Addressing a full house at 14th street’s Busboys and Poets in Washington DC on July 8, Massoud Hayoun enchanted an engaged audience with stories of his cosmopolitan North African Jewish ancestors; the subject of his memoir When We Were Arabs (The New Press, 2019). Hayoun described the journeys of his grandparents, Oscar Hayoun and Daida Boukhobza, across geographies of space, time, and identity during the most transformative periods of the twentieth century.
The multicultural and multilingual Egyptian context of Oscar’s upbringing in Alexandria and Daida’s experience growing up in the French Protectorate of Tunisia provide a rich cultural backdrop for Hayoun’s narration. Vignettes drawn from the author’s family history serve as a witness to a time of interfaith co-existence rooted in the experience of shared Arab culture and language. When We Were Arabs is Hayoun’s courageous effort to “reclaim the Jewish Arab identity” and “recuperate it as a stolen asset.” (p.18)
Amy Fallas met with the author following his lecture to discuss the broader themes of his book. An opportunity arose to discuss the legacies of colonialism in the Middle East, the Palestinian struggle, and the current political climate in the United States.
Could you tell us about your family’s archive and how it shaped your book?
This book would not have been possible without the several iterations of autobiography that my grandparents endeavored to preserve for me. When they began, they didn’t know that those autobiographies, letters from relatives abroad, and photographs would one day become a book and inform a deep-dive interrogation into our identities and belonging. My hope is that every Palestinian will do the same for their children to enable them to one day reconstruct a new Palestine that is informed by their families’ pasts since time immemorial.
Outside your family’s papers, did you undertake any additional research?
I conducted some interviews in a journalistic sense, and I consulted the writing of historians from our homelands and the broader Arab world. I looked at a great many historical texts — firsthand accounts from Orientalist European travelers that said some positively disgusting things, in one case specifically about an ancestor. I looked at a lot of old colonial-era policy documents that were very specific about the role that Jewish Arabs were meant to play, facilitating the conquest of their homelands for the European invaders. I read books about Arab American life in Los Angeles. Very importantly, and for inspiration, I was reading and re-reading Frantz Fanon throughout this project.
When We Were Arabs tells a story of multiple and intersecting identities, lifetimes, and migrations through the prism of your grandparents’ experience as North African Jews. When did you realize that you wanted to tell this multifaceted story from the perspective of re-claiming Arabness?
I had been working as a reporter at Al Jazeera America and frequently called my grandmother to chat — while I smoked outside of my apartment in New York City — about other Arabs and Arab Americans I was encountering and how to situate ourselves and our experiences within those communities. And then there was the 2014 offensive on Gaza. Suddenly, my grandmother and I began to feel more intensely that we had to try to tell a story that may help to stop the ceaseless killing, dispossession, and abstract disfigurement that continues to ravage the Palestinians and so many other peoples around the globe.
You don’t shy away from naming the erasures colonialism inflicted upon your family and homeland and you call for the “unbraiding of the colonial manipulations of identity.” How do you hope your book disrupts this manipulation?
I would say that the primary focus of the book is the insidious, psychological ways in which that colonialism oriented itself in my family. We became very self-loathing Arab people for the longest time. We fully and unquestioningly subscribed to certain things that the Western imperialists endeavored to teach us about ourselves. This book, both in its project and the way it consults our own Arab resources to interrogate Arabness, is about re-empowering us to define and to accept or reject Arabness, without the colonial prejudice instilled in us with carrots and sticks from colonial administrations for centuries. The carrots being that we were privileged to be welcomed — always at a distance — into colonial regime frameworks and the sticks being that those among our communities who rejected colonialism and chose to belong to their nations and a transnational Arabness were uniformly imprisoned, exiled, and tortured.
While the colonialist project in North Africa and the Middle East feverishly sought to separate simultaneously held identities, you demonstrate how Jews in MENA are a highly diverse and far from monolithic community. What do you think this could teach us about Jewish histories in the Middle East?
The colonialist project at once — and paradoxically — sought to separate different segments of North African and Middle Eastern society and homogenize them in a way that was useful to its politic of divide and conquer. In the case of the Jews, the colonial project sought to separate us from our homelands and their peoples and to turn us into a group bound by a false political and national unity. Ultimately, the goal of this was to dispossess us of any homeland — to reify the fundamentally anti-Jewish idea that Jews are a perpetually wandering, stateless people. That is patently false. We belonged to our homelands. We had and can have ethnicities and simultaneous belongings beyond our religious identities. We don’t necessarily experience any relationship with culturally distant Jewish communities, although international solidarity is powerful and often liberating. Our narrative is a great deal more complex than the one so feverishly pushed by the imperialists.
The creation of the state of Israel is a central aspect of your grandparents’ story. Influenced by the rise of anti-Jewish sentiment in Egypt in 1948, they eventually migrated to Palestine only to be met with a different kind of marginalization experienced by Arab Jews. What are you hoping your readers learn from this?
I would like to underline here that there is no comparison between what happened to Jewish Arabs and to Palestinians, although in both instances, there were forms of violent dispossession. I speak of my family’s experience in the early Zionist State to show another echelon of violent inculcation against the Arabness inside ourselves and among others. There are a great many diverse victims of colonial projects. In my case, I speak of the Jewish Arab victims. It is my hope to give the floor to Palestinians to speak of the Palestinian victims and the way forward for their survivors.
What did your family think of Palestine before and after 1948?
We always had a relationship to the holy sites in Palestine before 1948. There were frequently pilgrimages from our homelands to these holy sites. Our family never had in mind to create a nation for the world’s Jewish communities there. It is also important to note that throughout the Arab world there were what we considered to be Jewish holy sites that were also focal points of our religious practice.
It is interesting to interrogate what my family thought about Palestinians after 1948. I don’t think they thought of them at all, to be frank. Or at least not enough to stand in solidarity with them against the project to build a European colony on the ash heap of their civilization. It remains one of the greatest sources of pain to me that they didn’t think a great deal more about Palestinians and imperialism at the time.
What is your take on the current conflation of Judaism and Zionism and do you feel the distinction is important?
This book should serve to prove that the conflation of Judaism and Zionism is a total farce designed to silence free speech on Palestine. Regardless of your ability to observe the human rights and dignity of Palestinians, if you are an American who believes in the First Amendment in earnest, you should be outraged by these thinly veiled attempts to silence so many echelons of society from speaking freely. The attempts to outlaw BDS should be terrifying to anyone who genuinely — and not just when it is convenient — believes in democracy accountable government by and for the people. I challenge the people who use manipulations like the conflation of Judaism and Zionism to silence American voices for justice to abide by the rule of law in the United States, in the way that the people advocating for Palestinian lives and dignity do.