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Remembering A Baghdad Elsewhere: An Emotional Cartography

[Iraqi Jews arriving in Israel in 1951. Image from Wikipedia] [Iraqi Jews arriving in Israel in 1951. Image from Wikipedia]

A widespread narrative has maintained that Israel rescued Jews from the Arab/Muslim lands, brought them from the Diaspora to the Promised Land, thus ending a millennial Babylonian Exile. Could it be, I have asked, that this engineered In-gathering of the Exiles itself engendered new exiles that resulted in a series of traumatic ruptures? In the wake of these new diasporizations, what memories could be narrated and which were to be erased in order to fit the official picture of Jew-versus-Arab? Nostalgia itself, however private an enterprise, was inevitably to become an act political enunciation, trapped in the regime of “taboo memories” and “forbidden reminiscence.” For Arab/Middle Eastern Jews the remembrance of Arab/Muslim spaces has turned into a reenactment of the displacement narrative; a kind of ongoing performance of the painful nature of the rupture. Memory is now located in the definition of the dislocation itself, exiting in the shadow of a terminological crisis: is the departure one of simple “immigration,” or of “Aliya,” or of “refugees,” or of “population exchange?”

‪The terminology itself, I have argued, must be used in partial and overlapping ways, “under erasure” as it were, to recount a complex, even rather anomalous, cross-border movement. In the wake of colonial partition, newly generated identities have been caught in forced amnesia and taboo hyphens; hence the significance of inserting a metaphorical hyphen linking “the Arab” and “the Jew,” and “Jewishness” and “Muslimness.” Although dominant cartographies, on both sides of the conflict, have tended to draw manifest boundaries between Israel and the Arab world, as well as between East and West, an alternative map can reveal glimpses of the vital possibilities of a dialogical imagination. By juxtaposing these often quarantined geographies and histories, and by interweaving these disparate narratives, I hope to illuminate an emotional cartography of dislocation. But here, rather than rehearse my previous terminological probing, I will sketch out a disjointed map of my own journey and my familial odyssey from Iraq to Israel/Palestine to the U.S., tracing the dots that go into the making of an hyphenated identity; the pain and pleasure of hybridity within a cross-generational crossings of enemy zones.


‪Was it inevitable that I, an Arab-Jew, should end up writing in English about my lived linguistic schism between Hebrew and Arabic? As an Iraqi-Jew who grew up in Israel in the ’60s, I did not enter the three languages in which I have communicated most of my life with the ease with which privileged children slide smoothly into cosmopolitanism. Only a decade has passed since my parents’ hasty exodus from Iraq, with my sister in their arms and a single suitcase of belongings. For us, the name “Baghdad” did not exactly evoke the fantastic tales of Ali Baba, Aladdin, or Scheherezade but rather a dense lived quotidian reality even if lived outside of Iraq. Although we could not hop on the next train to Baghdad, it seemed that many of the Iraqi adults in Israel lived longing for a one-way ticket, somehow not exactly for a place, but rather to a time that shall never return. For us, the younger generation who never set foot there, Baghdad was a place in stories, but it was also our home, our neighborhood, our faces, our Arabic dialect, our accent in Hebrew, our maqam music, our kubbah food, our latem grief, our hafla festivity, shared in the small town of Petah Tikva, or the Gate of Hope. We were blithely unaware of how or when this 1878 Zionist settlement submerged the Palestinian village of Mlabes, even when “Arabs,” i.e. Palestinians, were passing through town to see a doctor or sell produce. That displaced Baghdad was a secretive one, existing on the margins of the official Israeli nation and its subjugated Palestinian Arabs. And yet we were never completely alien to this epic-scale schism.

