When news came from a friend in Abu Dhabi that our mutual friend Shimon Ballas had passed on, a flurry of e-mails and calls followed from Beirut, Cairo, the Gulf, Tel Aviv, Paris, London, and the United States. Though not at all well enough known for his extraordinary literary work, such were the far-flung ties of friendship and admiration that Shimon had.
Born in Baghdad in 1930, Ballas came to Israel in 1951 in what was, essentially, a forced emigration. He had already been involved, from the age of sixteen, with the Communist Party in Iraq and had just gotten news about a scholarship to study at the Sorbonne in France but, as Iraq ripped apart, it was too late—there was no choice for him but to leave for Israel.
He did finally get to the Sorbonne, more than twenty years later, where he wrote his doctorate under the supervision of Maxime Rodinson, the great Jewish anti-Zionist orientalist, a scholar of enormous stature. This became Arab Literature Under Shadow of War, one of more than twenty books, mainly novels, but also scholarly studies, and translations from Arabic into Hebrew. While Paris has figured largely in a number of his novels, one feels—at this remove—tremendous regret at the enormity of historical loss involved, just in that period alone. Shimon’s relationship to Rodinson, for example, and the ex-patriate community of Middle Easterners in Paris at the time, forms a crucial chapter in twentieth-century cultural and political history but is hardly recorded anywhere.
It is this quality of singular historical memory, I think, that haunts me more and more as I think of my dear friend Shimon, and just how much of the past we have lost and are in the continuous process of losing. As we offload more and more onto digital platforms, as if to somehow cordon off the enormity of it all, we are less and less able to perform the essential task of human transmission, of moving memory and experience from one person to another in order to enact new worlds built on old ones. One cannot help but think of major cultural transmission in this way: figures like Aristotle, al-Hariri, Chaucer, Cervantes, Pound, and so many others, understood that they lived at radical historical ruptures and that their job was to gather fragments of the past and present them in ways that could live on in new forms.
I feel humbled and lucky to have had the opportunity to spend time with Shimon, as a fellow writer, as a politically conscious activist and, most importantly, as a friend. But I want to emphasize—especially for younger people and particularly as my work over the past several decades has involved so much archival work with some of our great elders in the United States—that I took the time to be with Shimon, to read his work, and come to understand his world. I did this not just because we felt an affinity for each other as people but because I understood how important he was and how much particular history he carried. These are the threads that hold our world together, and they unravel unless we each act to find ways to reconnect them.
Ballas switched to Hebrew as his literary language, publishing Transit Camp in 1964, the first novel to openly depict the trauma of Arab Jewish refugees forcibly displaced to Israel. This would be the beginning of a life in writing in which he was either ignored, dismissed as a “protest” writer, or vehemently criticized for thinking he was “an Arab,” though, as he once said, “of course I am an Arab, where do they think Iraq is, on the moon?” His response to finally being mentioned in an official history of Israeli literature as someone whose main cause for writing was the “bad treatment” he supposedly received at the hands of the state, resulted in a short text called “Rehabilitation or Libel.” This text remains, for me, one of the great anti-racist responses ever written, because it gets to the heart of the problem. Besides discriminatory, degrading and, ultimately life-shortening or life-ending policies and practices, racism involves the arrogance of thinking that people unlike oneself have no agency and cannot act on their own.
I met Shimon in either the late 1970s or the early 1980s and we became very good friends, seeing each other when we could and corresponding across continents when we could not. Somewhere, I have all the letters he wrote to me and, I would hope, efforts to archive his own papers are underway. Eventually, my letters to him might be found there. That too is a piece of history. He lived between Tel Aviv and Paris, where he did most of his writing. But the happiest I had ever seen him was in Cairo, among people speaking his language. We found ourselves involved in various political movements and activities over the years, from grass roots initiatives to major international gatherings in the 1980s with the then outlawed PLO. Throughout, I was always taken by Shimon’s manner, his ability to absorb events and situations with a combination of humility and wisdom that never lost sight of his own worth and stature as a thinker and writer.
