Interview with Sasson Somekh,1 Israeli Scholar of Iraqi Origin:
A Sephardic Jew’s Engagement with Arabic Language and Literature  

By Judith Roumani2 and Jacques Roumani3

Judith: We just want to say it’s a privilege to be here with you, and can you tell us a little about yourself before we go in to details?

S: Yes, well, I was born in Baghdad in 1933. My father was a banker at a British bank, he worked at the bank for 30 years. When he came here [to Israel] in 1951 he carried on working in a bank here. My mother’s family had a sad story: her father also was prominent in the Jewish community in the south of Iraq and when the British arrived in Iraq in 1915 he worked for the canteens, he was a supplier, and at the time he lived in the city of Kut , that city of all cities in Iraq. The British soon surrendered and the Ottoman soldiers slaughtered thousands of soldiers and the British had to leave and withdraw, and my grandfather was accused of being a British agent and was hanged. That is the reason about five or six members of my family, of my generation and younger, are called Sasson.

Judith: How was your experience when you first arrived in Israel?

S: I arrived in Israel, in 1951, along with the great bulk of the Jewish community of Baghdad. First of all I had to learn a new language, because we were a secular family who had had nothing to do with Hebrew. I didn’t know one word, I didn’t even have a Bar Mitzvah, can you believe it? I arrived at the age of 17 and I was not bar mitzvahed! I had to learn Hebrew, and I took it seriously and I worked, I left everything else aside, and I learned Hebrew, Hebrew, Hebrew. At the end I became a scientific expert at the Hebrew language academy ten years after my arrival. A person of 17 can immerse himself in Hebrew, like a crazy man. After that I went to Oxford [to study for a Ph.D.]

Jacques: When you grew up you went to a particular school and you studied Arabic there in Baghdad, but it was not an Arab school…

S: I studied Arabic and English, it was the Jewish community Arabic school, a very good Arabic school. There were two final exams: one was the Arabic matriculation and the other was the London matriculation, a year earlier

Jacques: But the Arabic program was strong enough?

S: A hundred per cent, it was like any other Arabic school, but also with English. I was an avid writer in Arabic: I wrote poetry, and published in Baghdad, not just knowing how to speak, Arabic literature was my main literature--although I did read Dickens and everything.

Jacques: Do you consider Arabic your native language?

S: Without a doubt!

Jacques: And then a language you also studied and developed…

S: English has been for the last forty years my home language: my wife, my children speak it. Before that  Judeo-Arabic was what the Jewish community of Baghdad spoke. Totally different Arabic from the Muslim Arabic.

Judith: This is the Judeo-Arabic [that was spoken] at home?

S: It was the only part of the Arab world where Jews spoke a different dialect. I am publishing a chapter about it.

Jacques: That’s interesting, what you say about the distinctiveness of Jews in Iraq speaking a particular Arabic, because for example, in Libya, we understand Ghadhafi’s speeches perfectly well, because our Judeo-Arabic was close enough.

S: Absolutely, all over the world there isn’t any situation like the one that prevailed in Baghdad, where two well established communities speak two different languages, the Jewish minority would speak a different language…There is nothing like that in the whole world.

Judith: What attracted you in your childhood and adolescence to Arabic?

S: I was so annoyed at my parents who read only English and French. They believed that these are the most important languages in the world.

Judith: They probably thought they were setting you an example that they wanted you to follow. . .

S: No, but we didn’t have a single Arabic book at home. My father could read Arabic, but my mother didn’t learn to read Arabic or Hebrew. That was sort of a reaction [of mine] against this alienation vis-à-vis the local culture. I liked what I read at school, that was probably the reason; at home they didn’t have any connection to it. And when I read literature, I loved it. I fell in love with this kind of literature and I noticed that my family had no empathy with this kind of thing and probably this was a kind of reaction on my part. Two other things: my discovery about the beauty of this Arabic language, and becoming, or my getting, attached to the Arabic language, to the literary Arabic language.

Jacques: Is it correct that you were attracted to poetry?

S: Arabic literature is mainly poetry.

Jacques: And you were attracted especially to jahiliyah [pre-Islamic] poetry?

