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Arab Jewish Literature and the Fallacy of Language Choice
In Nancy Berg’s Exile from Exile: Israeli Writers from Iraq, one of the only English anthologies of its kind, the author surveys several important Arab Jewish writers who immigrated to Israel after the establishment of the state. Berg argues that these writers found themselves in a doubled exile-within-exile, first in the Diaspora as a Jewish minority within a Muslim Arab majority and then in the Jewish State, where they faced social and political marginalization as Arab/Mizrahi Jews under Ashkenazi hegemony. These writers thus found themselves at a crossroads: “How [would they] choose which language to use and how [would] this choice affect what is written…?” By positing language as an individual decision, Berg, along with a number of scholars in her field, presupposes two fundamental claims: that people have marked agency over language and that languages exist as discrete entities. This paper challenges both notions, arguing that the reality on the ground in Israel–including the dominance of Zionist attitudes and the way these attitudes shaped market demands–precluded the possibility of choice and of the writer’s exercising of agency. Because the ultimate choice was not between Hebrew and Arabic but between Hebrew and literary oblivion, Arab Jewish writers were forced to adopt Hebrew should they have wanted a readership. Those who didn’t–namely Samir Naqqash–remained relatively obscure throughout their lifetimes, given the dearth of Arabic-Hebrew literary translation. Drawing on the works of Abdelfatah Kilito and Jacques Derrida and troubling the scholarship of Reuven Snir, Ammiel Alcalay, and Nancy Berg, among others, I further contend that there is no clear division between the languages of Arab-Jewish writers. What emerges instead is a personal, heteroglossic idiolect that comprises several national languages and forms of language (e.g., Jewish Iraqi dialect, literary Arabic, Biblical Hebrew, and others) and thematizes estrangement in geographically and linguistically itinerant terms. We see this in Naqqash’s novel Shlomo the Kurd, Me and the Time, whose hero traverses Iraq, Iran, India, and Israel and speaks Russian, Persian, and other languages–all except the language in which the novel is written: Arabic.
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