FEBRUARY 15, 2020
TO BE A STRANGER in your own land is alienating enough, but to be a stranger among your own people? That vexing question is at the heart of two books — one a Bildungsroman, the other a memoir — by Arab authors whose narratives might be best described as the misadventures of the insider-outsider.
In Rayyan Al-Shawaf’s coming-of-age novel When All Else Fails, his protagonist Hunayn is an immigrant college student in Orlando, Florida, facing the fallout of 9/11. Born in Baghdad, his Iraqi Christian family went into exile when he was a child. Later, having emigrated to the United States, he searches for a coping mechanism, still smarting from having been at times an unwelcome minority in the Arab world. Hunayn is cut off from his homeland after growing up in several foreign countries and cities, so he’s never certain where home is, such that finally language itself becomes his home. Indeed, at the end of the day, English is his country of choice, for despite the fact that he was born in Baghdad and speaks Iraqi Arabic, Hunayn was educated in English schools from the age of five, first in Abu Dhabi and then in Rome and Beirut.
Outwardly Arab, inwardly “other,” Hunayn speaks the borrowed tongue of Arabic, for he never quite learned his Chaldean mother tongue of Aramaic — the language of Abraham and Jesus, a shared language between early Christians and Jews. His dilemma as an Iraqi, albeit Christian of the Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian fold, is that he appears to be an Arab and yet (like Iraqi Jews) is not quite Arab, though all Iraqis including Kurds participate in mainstream Iraqi culture — food, music, social etiquette, et cetera.
When the going gets tough, Hunayn finds himself debating whether he should out himself as a Christian:
There comes a time in your life when you must decide whether to defy your conscience in pursuit of comfort and pleasure, or do the right thing irrespective of the consequences. Of course, I had anticipated as much in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, with the dilemma revolving around whether to repudiate my ties to Arabs and Muslims and thereby forestall any trouble, or stand should-to-shoulder with them and endure whatever indignities I was subjected to as a result. The Sunday after the attacks, walking through campus and thinking about it all, I made my decision …
Hunayn does not use the cross around his neck to extirpate himself from conflict and thus becomes the victim of mistaken Muslim identity on multiple occasions, to either comic or dramatic effect: a white couple fights over whether it’s right to invade Iraq to get rid of the mass-murdering Saddam Hussein (yet under whose regime minority communities were protected and there was no Sunni-Shia schism); the girlfriend argues that her white boyfriend is a racist because he thinks the USA ought to go in and save the Iraqis from the dictator, while she insists that nobody has the right to violate Iraq’s sovereignty. Later in the novel, a white girl flirting with Hunayn in a bar will bring him a world of hurt when her jealous white brother discovers he’s an Iraqi and shouts, “You think you can fuck my sister?”
Conversely, Al-Shawaf’s alter ego benefits from the events of 9/11 when a fellow college student suddenly wants to jump his bones — the American girl has Iraqi jungle fever after watching the twin towers crumble. She seduces the virginal Hunayn, getting him in the sack only to demand, “Fuck me hard, you strong Muslim man!”
Hunayn’s friend Hashem is a Muslim agnostic and also a student at the University of Central Florida who has broken up with his white girlfriend after 9/11. Trying to be helpful, Hunayn declares, “She doesn’t really love you, man; you know that, right? […] If she’s in love with anything, it’s your identity package [italics mine]. Lebanese and Arab and Muslim and Oriental and exotic and something she’s fetishized for a long time.”
The ensuing argument between them leads to a fracture as Hashem sides with his American girlfriend and Hunayn becomes unmoored from nearly everyone around him.
Throughout much of When All Else Fails, which was selected by The New Arab as one of the best books by Arab authors in 2019, neither Hashem nor Hunayn seem able to maintain relationships with non-Arabs without questioning their motives, asking themselves whether they will unavoidably remain suspects in the new world of the Patriot Act, which Al-Shawaf calls Septemberland. In this dystopian reality, mainstream Americans view Arabs/Muslims as potential enemies — as Americans who form a dangerous fifth column.
When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History by Massoud Hayoun is a memoir and an intimate narrative of two Jewish Arab families woven together by time and circumstance as they emigrate from Morocco and Tunisia to Egypt, Palestine, France, and the United States, looking for a place to call home. The heroes of Hayoun’s tale are his grandparents Daida and Oscar, who raise him in Los Angeles while his single mother is busy working.
The question of identity is equally thorny for Arabs and for Jews, and even bloodier for Jews from Arab lands, torn between ancient roots and the Orientalizing influence of the British, the French, and the Alliance Israelite with its so-called mission civilisatrice, as if to say the cultures of North Africa and east of the Mediterranean were inferior to their European counterparts.