S: Not necessarily, no, this is very different; modern Arabs, like me, can’t understand these poems with ease.You could understand them  with the help of a dictionary. Arabic poetry had a crazy thing about it: it had to be written in a very, very difficult language, not a normal language. Compare Arabs to Greeks, the Greeks although they have two languages, one spoken, one written-- not any more but until recently they had that--but poetry was always understandable…and the Arab case was opposite: a special, crazy language and nobody could understand it. This was the language of the Bedouin in pre-Islamic times, and they were still writing in the traditional mode until 1950. In 1950 things change and there is a new poetry. The old kind, we don’t see it anymore.

Jacques: But we still hear Bedouin poetry today . . .

S:Bedouin poetry is basically an oral poetry, much different in language and content from ‘canonical’ poetry.

Jacques: I read Arabic, I learned a little bit in school, in secondary school in Libya, in Benghazi, yes, but mostly in elementary school.  We went to Italian schools, but then I took literary Arabic.

S: How old were you when you left?

Jacques: Seventeen.

S: What kind of high school did you go to?

Jacques: It was mixed: Italian school and then American high school. The Italian was a kind of missionary school.

S: When my parents were speaking at home they did not speak the same Arabic as the Muslims. Again, you have to know that people don’t understand that I can speak all my life Arabic but then read me an article,  and I don’t understand a word of it. I can pick out one word here, one word there. That is so because of the diglossia which is typical of the linguistic situation in the Arab region.

Jacques: But I have a close friend who lives in Livorno now, in whose family the children went to Arab schools and they would recite Arabic poetry and they can recite it today; they can speak Arabic, but then that was a very special situation.

S: The first thing we do in Arabic school is learn poetry by heart, but you can’t use that language or writing for your own poetry. When I wrote my poetry, it was using a modern language actually, Christian Arabic, very much in the spirit of the translation of the Bible.

Jacques: What about the ‘alf layla wa-layla [One Thousand and One Nights]?

S: Yes, the ‘alf layla wa-layla is intermingled, it is spoken language, not only written words. It borrows many expressions from the spoken language.  

Jacques: I’m just trying to see how your attraction to poetry was different from dealing with Arabic prose.

S: I loved poetry, also the poetry in English anthologized in Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. One of my first books I still have in my library, and which has plenty of Romantic poetry and late classical poetry, but also reaching [down to] the 19th and 20th centuries: I love to read this. I spend a lot of time on it. It was an inspiration for poetry I wrote. I didn’t write in the spirit of medieval Arabic poetry, but in the modern Arabic language. I started using that in order to be able to write poetry. When I arrived in Israel in 1951, I wasn’t an accomplished poet. I went to meet Emile Habibi--he was the editor of the Communist Party newspaper al-Ittihad and I gave him poems by writers in Baghdad that they did not know about in Israel—new,  modern poets--and he published them. so I became a writer for them and they produced and I became a member [of what?]. That was about six months after I arrived from Baghdad. I didn’t know Hebrew yet, so I had to work hard to learn Hebrew and read everything. I brought home huge books with a primitive dictionary, there wasn’t a good dictionary like today, with Arabic-Hebrew-English dictionaries being used, there were only very bad dictionaries. I didn’t know a word of Hebrew when I stepped out of the airplane.

Judith: I’m surprised that you attended a Jewish school in Baghdad for several years and they didn’t teach the Hebrew language.

S: I will explain this. But this is an interesting remark. It was a Jewish school, of course, but they were barred from teaching Hebrew in the 1930s, before that they would teach Jewish history in the Jewish schools in Baghdad. but in the 1930s the government barred it. They only allowed them to read the Bible, because it was accepted as a substitute for Islam. I came to the Jewish school, the Shamash School, from a non-Jewish school. I had not learned any Bible so the teacher once a week had a reading of Bible in Hebrew, and the teacher would allow me to leave the class. It went from bad to worse. I did not know a word of Hebrew. Apart from one thing: the Haggadah. The Haggadah is in Hebrew and Aramaic, and every year I explain how this is the only Jewish occasion that we celebrated with our extended  family who threw a big party. I learned this by heart, I didn’t even understand the meaning of the words. I use my own Hebrew writing now because Hebrew words are [embedded] very deep into my brain from the beginning, as you said, though it was not Hebrew to me at the time: I did not know what it meant. I liked it, so I used it in my own Hebrew writing--now I write in Hebrew, mainly. For example one expression, emor me hatav: it’s a Talmudic expression that means “from now on, say this and not that” which means… “it should get stuck in your mind.” It doesn’t mean “say from now on …” but it means “from now on you should know the facts as they are.” “I am teaching something new, pay attention to what I’m saying,” that is what it means. I use it very often in my writing now, even today.

