teens and younger children.

According to Prof. Yaffa Berlowitz of Bar-Ilan University, Michael’s books for young readers are “groundbreaking among Israeli literature for juveniles.” Through them, she explains in her essay in “A Prince and a Revolutionary,” young people can become acquainted with Iraqi Jewry, a subject not found in the Education Ministry’s literature and history curricula. Michael was “not only the first to write about the non-Ashkenazi diaspora, but also the first to construct Mizrahi children’s literature as a genre in its own right.” Berlowitz notes Michael’s boldness in writing about youth from “another” diaspora, a group perceived as excluded in Israeli society – a theme that took him many more years to invoke in his fiction for adults.

In an interview after the publication of “Victoria,” Michael explained the reason for this. “Our childhood as Iraqis was one of embarrassment,” he said. “When we came to Israel, we hid our culture, our songs, our music Until a few years ago I was not ready to write about this, and the public was not ready to absorb stories about the boy from [that] diaspora. It’s no coincidence that my exploratory novel ‘Storm Among the Palms’ was intended for teenagers and not for adults.”

Tragic endings

Many essays in the collection under review mention Michael’s rich and credible representation of Israeli Arabs and Palestinian refugees in the occupied territories, and his choice to portray Jewish-Arab relations in Iraq in a non-stereotypical manner that shatters the formulaic Zionist-Israeli-nationalist narrative. Other writers dwell here on the love stories in his novels, which break through the walls of nationality, socioeconomic status, ethnic affiliation, and gender and age differences, but end tragically. According to Schwartz, these stories “reveal the cruelty, distortion and sheer stupidity of the social-cultural reality in which the inhabitants of the Middle East are caught up during the era of modern nationalism.”

The tragic final scenes in Michael’s writings are also addressed, by literary scholar Dr. Ketzia Alon. In her article, she proposes a new way of looking at these dystopian endings against the background of the fraught father-son relations that are rife in his works. Schwartz, too, mentions this theme: “Sami Michael’s protagonists cannot truly and sincerely believe that the sky’s the limit when they see the father of the family, the symbol of stability and strength, fold like a rag doll.”

“Victoria” was a turning point in Michael’s writing, leading his older readers back to the Iraq of his childhood. The book was a great success, spending weeks on the best-seller lists, but it took some time before the author was interviewed extensively in the press.

The novel agitated the Baghdadi community in Israel, stirring anger and criticism of Michael for illuminating the social disparities and rigid class division that prevailed in patriarchal Iraq, along with suppression of women, marriages of underage girls and rape. But Michael feels that it is both possible and important to bring such issues to light without fear that they will become weapons in the hands of racists; the aim is to create awareness, and foment reform and change in regard to women’s status.

While reading “A Prince and a Revolutionary,” I remembered a long article by Michael that ran in one of the weekend papers when I was 12, and shook me up. Returning to his roving reporter role, he wrote there about the neglect, severe poverty, discrimination and dispossession of land suffered by Bedouin in “unrecognized” villages.” As always, he gave voice to the weakest and most oppressed people.

Growing up, I never dreamed of becoming a journalist, but years later, when, as a reporter for Haaretz, I found myself documenting the plight of the Bedouin in the unrecognized villages, I knew in my heart that he had shown me the way.