Life after Baghdad
By Sasson Somekh
Sussex: Sussex Academic Press, 2012. 168pp.
Reviewed by Nimrod Raphaeli
From Babylon to Israel
Life after Baghdad is a sequel to an earlier memoir in which Sasson Somekh reflected on his life in Baghdad through age 17, when the tremendous upheavals in his country of birth forced him--as, indeed, it forced this reviewer--to surrender his Iraqi citizenship under a special law known, in brief, as taskit –[surrendering of citizenship]. This legislation allowed about 120,000 Iraqi Jews to leave their country of birth in search of freedom and perhaps, more critically, a more secure life in the nascent State of Israel. The new (2012) memoir is an account of the personal experiences of Sasson Somekh as his status ascends from that of new immigrant in his newly-adopted country to that of a highly respected scholar and teacher of the Arabic language and literature.
Somekh arrived in Israel in March 1951. Like most Iraqi Jewish immigrants in the massive exodus in the years 1950-51 Somekh found himself in the alien and greatly uncomfortable world of Sha'ar Ha-Aliya, [the Gate of Immigration], a former British military camp, not far from the port city of Haifa, a position shared by almost everyone taking their first step toward absorption and integration.
But unlike most of us who were actually restricted from leaving the camp without a prior permit during a transitional period of 4-6 weeks, Somekh, who arrived alone rather than encumbered by family, managed to find his way out of the camp and to travel across parts of the country and make new friends among both Arabs and Jews, particularly among those who shared a common belief in Communism. Somekh never tells his readers how he freed himself from a camp surrounded by wire fence and guarded gates. He arrived at the camp in March and I in April; reading his memoir, I note my misfortune that we did not overlap so that I might, also, have learned how to leave the camp's confines.
Somekh in Search of Communist Soul-Mates
In keeping with his political disposition at the time, Somekh describes the political scene in Israel in the 1950s from the uncomfortable perspective of the Israeli Communist Party, which remained loyal to the USSR but had to struggle with the reality of a political system that was providing Czech weapons to Egypt, Israel's bitter enemy at the time, accusing Jewish doctors of a conspiracy to murder Stalin, crushing the pro-democratic revolt in Hungary and executing the Hungarian patriot Imre Nagy. It was not uncommon for young Iraqi Jews of our generation to be associated with the Communist Party, because of the help Stalin provided to Israel in its time of utmost peril and because of misconceptions about the 'liberating ideals' of Communism. In fact, though the memoir does not note it, during the wathba, the uprising associated with the signing of the Portsmouth Agreement between Iraq and the U.K. in 1947, masses of Communist demonstrators, many of them Jewish, carried the slogan "nahnu akhwan al-yahud wa-'adaa al-isti'mar" [We are brothers of Jews and enemies of colonialism].
In his early years in Israel Somekh became critical of attempts by Israel to dispossess Arabs of their lands. Land, he writes, "is the central motive of Arab writers and poets." He was also critical of the military government controlling the Arab population of Israel and of a system which restricted that population's movement outside their cities and villages through a cumbersome system of permits, and which was often used to punish those involved in what, at the time, were labeled "subversive" activities, meaning activities driven by nationalist fervor or Communist orientation.
In his early days in Israel Somekh sought out the friendship of young Communist figures, primarily Emil Habibi and Tariq Zeyad. Even as a uniformed soldier, Somekh continued to be active in leftist causes, organizing and attending meetings with key leftist figures of the day, including many Iraqi Jews. However, as Somekh concedes, four or five years after the mass immigration from Iraq, the Iraqi Jewish immigrants of his generation had turned away from "the fervent embrace of their Arabic roots"; members of his group or "club" had "gradually dwindled by force of reality." It was time to master the language of their new homeland. It is a tribute to Somekh's tenacity and commitment to the new language that he was able to establish himself as a political critic, a poet, a translator and, quite quickly, a master of the Hebrew language. Indeed, still "a new immigrant"—a term which carried derogatory connotation at the time--Somekh joined the Academy of Hebrew Language, perhaps the equivalent of L'Académie Française. For the first time, the author muses, and after years of doing work he didn't love, including an interlude as a bank clerk, and often without pay, he was getting paid for doing work he loved.