Judith: The reason I am asking about your poetry today in Arabic and Hebrew: did you ever find inspiration from the great Spanish Jewish poets in Arabic?

S: Yes, definitely, but Spanish Jewish poetry is in Hebrew. They never wrote poetry in Arabic. We have a few poems from a Jew who converted to Islam but all the Jewish poetry was only in Hebrew . Only Hebrew. Shmuel Ha-Naggid definitely. Prose, on the other hand, was in written Judeo-Arabic (as opposed to spoken Judeo-Arabic). Written Judeo-Arabic is Arabic with Hebrew and Aramaic expressions like any Jewish language but everything is written in Hebrew characters. Maimonides, Saadia Gaon, Yehuda Ha-Levi, all wrote their prose in Judeo-Arabic which is in Hebrew letters but the language is Arabic interspersed with Hebrew and Aramaic expressions. For example in this Judeo-Arabic, instead of Hebrew expression into Arabic, if you translate the texts of Maimonides, such as Moreh Nevuchim [The Guide for the Perplexed] , the greatest Jewish text written between the Second Temple and Spinoza, it is written in all Hebrew characters, in Arabic, but filled with Hebrew words. It’s important to ask: the characters he’s using, can they be transcribed back in to Arabic? No, because the religious and cultural terminology is in Hebrew and you cannot translate them, it does not make any sense.

Judith: Is it fair to say that a Jewish Arabic writer, like you, had very little influence from anything except literary Arabic?

S: Yes, but I am in a   minority of secular Iraqi Jews. I would say 10 or 15 % of the Jews living near us were relatively secular, [The others were not,] in the sense that they did learn [Jewish religious studies] because they did go to Jewish Talmud Torah  school and then later to government school. So I was an exception, in a way. I will talk about the concept of an Arab Jew. What is it to me? To me, a full Arab Jew would be someone who grew up in a Jewish Arabic-speaking community like Libya or Iraq. Written Arabic must have been the language learned in school for a fully-fledged Arab Jew. The first poet I read was al-Mutaanabbi,  a great medieval Arab poet. I’m exaggerating now, but my mother never learned how to read and write Arabic. so I’m not saying that she was not an Arab Jew, but these are the conditions for a full-fledged Arab Jew. Might be 70% Arab Jew if you wish. What I’m trying to say is that I grew up as a Jew and knowing that I am a Jew. I have never been a Muslim. In my community there was no intermarriage, so there was no possibility that I would become a full-fledged Iraqi. I’m a Jewish Iraqi, we can’t forget that. But on the other hand I don’t know that much about Judaism. The other day we were talking to novelist Sami Michael, he is my best friend, and we were talking about all kinds of things, and suddenly I hit upon a great question: how do you define an Arab Jew? He and I read the Bible first in Arabic translation. The Hebrew Bible, so I said “whoever read the Bible in Arabic translation is a full-fledged Arab Jew.” I only later on read the Bible in Hebrew and became knowledgeable in the Hebrew language, but the funny thing is that I found it. The Arabic, Bible was published in Beirut in the 19th century by an American missionary and then Jesuits. In fact there are two Bibles, one American, one Jesuit. But they are not very different; these Arabic Bibles are among the reasons that there is a modern, different language today, that there is a difference from the medieval language to the Bible. I can give you an article that appeared recently in Sweden, Upsala University, where I gave a lecture on Hebrew translation into Arabic. I spent many years on this topic because I thought it was crucial, it was a kind of crossroad.

Jacques: There is a book of Tefillot [prayers] translated into Arabic by someone called Farhi, a Syrian Jew from the 19th century, a fairly wealthy person who translated most of the tefillot of the week into Arabic. It’s a book that just came out a couple years ago.