In fact, the reason any of this matters — whether you’re a member of the majority or minority culture — is that Arab culture has for too long been judged and minimized as inferior. Judged by the French and the British, certainly, who with their Sykes-Picot Agreement, a secret treaty to carve up east Mediterranean remnants of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, handed us the postcolonial human rights disaster that is Israel/Palestine. At the same time, the region continues to witness turbulence in the randomly stitched together countries of Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. And what else was French and British meddling but a method of control that imposed white supremacy over diverse cultures deemed subjacent? Western European colonialism was completely compatible with the Nazis’ Aryan ideology and American white supremacy, exemplified to this day by the New Jim Crow and the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric of Trumpism. The undercurrent of both these books grapples with the very tangible sense that we are living in a world that continues to be determined by white supremacists — where to be white means your privilege remains intact; to be brown could mean trouble at the airport or a miscarriage of justice in court.
Massoud Hayoun, like Rayyan Al-Shawaf, is a young writer just establishing himself. Both have published first books in the United States. They write with authority and conviction. They are unquestionably Arab: at least to the Western eye, they exist inside and are authentic participants in Arab culture, but they are both outside mainstream Arab/Muslim culture and are thus “other.”
Despite the fact that his family professed the Jewish faith, 9/11 scarred Massoud Hayoun’s youth much as it did millions of American Muslims who became suspects in their daily lives across the United States. “In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 9/11,” he writes, “our family made a conscious effort not to speak any Arabic in public […] if we played an Arabic record, we turned it down low so that our Republican neighbors wouldn’t hear.” Hayoun adds that for several years after the events of September 11, 2001, when traveling, “I was unable to check in to flights electronically and once, when I was flying Southwest from Oakland, a worker told me that I had a special Homeland Security designation on her computer requiring me to check in at the counter.”
Nonetheless, Hayoun’s grandparents instilled in him a love of Tunisian, Moroccan, and Egyptian music and film; his grandfather Oscar insisted on teaching him Arabic, while his grandmother Daida reminisced about her family history in Tunisia before emigrating to Paris, where she would meet her future husband. What brought the Hayouns to the United States, ultimately? Was it white supremacy that stood in Oscar’s way as he tried to make it in Paris, after his family’s exodus from Egypt in the early 1950s? “Oscar, of Jewish faith with an Arabic-language surname and a North African countenance, for all his education in Egypt and fluency in five languages,” Hayoun writes, “couldn’t find a regular job in Paris to support his wife and two daughters.”
Being an Arab Jew was a double-edged sword for Oscar Hayoun, because to the French and the Americans, he looked like a swarthy Arab, while to mainstream Ashkenazim — that is to say, white European American Jews, he was from the Arab world, and Arabs would forever be positioned as the enemy by the new state of Israel, itself a palimpsest on former Palestine.
Despite the fact that the Hayouns had made it to America and that Oscar managed to make a living and raise his family in relative comfort, they would always be aware of the worlds they left behind. “There are elements of the Arab world,” the young Hayoun writes, “that you carry with you even when generations of colonialism have made you feel that you must let it go. Film and song were how Arabness was transmitted to me.” Furthermore, he argues, “To breathe life into the Jewish Arab is to redefine the Arab, insofar as the Jewish Arab is one small corner of a large and proud Arab nation.”
However, Hayoun rejects the postcolonial Israeli term for the Jews of Arab/Muslim lands, the mizrahim (“Easterners”): “I am not an Oriental, in English or in Hebrew. My family is not from east of somewhere. To us, where we are from in North Africa is not an imagined East or an imagined West; it is the center of our world.”
How, you may be asking yourself, can Jews be Arabs? And yet both Christians and Jews existed in the “Middle East” and North Africa for centuries, long before the arrival of the Arab tribes that engulfed them, before the advent of Islam in the sixth century. The dominant cultures in Morocco, before it took on its Arab Muslim character, were Amazigh and Jewish, while Christians thrived in the Arab world into the 20th century.
For Hayoun, there is no contradiction in being both an Arab and a Jew. “My Arabness is cultural,” Hayoun argues. “It is African. My Arabness is Jewish. It is also retaliatory. I am Arab because it is what I and my parents have been told not to be, for generations, to stop us from living in portentous solidarity with other Arabs.”
He claims intellectual kinship with Shehata Haroun, the late Egyptian Jewish leftist on whose tomb is found the following quote, with its echoes of Rumi:
Every human being has multiple identities. I am a human being, I am Egyptian when Eygptians are oppressed, I am Black when Blacks are oppressed, I am Jewish when Jews are oppressed, and I am Palestinian when Palestinians are oppressed.
Massoud Hayoun understands full well that Zionist Jews, staunch defenders of Israel, will denounce his Jewish Arab identity; for them it is an oxymoron, because the Palestinians have been deemed Israel’s sworn enemies, such that oppression of Palestinians is called “self-defense,” and in self-defense, everything is permitted. But Hayoun has little use for garden-variety Zionists like David Ben-Gurion or Golda Meir, who both misunderstood and loathed Arab and Arab Jewish culture. He quotes Ben-Gurion talking about the Jews from Morocco: “[T]he immigrant from North Africa, who looks like a savage, who has never read a book in his life, not even a religious one, and doesn’t even know how to say his prayers, either wittingly or unwittingly has behind him a spiritual heritage of thousands of years.” These are lies, of course. Ben-Gurion, like Golda Meir, was largely ignorant of the intellectual and spiritual history of the Jews of the Arab world, and of Spain, Turkey, and Iran. As a result, Israel would remain a young nation divided against itself, as it invited waves of Jewish immigrants from east and west to converge in a land that had a distinctly Arab character.
