The Gifts of Jewish Arabists — and Arab Jews

The history and linguistics of the Middle East owe a sizable debt to Hebraic minority

Share
The Gifts of Jewish Arabists — and Arab Jews
A Hanukkah menorah inside the renovated Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue, the larger of two in the coastal city of Alexandria, after it was reopened following three years of restoration works/ Egypt/Samer Abdallah/picture alliance via Getty Images

“No doubt, Allah will help me,” a young woman wrote in a postcard to her mentor from on board a ship. “I’ve believed that ever since I had the fortune to meet one of his friends.”

The woman expressing her strong faith in divine deliverance was not a Muslim. She was a 27-year-old German Jewish Arabist and scholar of Islam named Hedwig Klein. It was Aug. 21, 1939, and Klein was aboard a steamer destined for the relatively safe haven of British-controlled India.

This fascination and interest in Islam were popular among European Jewish intellectuals of the time.

“To this day, I do not know whence this feeling came nor how to explain it,” admitted Lev Nussimbaum, a Jewish Orientalist and contemporary of Klein who converted to Islam as a young man. “I do know that throughout my entire childhood, I dreamed of the Arabic edifices every night. I do know that it was the most powerful, most formative feeling of my life.”

This Islamophilia contrasts sharply with today’s mainstream, Western attitude of a Judeo-Christian civilizational continuum that excludes Islam. Romantically, and sometimes desperately, Europe’s Jews oriented their souls eastward in the hope of finding salvation from the toxic antisemitism of the time, with many believing there was a natural affinity between Judaism and Islam.

This zeitgeist of finding pride in Europe’s othering of its Jewish minority was embodied in Benjamin Disraeli’s description of Jews as “Mosaic Arabs.” Despite his conversion to Anglicanism at the age of 12, Queen Victoria’s favorite prime minister had immense pride in his Jewish roots and subverted the race theories in vogue at the time by claiming that Jews were in fact the superior race.

“Yes, I am a Jew,” he once responded to an MP during a heated debate in parliament. “While the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.”

Sadly for Klein, who was the subject of two compelling features on the German website Qantara.de, her faith in God saving her proved unfounded. The ship to India, which was temporarily docked in Antwerp, was ordered to return to Hamburg. The noose of Nazi persecution was tightening around the young academic’s life.

However, Klein’s passion for the East would save her, at least for a time. Her knowledge of Arabic gave her a second chance to escape the lurking prospect of extermination. But there was a catch. The young scholar, whose life’s dream had once been the modest ambition of becoming an academic librarian, would have to plunge deep into the belly of the beast and work for the Nazis.

Her former professor who supervised her doctoral dissertation, Arthur Schaade, intervened to get her employed on a project to develop a revolutionary Arabic-German dictionary based on modern usage rather than classical sources, which was being bankrolled by the Federal Foreign Office.

Why would the Nazis be interested in producing an Arabic dictionary at the very height of an all-consuming war?

For propaganda purposes. But also for vanity — that of the Führer. The German government was desperate to produce a decent Arabic translation of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” and hoped this experimental dictionary would prove invaluable for this project.

I can only begin to imagine the conflicted emotions and terror that Klein, who was by this time forced to wear the yellow star of David, almost certainly experienced. It must have felt like a cruel blow of fate for a young Jew who had been stripped of her rights and her academic credentials to work on an academic project whose ultimate aim was to glorify her tormentors and persecutors.

But Klein set to work meticulously and methodically. She voraciously read modern Arabic literature and newspapers, noting down the words used and their meanings.

Although the quality of her entries was praised by the team compiling the dictionary, her efforts ultimately proved in vain. On July 11, 1942, Klein was deported to Auschwitz, where she died at the hands of Nazi persecution.

Fortunately for humanity, no authorized Arabic translation of Hitler’s hateful opus appeared, though some unofficial versions were produced.

The dictionary, too, was only published after the war. The English translation of the dictionary, The Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, went on to become the world’s most popular companion of foreign students of Arabic and Arabists. Very few of them, however, are aware of this cruel backstory and that Hans Wehr, the man who led the dictionary project, was an ideological Nazi and full member of the Nazi party.

