I Am a Jewish Arab

I was raised on recollections of a lost world that had existed for as long as we could remember—only to end suddenly in my grandparents' generation.
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A playful photo of Hayoun's family in Tunis, in the late 1940s.

A playful photo of Hayoun's family in Tunis, in the late 1940s.

I am a Jewish Arab. For many, I'm a curiosity or a detestable thing. Some say I don't exist, or if I did, I no longer do. I reject these ideas. My rejection demands that I paint for you a lost world to prove that we existed. Sadly, many of the faces, sounds, and moods of the last days of chez nous, of my grandparents' world, are totally gone. And only so much can be reconstructed here in writing, without the help of the film and song with which my grandparents recalled to me our civilization and its decline.

In the minds of many non-Jewish Arabs who remember us fondly, we are preserved in the cinema of a colonial era—the so-called Golden Age of Egyptian cinema that flourished from the 1940s to the '60s. My grandparents' generation, portrayed in those old films, drips with poetry and grace. The films star Jewish Arab actors and singers but aren't about Jewish Arabs; rather, they recall a society in which we existed without question. We are a reminder of the cosmopolitanism, the pluralism, and the colonial degradation of that time—a time of fresh-pressed suits and tarbooshes, of singing about our anguished feelings as we walked along the Nile.

Others view Jewish Arabs this way too. Once, a European-American journalist—an enthusiast of our region, you know the sort—who knew I was Arab but not that I was Jewish, told me of The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, Lucette Lagnado's memoir of her Egyptian Jewish family's departure from Egypt. I'd already read it, but I didn't say so; I was keen to hear what he'd have to say. He told me the Jewish Egyptians are forever part of a bygone era of romance and poetry. Difficult as it was to nod and smile at this, a compliment is "better than a kick in the teeth," as my grandfather would say when he heard people suggest, for example, that Arabs are more given to passion (in other words, barbaric) and that Jews are good with money (so, cheap).

Maybe we are trapped in a cinematic or historical Golden Age. Maybe we, the Jewish Arabs, have indeed ceased to exist in real time. In my grandparents' home in Los Angeles, I was raised on recollections, some more faded than others, of a lost world that had existed for as long as we could remember only to end suddenly in my grandparents' generation. My grandparents' Arabic—which my grandfather tried to teach me every summer at our kitchen table—was the dated colloquial Arabic of those films. In some respects, we share the experience of many other American immigrants, our heads often turned back toward a far-flung past. On Saturdays, we watched Arab American Music Television for an hour on the all-purpose foreigners' channel, Channel 18, between Indian-American and Korean-American programming. That was our slot. But they must have been reruns. The Armenian Lebanese man in Glendale from whom we bought the CDs we liked said that Egyptian pop star Amr Diab and Lebanese pop star Nawal al-Zoghbi had already come and gone in popularity in the Middle East. He knew better than we did. Unlike the shop owner, we didn't regularly return to our homelands. Our exile was a fait accompli.

When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History.

When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History.

Because I was raised by my maternal grandparents, Daida and Oscar, and am obstinate like them, my instinct is to refute unequivocally the suggestion that I am of the past, a stillborn. Whether or not that's true, my book is intended to breathe life into my grandparents and to avenge their lives, which multiple incarnations of imperialist white supremacy truncated and warped to political ends at so many turns. My book is also a wholesale rejection of the sentimentality, well-meaning as it is, that sets the Jewish Arab in the imagined past of our at once enjoyable and insidious classic movies. It is ironic, then, that these very same films are among the little that was left to my family after we left our homes, and that they became indispensable to us in our struggle to remember who we were.

When Oscar left Egypt in 1950, around the same time as the vast majority of Jewish Egyptians, there was a limit to what he could bring; the rest was claimed by the Egyptian government. He brought some clothes, a few books, and some records of songs from films—they were all musicals. He brought with him, too, a gold bangle that he had intended to sell. Even at his poorest, he never did, and today I wear it around my wrist. Some of the records cracked on the journeys from Egypt to France to the early Zionist State back to France, then to the Bronx, and to the more familiar Mediterranean climes of Los Angeles. He had a superhuman power to see the good in everything—to take the good and leave the bad, as he said. Even damaged records from Egypt were better than nothing.

In Paris, in the early 1960s, these records were even more valuable for my grandparents. 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, couldn't find a regular job in Paris to support his wife and two daughters. So he sold textiles door-to-door in the first real winter he'd experienced, and with no great success. The wind "cut the skin," he'd recall. He felt he was living on the edge of civilization in the end of times, the superficial beauty of Paris' facades a mockery as the war for Algerian independence raged and young white Frenchmen died killing countless Algerians to defend what French politicians had convinced much of the world was their just presence in North Africa. The white deaths fanned the flames of white resentment against Arabs and other newcomers who had traveled to France to subsist on the fruits of the empire's blood-drawing expansionism. For Oscar's family, there was no hope for survival in this France.

Photos of Hayoun's family in Tunis, Paris, and Alexandria, plus New Year's postcards from other family members who had remained in Tunis.

Photos of Hayoun's family in Tunis, Paris, and Alexandria, plus New Year's postcards from other family members who had remained in Tunis.

At the time, Oscar and Daida frequented an Arabic movie house in the Parisian neighborhood of Barbès, which remains one of the city's postcolonial immigrant enclaves. Go there today, and you'll see that not much has changed. Facing the tides of populism and failed integrationist policies, the people cling to each other in these neighborhoods, in Barbès, in Belleville and Porte de Clichy, and in the suburban ghettos of the likes seen in the 1995 film La Haine. Young men, of the age my grandfather was when he was there, stand on the roadside, waiting for a chance to be the breadwinners of their family—to feel like what they're taught men should be. These are the parts of town where French people of color are made to languish in poverty. It was in these parts that Théo Luhaka was sodomized by police with a baton in 2017, a presidential election year when the populist National Front made unprecedented strides onto the political stage. But these neighborhoods are not pockets of misery so much as of resilience. As my grandparents did in their time, people go to these Arab, African, and Asian neighborhoods to watch movies, smoke shisha, drink fresh fruit juice or tea, and survive the loneliness of exile and forget a system that has willfully forgotten them.

Films offered my grandparents respite in those cold Parisian winters. Even when there was no money, there was enough for escapist movies. Daida and Oscar would sit in the dark and watch stars like Mohammed Abdel Wahab, the Muslim composer of one of Egypt's revolutionary awakenings, and Leila Mourad, the Jewish Egyptian starlet he brought to prominence, who became an icon of her nation's cinema and song. Oscar never told me that Leila Mourad and her brother Mounir Mourad, a sort of Egyptian Gene Kelly, were Jewish. I don't know why he didn't. Perhaps it was because the two of them had converted to Islam in order to marry. Women in our family had done that, and we never spoke of them except to say that they had done something unthinkable: they had ceased to be Jewish. Or maybe the music was so good that Oscar didn't care about their religious identities. In Ghazal al-banat (The Flirtation of Girls), which was shown at the Arabic movie house in Barbès, Leila Mourad portrays an Egyptian governor's daughter who flirts cruelly with her physically unattractive, emotionally generous classical Arabic tutor.

At the close of that film, Oscar's beloved Abdel Wahab makes a cameo, strumming a mandolin and singing a song he's written that would have meant so much to many people sitting in that theater in Paris: "Aasheq el-rouh" ("Spiritual Love") is about a life lived yearning for a bygone happiness. Imagine what it was for my grandfather, my grandmother, and the rest of the audience to see their perilous wandering from a place of familiarity and from their loved ones reflected on the silver screen, in a song sung by the greatest composer and male performer of contemporary Arabic music.

Daida's favorite film was Gharam wa Intiqam (Love and Revenge), the second and last movie to star the diva Asmahan, a Syrian-Egyptian actress who wore Western dresses and styled her jet-black hair in the fashion of Western pin-up girls. Photos of my grandmother in Paris at the time show that she'd modeled herself on Asmahan—an Arab woman trying to present as European.

In those times, as in ours, the standards of beauty were white. It was through a bootlegger in Los Angeles that we found these films, and they were impressed on me when I was small. Oscar found the bootlegger—another Armenian Lebanese, not to be confused with our music vendor—through one of his Egyptian Jewish friends from our synagogue deep in the San Fernando Valley. The vendor rented out the blockbusters of the day and kept VHS tapes of old Egyptian movies—recorded from an Arabic cable channel—in a cabinet behind the cash register. My favorite of these bootleg films was the 1957 classic Bnat el-Youm (Girls These Days), in which the handsome so-called Brown Nightingale Abdel Halim Hafez sings the song "Ahwak" (I Breathe You). "I breathe you," the song goes, "and I wish I could forget you." Fingers dance across the piano as the Western orchestra crescendos to an Arabic tarab, a frenetic confluence of percussion, heart-rending strings, and a honeyed voice. The lyrics express this small corner of the human experience so acutely and with such beauty in a way that no other language but Arabic can convey.

That era of film is one that most non-Jewish Arabs I've encountered in my life—mostly female friends—recall wistfully. They compare that chivalrous, poetic time with the present, with the men who don't call the next day and the freeze-dried feelings of a digital age.

These films were absent from my life for a while. After my grandfather died, I didn't know where to get them, or how. The movie rental place we used to frequent had become a Quiznos.

It seemed I had lost everything, and yet I found myself occasionally recalling fragments of those films. They'd come back to me, songs without names, melodies I could hum. And then, years later, with the help of the Internet, I rediscovered my grandparents' films online. I returned to Egypt, where I found something of my grandfather and, in the Cairo opera house and at the video stores in Heliopolis, a small slice of what I had relegated to memory.

There are elements of the Arab world that you carry with you even when generations of colonialism have made you feel that you must let that world go. Film and song were how Arabness was transmitted to me. The debonair men and stately women in those films were Arabness, as told to me by my grandparents. They were who we were meant to be, had history panned out differently. I walk down the street today, a Jewish Arab guy, and in my mind's eye, I'm not wearing whatever generic Urban Outfitters plaid I have on; I'm wearing a fine-pressed suit and a tarboosh, like Mohammed Abdel Wahab and his fan, Oscar.

Copyright © 2019 by Massoud Hayoun. This excerpt originally appeared in When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family's Forgotten History, published by The New Press and reprinted here with permission.

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