A Question of Language and Audience: On the Possibility of "Iraqi Novels" in Hebrew

Article excerpt

"There are very few Israeli Novels I know with chapters capable of describing Arabs as human beings." (1)

In his poignant article "Marginal Literatures of the Middle East," Peter Clark raises the question of whether Arabic is a main definitive mark of Arab literature, concluding that Arab literature is written today in a number of languages, including Hebrew. (2) His question mark over the too tight connection between the Arabic language, and language in general, and national literature, accompanied me in my long term study of Iraqi novels, bringing other associated questions: Does emphasis on language underplay content? What is the relationship between language and content in a given literature and should this be marking national literature instead of language alone? What is the significance of the reading audience? Can Arab (or Iraqi) literature be written in such a loaded language as Hebrew? The following article will attempt to introduce a tool that will help define the nationality of the novel.

Two novels written in Hebrew by Iraqi born Jewish writers are at the center of my analysis: Sami Mikhael's "A Handful of Fog" (Hofen shel arafel), first published in 1979 (second edition 2006) (3) and Shimon Balas's "The Other One" (Vehu akher), published in 2005. (4) Though both are about Iraqi Jews, their stories take place in Iraq and their main concern is with the formulation of Iraqi national identity and the place of Jews therein. Why were they published in Israel? In Hebrew? Should they be considered "Iraqi novels"? Had they been published in Iraq or the Iraqi diaspora, in Arabic, there would have been no question as to their definition as "Iraqi novels." However, the intentional choice of language, coupled with the publication in Israel, pose great difficulties on their definition.

It is my assertion that every novelist strives to conduct a dialogue with his readers. A novel of the national genre (Iraqi or other) either conducts a dialogue, which is very often critical, with readers of its own national community or represents this community to Arab or international readers. Rarely would internal criticism intermingle with representation, and then the latter prevails. (5) Thus, it is primarily the dialogue between the writer and its presumed audience--a dialogue based on contents and meanings--that defines the novel as a national one.

The Iraqi novel is a product of the twentieth century. Though it never attained the achievements of poetry and short stories, some novelists (Dhu alNun Ayub, Gha'ib Tu'ma Farman, Fu'ad al-Takarli, Mahammad Khudair, and Mahdi 'Issa al-Saqr) are considered among the best in the Arab world. Most novels take place in an urban setting, mainly in Baghdad or Basra, and a recurrent theme is the struggle of the individual in an alienated urban environment. Iraqi novels closely followed the ups and downs of Iraqi history, (6) the formation of the state and the formulation of national identity. In general, they are highly political. A wider description of the Iraqi novel falls beyond the scope of this article.

For the sake of defining an Iraqi novel, (7) I will divide these novels along three lines: readership, novels written by immigrant writers on immigration and associated themes, and language. All these categories are relevant for defining the affiliation of the two novels in Hebrew. Iraqi novelists can target an Iraqi, Arab, or international readership. Though the writers almost never admit it, the identity of the public they target can be discerned from their writing. The use of the vernacular, of cultural and political codes, and of a language that assumes familiarity with the landmarks described, would very often characterize those who target the Iraqi readership. For example, in such a novel there will be no need to describe and explain, like a tourist guide, about the monuments one sees when strolling between two points in central Baghdad. An Iraqi reader is familiar with them. …