Wehr effectively exploited Klein twice over: to profit from her labor before she was exterminated and after the war to abuse her memory to downplay his Nazi past and evade justice before a denazification commission by claiming he saved Klein “from transportation to Theresienstadt (sic) in 1941.” I believe that this must be rectified by giving Klein proper recognition for her work and by publishing Hans Wehr’s sordid backstory in future editions of the dictionary.

Nussimbaum was more fortunate than Klein. Like her, Nussimbaum was also a Jew on the run. The son of a wealthy oil magnate from Tbilisi (formerly Tiflis) who made his fortune in what was then the world’s oil capital, Baku in Azerbaijan, Nussimbaum had fled the Bolshevik revolution in the Russian empire, moving between Constantinople (now Istanbul), Paris, Weimar-era Berlin, and other places.

During his journey, he assumed the identity of the flamboyant Essad Bey, a pseudonym under which he published prolifically. Under the nom de plume Kurban Said, Nussimbaum may also have authored or co-authored “Ali and Nino,” a kind of “Romeo and Juliet” or “Layla and Majnun,” set in Baku, which is today widely regarded as the modern classic of Azerbaijan.

Some doubted the sincerity of Nussimbaum’s conversion to Islam, partly because he “carries no prayer rug; he fails to salute Mecca when he prays … eats pigs and drinks wine,” in the words of one newspaper report, and his apparently poor knowledge of Islam. But if not praying, drinking, and poor knowledge of Islam disqualify people from being Muslim, then millions of born Muslims would not make the grade either.

Nussimbaum’s conversion to Islam appears to have saved his bacon, as it were, from the Nazis, whose murderous persecution drives did not include Muslims. Unlike Klein, Nussimbaum did not attempt to flee Europe during the war. Instead, he hid in plain sight.

As Essad Bey, he moved to fascist Italy after Germany annexed Austria. There, he did not breathe a word about his Jewish roots and even had the chutzpah to lobby, albeit unsuccessfully, to become Benito Mussolini’s official biographer. Nevertheless, he passed away before war’s end at the young age of 36 due to a rare illness, probably Buerger’s disease, which we now know afflicts Ashkenazi men.

While many European Jews regarded themselves as honorary “Orientals” or “Arabs,” there were (and still are) Jews who were indeed Arabs. In fact, Middle Eastern Jews played an active role in the formation of modern Arab identity and nationalism.

A good example of this was Yaqub Sanu. Though almost forgotten today, in the 19th century Sanu played an influential role in establishing Egypt’s modern theater and helped shape its nascent nationalist movement.

The native wit and satirist set up one of the country’s first underground, anti-imperialist, and anti-regime publications, Abu Naddara Zarqa (“The Man in the Blue Glasses”) — which he continued to publish from exile in France and smuggle into Egypt. Sanu was also possibly the creator of the quintessential ibn al-balad (son of the country) character who stood for native virtue and the anti-imperial and class struggle.

Another colorful and devoted Egyptian Jewish revolutionary, this time from the 20th century, was Henri Curiel. A man of contrasts, Curiel was an ibn al-balad — even in his exile in France after he had been stripped of his Egyptian nationality — but, like many in the elite, he spoke poor Arabic. He was the son of a wealthy banker but founded the Egyptian communist movement and supported liberation struggles around the world, which likely led to his unsolved assassination in Paris in May 1978.

Arab Jews were also disproportionately active in the communist movement in other countries, such as Iraq. Jewish communists in Iraq even founded the country’s Anti-Zionist League in 1945.

This Arab Jewish interest in communism is unsurprising. As was the case with European Jews, many Jews in the Middle East, faced as they were with many forms of prejudice, were drawn to communism’s promise, if not reality, to build an equal society for all.

This was the case for Sami Michael (born Kamal Shalah), the acclaimed Iraqi Israeli writer, who once said that Iraqi Jews “felt even more Arab than Arabs. … We did not feel we belonged to a place but that the place belonged to us.” He joined the Communist Party in Baghdad as a teenager out of a desire to turn that feeling of belonging into a reality of equality.

Beyond the realm of politics, Arab Jews played active roles in the cultural life of their societies. Although Arabs still recall such leading silver screen luminaries as Leila Murad and music composer Dawood Hosni, others famed in their day have been largely forgotten.

Take Togo Mizrahi (born Joseph Elie), the innovative filmmaker and one of the founding fathers of Egyptian cinema, who also directed several films starring Murad.

