ALMOG BEHAR’S JUDEO-ARABIC (Mizrahi) heritage is at the center of his work as an acclaimed poet, critic, and activist based in Jerusalem. A native speaker of Hebrew, Behar chose to study Arabic, the language of his grandparents, and of his region, as an adult. Some of his work has been translated into Arabic, including stories and poems that have appeared in Arabic-language journals and his novel, Rachel and Ezekiel, which was published in Arabic in Egypt. Behar is also a translator working between Hebrew, Arabic, and English. Among his most well-known works is the poem “My Arabic is Mute” and the story “I Am One of the Jews,” both of which reflect on issues relating to Mizrahi identity and Arab-Jewish relations in the Middle East.
In early March, Behar visited Stanford University, where he was invited to talk about the connection of language to religion and about his work as a poet and activist. I spoke to the poet briefly during his final afternoon in California.
SHOSHANA OLIDORT: You wear many different hats as a poet, a critic, and an activist — do you see these roles as complementary, or are they in tension with one another?
ALMOG BEHAR: There is tension time-wise, in the sense of figuring out what to do and when to do it. I know that some writers prefer that their day job not be connected to words, to poetry. But I do see poetry and criticism as connected. My MA thesis was on Amira Hess (the Iraqi-Israeli poet, not to be confused with the Israeli journalist Amira Hass). For my PhD, I focused on 20th-century liturgical writing by Jews in the Muslim world. I wanted to work on contemporary literature, and inevitably questions about the Judeo-Arabic language came up, questions that led me to go back in time and explore the tradition of writing in the communities.
What about your political activism, how does that fit in?
The activism with which I’ve been involved (through, among other movements, the group Cultural Guerilla) is to an extent connected to poetry and literature. Our aim is to connect identity, culture, and class politics and create a community of both Hebrew and Arabic writers. One of our goals is to introduce economics into literature, and bring literature into the economy: in newspapers you have a literary supplement and you have the economic supplement and they never talk about each other. It’s like there is no economics in literature and no literature in economics. A literary column that makes no reference to economics is disguising the world we live in. The goal is to explode these dichotomies, to transgress the boundaries and cross-contaminate the two domains so that they are no longer self-contained.
In terms of activism, we’ve put on poetry demonstrations, many of which were connected to housing issues, protests against demolitions, evacuations, and the wall in Jerusalem, as well as issues of social justice within Israel. With all the separation in Israel, there is also a literary separation. Jews and Arabs live in separate neighborhoods, in separate political spheres. So there is separation in a mundane, everyday sense, but this separation also exists within the literary community. Hebrew and Arabic writers don’t read each other’s works. Most of what does get translated between the two languages are canonical works, not contemporary.
Can you talk more specifically about how you perceive the figure of the poet as political or not, about the relationship between poetry and politics?
The poet does not have a greater right than the carpenter to speak about reality, or about society. But language is political. The heritage of the colonial period and the national period is there in modern Hebrew, in the removal of Aramaic, rabbinic Hebrew, Yiddish, Judeo-Arabic, and Judeo-Spanish from the language. The language we inherit is not one, it is not natural or neutral. The inner politics of literature is in the way it is able to bring back the memory of the different languages. Literature meets the political in the sense of awakening the memory, which is longer than national memory, because the modern Hebrew language remembers a period of Hebrew-Arabic symbiosis even when the politics of the present are one of separation or of violence. And even though secularization tried to cleanse the language of its religious associations, the language remembers God. History gives us a very partial story that is connected to a particular national age; literature is an alternative to that history. I think that for many minority or colonized communities, literature sometimes comes before history, by telling the story anew after a long repression or silencing of memory.
What is it like to write from that liminal space between distinct cultures, languages, and identities?
I don’t perceive of Jewish-Arab identity as in-between; its Jewishness is Arab and its Arabness is Jewish. Today, after 100 years of nationalism, it is a hybridity, but that wasn’t always the case. For Jews in Arabic-speaking countries, Arabic was a Jewish language and Hebrew was part of the Arabic cultural landscape. You could write poetry in the Hebrew language using Arabic genres, meters, and rhymes, and it would make perfect sense.
Personally, there was this feeling of loss, a gap, being torn from a certain culture and then going back to it. Going back is never simple, it is always symbolic and through a kind of mediation. In the case of Arabic, I could understand a little, but when I decided to go study the language it was too late family-wise, so I had to learn from Palestinians and from the academy. There is historical irony in the routes you need to go in order to do certain things.
Some people see the crisis (or loss) as a bridge that was already broken, a breach that cannot be recovered. They look at it as a kind of symptom of modernity, a break from tradition, from religion, from community, from our old communal languages that can never be replaced. But if you look at the larger scale of history, of Jewish history — the exile from Spain, was that any smaller? I don’t see these as two different unbridgeable worlds that you have to decide between.
Are you suggesting that poetry can function to recoup that breach?
I don’t know any life other than the life of poetry. Maybe if I were a carpenter I would try to repair the world through carpentry. I can’t imagine how you can write poetry and pretend that everything is okay. Many people respond to crises by saying we should move on, for many legitimate and logical reasons. This attitude puts you in a place where you separate between your past and present, where you disconnect in order to move on. But if that’s how you see yourself what kind of poetry will you be able to write? You can’t be detached from those questions in poetry.
Your most recent book is dedicated to your children. Your earlier books were dedicated to your grandparents. Can you talk about that?
My first book of poetry, Well’s Thirst, was written from a sense of loss, of asking myself: How do I remember my grandparents? How do I take something from their lives into my own? This was also connected to the languages they spoke — Baghdadi-Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Spanish, and German — and the question of how I could work them into my Hebrew. The loss of my grandparents was a personal loss, but now that I have children of my own, I know that society raises them at least as much as family does. So what I need to do is change Israeli society in general — in its approach to Arabic, for example. In the later stages of their lives, I observed my grandparents’ return to their native languages. With my children, I watch the miracle of the beginning of a language, of learning a language, sometimes very much fearing how those beautiful murmurs will turn into structured sounds and words of a given language.
A free, bilingual poetry collection by Almog Behar can be downloaded here.