Finding my roots in Tel Aviv

| י״ט באייר ה׳תשע״ז (15/05/2017) | 0 Comments
Raised in England by Iraqi Jewish parents, Rachel Shabi ‘blanded out’ her family heritage to fit in with her peers. Years later, she has finally learned to embrace her parents’ values and her own rich cultural mix

On television news, Arabs and Jews look as though they’ve been at each other’s throats for ever. Fortunately, there are people around us with longer memories – people who, by the arc of their own lives, prove that this wasn’t always the case.

People such as my parents: Iraqi Jews who migrated to Israel in the early 1950s and to England during the 1970s. My family, just like thousands of other Jewish families, had been at home in Middle Eastern countries for centuries; Jews neighbouring Arabs, co-nationalists living for the most part cordially and in peace. It seemed easy, instinctive and eternal – until it all fell apart.

Recently, I went back to Israel, where I was born, to research the stories of these Jews from Arab countries and find out what happened to them in the Jewish state. I wanted to bring their experiences back into the frame. In the process, I brought my parents, and my own family history, into much sharper focus, too.

If there was a defining moment, it came in a scruffy trade union building in Tel Aviv. A group of Israeli musicians gathers here in a boxy room each week – classically trained performers of a vintage that was adored in their country of birth, Iraq, but whose musical style did not quite fit the tastes of the Jewish state. It’s sort of an all Iraqi-Jewish jam session, although they play a lot of Egyptian classics and the percussionists tap out oriental rhythms on darbukas, tambourines or tabletops. As I sat among them, it dawned on me that my mother – forever clapping an alien-sounding, misfit beat over western music while I was growing up in England – was simply marking out a rhythm that I couldn’t hear. Her clapping retroactively became normal.

By the time my family moved to England, my father had lived in Turkey and France as a student, as well as Iraq and Israel – and had a fair idea of the social values he rated in a country. England ticked the right boxes. My mother had some reservations: wouldn’t it be tough to raise children so far from a sprawling, close-knit family in Israel, whose love and support were surely more important than abstract ideals?

Those reservations about being far from “home” (I was never sure which one – Iraq or Israel) were sometimes nudged by the sort of migrant experiences that were typical of British life in the 1970s. Back then, Britain wasn’t especially interested in my parents being Iraqi, or Israeli, or whatever. Perhaps they were just “foreign” – at any rate, that was how I tended to perceive them as a child. There were long trips in search of pitta bread and long waits for visiting relatives to bring us bottles of amba, the radioactively bright mango pickle that Iraqis seem addicted to. My mum admits that she would go to a pet-food shop for the unhusked sunflower seeds that she’d roast for us to crack open between our teeth as a snack. (“Yes, that’s right, for the budgie,” she’d tell the shopkeeper.)

I didn’t realise then that the seed-cracking was a hallmark oriental habit – or that, in early Israel, public transport operators were so confounded by the carpets of seed husks that lined the buses, courtesy of passengers, that they erected signs to discourage the practice. When I was young, I didn’t know the pet-shop story, either. Had my mum told me then, I’d have been embarrassed, as I was by all things that made me appear “foreign”. A migrant kid, I assumed that blanding out my background would somehow make me more British, whereas all it could possibly achieve was to make me more bland.

I grew up with Arabic (or Judaeo-Arabic) cuisine: Iraqi breakfasts on Saturdays of overnight-boiled eggs, fried eggplants, mango pickle and salad stuffed into pitta pockets; ba’ba beh tamur, homemade date pastries that would surface around the Jewish festival of Purim; slow-cooked marrows that had been carefully emptied and restuffed with fragrant rice, meat and pine nuts; falafels and hummus in my lunchbox. The Arabic language was ever present – because my parents were always speaking it, or quoting parables or bits of poetry in it, or reading Jewish religious texts in Arabic over the Passover table. Arabic music was always in the background at home, either via treasured, battered cassettes or on crackly long-wave. There was never any doubt that Arab culture was an integral part of our Jewish home: respected, enjoyed and admired. But growing up, I wasn’t really into it.