As Jewish actors and filmmakers were being barred by Hitler and fleeing Nazi Germany, Mizrahi made numerous films that not only starred Jews but also had Jewish protagonists and main characters — something that was rare, if not unheard of, in 1930s Hollywood.

One recurring character in Mizrahi’s socially conscious, inclusive films was Shalom, a Jewish ibn al-balad, who often appeared alongside his Muslim friend Abdu, in rags-to-riches-back-to-rags comic stories of lower-class resourcefulness.

The bubbling Arab-Israeli conflict, and the anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic sentiments it evoked, brought Mizrahi’s world and gradually that of Egypt’s Jews crashing down. Unfounded rumors began to circulate in 1946 that he was a Zionist collaborator.

After the first Arab-Israeli War and Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948, Mizrahi “saw that the situation had begun to deteriorate for Jews,” in the words of Jacques Mizart, his nephew, “and since he had developed relations with a number of Italian directors, he decided to go live in Rome.”

Having the luxury of Italian nationality, Mizrahi, unintentionally echoing Nussimbaum, gradually relocated his life to Italy, which had become safer for Jews after the war, while Egypt had become more dangerous. He left his film production company in the hands of Mizart until it was nationalized and liquidated in the 1960s. However, his heart remained in Egypt: He kept abreast of the latest developments in Egyptian cinema, hung posters of his old films on his office walls, and his letterhead carried the addresses of his studios in Alexandria and Cairo.

Despite the hatred and animosity created by the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the rampant scapegoating of local Jews that occurred across the Arab world, some Arab Jews continued to feel and express pride in their heritage and act as unofficial ambassadors between two worlds at war.

One such figure was the late Sasson Somekh, the Iraqi Israeli poet, writer, academic, and translator. Somekh had been a promising teen poet and leftist political activist in Baghdad, frequenting the city’s vibrant cultural cafes.

“I recall the Tigris river where we used to go swimming in the summer. When the water level fell, small islands, which were known as jazra, would appear,” Somekh told me when I visited him at Tel Aviv University, where he was still allowed to keep an office despite having officially retired. “We would take a boat, load it up with fish and a grill, and go out to one of those small islands and have a good time — those were the most enjoyable days of my life.”

The Baghdad that Somekh recalls from his youth was in some ways a very Jewish city. “When you walked down the main street, al-Rashid, which went from one end of Baghdad to the other,” he recounted, “half the names on the shops and offices, such as lawyers’ practices, were Jewish.”

But a mix of popular anger at the Zionist project in Palestine, which was deftly exploited by Nazi propaganda during the war to spread a virile brand of antisemitism, made life progressively untenable for Iraq’s Jews. This forced Somekh’s family, along with the vast majority of Iraq’s Jewish minority, to depart the country in 1951, stripped of everything but the clothes on their backs.

After a life of comfort in Iraq, the Somekhs found themselves, like the Palestinians who were forced to flee during the 1948 war, stuck in impoverished refugee camps. Caught between the racism and persecution they had experienced in their homelands and the racism and marginalization they experienced from Ashkenazi, or “European,” Jews in Israel, many Arab Jews quickly jettisoned their Arab identities in a bid to integrate in their new homes.

Somekh, who passed away in 2019, was among the minority who resisted this zero-sum identity game. He continued to identify as Arab as well as Israeli, write in Arabic, and dedicate his life to the study of Arabic literature.

“Literature is literature. Politics does not enter into it,” he insisted to me when I first met him in 2012. “This doesn’t concern me. This is a secondary issue for me and for literary creativity.”

Somekh’s fascination with Arabic literature stretched beyond Iraq’s borders. He developed a passion for Egypt, too, and became perhaps the world’s leading authority on Naguib Mahfouz.

Our first encounter was even themed around Mahfouz. Somekh invited me to spend “half a day” with him, in a witty allusion to a little-known short story, which I was unaware of, by Mahfouz. Penned in the latter years of his prolific career, this allegorical tale relates the events of just half a day in which the narrator enters the school gate for the first time as a young boy in the morning and emerges as an old man in the afternoon.

“How could all this have happened in half a day, between early morning and sunset?” the elderly narrator of Mahfouz’s story asks, perplexed.

I wondered the same, as this sharp-witted tortoise of a man, slow of body but swift of mind, snailed through time and space to take me on a riveting journey from the contemporary Israel of his silver years, back to the disappeared world of his youth.