“In its first few decades,” writes Hayoun, Israel’s leaders “repeated calls against Jewish Arabs, and their hatred seemed to infiltrate the Israeli mainstream, which they maintained should uphold Eurocentrism, or white supremacy, at all costs.” He relates that an “Ashkenazi American friend, who often visited Israel, told me that Jews from Arab countries can be clever, but never intelligent. To his mind, only the European was capable of intelligence.” Which sounds a lot like something a white supremacist from the United States might say about an African American, does it not?
Rayyan Al-Shawaf’s protagonist, meanwhile, is of two minds about the US invasion of Iraq. Sounding like a clueless immigrant, he admits that, “I very much wanted the Americans to overthrow the odious Saddam and his Baath regime, and proceed with the important work of transforming Iraq into a secular liberal democracy.” But he eventually recognizes the folly of his wishful thinking: Did we really think the Iraq war was over in 2003 — did we not see that the debacle was just beginning?
At his part-time job, Hunayn’s full-time co-worker, nicknamed Always There, educates himself by reading books “one after another on the history of modern Iraq.” How many of us read any books leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003? How many have you read since? What do we really know about Iraq today? Hell, what do we Americans actually know about the history of Vietnam and what our troops did in that country?
Always There, despite being a white-bread Floridian, seems to have his head screwed on straight, when he avows to Hunayn that “regime change in Iraq is an imperialist project in an anti-imperialist age.” But how do we know this is an anti-imperialist age, when the United States has invaded or bombed dozens of countries since World War II — and when Barack Obama bombed more Muslim countries with covert drone strikes than did George W. Bush before him, or Trump since?
There is, in spite of all the post-imperial 9/11 mayhem, an undercurrent of exuberance in both When All Else Fails and When We Were Arabs that in my view is cause for celebration. Regardless of whether he is mistaken for an Arab Muslim or a Latino, Al-Shawaf’s protagonist sees the world through empathetic eyes — he sees beyond the ignorance and prejudice that surrounds us all. Having lived in several countries and become multilingual, he is larger than himself, with a vision that goes beyond being Chaldean or Iraqi or Arab or Christian.
Massoud Hayoun, meanwhile, with his frequent discussion of this or that Arab cultural figure — actor, activist, composer, writer, musician, or filmmaker — continually reminds me of the genius and beauty of the Arabic language itself, which, by the way, has had an enduring influence on both Spanish and French, and those words have traveled into English: cotton from qutun; mohair from mukhayyar; artichoke from al-harshafa; coffee from qahwah; and magazine from maqzin, to name but a few of many thousands. Oh, and if you’re going to have your coffee, don’t forget the sukkar, from which the French derived their word, sucre, the Spanish azucar, and we our sugar.
Rhetorically Hayoun asks why he or any sane person would claim Arab identity now, when “[l]arge swaths of North Africa and the Middle East have been devastated by war and dictatorship, and the majority of [people from] the countries that the Donald Trump White House sought to ban from entering the United States are Arab”? At the same time, he notes, “America simultaneously funds dictatorships in and drops bombs over much of the Arab world.”
Indeed, why claim kinship to Arab culture at all? In the concluding chapter of When We Were Arabs, entitled “Memory,” Hayoun, who is two generations removed from having grown up in an Arab nation, becomes impassioned:
Arabness is a set of historical experiences: it is the thirst for life and dignity that unites me, Daida and Oscar to our ancestors and to the many Christian and Muslim Arabs who continue to actively search for it or who are in a position of self-hatred so deeply rooted in their psyches by the colonizers of the last two centuries and of today. […] It would be a mistake to read this work as simply that of a Jewish man reclaiming Arabness. It is the work of an Arab American man of Jewish faith taking a stand for his world — the Arab world and the human world — from an Arab American perspective.
In a passage reminiscent of Walt Whitman, Hayoun writes, “I am Daida. I am Oscar. I am all Arabs. I am Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Palestine, and all adjoining nations that identify as Arab. I am the wealth of the love I feel for the people of those nations.” (It’s just a pity that Walt Whitman, as we discovered in Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s important work An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, was, alas, a racist poet.)
Al-Shawaf and Hayoun continually question their status as insiders-outsiders, but it is precisely this line of inquiry that makes these books worthy of our consideration. While they weather the suspicion of other Americans, along with the skepticism of their peers — neither being Muslim, their very authenticity as Arabs is in doubt — they also embody the promising potential of individuals who are not imprisoned by their identity.
A writer of American, Amazigh, French and Moroccan heritage, Jordan Elgrably has a forthcoming anthology due out in 2020 entitled Gaza: Mowing the Lawn and is at work on a novel about Syrian refugees titled The Underdogs. A former Angeleno, he lives in Montpellier, France.