[Marxism] Mizrahi Wanderings: Nancy Harker on Samir Naqqash

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at osu.edu
Sun Feb 8 21:52:32 MST 2004

*****   New Left Review 25, January-February 2004

Samir Naqqash is a leading Israeli novelist who writes only in his 
mother tongue: Arabic. Born into a Jewish family in Baghdad in 1938, 
he was a youthful witness to the turbulent period of Iraqi struggles 
against the British puppet government, led by Nuri Said. Iraqi Jews 
were by far the largest and most prosperous indigenous Jewish 
community in the Middle East at the time and played a significant 
role in the cultural, social and political life of the region. They 
were also, for the most part, staunchly anti-Zionist. Despite ongoing 
agitation for immigration to Mandate Palestine, the Iraqi Communist 
Party was a much stronger pole of attraction than the underground 
Zionist Hehalutz. 'Iraqi patriotism', as well as a notion of the 
Soviet Union as a bulwark against Nazism, were common Jewish motives 
for joining the ICP. In November 1947 the General Council of the 
Iraqi Jewish community sent a telegram to the UN General Assembly 
opposing the partition of Palestine and the creation of a Jewish 
state. On the urging of its own Jewish members, the ICP issued an 
official protest against the Soviet Union's vote for the 
establishment of Israel at the un Security Council -- the only Arab 
Communist Party to do so.

Pressures on the community increased in 1950 when Nuri Said, working 
in tandem with the Zionist Agency and with London's full backing, 
instituted a voluntary 'denaturalization' programme for Iraqi Jews 
that would strip them of their nationality, citizenship and property 
rights, and give them twelve months to leave the country. The initial 
take-up for this programme was around 12,000, even though the Zionist 
Agency gave assurances that, so long as they could provide 
documentation, the Jews would be compensated for their confiscated 
assets once in Israel. During the course of 1950, however, a spate of 
grenade attacks near Jewish cafés and public places in Baghdad 
resulted in an increase of applicants for denaturalization to over 
120,000. To this day it is not clear who was behind the terror.

The thirteen-year-old Samir Naqqash and his family were among the 
Iraqi Jews transported to Israel in the 1951 airlift and subsequently 
housed in makeshift transit camps, together with immigrants from 
other Arab countries. Instead of the promised compensation, their 
carefully preserved bills and deeds were used as an excuse by the 
Israeli government to deny the Palestinians' countervailing rights to 
property confiscated by the infant state in 1949. (In 1952, when news 
came that two leaders of the remaining Zionist movement in Iraq had 
been hanged on charges of terrorism, the reaction of many Iraqi Jews 
in the camps was, according to a ministerial report of the time: 
'God's revenge on the movement that brought us to such depths!') The 
Labour Zionist elite combined European prejudices as to Arab 
inferiority with the strategic need, as they saw it, to populate the 
land of Israel with Jews. Their co-religionists, 'rediscovered' in 
Arab lands after the Judeocide had drastically reduced the pool of 
potential European immigrants, were treated as purely demographic 
material. As an Israeli emissary to Libya reported, the Jews there 
were 'handsome as far as physique and outward appearance are 
concerned, but I found it very hard to tell them apart from the good 
quality Arab type'. Arab Jews were deployed as construction workers 
-- literally, 'builders of Israel' -- and subjected to strategic 
settlement and re-education plans by the newly entrenched European 
Zionist elite. The young Naqqash received a Hebrew education -- a 
language he speaks very well. Yet his stories -- the first of five 
collections appeared in 1971 -- and subsequent novels and plays are 
defiantly written in his native tongue.

Naqqash's latest novel, his fifth, Shlomo Alkurdi, Myself and Time, 
is published this month by the independent Manshurat Aljamal press, a 
small Arab-language publishing house run by Iraqi exiles in Cologne. 
One of Israel's foremost living novelists, his work is barely visible 
in that country and only one story has been translated (by his sister 
Ruth) into Hebrew. In true postmodern style, Shlomo Alkurdi begins at 
the end; but the themes and feelings of the novel are unfashionably 
historicized. The year is 1985 and the main character, an elderly 
Eastern Jew, lives in Ramat Gan, a comfortable if dull suburb of Tel 
Aviv, where he devotes himself to his memories. The book's first 
seventy-odd pages consist of an intricately structured recall of the 
main episodes in a life that has spanned Asia Minor, from the Kurdish 
city of Sablakh to Tehran and Baghdad, as well as trips (he was a 
merchant) to Moscow and Bombay; and traversed the century, from the 
First World War to the 1980s' present. Remembrance is worked out 
through two parallel, and complex, sets of conversations: one with 
Shlomo Kattani (later known as Alkurdi), the persona of the 
narrator's younger life; and the other, polite if tough-minded, with 
Time, called upon to assist in recording these memories.

'So ends the story', says the dying -- perhaps dead -- Shlomo, 
towards the conclusion of this opening section. 'On the contrary', 
replies Time. 'It starts now.' The two argue back and forth until 
Shlomo finally concedes: 'Let matters occur as they wish to occur.' 
The voice of Time echoes in his head: 'Alright. Let matters occur as 
they wish.'

What follows is a vivid, more-than-realist account -- Time is 
instructed to omit not so much as 'an atom of cigarette ash' -- of 
Shlomo Kattani's business, love and family affairs in Sablakh, 200 
miles north of Baghdad, during the First World War. The themes of 
time, cosmology and civilization recur, often cast as the 
metaphysical speculations of those confronted with the unfathomable 
social cruelty of the modern world. As distinct from the real 
maravilloso that has been seen as the stuff of Latin American 
literature, Naqqash's aesthetic draws on a 'terrible reality' -- in 
Arabic, waqi' rahib -- in his narrative fictions of Asia Minor and 
the Middle East. . . .

[THe full text of the article is available at 
<http://www.newleftreview.net/NLR25908.shtml> and 
<http://www.newleftreview.net/PDFarticles/NLR25908.pdf>.]   *****

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