Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Arabic as a Jewish Language


Earlier today, Professor Emeritus Sasson Somekh (b. 1933) delivered the first of three lectures held under the auspices of the annual Taubman series at the University of California - Berkeley. Somekh, who was born in Baghdad and came to Israel with the airlifts of Iraqi Jewry in 1951, at the age of 17, is Israel's foremost authority on contemporary Arabic literature. In his Taubman lecture he spoke about "Arabic as a Jewish Language," beginning the series with background about Judeo-Arabic and a survey of the two greatest Iraqi Jewish writers.

Somekh's brief sketch of the history of Judeo-Arabic will probably be familiar to most of our readers and can be found in several sources, including his own publications. The highlight of his talk was Somekh's discussion of Iraqi Jewish literature in the twentieth century. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries marked the onset of a linguistic revolution for the Jews of Iraq. Until then, Jews in the various Arab countries spoke some form of Judeo-Arabic, which they recorded in Hebrew letters using a relatively standardized system of transcription. But in the twentieth century, an increasing number of Iraqi Jews learned what Somekh calls "Arabic-Arabic" - for the first time, they wrote literary Arabic in Arabic letters. In North Africa and Egypt, on the other hand, Jews tended to be literate primarily in French, while in Yemen, Jews continued to write Judeo-Arabic until very late.

For a brief period of a few decades, Iraqi Jews wrote for an audience of non-Jewish Iraqis, taking part in many of the journalistic and literary endeavors that sprang up in Baghdad from the 1920s to the 1950s. Somekh mentioned such writers as Meir Basri, Shalom Darwish, and Ya'qub Bilbul. At least some of these authors have been studied by Arab scholars and praised for their contributions to Iraqi literature. The situation is more complicated with those writers who came to Israel as teenagers or in their early twenties. Sami Michael and Shimon Ballas, for example, left Baghdad between the ages of 18-20. Both had been part of political (Michael, who was active in the Communist Party) and literary circles (Ballas) in Baghdad. In Israel, they learned Hebrew and published most of their works in that language. Somekh, who came to Israel when he was 17, belongs to this group. Although he did not speak about it, he has published a memoir called Baghdad, Yesterday: The Making of an Arab Jew which has been translated into English.

Baghdad, Yesterday: The Making of an Arab Jew

But a different group of writers found itself in a sort of "doubled exile" after the immigration to Israel. Somekh spoke about two remarkable individuals who, for whatever reason, wrote almost all of their works in Arabic while living in Israel. They were perhaps the most accomplished Jewish novelists to write in Arabic but their work has made almost no inroads in the Arab world. Yitzhak (Ishaq) Bar-Moshe and Samir Naqqash (1938-2004). Both were born in Baghdad but came to Israel at different ages.

Bar-Moshe left Baghdad when he was 23. He found work as an Arabic-language broadcaster and journalist employed by the Israeli government and did not become active in literary circles until 1972 when he published a first collection of stories, in Arabic, called "Behind the Fence." Over the next decade, he had published ten more short story collections and four enormous autobiographical novels. Most of his stories are "like Kafka's worlds," devoid of local context and often philosophical. A posthumously-published memoir called Two Days in June (2003) described his experience of the 1941 "Farhud" (pogrom) against Baghdad Jews in June 1941.

Samir Naqqash arrived in Israel at the age of 13. Unlike many others of his generation, he mastered literary Arabic and indeed never learned to speak Hebrew properly. He published his first collection of stories, called Al Khata (The Mistake), in 1971. Subsequently he published about a dozen novels, plays, and short stories. The most remarkable feature of Naqqash's writing was his transcription of the differing colloquial dialects spoken respectively by Baghdad's Jews and Muslims. Because these dialects, which were the subject of a study by Somekh's revered teacher Haim Blanc (Communal Dialects in Baghdad. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964) would have been incomprehensible - in writing - to readers of literary Arabic (indeed, Somekh claims that Baghdadi Jews would not have been able to decipher the Muslim dialect and vice versa), Naqqash added footnotes to each of his many passages of dialog with a "translation" into fus'ha. To accomplish this, Naqqash engaged in the "Sisyphean labor" of adding diacritical marks (of his own contrivance) to precisely render the dialect pronunciations.

Somekh's talk next Wednesday will discuss the Cairo Genizah. More to follow.

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