“The colonizers envisioned family trees in which Jewish Arabs became progressively less Arab with each generation, and imposed policies to that effect. The colonized, filled with self-loathing, in turn attempted to distance themselves culturally from the greater mass of indigenous people, who in a new world order were seen as backward and whose identity became shameful.” ~Massoud Hayoun, When We Were Arabs (p. 95)
Massoud Hayoun’s family memoir is an attempt to recapture the Arab identity that was stripped away from him and millions of other Arab Jews. Hayoun, a Los Angeles-based journalist, writes in the introduction that his intention for writing this book is to reclaim his Jewish Arab identity and “to recuperate it as a stolen asset of the Arab world.”(p. 18) From the beginning, Hayoun writes a disclaimer of sorts, stating that his is an origin story, and as such, it has a political agenda.
“I am Arab because it is what I and my parents have been told not to be, for generations, to stop us from living in portentous solidarity with other Arabs.”
For Hayoun, asserting his own Arabness is in itself a political act, one of solidarity and of retaliation: “In large part, I identify as Arab because reclaiming my place in a broader Arab world [. . .] scares our foes who have, for so long, taught us to fight against ourselves,” he writes. “I am an Arab because that is the legacy I inherit [. . . .] My Arabness is cultural. It is African. My Arabness is Jewish. It is also retaliatory. I am Arab because it is what I and my parents have been told not to be, for generations, to stop us from living in portentous solidarity with other Arabs.” (p. 10)
In order to reclaim his Arab origins, culture, history and identity, he narrates the epic story of his grandparents Daida and Oscar’s lives. The saga is moving and engaging. Filled with the sounds, images, and smells of an old Egypt and Tunisia, the book tells us of a long-gone world where Jewish, Muslims, and Christians lived and worked peacefully alongside each other.
Jewish Arabs in Alexandria, where Hayoun’s grandfather was born, celebrated Ramadan with their Muslim friends and even said some Muslim prayers. Muslims partook in Jewish festivities as well. It was considered normal and desirable to participate in the celebrations of one’s neighbors. This calm coexistence, however, came to an end when the British and French colonialists divided their lands, severely fragmenting their peoples into rivaling factions for the colonizers’ benefit and profit.
He expresses a much-justified anger against Europe and the Western world for destroying and erasing a myriad of extremely rich indigenous cultures, dividing its peoples, and generally wreaking havoc all over the Middle East and North Africa.
Hayoun detests all forms of colonialism, including Zionism, and speaks harshly against it. He expresses a much-justified anger against Europe and the Western world for destroying and erasing a myriad of extremely rich indigenous cultures, dividing its peoples, and generally wreaking havoc all over the Middle East and North Africa.
He similarly resents and rebels against the imposition of a European version of history, the replacement of indigenous cultures by the colonizers’ values and ways of life, the devaluation of native cultures, and the mental colonization that tells the colonized that their conquerors are superior.
This colonially imposed self-loathing forces the vanquished to supplant their own ideas, tastes, and values with those of their colonizers, leading to the development of a devotion and love of sorts for the “superior” world of their “masters.” Hayoun describes the process through which a colonized society internalizes the supposed superiority of their invaders much like a Stockholm syndrome victim begins to feel closeness, alliance with, and even “love” for his abductor.
Little by little, and in pervasive ways, the supposed inferiority of the native culture is made clear.
Little by little, and in pervasive ways, the supposed inferiority of the native culture is made clear. Massoud Hayoun’s grandfather Oscar, for instance, began to see the streets of Egyptian cities take European names, especially in rich neighborhoods. Hayoun explains that this served the purpose of keeping the lower-class Egyptians away as they would be unable to navigate the streets in the French language.
Similarly, legal and other important government documents began to be issued in French, allowing the Europeans to read it, but poor Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Egyptians became ostracized in their own society. It was clear, Hayoun writes, that the language used in those courts meant that the justice system in Egypt “did not favor Egyptians.” (p. 100)
The education system also began adopting French as its language. French history and literature replaced Arabic texts and thus, gradually, French became the language of progress and modernity for the upper classes. The Egyptians who spoke French began to be seen as “better” than those who did not.
Emphasizing the perniciousness of colonialism, Hayoun describes that his grandfather Oscar kept a few important artifacts of his school days throughout his many emigrations. Among these, a copy of Les Miserables, purchased in Egypt and printed in France, survived. Oscar had read the book in school as a child. Hebrew books, Arabic books, and Jewish prayer books failed to endure Oscar’s travels. But Les Miserables was elevated by Oscar above all the other books.
Massoud Hayoun notes the irony of an Egyptian child valuing a book about the individual lives that sparked the French revolution over those covering subjects that related to his actual life, beliefs, people, and country. Hayoun perceptively notes that despite the fact that the French revolution did nothing to affect the personal liberties of Jewish Arabs, the reader “is meant to read what transpires as universally relatable. French education in Egypt, as in Daida’s Tunis and elsewhere, taught French history not in addition to but instead of local or Arab world history.” (p. 104) This observation encapsulates the dynamics of colonialism perfectly.
Using memory to counteract the violent erasure that colonizers inflict, he tells a fascinating tale that has rarely been told: the story of the Arabness of his Jewish grandparents.
The colonizers impose forgetting upon the colonized. They force them to forget who they are, where they come from, and what their values are. Hayoun protests against this cruel amnesia. Using memory to counteract the violent erasure that colonizers inflict, he tells a fascinating tale that has rarely been told: the story of the Arabness of his Jewish grandparents.
Hayoun asserts that forgetting their Arabness was not a deliberate choice for Daida and Oscar, as it wasn’t for many other middle and upper-class Arabs of all religious backgrounds. The Arab identity was systematically distorted, demonized, and all but destroyed by colonialism, and those who refused to forget paid a heavy price. Hayoun explains that Jewish Arabs who clung to their country of origin, such as Egypt, Morocco, or Tunisia in the case of his ancestors, faced prison and exile.
The colonizers were successful for today it is exceedingly rare to see these two seemingly contradictory identities – “Jewish Arab” – in one phrase. Instead, they are always used in antagonistic ways, one against the other. Hayoun, however, much like Mahmoud Darwish, firmly believes that memory “can subvert colonial authority, it can frighten the colonizers because it allows us to reconfigure this miserable world we live in now, depose the white supremacist, topple his statue in the public square, and approach the European sector with open eyes, ready to disassemble empire.” (p. 98)
When We Were Arabs, Hayoun’s successful project of subversion through remembrance, is a compelling and highly recommended read.
Hayoun, Massoud, When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History. New York, NY: The New Press, 2019