No Time for Nostalgia

When We Were Arabs does little to expand the political possibilities for a younger, American Mizrahi milieu.

Emily Suzanne Lever
June 29, 2020
Photo courtesy of Lost in Tunis.

Discussed in this essay: When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History, by Massoud Hayoun. The New Press, 2019. 279 pages.

THE LARGEST JEWISH BURIAL GROUND in North Africa feels like a wasteland. Today, the cimetière du Borgel, in the northern Tunis suburb of Ariana—once the well-kept resting place of Tunisia’s Jews—is a sea of cracked and tarnished headstones. The paths are choked with weeds; willows, fig trees, and cacti overwhelm the graves. The greenery, though chaotically beautiful, attests to decades of disuse. I was there this past summer to visit the resting place of my great-aunt, Esther Taieb, perhaps the last person in her family to be buried in Tunisian soil. On her headstone, rugged with age, her name remained legible, as did parts of the French inscription—but I wondered how long it would be until these words wore away.

As the physical traces of Jewish life in Tunisia and other Arab countries have dissipated, displaced Jews and their descendants have steadfastly recorded their family histories. Though Mizrahi narratives continue to be sidelined in favor of Ashkenazi ones in Jewish life, memoirs like André Aciman’s Out of Egypt (1994) and Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit (2007) have brought the experiences of first-generation North African Jews into Anglophone literature. Massoud Hayoun’s debut memoir, When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History, takes up this mantle for a younger generation of diaspora Arab Jews, many of whom grew up struggling to extract their family histories from older relatives who preferred not to resurrect painful memories. It’s the story of a Jewish family whose narrative inverts Zionist notions of homeland and diaspora, presenting a picture of rootedness, belonging, and community in vibrant Arab lands—Tunisia on his grandmother’s side, and Morocco (by way of Egypt) on his grandfather’s. It is only after 1948, and because of its events, that this family comes to endure a diasporic existence full of misery, alienation, and cultural impoverishment, first in Israel and then in the United States. The book has been lauded for providing much-needed representation for a younger generation of diaspora Arab Jews, and for its conjuring of a lost era of coexistence. But in a textbook example of the dangers of nostalgia, When We Were Arabs falters when it reaches beyond the explication of our grandparents’ stories to try to make sense of our contemporary experience. 

The book—a family history that opens onto a broader discussion of Arab Jewish history, from ancient times through the present—is a love letter to a bygone world in which Jews had an unquestioned place in society alongside their fellow Arabs of other religions, predominantly Muslims. Hayoun describes how his Moroccan and Tunisian forebears grew up celebrating Ramadan and Eid with their Muslim neighbors. In Morocco, on the night of Mimouna, at the end of Passover, Muslims would bring bread to their Jewish neighbors—like Hayoun’s grandfather’s ancestors—to break the Passover fast. (In his 1969 article “Moroccan Judaism and Zionism,” Moroccan Jewish leftist Abraham Serfaty described this shared tradition as the expression of a will to collective liberation.) In Tunis, Hayoun’s great-grandmother experienced a similar syncretism: though devoutly Jewish—she kept a kosher home and made pilgrimages to holy sites—she also invited Muslim dervishes to twirl in her home to purify it of evil spirits. “At the end of the ceremony,” Hayoun writes, she “collapsed on the floor, taken by convulsions, praising god—the single god shared by her and the dervishes—for delivering her from the curse.”

