Arabic as a Jewish Language:
Medieval and Modern1
Part I: From Judeo-Arabic to Arab-Arabic

By Sasson Somekh

The year 1948 marks the beginning of the end of the Jewish communities in the Arab world. The oldest of these diasporas was the earliest to disintegrate and eventually disappear.  It took about two years to airlift the Jews of Iraq, as many as 120,000, to Israel.  It took the other Jewish-Arab communities like the communities of Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and the Maghreb five to ten years to fall apart.  Only in the kingdom of Morocco a number of small Jewish communities survived.

The Jewish-Arab communities have lived and flourished in the Middle East and North Africa since the rise of Islam, and even earlier.   Soon after the seventh century, in which Islam became the ruling religion, the nations which lived in these areas deserted their original languages – Coptic, Aramaic, Berber, etc, adopting Arabic instead.  Most of the people of these countries adopted Islam as their religion also.  However non-Muslim religions such as Christianity and Judaism were allowed to survive under Islam. During the first few centuries, substantial non-Muslim communities were finding ways and means to coexist with the Muslim majority.  In due course, however, these communities were Arabized linguistically and culturally.

Arabic became the spoken language of these Arab Jews.  They used it in their daily lives, in business correspondence and learned matters.  With the exception of liturgy, for which the Jews used Hebrew and Aramaic, Arabic became their main language.  However Jewish children studied Hebrew in their communal schools rather than Arabic.  They therefore had to use the Hebrew alphabet to commit their speech into writing.  The earliest Jewish-Arabic documents that we have, mainly from the Cairo Geniza, were written in the ninth century, in an unsystematic transcription. But by the tenth century, a method was adopted to write Arabic speech in Hebrew characters that mimicked the Arabic writing system.  Arabic consonants, the likes of which did not exist in Hebrew, were provided by the scribes through the use of diacritics and other supra-literal marks.  By the time Sa’adia Gaon (864 – 924) became the intellectual leader of the Jews of Iraq, the Judeo-Arabic system of orthography was fairly universal.  I will return to the question of Judeo-Arabic soon, when I discuss the literary relations between the Jews and their Muslim neighbors. 

The Jews adopted the Arabic language and through it they nurtured their greatest writers and philosophers – Maimonides, Yehuda Halevy (in his prose), Sa’adia Gaon and Moses Ibn Ezra and scores of other great intellectual figures.  Their works were not only written in Arabic, but also followed closely upon the styles, terminologies, and methodologies of their Muslim counterparts. The impact of Arabic literature is equally central in the great poetry written by Judeo-Arabic poets in Muslim Spain and other Arab regions.  Although the Jewish poets in these countries wrote in Biblical Hebrew in the first place, their poetry, in its prosody and poetic style, were produced in the mode of the classical Arabic poetry of the pre-Islamic and Islamic periods.

In their daily life most of the Jews of Arab lands spoke Arabic interspersed by a variety of Hebrew and Aramaic lexical forms.  The same kind of Arabic, with a greater recourse to fusha [written, formal language] was used in the case of ‘literary’ writers.  In the treasure trove we found in the Cairo Geniza, at the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat, a great number of the Arabic texts belong to the ‘daily’ or ‘casual’ type of Arabic, but also hundreds and probably thousands of texts belong to the ‘literary’ category.  This Ben Ezra Geniza, alongside other Geniza finds, showered on us heaps of precious texts ranging from casual letters to poems, from biblical commentaries to philosophical treatises. Most of these documents are housed at the Cambridge University Library, which is giving them loving care. 

The Judeo-Arabic language lived on as a central language in the life of the Judeo-Arabic communities until the end of the nineteenth century.  During the first decades of the twentieth century, the situation changed radically with the establishment of modern schools, where Arabic in Arabic characters, for the first time, was taught, and with the introduction of printing presses and journals run by Jews. In Iraq, for instance, the twentieth century marks the acquisition by Jews of the Arabic language in its written ‘Muslim’ linguistic form in place of Judeo-Arabic.  The first Arabic weekly run by a Jew was al-Misbah [The Lantern] which appeared in Baghdad between the years 1924 and 1929.  It was followed by al-Hasid [The Reaper] which under the editorship of Anwar Shaul turned out to be the foremost Baghdadi weekly in the 1930s (it appeared between the years 1929 – 1938). To a certain extent the same is true of the Jews of other Arab regions.

