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Assia Belgacem

When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family's Forgotten History

Massoud Hayoun traces his family's Jewish Arab identity. [New Press]

Date of publication: 14 August, 2020

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Book Club: Massoud Hayoun's intimate memoir weaves family history with politics in a powerful exploration of Arab Jewish identity.

Being Arab today is more often than not synonymous with being Muslim. Yet this contemporary understanding of Arab identity flattens a rich and diverse cultural heritage.

When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family's Forgotten History by Massoud Hayoun is a memoir that proudly reclaims this identity - one that was not only forgotten, but erased.

The opening lines are powerful and unapologetic. They are a sharp statement through which Hayoun, a Jewish Arab-American journalist, takes control of his Moroccan, Tunisian and Egyptian heritage and refuses other people's narrow conceptions of his identity.

"I am 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."

Even before opening the book and reading these powerful first lines, one can get an idea of the content through the title. When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family's Forgotten History - can be divided into three parts to be analysed.

The first part - When We Were Arabs - is made subjective with the use of the pronoun "we", which also reflects how this issue extends itself to a collective of Jewish Arabs. In that same construction, "Arabs" is the word that jumps out. The layout of the title makes it clear that Arab identity is what is at stake in this memoir. 

I am 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

The second part of the title - A Jewish Family's History - already highlights a more specific history. The scope has been narrowed, from a more general and historical "we" to a more precise and personal one, that of a family, to finally be narrowed again to Massoud Hayoun, the author.

In a strategic manner, the title encompasses the historical and personal events used by the author to define Arab Jewish identity. These two characteristics are deeply intertwined throughout the book. In essence, this is the story of Massoud Hayoun, his family and the Arab Jewish community, rooted in a lost epoch.

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Last but not least, the third part of the title is key to the narrative. Written in the past tense, the use of "forgotten" begs the question of how Arab Jewish identity functions in the present. The driving force of this book is the revival of the past - no longer forgotten.

History is powerful, it is the present and the future - and Massoud Hayoun is aware of this. He takes the reader back in time to explain the how and the why. He dissects Arab Jewish identity from both the origins of the Arab and Jewish people.

From that point on, he works at highlighting Arab unity by showing how blurred the lines are between Arab Muslims and Arab Jews. 

For his grandfather Oscar, born in polyglot Alexandria, the language is very similar, if not the same, with both communities expressing themselves in a religious vocabulary. The food is the same, and special religious occasions like Ramadan and Jewish holidays are celebrated together.

"For us, the line between Isaac and Ismail was blurred, more than in other families, perhaps, because we took nothing but God very seriously. When we said things like Insha'Allah (God willing) or Hamdela (thank God) we tacitly acknowledged that the Allah of Islam is the same Allah we serve in our Judaism," Hayoun writes.

In a chapter called 'La Rupture/The Rupture', Hayoun traces the impact of European imperialism and the birth of the Israeli state on Arab identity. The memoir explores the role France played to divide communities in North Africa with the 1870 Crémieux Decree, which declared Algerian Jews to be French citizens. 

Arab Jewishness was an identity not only forgotten, but one that was purposefully erased

Its aim was to "elevate" Jewish Algerians (indigenous at the time) to a superior condition, bringing them closer to white French colonisers and driving a wedge between them and their Muslim and Berber neighbours. It also separated Algerian Jews from other Jewish communities in Tunisia and Morocco, who were not granted citizenship. 

Hayoun recalls a memory of his grandmother Daida, who came from a Jewish Tunisian family, to illustrate how French imperialists imposed a new identity on the Arab Jewish community. One day, while Daida was at school, her teacher, a white French woman, asked the students to identify their nationalities.

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When his grandmother said she was Tunisian, the teacher firmly corrected, her saying "You are not Tunisian; you are an Israelite". When Daida insisted on being Tunisian, the teacher accuses her of being a liar. This experience painfully illustrates that Arab Jewishness was an identity not only forgotten, but one that was purposefully erased.

Writing a book about personal experiences, about a denied and rejected identity, is no easy task, but Massoud Hayoun produces a captivating memoir. His journalistic background is reflected in his writing style and balances historical facts and interviews with more personal memories.

Cultural references accompany the reader throughout the book, from songs, films, food, and traditions, while a sense of place is evoked in memories of Alexandria, Paris and Tunisia. 

When We Were Arabs is a resourceful memoir, where the reader not only travels in time but also travels to different countries, experiencing a taste of the different films, songs and a cultural heritage that Hayoun generously shares.

And for the author, the conclusion of the journey is clear. "I am Daida. I am Oscar. ... I am Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Palestine, and all adjoining nations that identify as Arab. I am the wealth of love I feel for the people of those nations."

Assia Belgacem is a French-Algerian book reviewer with a focus on Muslim and Arab literature

Follow her on Instagram: @shereadsox

The New Arab Book Club: Click on our Special Contents tab to read more book reviews and interviews with authors:

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