These scenes took place in a world that is almost wholly lost to us now; at its core, When We Were Arabs is a book about the breakdown of this pluralistic social order. This is well-trod artistic territory, particularly in the book’s depictions of 19th- and 20th-century Alexandria. In her essay “How Not to Write on Cosmopolitan Alexandria,” scholar May Hawas insightfully distinguishes between two kinds of representation of pre-World War II Egypt in the literary canon, as recorded by the “nostalgic cosmopolitanists” and the “anti-nostalgic cosmopolitanists.” The nostalgic cosmopolitanists—such as Lawrence Durrell, André Aciman, and Constantine Cavafy—paint idealized and even downright Orientalist portraits of Alexandria, often centering the city’s non-Egyptian communities (Greeks, Italians, French, Armenians, and non-Arab Jews), thus suggesting that these groups were the source of the city’s bygone culture and refinement. The anti-nostalgic cosmopolitanists—such as the novelist Edwar al-Kharrat and especially literary critics like Khaled Fahmy and Hala Halim—criticize these predominantly European portrayals for centering elites who didn’t bear the brunt of colonial oppression, while often glossing over the ugly side of postcolonial Egypt (it was not only European colonizers who saw their property expropriated, but also indigenous Jews with thousands of years of history in North Africa). For both groups, romanticization begets historical revisionism.

In his decidedly romantic book, Hayoun tries to have the best of both worlds, lauding both the diversity and tolerance of the old Alexandria and the liberatory élan of decolonization. It’s as though he is trying to pay lip service to two ways of seeing history, rather than offering a synthesis that resolves their conflict or goes beyond it. Hayoun wistfully recounts his Moroccan Egyptian grandfather’s memories of playing with Armenian children in the schoolyard in Alexandria, but also throws in the disclaimer that polyglot, worldly types (like Jews and Armenians) formed an elite, and that the status of French and English as administrative languages marginalized poor Egyptians. Sometimes the narrative is so evenhanded that it comes across as naive. The story of Hayoun’s grandfather and his family being forced to sign over all their property to the Egyptian state and leave their native continent forever is rendered in an oddly bloodless manner: Hayoun expresses a hope that his family’s money was given to a poor Muslim family, whose descendant, perhaps, will “free our Arab world, once and for all.” 

The sections drawn from the diaries of Hayoun’s grandparents, Oscar and Daida, lend immediacy to the narrative, dramatizing the way French colonialism pitted North African Jews against Muslims and encouraged them to hate their own culture. Oscar and Daida experienced pressure to dress in Western clothes, to conform to white beauty standards, and even to say their Hebrew prayers with Ashkenazi pronunciations. They maneuvered for social capital by distancing themselves from their poorer and darker-skinned coreligionists. They were educated in French-funded Alliance Israélite Universelle schools created to “civilize” them, in which their teachers told them they were not Egyptian or Tunisian, but Israelites. Hayoun quotes at length from the writings of 19th-century colonial anthropologists who per­petuated and justified the stigmatization of Arab Jews. But his bibliography of the postcolonial scholars who explicated our trauma and valorized our culture is much thinner: he doesn’t once cite Ella Shohat, the foundational figure of Mizrahi studies, although his historical analysis substantially echoes hers and her intellectual successors’. These omissions sometimes create the uneasy sense that Hayoun is reinventing the wheel, contriving anew a conversation that has been ongoing for more than 70 years.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that a work so stubbornly backward-looking stumbles as it moves into the present day, as Hayoun chronicles his own upbringing and his struggle to construct a hybrid Arab identity in the US. Hayoun and others like him inhabit a fraught category, whether they identify as Mizrahi or as Arab Jews. Indeed, the discourse around these terms speaks to the complexity of this identity: Hayoun rejects the former as Orientalist and transforms the latter, preferring “Jewish Arabs.” In a broader sense, “Mizrahi” is more properly rooted in the Israeli context, where state racism targets non-European Jews, while the use of the term “Arab” is complicated by the fact that those who would claim it overwhelmingly do not speak Arabic as a native language, did not grow up in Arab countries, and are racialized as white in the US. Where the personal and political dovetail neatly in the stories Hayoun tells about his grandparents, who reconcile with their Arabness later in life, When We Were Arabs does little to expand the political possibilities for his younger, American Mizrahi milieu. 

This is a frustrating shortcoming given the community’s profound need. While some younger, left-leaning Mizrahim are blazing exciting new paths—pioneering women-led religious services using Moroccan or Syrian liturgy, for instance, or organizing against Islamophobia—the most readily available forms of political engagement for our generation often involve haphazardly joining political or social affinity groups, straining to connect to strangers with whom the only thing in common is a non-Ashkenazi identity. (Sometimes such groups exist for the expressly mortifying purpose of adding “diversity” to predominantly Ashkenazi left-wing spaces.) Many of us are trying to make sense of our generational trauma, grasping at a vague inkling that there is some revolutionary potential contained in our identities and searching for concrete ways to realize it.