Although the dominant Jewish community of Egypt, the Rabbanites, opted for French as their main language of communication, the Karaites, a smaller but an established Jewish community who used Arabic throughout, were quick to resort to written Arabic at the turn of the century. Murad Farag, a Karaite poet and lexicographer, launched his first journal, al-Tahdhib [Edification] as early as 1903, and was active in the Egyptian literary and journalistic life, until his death in 1956.  In Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, young Jews learned Arab Arabic as of the beginning of the twentieth century.  We find a somewhat different situation in Yemen and the Maghreb, where the acquisition of Arab Arabic was somewhat slower to take hold. 

Of course, Judeo-Arabic continued to exist in the more traditional learning institutions, but it is possible to conclude that during the first half of the twentieth century, a basic shift occurred from Judeo-Arabic to Arab-Arabic, especially in Iraq.  In the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, a variety of new Jewish poets, novelists and essayists came to the fore. They wrote in Arab-Arabic, and meant their writing to be read by the general Arab reader rather than the Jewish reader. The topics these authors wrote about had little to do with Jewish communal or religious life.  Those topics were avoided in fear that the writers would be looked on as ‘communal’ spokesmen rather than the all-Iraqi, all-Arab udaba' that they strove to become. During this period, authors such as Murad Michael (1906-1986), Anwar Shaul (1904–1984), Meir Basri (1911– 2006), Shalom Darwish (1919–1999), Jacob Bilboul (1920- 2003), and several others joined the ranks of modern Iraqi writers and in many ways they excelled as such.  So much so that the Lebanese writer, Dr. Suhayl Idris, wrote a PhD thesis in the Sorbonne in which he maintained that Shalom Darwish, a Jewish writer who published, in Baghdad, two collections of short stories in the 1940s, was the most accomplished novelist of his time and place.  To be sure, these modern writers are no longer Judeo-Arabic writers because their language stopped using Jewish elements in their literary texts.

During the years 1950 -51, the majority of the Jews of Iraq were airlifted to Israel, where most of them have lived ever since. Other Jewish communities also arrived from Middle Eastern countries to Israel.   These communities gave rise to many important writers who now write in Hebrew.  They include novelists Sami Michael and Shimon Ballas who early in their careers tried to use Arabic, the language of their education, as their literary language.  Others, such as poets Ronny Someck, and Amira Hess, arrived in Israel in their early years.  They therefore write solely in Hebrew, although their Arab-Jewishness is refreshingly evident in their poetry.

However, an unanticipated development occurred in Israel in the 1970s and the 1980s, i.e., three decades after the arrival of the Jews of Iraq. Two very prolific and talented novelists appeared who wrote exclusively in Arabic. The most surprising aspect of this literary phenomenon is that their emergence at that time was not predictable.  In fact, the literary output of each of these two writers was far larger than the entire output of any of the Jewish writers who wrote in Arabic in modern times.  In the 1980s and 1990s, very few Jews who came to Israel from Arab lands continued to use Arabic as a literary language.    Instead, they turned to Hebrew, a language they needed in order to live and prosper in Israel.   The other potential readers of Arabic in Israel, the Palestinian citizens of the Hebrew state, had their own writers and poets (Darwish, Habibi, al-Qassim), and they were not eager to read Arabic literature that was written by non-Palestinians. Therefore these two very accomplished authors were not only the last Arab-Jewish writers in Arabic, but also unfortunately, were writers without a reading public. Their books were published mostly in Israel, often at the authors' expense, and there were hardly a few scores of readers who cared to buy their books.  Worse than that, their works never received the critical attention they deserved.  And only in the last decade, when some of their books reached Iraqi readers outside of Israel, were they lucky enough to hear the enthusiastic comments of some readers and critics.