Oxford and Beyond
After getting his BA from the nascent Tel-Aviv University, which, in the 1950s, was located in the derelict part of the city of Jaffa, Somekh made his way in the 1960s to Oxford University to study the Arabic language. It was perhaps an act of providence that his adviser was no other than Dr. Mustapha Badawi, an Egyptian scholar. But as Somekh was to emphasize, "We were never given the slightest feeling of foreignness or alienation for belonging to an enemy nation." Perhaps no less providential was Dr. Badawi's advice to his Israeli student to write his dissertation on the most famous contemporary Egyptian writer, and later Nobel Laureate, Naguib Mahfouz. His dissertation, later published as a book, was considered a seminal work on Mahfouz and gained Somekh the friendship and the easy access to one of the great figures of Egyptian literature. This friendship proved to be particularly helpful when Somekh served as director of the Israeli Academic Center in Cairo in 1995-1997, for it gained him access to many of the key literary figures of Egypt.
Somekh is at his best describing his visits to Cairo and his many encounters with Egyptian men of letters. Particularly significant is his relationship with Mahfouz to whose memory he dedicates the memoirs and to whom he devotes a full chapter: Chapter 22 "Naguib Mahfouz—Thirty Years of Friendship." Mahfouz was dedicated to peace between Egypt and Israel although neither he nor any key Egyptian literary figure has ever visited Israel. Somekh does not tell the readers whether he ever extended an invitation to Mahfouz to visit Israel or whether he even broached the subject with him. One suspects that the answer to a potential invitation would have been negative and perhaps rightly so. The attempt on Mahfouz's life because of his approach to Egypt-Israel detente demonstrates the fragile nature of the peace between the two countries. Somekh quotes from an interview with the Kuwaiti daily al-Qabas in 1975in which Mahfouz argued that "peace is more important than land, and that land could even be surrendered in exchange for peace." This statement could serve as a good guide for the Israelis and Palestinians currently conducting negotiations for peace.
Somekh must have an extensive rolodex given the innumerable writers, poets, professors, scholars, critics, politicians, diplomats and numerous other famous individuals he has encountered and all of whom he has rapidly befriended. He seems sometimes to be carried away by his new friends as evidenced by the whole chapter he devotes to a casual encounter with the granddaughter of Taha Hussein, one of the leading figures of Arabic literature in the first half of the last century. He must be superb at networking: almost all those he has met over his forty years of academic and literary work are described as friends. But, then, this is an account of the personal experiences of the author and is about his personal connections.
If one was to venture one serious criticism of the memoirs, it is the failure, or perhaps reluctance, of the author to dwell upon the broader context of the struggle of our generation from Iraq for greater integration into the dominant Ashkenazi elite of Israel. Somekh has a keen eye to the social and political realities of Israel, but unfortunately we were not rewarded with his observations and insights. This is quite evident in his treatment of the subject of 'Arab Jews' which gets a perfunctory mention on p.114.1
In this book, as well in his other books and articles, Professor Somekh has brought to the Israeli reader the significance and depth of Arabic literature and explains how this literature has shaped the political and cultural environment of the world surrounding Israel. For this he deserves a lot of credit.
1. Though he did deal with the subject in the first vol. of his memoirs. Somekh has championed the study of Arabic language in Israel, and has lectured and written on the use of Arabic as a Jewish language, in a series of articles published in the pages of Sephardic Horizons, in issues 1:4, 2:1, and 2:2. See also the interview with Sasson Somekh in Sephardic Horizons 1:4.
Nimrod Raphaeli is Senior Analyst Emeritus, Middle East Media Research Institute.