Perhaps the clearest signal that Hayoun is shirking this responsibility is his complete avoidance of the present reality of Islamophobia in Mizrahi communities. Even if his own grandparents managed to avoid this folly, his proximity to present-day Mizrahi communities have no doubt exposed him to this widespread and deeply-ingrained prejudice, rooted in internalized racism and trauma. Hayoun’s most sustained discussion of the subject doesn’t pertain to Muslims at all, but rather to the way post-9/11 Islamophobia caught Middle Eastern Jews in its crosshairs. It’s a disappointing elision that contributes to the unsatisfying feeling that the book is substituting a sanitized, personal quest for vestiges of family history for a more searching exploration of how the deep divides between contemporary Jews and other Arabs are maintained and how they might be bridged. 

Hayoun’s best gesture at a collective way forward is his proposal that Arab Jews claim our identity simply by self-identifying as Arab. Such a gesture may be an important symbolic statement to counter internalized anti-Arabness. But given how diminished our ties to Arabness have become, it feels rather abstract. Yes, some may dance to Rachid Taha at bar mitzvahs or sing their prayers in maqam Hijaz rather than G major. But precisely because most members of this generation lack lived experience in the Arab world and fluency in the dialects that are now called Judeo-Arabic, even in the act of reclamation, a daunting distance remains. 

Hayoun attempts to counter his distance by visiting Arab countries, those of his grandparents and others, though he seems to remain strangely aloof from their contemporary political realities. “Every time I went to an Arab country,” Hayoun writes, “I felt at peace, so much so that when I’d return to the West, I’d feel rejuvenated and more ready to handle . . . life there.” I have also felt that sense of peace in my visits to Arab countries—but was it a true feeling of homecoming, or merely a respite from atomized, late capitalist American life? And despite the undeniable atmosphere and beauty of Tunis or Beirut, even a casual visitor soon finds out that many of the young people there see no future for themselves and want to leave. Hayoun fails to confront the dissonance in being tied to a place by the bonds of heritage while also being insulated from its most negative aspects. After all, his Egyptian or Tunisian contemporaries cannot travel as freely due to devastating price inflation and Byzantine visa procedures (not to mention the threat of being mysteriously and arbitrarily placed on a terrorism watch list). In this way, Hayoun’s is a yearning for belonging unburdened by what it would mean to presently belong—and to not have a choice in the matter. 

We cannot think through the death of, as Hayoun writes, “a society in which we existed without question” and its attendant historical trauma, without acknowledging that the systems that manufactured that trauma are still in operation. In much of the Arab world, neocolonial extractive regimes replaced colonial ones. Imperialist states still play factions and ethnic groups in the region against each other, and minorities in Arab lands continue to suffer persecution at the hands of their neighbors, from the moderately well-known oppression of Copts, Kurds, black Arabs, Imazighen, Bedouins, and Yazidis to the obscure slow deaths of Iraq’s Shabak, Kaka’i, and Mandaean minorities. Any attempt to make a place for Arab Jews in the contemporary Arab world without reckoning with these realities is a sterile, solipsistic exercise.

Perhaps it’s unfair to measure Hayoun’s project against the enormity of what has been lost—millenia-old cultures eroded in just a few decades—and against the great urgency and uncertainty surrounding the political meaning of Arab Jewish identity in the diaspora. But while the Arab Jewish world that once existed may be dead, Arab Jews themselves are not. Neither, we should assume, are their political possibilities. Any contemporary book on the subject of young American Arab Jews must seriously take up the question of these possibilities, even at the risk of confronting their narrowing horizons. The result would be more worthwhile than an exercise in representation for representation’s sake.

Emily Suzanne Lever is a French American writer and reporter.