Jews and Muslims: a Middle Eastern love story?

Jews and Muslims: a Middle Eastern love story?

Sarah Irving

The Paris attacks and Binyamin Netanyahu’s use of them to encourage European Jews to find ‘refuge’ in Israel; charges of anti-Semitism against the leaders of Islamic nations, especially Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmedinajad; the poisonous rhetoric of Daesh propagandists against anyone who doesn’t conform to their puritanical version of Islam. All of these worrying and violent currents in our contemporary world conjure up hideous spectres, particularly in the European context. Europe’s own bloody history provides a framework in which it is tempting, and easy, to locate anti-Jewish sentiment: pogroms and the Holocaust on the edges of living memory; older histories of expulsions and massacres, from fifteenth-century Catholic Spain, to the massacre at Clifford’s Tower in medieval York.

But how good a fit is this framework for understanding the place of Jews, Judaism and Jewishness in relation to the modern Middle East and events and discourses there?

There are plenty of accounts of Muslim-Jewish co-existence and affinity. The best known are probably the (often sentimental and nostalgic) histories of cultural richness and social amity in medieval Andalusia and Baghdad. Whilst some of these spill into ideology rather than history, more recent and rigorous examples – such as those from historians and anthropologists like Aomar Boum (on Morocco), Joel Beinin (Egypt) and Aline Schlaepfer (Iraq) – depict functioning societies in which Jews and Arabs (mainly Muslim but also Christians) lived together in as much harmony as can be expected of any mixture of faith or ethnic identities, cross-cut by class and gender.

Whilst this was once a niche area of study, blurring into activism, it is now found in the mainstream. In March 2016, for example, Ethan Katz’s history of Jewish-Muslim relations in North Africa, The Burdens of Brotherhood, won the prestigious David H. Pinkney Prize for French history, having also garnered various Jewish studies awards.

A small but vocal group of writers and campaigners with Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish backgrounds, such as Ella Shohat, Sami Shalom Chetrit and David Shasha, point out that the kind of Muslim-Jewish relations described above are more typical of the Middle Eastern experience than the consistent violence and persecution that European Jews have faced. But do these somewhat esoteric historical debates have anything to say to the current reality of how Jews and Judaism are thought about in the Arab Middle East? A number of news stories and controversies from cultural sectors in the Middle East in recent months shed light on this question.

One example was the furore over the removal, by the Israeli Ministry of Education, of Dorit Rabinyan’s “Gader Haya” (known in English as “Borderlife”) from the Advanced Literature reading list for highschools. Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz quoted the Ministry’s rationale for cutting the book as the tendency of: “Young people of adolescent age… to romanticize and don’t, in many cases, have the systemic vision that includes considerations involving maintaining the national-ethnic identity of the people and the significance of miscegenation.” The book was also deemed to “threaten Jewish identity”.

Miscegenation is defined as: “a mixture of races; especially : marriage, cohabitation, or sexual intercourse between a white person and a member of another race.” The “miscegenation” in this case is the novel’s portrayal of a relationship between a Jewish Israeli woman and a Palestinian/Arab man; the story is based on Rabinyan’s own romance with Palestinian artist Hasan Hourani, who drowned in 2003.

The media reaction to the Ministry’s decision began with the Hebrew press and rapidly spread – via extensive coverage in the English-language section of liberal paper Ha’aretz – into international coverage. Reports appeared in the likes of The Telegraph and the New York Times and, as in the former’s headline, often sensationalised the decision into a full “ban”. Perhaps predictably, within a week of the controversy breaking out, Ha’aretz was reporting that sales of the book had rocketed, with many schools buying it for their shelves and shops selling out. The case highlighted other novels in Hebrew which deal with Arab-Jewish romances, such as Sami Mikhail’s A Trumpet in the Wadi, which depicts a relationship between a Russian Jewish immigrant and a Palestinian woman from Haifa.

Rabinyan was quoted as saying that “By buying my novel [Israeli purchasers] reconfirm their trust and belief in Israel’s liberalism, in Israel’s freedom of choice and speech,” a stance which seems to suggest that not all societies would tolerate such a depiction.

