Poem of the Week

Who's Who? Who's an Arab, Who's a Jew?

Well-taught by the state, a child takes fright and his questions throws Adi Keissar off balance.

AFP

Clock Square

Adi Keissar

My nephew Itai and I
are walking around
the Clock Square
in Jaffa.
More than 80 years separate us
from Oum Kalthoum
who performed here on a stage
and I’m trying to discover if the applause
got tangled in the clotheslines.
But where is Oum Kulthoum
and where are we
and opposite us there’s a shopkeeper, talking.
And my nephew Itai asks in trepidation
Adi, is he an Arab?

An Arab, I reply.
In Jaffa there are Arabs who live here.
And are they good Arabs or bad Arabs?
he asks breathlessly, tightening his hand in mine.
Fear presses his lips together.
In every nation there are good people and bad people
I reply.

He huddles closer to me
unconvinced
and I realize that reassurance is needed
here.
Good, I add.

Adi Keissar
Leeor Ohayon

And how do you know they are Arabs?
He pursues his investigation,
his eyes following a dove
strutting in front of a restaurant door.
Ordinarily, he’d be chasing it
and scaring it.
Now it’s part of a horror story.
Of course I know,
they are speaking Arabic
I reply
in the confident tone of someone
who knows the answer
isn’t quite right.
With that antenna kids have
he senses his aunt is herself confused
and his vigilance seeps into the sidewalk.
Don’t worry, they are like us
I extend him a lifeline.

So sometimes people think we are Arabs
and they are Jews?
His words make flocks of bird fly though my body
ripping my blood vessels in the commotion
and I want to tell him about my Grandmother Sham’a
and Uncle Moussa and Uncle Daoud and Uncle Awad
But at the age of six he already has
Grandmother Ziona
Grandmother Yaffa
lots of uncles
and fear and war
he received as a gift
from the state.

From the poet’s Ministry of Culture prize-winning debut book Shahor ‘al Gabbei Shahor (“Black on Black”), Guerilla Tarbut, 2014, translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden

“Mizrahi” and its near-synonyms “Sephardi,” “Levantine” and “Mediterranean” refer to Jews whose great-grandparents weren’t Ashkenazi, didn’t speak Yiddish or German, weren’t part of the founding generation of Israel, feel excluded from its elites (but aren’t Ethiopian) and have mixed feelings about the state’s current incarnation.

This vignette encapsulates the issue in a layered location: Touted as an Israeli tourism beauty spot, the clock tower was completed in 1903 by the Ottomans in (still) largely Arab Jaffa, a city given in Joshua 19:46 to the Tribe of Dan after Joshua’s re-conquest of the land.

>> The Mizrahi Revival: A Special Project

A Jewish boy of six walks with his aunt, who is apparently of at least the second generation in her family to have been born in Israel; names of relatives from earlier generations indicate origins in an Arabic-speaking country. The woman daydreams about the great Egyptian singer Oum Kulthoum (d. 1975), who was, is and forever shall be greatly loved by speakers of Arabic of all religious persuasions, including Jewish.

A dove, in all its symbolism, doesn’t fly. The nephew begins to comprehend that his connection to Arabs is more than one of enmity. This makes him feel insecure – in Israeli children’s culture and schooling, the main enemy is “the Arabs.”

As for the aunt, she is perplexed both by the issue of how much of her Mizrahi identity is bound up with Arab identity, and by the need to transmit the complexity accurately to the next generation. In her turmoil, the lone dove becomes part of a terrifying scene from an Alfred Hitchcock film, “ripping my blood vessels.”

The final lines deem an external force, “the state,” responsible for the “fear and war” that dominate the child’s experience, overwhelming his family’s cultural heritage.

Adi Keissar, 34, once told Haaretz writer Shachar Atwan: “We grew up here in a country that wants to be Europe although it’s part of the Middle East.” In 2013 she founded the movement of young Mizrahi writers, Ars Poetica.

Ars” means “pimp” in Arabic and in Israeli slang refers pejoratively to “in your face” Mizrahi males; it is politically correct only when used by members of the ethnic group in question, like “Yid” in Manhattan or Tottenham.

*Musing: Why did the poet choose to insert her own name and her nephew’s name into the poem?

*Bonus: Umm Kulthoum in an extract from “Al Atlal.”