As it turns out, scores of Israeli children were experiencing something similar at that time. Approximately half the population of Israel is from Arab or Muslim countries: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Yemen. Known as Mizrahi (“Eastern”) or Sephardi Jews, they arrived in Israel during various periods following its creation in 1948. Jews of Mizrahi origin were for many years the majority in Israel – until the arrival of just under a million migrants from the former Soviet bloc during the early 1990s reshuffled the ethnic pack. Mizrahis grew up in a Jewish society that was desperate to yoke to Europe and belittled the Arab world as an uncivilised cultural desert. The majority Mizrahis were assumed by the ruling European minority to be bearers of an inferior culture that should not come to represent or define the Jewish state. And, inevitably, many of those Mizrahi children internalised this story.

Interviewing for my book, it was easy to understand the Mizrahis who described how they had spent childhoods faking their own identities – in a country that encouraged its Mizrahi population to ditch those “backward” oriental habits. One professor told me he’d badgered his father into changing the family surname to something that wasn’t a telltale mark of Mizrahi origin, and now feels shame each time he visits his father’s grave and sees the bogus name on the headstone. Another, of Moroccan origin, described how she invented a French persona for herself, forbidding her parents from speaking Arabic or playing oriental music. Others described how they erased their guttural oriental accent: vocals that are integral to Hebrew – a Semitic language, the sister of Arabic, but which Israel decided would be tonally “wrong” for the Jewish state. (I remember how I used to practise my English vowels until they lost the slightest foreign twang.) And these stories repeat so many times over in Israel – recollections of masked origins, buried roots, trashed biographies; blanded-out backgrounds.

This wasn’t uniformly the case. Countless Mizrahis retained their home culture in Israel, often in defiance and against the odds. When their Europeanised co-nationalists pronounced Mizrahi culture to be inferior, some just said: “And who are you, exactly, to decide on that?” Meanwhile, many of those Mizrahis who did sever roots are now trying to reconnect with those forsaken origins – reclaiming their real family names, reinstating the oriental vocals, rediscovering their home culture. Yair Dalal, a world-acclaimed Israeli musician of Iraqi origin, describes a realignment process that occurs when he sends his Mizrahi students home to practise a piece of oriental music. “They come back a week later and say: ‘My dad started to sing the song I was playing.’ And that’s the connection. That person is back on track.”

Getting back on track means that – to my good fortune – I now appreciate more fully my parents’ Iraqi dimension. I’m aware of the irony: that researching a book on how Israel patronised its Mizrahi citizens made me realise how I’d patronised my Mizrahi parents. But, as my good-natured parents might say in Iraqi Arabic: “Ahsan min maku.” (Better than nothing.)

They remain dedicated followers of Iraqi and other Arabic culture in the UK. They shop for favourite foods at Iraqi grocers, chronicling the storekeeper’s arrival in England, lamenting the tragedy of Iraq and raising colourful Arabic curses to the foolish western interference in that country. They remain forlorn at the closure of London’s Kufa gallery, an Iraqi cultural centre that shut down a few years after the second Gulf war. They loved the British Museum’s recent Babylon exhibition and attended many of the related events.

My parents remain absorbed in the small print of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the wider region. They’re connected to and care about Israel – it was home – but still it bugs them, politically and culturally: “Why don’t they pronounce this word properly, as it is written in Hebrew?”; “Why can’t they spell Arabic street signs correctly?”; “Why, in the name of God, do they care so little about the Middle East?”

Happy Englanders, they are equally invested in and committed to British politics and culture – they won’t miss Question Time; they are friends of the Opera House; they are as likely to bemoan politically spineless New Labour policy as they are morally bankrupt Israeli policy. They span these worlds effortlessly, showing how easy it can be to bridge binaries, how seemingly polar opposites – Arab or Jew, east or west – can reside together comfortably in the same space, the same skin.

Rachel Shabi has published a book, Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands (Yale University Press).

Category: Heritage, Israel, Personal History

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