So, what about Arabic literature? At least some Western Islamophobes took to Twitter to claim that no Islamic society would countenance fiction portraying such mixed lovers. My own research suggests otherwise; a list of novels with just such a plot now numbers around fifty, with the earliest examples dating back to 1919 and a sharp rise from the late 1980s. The authors hail from all parts of the Arabic-speaking world – from Yemen to Palestine, Iraq to Morocco – and there are all kinds of plots and settings: happy and unhappy endings, fulfilled and unfulfilled desires, and historical or contemporary backdrops.

To take one instance, The Handsome Jew, a 2009 historical novel by Yemeni writer Ali al-Muqri, tells the tale of Fatima, the daughter of a town mufti, and Salem, a Jewish boy who performs manual labour for her family. Their affair and marriage, conducted via language lessons and book loans, results in explicitly mixed-identity descendants who have to negotiate their complex religious status and at times the hostility of both communities. The Handsome Jew was reviewed fairly widely in the Arabic press, in which the theme was treated with interest but not great surprise. It was also longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, the so-called ‘Arabic Booker’, one of the language’s most prestigious literary awards.

It might be argued that literature is largely an elite affair and thus a poor gauge of public debate. This makes the case of a recent Egyptian ‘Ramadan serial” particularly interesting. It is common for big-budget TV dramas to be screened during the Ramadan month of fasting, and in 2015 one of the biggest was Harat al-Yahud (The Jewish Quarter).

The series is set in a Cairo neighbourhood, a mainstay of classic Egyptian literature by big names such as Naguib Mahfouz and Gamal al-Ghitani, and the serial depicts Jewish families and their relations with wider Egyptian society. Harat al-Yahud was undeniably controversial but not, in the main, for its positive portrayal of the Cairo Jewish community. Rather, commentators objected to narratives about Egyptian-Israeli politics – and clearly differentiated between Arabs/Jews as people and state interactions.

The series comes from an artistic tradition that includes novels of Arab-Jewish love going back at least to the 1960s (Waguih Ghali’s acclaimed Beer in the Snooker Club), with copious recent examples such as Kamal Ruhayyim’s Days in the Diaspora and Diary of a Muslim Jew, Bahaa Abdelmegid’s Saint Theresa and Sleeping with Strangers, Mutaz Fatiha’s Last Jews of Alexandria and Ibrahim Farghali’s Smiles of the Saints. Some of these fictional accounts are nostalgic in tone, recalling a cosmopolitan Egypt that is increasingly found in memoirs and other depictions by scions of elite, often originally European families who left under Nasser. But others engage grittily with the complexities of Jewish-Arab interactions and their social implications.

It is, of course, easy to overstate the place of literary and artistic representations as indicators of social trends and discourses. Iraqi novelist Ali Bader has acknowledged that his depictions of his country’s departed Jewish population were to some extent motivated by a desire to delegitimise and challenge the narratives of Iraq’s Baathist rulers. Other commentators have suggested that it is easy for Arab novelists to tackle the history of their countries’ Jewish communities now that they are no longer present.

And the trenchant critiques of Mizrahi rapper and poet Roy Hasan have highlighted the extent to which ideas about ‘Arab Jews’ are bound up, especially but not exclusively in the Israeli context, with issues of class. Elite, left-wing Ashkenazi Jews find it easier, charges Hasan, to talk about supporting the Palestinian cause than to acknowledge racism and snobbery against working-class Mizrahi ‘Arab’ Jews within Israeli society.

But despite these caveats, the overall pattern is clear. Relationships – romantic, familial, neighbourly – between Muslim and Jews are seen as normal by many, both Muslim and Jewish, in the Middle East. Such interactions are, like all relationships, conflicted, prickly and difficult at times. But to greet them with surprise and confusion is very much to apply the lessons of Europe’s bloody history of anti-Semitism to a region and to cultures where it is a poor fit. Even if we resist the over-romanticised visions of Andalusia and Alexandria (many of which come from Western, not Arab or Jewish, sources) the cultural production of Middle Eastern Jews and Arabs suggests a very different set of possibilities. The ‘West’ would do well to take note.


Sarah Irving is a PhD candidate in Islamic & Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Edinburgh and a writer, translator and editor working primarily on Arabic literature and the Middle East.

Image: By Chesdovi. Chanan Avital and the Jerusalem Boys Choir performing in Djerba, Tunisia, 2007. CC BY-SA 3.0