In 1998, in a very courageous move mainly organized by a close friend, the great Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury, Shimon and I were among a group invited to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba (the catastrophe) in Beirut, and specifically consider the impact of the Jewish transfer out of the Arab world and its contemporary meaning. After various threats from a neighboring country much involved in Lebanon’s internal affairs, we were told our safety could not be assured and were advised not to come. But the threats backfired: our words and images were presented, with empty seats representing us, and what might have passed as a more ordinary event found itself densely packed with people, with Palestinians coming from the local camps to be present in order to “hear” our absence. Despite not actually being able to get to Beirut, I have never been more honored by an invitation. As some kind of return gesture, not long after September 11, in 2002, before the invasion of Iraq, I arranged a historic event at New York University, with Shimon, the great Spanish novelist and essayist Juan Goytisolo (then living mainly in Morocco), and Elias Khoury. It was our version of al-Andalus, a wedge against the drumbeats of war. And we also drew a great crowd, for what it was worth…
Shimon Ballas brought the contemporary Hebrew novel out of its closed nationalist and narcissistic circle; this was true on both the external political, historical, and social plane as well as through the psychological imaginary of the internal lives of his characters. A glimpse of Ballas’s extraordinary imaginary and political clarity can be seen in the highly recommended Forget Baghdad, a remarkable film by Swiss-Iraqi director Samir, depicting the lives of several prominent Iraqi Jewish writers and political activists. Translation of his work into both English and French met fierce and even organized resistance, the only exception being my co-translation with Oz Shelach of Outcast, published by City Lights in 2005, and texts that appear in my anthology Keys to the Garden, published by City Lights in 1996. This included his sui generis novella Iyya, truly a masterpiece, in which Ballas flipped the tale of exile around, telling the story of an old Muslim woman who remained in Baghdad, bereft at the departure of a Jewish family that had, for all intents and purposes, adopted her.
At some point, Shimon Ballas will be seen as one of the contemporary Middle East’s most important and innovative novelists, not because he created some new form, but because he depicted lives no one else even imagined could exist, living in worlds no one would think possible. I cannot overemphasize this last point because it has so much to do with the breadth of Shimon’s humanity. When I say that the lives and characters depicted in his novels are unimaginable, this is literally true—due to racist attitudes, narrowness of vision, lack of imagination or experience, the society in which his books were received had a difficult if not impossible time accepting the existence of the people he wrote about.
This, of course, has always been the most difficult job for a novelist, to actually create a world that posits the existence of the people in it, and it is, unquestionably, a world-changing form of work. It is worthwhile here to quote, in full, Elias Khoury’s commentary:
Reading Shimon Ballas is a journey into the unknown part of the picture. This Iraqi writer who immigrated to Israel when he was a young man represents in his writing the none said in modern Hebrew literature. For the Palestinian victims who became a minority in their homeland, he is one of them, as he is the unspoken voice of conscience for Israeli Jews. This combination has made Ballas’s voice unique in Middle Eastern writing, and completely outside the framework of the official political, biographical, and creative life of contemporary Israel. Reading this literature has been a way for me to discover my mirror and recover the other half of my soul.
If we follow the personal impact of Khoury’s logic further, we would be on the wrong track thinking about Shimon’s work only in its local manifestation. While resistance to accept his world unquestionably has local roots—in Israeli literary culture—it has also significantly impacted his reception outside that sphere. And while we always have to begin with the local, I would suggest that once Shimon’s prominence in the regional sphere is more firmly established, his importance on the world imaginary plane will become self-evident. I would also suggest that we begin thinking about the full range of his oeuvre as part of a world that he created, and then continue thinking about that world in relation to the worlds other great novelists have created. One can only hope that such a labor of love might be taken up by a student somewhere, in a full-length study that could begin the so necessary work of mapping that still needs to be done in order to make that world created by Shimon more visible. Without such guidance, we renounce so much power that is rightfully ours and give up our legitimate rights of inheritance. While this gathering is a hopeful sign, we must find ways to keep working toward revealing the full scope of the treasure left us by our dear friend Shimon Ballas.
October 2019—July 2020