‪The planes that were arranged to transport Iraqi-Jews to Israel uprooted millennia of life in Babylon, leading to a new diasporic existence. Overnight, we were no longer Iraqis, but Israelis; a new citizenship coupled with a strict poetic national-culture meter. The Israeli-Arab conflict formulated a new grammar of belonging where Arabness and Jewishness composed a mutually exclusive syntax, in excess of each other. Upon their arrival in Israel, my grandparents did not speak Hebrew and never learned it until their last day. My parents, while becoming more fluent in Hebrew, persisted to speak it with a heavy Iraqi accent, unable to erase the traces of their “Bilad al-Rafidein” (Mesopotamia) birthplace. My father and his friends, during their first days as construction workers, communicated among themselves in Arabic but were disdainfully ordered by their Euro-Israeli boss to “Stop speaking Arabic! We are not in an Arab country.” Arabic, needless to say, was the language of the enemy. A Jew could not speak it, and a Jew could certainly not claim it as an identity marker. “In Iraq,” my parents often lamented, “we were Jews. In Israel, we are Arabs.”

‪In our own fragile and disoriented apprehension, we the children were recruited for the making of a new identity that was to clash with our parents’ Iraqiness, Arabness, and Middle Easterness. At home we turned into a domesticated linguistic police force, the secret agents of Euro-Israeli hegemony. Back from school, we voiced what was expected of us: “Stop speaking Arabic!” When my grandparents took the bus with us, we wanted them to remain silent, anxious that they would forget that we were not at home, and could be heard. We virtually ordered our parents to forget that alien linguistic baggage of Iraqiness. Unknowing targets of mental colonization, we were the children who were expected to delete not merely the past across the border but also the transplanted Baghdads, Cairos, or Rabats of our homes and neighborhoods. Our bodies, language, and thought were regulated to the rhythms of a disciplining, corrective, normalizing machine designed to erect us into proud Israelis.

‪My first public performance of the Hebrew language was hardly a textbook example of healthy linguistic development of a child. I vividly remember my first anxious days in kindergarten, when I was less terrified about the separation from my mother than I was about what Arabic words would slip into my Hebrew. Although no one had explicitly warned me, something in the social atmosphere made it clear that Arabic was a taboo language, and soon I learned to master Hebrew in the "correct” form, that is, shorn of the Iraqi accent. Unlike my father and my mother, I was becoming free from the shackles of my/their/our tongue. I was well on my way to assimilating, relegating the Iraqi accent in Hebrew as well as our Arabic dialect and culture to the private space of home and family. There we could not be observed, watched, or gazed upon with silencing scorn.

‪Although we were on the margins of Euro-Israeli culture, as a child I felt I had a special role in the space of my own family. I acquired the role of the translator and mediator for my grandparents who could not speak or read Hebrew. They could not read the signs in the foreign streets; they could not take care of bills in Hebrew; or converse with non-Arabic speakers in the town. As a child, Hebrew gave me a sense of immense power over the adults in my community. My grandfather, Abu-Liyahu, depended on my interpreter skills to navigate the unfamiliar currents of the Hebrew-speaking world. And, yet, I soon learned to be ashamed of that role, not for the sake of my grandfather but because the ability to translate was a mark of the Arab side of my identity, when I just wanted to be transparent, without that dark, opaque Iraqi history, unburdened by Arabic culture. I soon learned to pretend not to speak Arabic and to speak a Europeanized Hebrew.

