"Religion Is for God, the Fatherland Is for Everyone": Arab-Jewish Writers in Modern Iraq and the Clash of Narratives after Their Immigration to Israel

Article excerpt

Jews writing in Arabic have only seldom been able to make a name for themselves in the history of Arabic belles-lettres. There are Jewish poets in the pre-Islamic period, such as al-Samaw'al ibn 'Adiya', (1) but once Islam appeared it is almost only in Muslim Spain (al-Andalus), in the eleventh-thirteenth centuries, that we find Jewish authors so at home in fusha (literary Arabic) that they achieved recognition for their Arabic works. (2) Some became famous in both Hebrew and Arabic; a few wrote only in Arabic. Since the mid-thirteenth century, Jews were not as open to participation in the wider Arabic culture, and as at home in fusha, as they became from the 1920s onward in Iraq. (3) This involvement was encouraged by the process of modernization and secularization of the local Jews beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century. Other Jewish communities in the middle East and North Africa went through a similar process, but only in Egypt can we also find some involvement in Arabic literature, (4) although less intensive than in Iraq.

The present article examines the emergence of the literary writing of the Jews of Iraq in the 1920s and the beginning of its demise after only a few decades, both inside and outside Iraq, and followed by the switch to Hebrew writing in Israel. I will try to show that these processes were due not only to political and national circumstances and motives but also to the aesthetic and cultural norms of both Arabic-Muslim and Hebrew-Jewish cultural and literary systems. Furthermore, the Andalusian vision of cultural cooperation and religious tolerance which emerged in Baghdad in the first half of the twentieth century was the product of a very limited period, a very confined space, and a very singular history.


Living in Iraq without interruption for two and a half millennia and tracing their domicile there to the Babylonian exile, during the first half of the twentieth century Iraqi Jews developed a sort of Andalusian vision of integration in the new Iraqi nation-state. This vision had its roots in the previous century, especially during the governorate of Midhat Pasha, the leading advocate of Ottoman tanzimat reforms (1869-72). The foundation in 1864 of the Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU) School in Baghdad, where education was predominantly secular, played a major role in the modernization of the local community, which gradually became more open to the outside world than did the local Christians and Muslims. (5) Visiting Baghdad in 1878, Grattan Geary, editor of the Times of India, wrote that the instruction of the AIU School was of the best modern kind. "Arabic is the mother tongue of the Baghdad Jews," writes Geary, and "the pupils are taught how to write and speak that language grammatically." Many of them "spoke and read English with wonderful fluency," and "they speak French with singular purity of accent and expression." (6)

Apart from their exposure to the AIU agents of modernization, Iraqi Jews had close connections with European intellectuals. The fertile ground for them was the atmosphere in the Ottoman Empire whose location between East and West made Baghdad a kind of crossroads of influences between Christian and Muslim countries and between European Jewry and the Arab Jews. Baghdadi Jews functioned as correspondents and representatives for European Hebrew Jewish newspapers such as Ha-Maggid, the first Hebrew newspaper established in Europe. There were family relations as well: for example, the musician Yusuf Huraysh (1889-1975) was an offspring of a European family who immigrated to Basra; (7) the grandfather of Anwar Sha'ul (1904-84) was an immigrant Jew from Austria who arrived in Baghdad in the middle of the nineteenth century. (8) The aforementioned Geary mentioned a girl of eleven, Khatoum Luron, whose father, an Austrian Jew, took part in the establishment of the AIU School and had a hand in its management; she displayed "great intelligence, and prattled her French in the prettiest way. …