S: There is plenty of material in Judeo-Arabic translated from the Hebrew. Sa’adia Gaon said the Torah, and he called it tafsir,4 is an interpretation not a translation because he kind of gave his own ideas when translating: for example, he’s against saying that God has eyes and ears, that was not good, and although it’s written in the Hebrew he could not put it in, because that’s for human beings not God, so that’s Sa’adia-- it’s a very interesting translation.

Judith; Well, even today, they are always coming out with new translations in English, that deal with problems like that.

S: Well, the King James English translation is one of the bases of modern English language. There are so many expressions in English that are a direct translation from Hebrew. It’s a wonderful translation. It is actually beautiful, there is nothing like the King James translation. As far as I’m concerned it is a remarkable thing this King James Version. There were so many attempts to produce a new translation, even the Jewish Publication Society’s:  it’s a King James Version. They made changes, but the basis is the same.

Jacques: I just want to ask about the makeup of an Arab Jew. The language is very important, of course, but in the end is it something of a professional development for you, or an artistic literary development, or do you consider yourself to have the culture code of the Arabic language?

S: No, I don’t think so. I am a scholar because I learned everything as part of a discipline, it’s not because I have something in me specially inborn. I came with a great advantage: I knew Arabic very well, that is the language I knew, spoken and written. But that is not the matter in the way you are describing it.

Jacques: No, I’m saying, mundanely, if you get in to an Arab taxi like one does a lot in Jerusalem, does he recognize you as an Arab?

S: No, definitely he doesn’t by the way you speak Arabic, he can right away pick up that you learned Arabic in school. No one who learns Arabic in school can speak like a real Arab. Some people--British, Americans, Israelis, —probably know more Arabic than me, but they don’t speak like an Arab.

Since we are talking about taxis, I want to tell you a funny incident, something that happened to me during one of my first visits to Egypt in 1980. People in Egypt were still happy with the peace process, so I took a taxi and the driver asked “where do you come from?” “Israel,” I answered, and he said, “We are brothers, you know, we have the same roots, and we speak the same language basically,” and he went on and said “You say televisia we say televizion, we say radio Israelis say radio. We have the same words!” These are the clever taxi drivers of Cairo!

Jacques: There is someone who actually wrote a book recently about conversations with taxi drivers in Cairo.

S: What did he say?

Jacques: I don’t have the exact reference in mind but it was very interesting.5

S: The habits of writing: ‘you are like the ball of my eye’, ana ahibak [I love you], it’s the expressions . . .

Jacques: But there is also a negative side: in terms of incitement, the Arabic language can be very powerful. I grew up listening to Ahmed Sa’eed who talked in a program called “Lies Exposed by Truth,” which was Nasserist propaganda. I grew up with that at the age of twelve, thirteen, we would listen to these programs at 2 or 3 o’clock in the heat of the afternoon and, in a way, it was a pleasure to listen to it, even though it was propaganda . . .

Judith: Thank you, Sasson Somekh, for this most interesting conversation.

1 Born in Baghdad in 1933 and immigrating to Israel in 1951, Sasson Somekh became an international authority on Arabic literature. Already an established poet in Arabic while in Iraq, he is the doyen of Arabic literary studies in Israel, having been one of the founders of the Arabic Department at Tel Aviv University, where he is now professor emeritus. He has published books and articles on the 1989 Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz and was also his close friend. An early work, The Changing Rhythm: A Study of Naguib Mahfuz's Novels (1973) helped establish Mahfouz's reputation internationally. Somekh is also among  modern Hebrew's most respected translators of contemporary Arabic poetry. His newest book is Mongrels and Marvels: The Levantine Writings of Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff,  edited by Deborah A. Starr and Sasson Somekh (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 2011). This interview was conducted in 2008 and has been updated by email in 2011. Many thanks to Elisa Roumani Septimus for her transcription.

2 Judith Roumani  is the editor of Sephardic Horizons.

3 Jacques Roumani was born in Tunisia and grew up in Benghazi, Libya. He has since lived in Italy, Iran, Israel, and the United States, has spent thirty years working for international development organizations and teaching in universities, and is now an independent Middle East analyst,and member of the advisory board of Sephardic Horizons.

4 Saadia Gaon (882-942 CE) translated the  Pentateuch into Arabic, calling it Tafsir [interpretation].

5 The book would be Khaled al-Khamissi, Taxi, first published in Arabic in 2007. English edition: London: Aflame Books, 2008.

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