Broken Connections

By Brandabur, A. Clare | Soundings, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Broken Connections


Brandabur, A. Clare, Soundings


This collection of Ella Shohat's essays includes samples of her work on gender and cinema from the 1980s and 1990s as well as more recent essays on theology, identity and post-colonialism. All exemplify her gift for synthesis: for, as she herself says, her work has been preoccupied with 'speaking across usually segregated grids', and with 'exploring the elusive intersectionalities of social stratifications' (Preface, pxv). In return for their willing suspension of monotuned listening skills, readers are rewarded by texts of luminous virtuosity; and this is a quality especially valuable in her bridging of the gap between Arabness and Jewishness, where she re-makes connections that have been violently and deliberately sundered.

What allows Shohat to deconstruct the binary opposition between Arab and Jew is her relationship to her own origins. In her essay 'Reflections by an Arab Jew' (not included in this volume) she confronts the issue head on:

   I am an Arab Jew. Or, more specifically, an Iraqi-Israeli woman
   living, writing, and teaching in the US. Most members of my family
   were born and raised in Baghdad, and now live in Iraq, Israel, the
   US, England, and Holland ... My grandmother, who still lives in
   Israel and still communicates largely in Arabic, had to be taught
   to speak of 'us' as Jews and 'them' as Arabs. For Middle
   Easterners, the operating distinction had always been
   'Muslim', 'Jew', and 'Christian', not Arab versus Jew. The
   assumption was that 'Arabness' referred to a common shared culture
   and language, albeit with religious differences. (1)

She wrote this piece, she says, with the intention of 'opening up the multicultural debate, going beyond the US census's simplistic categorisation of Middle Eastern peoples as 'whites', and of 'multiculturalizing American notions of Jewishness'. For Shohat's personal story, as she puts it, 'questions the Eurocentric opposition of Arab and Jew, particularly the denial of Arab Jewish (Sephardic) voices both in the Middle Eastern and American contexts'.

I foreground this aspect of her work because it underpins many of the individual essays in the book. For many who work on Middle East issues, this is an absolute jolt, since the habit of seeing Arabs and Jews not only as separate but also as unalterably opposed is an occupational hazard. To read Shohat's work is therefore to overcome the distorting lens of Zionism and to see the ways in which, through history and geography, North African and Hispanic Jews share a common culture and language with Palestinian Muslims and Christians.

As a way into the unravelling of this intricate history, Shohat recapitulates how, in his book In An Antique Land, Amitav Ghosh narrates the story of the discovery and emptying of the Geniza at the Jewish synagogue of Ben Ezra in Fustat, ancient Cairo. The 'discovery' by the Judaica antiquity collector Jacob Saphir of manuscripts accumulated over centuries was brought to the attention of Dr. Solomon Schechter, a Cambridge expert in Rabbinical literature. Shohat stresses the process by which the Egyptian Jewish community - who had carefully collected and conserved these manuscripts - was completely disregarded by the European Jewish community (with the connivance of British colonial official Lord Cromer). Boxes full of papers were sent to Cambridge and catalogued; others were taken from the Jewish burial ground in Cairo. By the time of World War I, Ghosh says, the Cairo Geniza had become stripped of all of its documents, which were then distributed in Europe and America, with a large part of the documents going into private collections (p203). Together with the uprooting of papyruses, mummies, or tombstones, there was not a shred of doubt about the legitimate right of archaeologists and antiquities traders to loot the cultural riches of the Egyptian Jewish community. The 'masculine' West acted for the 'passive' East. …

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