Swan Song of Iraqi-Jewish Culture
The German anthology's very subheading is consciously confusing: short Arabic prose by Iraqi-Jewish authors in Israel. This long list of linguistic, ethnic, national and religious definitions ultimately enters the realm of the ridiculous, concealing more than it reveals.
The book, edited by Angelika Neuwirth and Nesrine Jamoud, contains five short stories, two by Shalom Darwish and three by Samir Naqqash, a generation younger. Both writers were born in Baghdad, emigrating to Israel in 1950 and 1951.
Following anti-Jewish pogroms in Iraq as early as 1941, the Iraqi Jews were finally regarded as potential enemies after the Israeli state was founded in 1948. Most left the country in a major wave of emigration around 1950.
Jewish-Arab identities: a "disease"?
As authors writing in Arabic, Darwish and Naqqash were regarded as neither fish nor flesh. As the dominant cultural paradigm of the Israeli state only allowed for Israeli literature in Hebrew and negated the existence of Arabic Jewish literature, they reached neither an Arab nor an Israeli readership.
"Both cultural and national systems," says Reuven Snir, a lecturer in Arabic literature at the University of Haifa, "the Muslim-Arabic and the Jewish-Zionist canons, rejected hybrid Arabic-Jewish identities like foreign bodies, now playing a so-called 'pure' Jewish-Zionist identity off against a 'pure' Arabic-Muslim one.
In this scenario, Jewish-Arab culture is a disease that has to be brought under control; the few individuals still infected have to be quarantined for fear of infection."
This, according to Snir, is destroying a tradition going back one and a half millennia "before our very eyes".
Cynicism dulls pain and insanity
Samir Naqqash's writing in particular is so intense in its narration and atmospheric density that it reads like the swan song of this tradition. For the 13-year-old Naqqash, the move to Israel was a traumatic experience. His position as an outsider, which he never gave up throughout his lifetime, is expressed in boundless pessimism. He escapes every sense of light on the horizon through ever-new twists and turns.
His themes are power and its abuse, petty control and the impossibility of escaping it. It is always the strong who win out; all that remains for the weak is to put their quarrel to God, but under modern-day conditions of transcendental homelessness even that has become an empty gesture. In the end, even God is at a loss.
The underlying emotions of this prose are disgust and suffering. It is no coincidence that two of the stories refer to Abu l-Ala al-Ma'arri, the great pessimist of classical Arabic literature. But nevertheless, Naqqash's texts are all but an exercise in cynical nihilism.
Only someone with deep faith can be so disappointed, and only someone with values can feel their lack with such pain. The last remaining dignity and refuge for the weak is insanity.
"Prophecies of an Insane Man in an Accursed City" is the translated title of Naqqash's last collection of short stories, published in 1995, from which the three texts in the anthology are taken.
Courage retains tradition
Naqqash's writing is dark, surreal and always rather sinister. Yet at the same time, its laconic attitude shields his stories from excessive pathos. It is this mixture of the light and the weighty that makes them most interesting, reminiscent of aphorisms in their precision:
"I quickly summed up my weaknesses, until I came close to disappearing." The mood is constantly swinging. At these moments, there are flashes of faint hope between the desperation, and the pessimism seems to conceal some kind of expectation after all. "Whatever happens, everything will disappear, even the madness in the end!"
The translators have tackled the difficult, at times hermetic texts with great linguistic enthusiasm and a good portion of courage. Their tangible élan has done the texts good.
"Entire literatures", Angelika Neuwirth writes in her afterword, "fall into a vacuum" if they do not correspond with the standard criteria of national identities. This book saves at least a small but impressive slice of this almost vanished tradition.
© Qantara.de 2007
Shalom Darwish, Samir Naqqash: Zieh fort aus der Heimat, dem Land deiner Väter... Arabische Kurzprosa irakisch-jüdischer Autoren in Israel. (Leave your home, the land of your fathers... Arab prose Iraqi-Jewish authors in Israel) Edited by Angelika Neuwirth and Nesrine Jamoud. Berlin: Schiler 2007, 122 pp.
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire
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