Arab Than the Arabs: Iraqi Writers Join
For many Americans, Sami Michael's novel "A Trumpet in the Wadi," released this month for the first time in English, will serve as an entrée into literature written by Iraqi-born Jews living in Israel. But Michael's work, which has become increasingly popular in the West, is only part of a rich array of an Iraqi-Israeli genre that is changing the character of the Israeli literary canon.
tradition of Iraqi Jews — or Babylonian Jews, as they are sometimes called —
dates back to the third century, when Jewish scholars living in present-day
Then, after a
slew of violent antisemitic incidents during the
1940s and 1950s disrupted their relatively comfortable lives, most of
"We wanted to write about the past," Michael told the Forward. "It was not greeted well by the establishment, who wanted literature only by Israelis writing about the Israeli experience."
Over the past decade, though, a handful of Iraqi-Israeli writers and poets have moved out of the subgenre of Iraqi-Israeli literature into the national canon. A number of them, including Michael, Shimon Ballas, Eli Amir and poet Ronny Someck, have been scooping up prestigious literary prizes, and their books have been topping bestseller lists and filling out many high school and college curricula.
'his burst of recognition, many observers say, is the result
of the conflict in the
not just important for people to read books like 'A Trumpet in the Wadi,' it's essential," said Sasson
Somekh, professor of Arabic literature at
Ironically, the Jewish-Arab connection, central to the work of Iraqi-Israeli authors, was originally seen as their handicap.
from Iraq, from a world that the Israeli political and cultural establishment
regarded not only as the enemy, but also as a backward world which had nothing
worthwhile to offer," said Ballas — author of
the 1964 "The Transit Camp," the pioneering work of Iraqi-Israeli
fiction — during a speech last year at New York University. "This
prejudice impelled me, as it impelled other immigrants from
It was a prejudice born of naiveté. "When they first arrived in Israel, many Jews from respected households in Iraq were sprayed with DDT and put in transit camps, where they lived in tin shacks or cloth tents," said Nancy Berg, author of "Exile from Exile: Israeli Writers from Iraq." "The bureaucrats who set up the intake process were as ignorant of the Iraqi Jews as they thought the Iraqi Jews were ignorant of everyone else."
Transit Camp," along with Michael's "Equal and More Equal,"
published about a decade later, Eli Amir's 1984
novel, "Scapegoat," and others, constitute what is often referred to
as "sifrut hama'abarah,"
or literature of the transit camp. These works highlight the hardships of being
uprooted and replanted in
experience as an immigrant caused me to take a particular interest in people
who live on the border between two worlds," Ballas
said. "Variations on the figure of 'the Other,'
who remains different despite all his efforts to become accepted, appear in
much of my writing." In Ballas's novel
"Locked Room" — as in Michael's "A Trumpet in the Wadi" — the author introduces a pensive, soulful and
highly sympathetic Arab protagonist living in
Later works by Iraqi-Israeli writers, including Michael's runaway bestseller "Victoria," Amir's "Farewell, Baghdad" and Ballas's "Signs of Autumn," portray Jewish life in Baghdad in the months and years leading up to the mass exodus of Jews from Iraq. And recently, there's been a movement among Israelis of Iraqi descent to channel their Iraqi pasts.
Ronny Someck, whose parents immigrated to
these bombed-out streets I was pushed in a baby carriage.
Babylonian girls pinched my cheeks and waved palm fronds over my blond down...
What's left from then became very black like
Oh Tigris, oh
how you shed your skin and became vipers.
Gabrielle Birkner is a reporter at The