‪Standing in front of the mirror, I tried to put some order in the babble of consonants and vowels. I learned to push all the sounds to the front of the mouth as though there was a clear border dividing the deep throat where the guttural sounds of – both Arabic and Hebrew-- “’aah,” “qa,” “ṭā,ʾ” “ha,”  were made. I was very good, an excellent self-colonized subject. Gradually the sounds began crossing the interior cave of my throat through the opening of the tunnel to the front of the mouth, liberated from the chains of “the harsh” consonants. Triumphant in the ease with which all the deep sounds became light, as though I was speaking a European language, and shifted into airy sounds of  “a,” “ka,” “ta,” and even the lighter “kha.” “Hebrew is more like German, or French,” I thought to myself, of which I had caught a first glimpse not from the French-speaking Moroccans in town, but from my mother. Routinely she repeated her favorite childhood French textbook dialogue-- “Joe, il fait tres beau au jour d'hui; Ou veut tu allez?— with an enthusiasm that always escaped me. The obsessive phrase from her own childhood echoed her glamorous days at Baghdad’s Alliance-Francaise school. The daughter of illiterate parents, who spoke ‘amiya,” (colloquial Arabic)-- whether in the Baghdadi Jewish or Muslim dialects-- was proudly mastering fusha Arabic and French, and even learning some English and Hebrew. But in my time, the phrase was orphaned of its hopeful Baghdadi days, prior to her eventual loss of French during her life in Israel and then in the US, overshadowed by the persistence of Arabic, whether alongside Hebrew and/or English. The snippets of French or English at home were broken according to the master-code of Arabic, but Arabic was not broken, and persisted throughout our voyage across the Atlantic. Yet, our quotidian Arabic/Hebrew bilingualism was far from reflecting a harmonious coexistence of two relative languages; it was intensely fraught, burdened by the abrasive sounds of war.

‪When the authorities in their diverse incarnations as teachers, social workers, or police, entered our neighborhood and home, my grandparents knew that the “honor” of the visit was hardly a sign of some reward to be vested upon our family. The anxiety level rose dramatically, especially when their sons, my uncles, would defect from the army, just for a few weeks to take a break, or would try to avoid serving in the military altogether. “Habiba,” my grandmother Nana Mas’uda would call me in the Jewish-Iraqi dialect, “tali hon, shufi ash qa-yighdon minna” (come here, see what they want from us), begging me to abandon the hide-and-seek games I was playing with the pigeons and chickens behind the fig tree in the backyard. My dress tainted with mud, I ran home only to find myself speaking with a military police woman searching for my youngest uncle. The “us” and “them” was invariably clear to me. It didn’t have to be spelled out. Yet, I wanted to impress the blonde woman at the door, whose proudly ironed khaki uniform made her look as though she had just stepped out of an ad in an Israeli magazine only to heroically land in our humble quarters.

‪“But why is Nana so worried?,” I wondered. Nana was far more breathless than I was after running all the way from the end of the backyard to the house’s front door. Nana, who was always so slow and lackadaisical, went through a metamorphosis, suddenly speaking fast, like the proverbial headless chicken running in circles. “Why does Nana want me to tell the khaki woman that she doesn't know where my uncle is? I know where he is.” And, soon, I uttered the Hebrew words I thought showed respect for Nana’s adab (good manners) education and hospitality. “He is at Hezqel’s store. He left this morning,” I said, with the confidence of an insider. “That will make Nana calmer,” I thought as I received the warmest, shiniest smile I had ever received from any khaki woman, who quickly turned away toward the central bus station, energized and reinvigorated by my useful urban topographical insights.

‪My speech act of hospitality was rejected by my tearful grandmother, who now froze in her spot at the entrance until one of my uncles, Naji, came. Before he said anything, I found myself running for my life far ahead of the bottle of milk that followed in my wake and was smashed to smithereens of glass floating in a white puddle. I quickly reached the backyard, frightening all the chickens and pigeons in my path and climbing to my spot in the fig tree, which proved not to be the haven I had imagined it to be. The burning memory taught me a clear lesson about the subtle but strategic difference between a translator and a traitor. Living between Arabic and Hebrew was experienced quite viscerally as a negative dialectic, except when my defenses broke down, and when, on both happy and sad occasions, I totally forgot that I was supposed to forget Arabic.