Somekh’s research helped bring the legendary Egyptian writer, who was at the time virtually unknown outside the Arab world, to international attention, including that of the Nobel committee who reportedly relied on Somekh’s doctoral dissertation when awarding Mahfouz the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Intellectual interest soon blossomed into an improbable and controversial (given the Arab boycott of Israel) friendship between the Egyptian writer and his Israeli literary critic. The two men maintained correspondence for years. “Our two peoples knew extraordinary partnership,” Mahfouz once confided in Somekh. “I dream of the day when, thanks to the co-operation between us, this region will become a home overflowing with the light of science, blessed by the highest principles of heaven.”

After the signing of the Camp David Accords, Somekh fulfilled a longtime dream of first visiting and later moving to Egypt and meeting his literary idol. “To be in Cairo and to watch the waves of the Nile — this was a childhood dream come true,” the Tigris-loving Somekh wrote in the second volume of his memoirs.

The teeming metropolis’s neighborhoods, people, and streets, which he had long occupied in their paper form, suddenly jumped out of the page and took on a vivid, dynamic, three-dimensional reality. “My emotional connection with the city went many decades back,” he wrote.

And to make the emotional connection a physical one, Somekh determined that one of his first acts would be to walk the streets he had followed on a map and imagined while intensively studying Mahfouz’s works. “I will visit these places and see them with my own eyes at long last,” he resolved on his first night in his hotel.

The Iraqi Israeli academic told me of the overwhelming joy of coming face-to-face with his literary hero, the intellectual salons he attended with Mahfouz and the likes of Ali Salem, and the long conversations they had. He was also full of nothing but praise for the Egyptian laureate’s kindness, gentleness, humility, and humanity.

Somekh was fond of dramatically referring to himself as the “last Arab Jew” because his generation is the last one to remember clearly what it was like to live in peace among Arab neighbors and to speak Arabic as a native tongue.

However, what Somekh’s pessimistic view overlooks is the younger generation of Mizrahi, or Arab and Middle Eastern, Jews who have been striving to reclaim their heritage and who have discovered renewed pride in their culture and music. Some Iraqi Jews have even been demanding the restoration of their citizenship. While possibly most young Mizrahi share their elders’ distrust of and hatred toward the Arab world, some have been striving to reconnect with the societies from which their grandparents were so tragically and traumatically ejected.

Given the sparsity of common ground on which to meet on their home turf, this reconnection often occurs on neutral territory, far away from the seismic fault lines of the Middle East. Surprisingly perhaps, given its former role in stoking Arab hatred toward Jews, Berlin has emerged, in addition to its rising status as a cultural center for Arab exiles, as a major hub for this cultural reacquaintance.

“There’s something very beautiful here in Berlin when I can meet Arabs and do literary evenings and literary events with them,” Mati Shemoelof, a Berlin-based Israeli poet and journalist with Iraqi roots, told me.

Although the Jewish fabric of the Middle East has been torn almost beyond repair, and the candle of Jewish life has been almost completely snuffed out, there are some brave souls who work hard to preserve and even restore some of it.

Where it has been possible, a courageous few have migrated in the opposite direction to their grandparents or parents. One is artist Rafram Chaddad, who moved from Israel to set himself up in his ancestral Tunisia, where he still had a smattering of family. When I lived in Tunis, Chaddad kindly introduced me to the city’s Jewish community and heritage.

A chef as well as an artist, Chaddad often organizes events to mark Jewish holidays to which he invites multifaith groups to partake. One such event that I attended was a sumptuous Passover Seder, a Jewish ritual meal, in a beautifully restored dar, a traditional Tunisian house, in the old city of Tunis.

Commendable and necessary as these piecemeal efforts are, they can do little to turn the tide on decades of hostility and erasure. This was driven home to me with the recent death of Albert Arie, one of the hundred or so Egyptian Jews still living in the country, who had made it his life’s mission to preserve the history and heritage of Egypt’s vanishing Jewish community.

“Today, there are only a few elderly and a couple of middle-aged people, and this will all be gone in a matter of a very few decades,” Arie said in an interview back in 2015. “The thing to do now is to make sure that the history of Egyptian Jews, which is basically part of the history of Egypt, should be well-documented and their monuments should be preserved so that maybe one day the full story will be accurately told, away from the purposes of political propaganda or commercial gains.”

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy