From Pop to Politics

Jews. The Arab Kind.

In Kippahs+Keffiyas on July 5, 2010 at 3:38 pm

Straight Up: She's a Syrian Jew!

I must preface this post with a confession: I am a Muslim and I’m a bit obsessed with Jews. Not in a creepy Single White Female kind of way, it’s more like E.T. A loving fascination. Ask my good old friend Sahar Cohen. It takes up part of the same space in my brain that drives me to google Lady Gaga almost everyday because I’m captivated by everything about her persona, despite her mediocre music (sorry girlfriend, it’s got a lot of catching up to do with your style).

JewQ: A fine specimen of Hasidic chic

I’m fascinated by Judaism in all aspects, from its esoteric teachings to the Hebrew script. And in my opinion, Orthodox Jews have the most fashion-forward religious dress sense, hands down. Whenever I’m in Mile End, Montreal’s Jewish district, I find myself sneaking glances at Hasidic passers-by, mentally snapping Zohartorialist photos as the sidewalk transforms into a Holy runway: theatrical circle fur hats, structured suits, boxy wool coats, draping tallit scarves with their sometimes peekaboo tzi-tzi fringes. And Black is always in.  I mean how much more avant-garde can you get with accessorizing than Tefillin? Come to think of it, it’s totally Gaga, no?

But I digress… This little infatuation I have with our dear cousins has a more particular penchant: It’s the Jews from the Arab World that really intrigue me.

Once upon a time not so long ago, an Arab could be Christian, Muslim, Jewish, etc… Up until the 1950s, the Jewish community was an integral part of the fabric of Arab society. They spoke Arabic and contributed to the arts and sciences. They had been rooted in countries in like Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Yemen for millenia. Growing up, my grandparents would recount fond memories of their Jewish neighbors and colleagues in the golden days of Basra and Baghdad, insisting that they were always considered – and considered themselves- Iraqi first. They would attend their weddings and parties and my paternal grandfather worked with them in municipal affairs during his career as the Mayor of Basra. And stories abound from Iraqi family friends, about how they, Muslim Iraqis, held their Jewish friends’ possessions for safekeeping when they had to flee. Theirs was a bond that seemed to go beyond friendship. For sure the history of Jews in the Arab World is a complex one that had its ups and downs, but once upon a time, they were brothers and sisters.

We now live in a time of capitalism and war, where The Dollar is the only God (the bottom line being its profit). We have an overwhelming media machine that can’t compute the pesky nuances of human culture and identity because it just doesn’t sell. Black and white is always sexier, be it in a news story or an evening outfit. So we should ask: When did a segment of our people stop being Arabs and exclusively “Jews”? Why and how? And what is an Arab anyway? A definition from Wikipedia online:

Arab people (عربي, arabi) or Arabs (العرب al-arab):  A  pan-ethnicity of peoples of various ancestral origins, religious backgrounds and historic identities, whose members, on an individual basis, identify as such on one or more of linguistic, cultural, political, or genealogical grounds.

In reality, the meaning of the word has boiled down to an exclusive, narrow and erroneous concept: Arab=Muslim. This is especially evident in Western as well as Middle Eastern media. Perhaps even world-wide.

Huda Nunu: Bahrain's US Ambassador is Jewish and 'out'.

Some Jews remain in the Arab World, although most of them are still “in the closet” and figures are virtually impossible to come by. One thing’s for sure: The Arab-Israeli conflict, which has raged on for over 60 years, created a dramatic shift in demographics and identity. Iraqi Jewish scholar Ella Shohat describes this quandary:

“To be an Arab Jew (was suddenly) seen as a kind of logical paradox (…). This binarism has led many Oriental Jews (our name in Israel referring to our common Asian and African countries of origin is Mizrahi) to a profound and visceral schizophrenia, since for the first time in our history Arabness and Jewishness have been imposed as antonyms”.

Something interesting is happening in the Arab World these days. Abandoned synagogues are being reborn in places like Egypt and Lebanon, reviving the history of Muslim-Jewish coexistence. The question is: Do these restoration projects signal the beginning of the possible return of Arab Jewish communities to the region?

And so I find myself back in Beirut after 4 years, embarking on a long-term project exploring this issue with a little research & development grant from La Belle Province, my home away from home, Quebec.

More on the Jews of Lebanon (and the sad state of Hasidic women’s wear) in my next post.

  1. I loved this article…particularly because I relate to it. I’ve always felt lucky; born for the parents that I have, and especially for their background. The stories I heard from my mother about neigbours and colleagues and friends she grew up with who are IRAQI Jews taught us from day one about equality and how to see people for who they are not “what” they are. It is a great article because it highlights a part of our world, especially Iraq, which cannot be ignored.. This amazing country – this amazing region – was not only a hub for culture, history, inventions (to name a few), but also a place where it was the perfect example of the co-existence. It is a shame that not alot of people (especially the new generation) who do not understand that this co-existence is what made us today…. I’m very happy that this is being addressed and hopefully that one day, our countries can be “complete” again with all its people…. like Iraq filled with all Iraqis again – from all types, colors, ages, etc…
    I very much enjoyed reading your notes… can’t wait for more…

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