Let me now turn to these two writers and say a few words about each of them.  They are Isaac Bar-Moshe (1927–2003), and Samir Naqqash (1938–2004). They were both born in Baghdad, from which they came to Israel in 1950.  Bar-Moshe was 23 years old when he arrived in the new country.  In Israel he was employed as a journalist and broadcaster in Arabic.  He managed, in 1968, to be appointed as editor-in-chief of the semi-governmental daily, al-Anba' [News]. Unlike other Iraqi-Jewish writers, he was not active in literary circles until 1972, i.e., a few years after the 1967 War which extended Israeli rule over the West Bank and Gaza.  In that year, 1972, he published, in Jerusalem, his first collection of short stories, Wara’ al-Sur [Behind the Fence].  In subsequent years he came out with no less than ten other short story collections, as well as four autobiographic volumes (1975, 1983, 1988, 2003).  They were all in Arabic.  It goes without saying that his autobiographical books tell the story of his Iraqi background, but the majority of his short stories show less interest in Iraqi, Iraqi-Jewish, or Iraqi-Israeli horizons. 

As evident from the names of his characters, the geographic backgrounds and the language of dialogue, most of Bar-Moshe's stories take place in ‘neutral’ settings, and most of their characters can be Jewish, Arab, or neither.  The structure and topics of many of the stories are 'dialogic', composed in the main of dialogues between two or more characters, or, very often, between two voices emanating from the same psyche, a kind of argument with the self. The topics that are most prominent in his stories are childhood, love and inter-personal relations, with little Jewish-Arab or Arab specificity in them. His last book, Two Days in June, reflecting his memories of 1941 anti-Jewish disturbances in Baghdad, known as the farhood, came out posthumously in 2003. 

Samir Naqqash's literary path is quite different from that of Bar-Moshe.  He was born in Baghdad and arrived in Israel at the age of thirteen. His knowledge of Arabic and Arabic literature, could not have been wide upon his arrival.  Indeed, many youngsters who arrived from Arab countries in their teens soon lost whatever standard Arab they learned at school in the old country.  Before long they became totally Hebraized.  Not Samir Naqqash!  He was determined to master the literary Arabic in full (on top of the colloquial Arabic he spoke at home), and to read as many Arabic books as humanly possible.   He began to write in Arabic and Arabic only, at an early age, although he had very little opportunity to publish before he reached his mid-thirties.  His first collection of short stories, al-Khata  [The Mistake] was self-published in 1971.  In subsequent years he published as many as twelve books, containing novels, short stories and plays. Many of his manuscripts were left unpublished at his death in 2004.

His novels and short stories reflect a variety of settings and human types.  At least half of his output is described by him as "Iraqi stories" or "Iraqi novels." In these works not only the background and protagonists are Iraqi, but, above all, the characters speak in their true Iraqi dialect, whether Muslim or Jewish. Muslim speakers use the gelet dialect, whereas Jewish speakers use the qeltu dialect. Very often the vocabulary used by a Jewish Baghdadi is notably different from that used by his Muslim neighbor. Naqqash had to devise a variety of techniques to convey the meaning of these words to those readers who are not familiar with these dialects. This he achieved by using footnotes in which the dialectal dialogue is translated into fusha, i. e., standard Arabic, and, phonetically through the use of special print signs for consonants that don't belong to standard Arabic (e.g., for expressing such voices as /g/ or /ch/), which turn the printing and proof-reading of such texts into gargantuan labor. Naqqash was active till the end of his life, and when he died aged 66 in 2004, the end came too for the use of Judeo-Arabic as a literary language. It is very unlikely that in the foreseeable future new Jewish writers in Arabic, or dynamic communities using Arabic as their first language, are going to emerge.  Fifteen hundred years of Judeo-Arabic speech, and nearly as many years of writing, in Hebrew or Arabic characters, are now nothing but past history.

1This is the first of three parts. These essays are based on the texts of three lectures, delivered as the Taubman Lectures at the University of California at Berkeley, in April 2010. We are grateful to Sasson Somekh for the opportunity to publish these in Sephardic Horizons.

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