‪But actually, my community was not easily seduced by the linguistic cultural assimilation. Arabic was the language in which all the emotions around me were expressed. It was the language of the music I heard; of the songs we danced to; of the conversations at the Babylonian synagogue; the language in which my father washed my tears with the by-now- calloused hands of a man who had never known physical labor until he arrived in Israel; the language in which my mother got good deals in the souk, the marketplace in Petah Tikva, a market almost exclusively inhabited by Iraqi vendors; the language in which we heard news from Arabic-speaking radio and TV; the language in which virtually everybody would tune to the radio to Umm Kulthum’s monthly song from Egypt; the language in which we watched hilarious Egyptian and Syrian comedies; the language in which my grandmother would place my head in her lap and sing me an Iraqi lullaby, “Dilelol.” Arabic was the language of the stories that my grandfather told us as he would repeat the same ”Kan Ya-ma-Kan, fi qadeem al-zaman, wal-‘aqa bna lu dekan b’souq al-midan…” prelude to every story, no matter what the story was, as we were munching on the khebez, the Iraqi pita he baked in the oven that he built with his own hands. It was the language he sought out on the big brown radio that he was so reluctant to part with, even for meals or even during war times when piercing alarms meant everyone had to run to the shelter. And when transistors were introduced into our lives, in the early seventies, he was profoundly cheered by the invention, for now he could be liberated from the confinement of the house and walk freely, his head glued to the black speaking-box hiding his big ear, his eyes staring at the invisible space as he continued his routine of handing us mlabes (pastel-colored candies with almond inside, and, ironically, the name of the Palestinian town where we ended up.)

‪Arabic was the language of the stories my mother told me at every lunch, often repeating the same magical story I knew by heart: “al-ruman al-yehalhel wa-al-tufah al-yesafeq” (the pomegranates that yodel and the apples that applaud), stories without which I refused to chew on my mother’s unappetizing bamya (okra). It was the language my mother spoke with the Palestinian Amer, who carried a sack full of oranges to sell in our town, a man whose gentle smile under his moustache seemed a perfect match to my mother’s ethos of “’eb” (shame)-- both happy for a lunch break from the harsh routines when they talked about their lives. My mother, with her virtuoso shape-shifting Arabic, began her voyage into his Palestinian dialect, found in him a perfect listener for her nostalgia for Baghdad and he found in her a patient audience for his memories of a time before his village was “to disappear” with the establishment of Israel.

‪Arabic and Hebrew, then, were far from being neutral languages. To know Hebrew meant to be Hebrew, which, by implication, meant the erasure of anything Arabic. Thinking back on these years, it is no wonder that at a fairly young age, English became the linguistic apple of my eyes. English also brought with it some affectionate childhood memories. My father was schooled in Baghdad’s Shamash high school, where matriculation exams were sanctified by an official Oxford seal. While the Iraqiness of my father was, in the lexicon of my school, a sign of backwardness, his knowledge of English, carried across borders from Iraq to Israel, promoted him to the status of a kind of village scribe in English. Suddenly, aspects of the poor man’s cosmopolitanism of Iraqi history came to the rescue, a social advantage brought especially from Baghdad. In this situation, English seemed a kind of free zone immune to those painful conflicts of Hebrew and Arabic. Yet, English, obviously, was also not a neutral space. The US post-WWII rise to global power, the '70s Americanization of Israel, and British colonial history in Iraq and Palestine all contributed to the English language infiltration of my young mind, unsettling the presence of both Hebrew and Arabic.

‪Years later, as I began reflecting on this history in English, I remember inverting the traditional biblical verse, and instead of “weeping by the waters of Babylon,” it was “by the waters of Zion that we laid down and wept when we remembered Babylon.”  As I began writing on the Arab-Jew, I was hoping to inscribe a memory that would undo official national memorialization, and insert the quotidian negotiations of Arabic/Hebrew. Writing on the Arab-Jew was also an attempt to resist “the last of the Mohicans” syndrome. Perhaps my reflections on our displacement have been no more than a monument to my parents and grandparents who have lived in between hostile zones, a fragmented testimony not simply to the raw facts, but also to the labyrynthian intricacies of emotions. My words were meant to speak for a generation whose dreams were muted and mutilated by the everyday demands of hyphenated realities. Writing as an act of re-membrance has helped me construct a kind of portable shrine for those taboo memories, while also framing a reluctant eulogy lest the memories completely fade away.

‪[This text is an edited version of a presentation given on 13 October 2012, as part of The Serpentine Gallery’s Memory Marathon.]

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