‘When We Were Arabs’ Is A Nostalgic Celebration Of A Rich, Diverse Heritage

June 26, 2019

Massoud Hayoun is a member of the Arab diaspora. With Moroccan, Egyptian, and Tunisian heritage, he is also Jewish.

His new book, When We Were Arabs, is an absorbing family history that spans continents and epochs.

Hayoun uses his grandparents’ stories to illuminate the fading history of a once thriving Arab Jewish community. In the process, he delivers a scathing indictment of colonialism. He considers his Arabness “cultural,” “African,” and “Jewish,” but “retaliatory” as well.

“I am Arab because it is what [we] have been told not to be, for generations, to stop us from living in portentous solidarity with other Arabs,” he writes.

Hayoun’s grandparents inculcated him with family history, evoking the tastes and smells and sounds of their childhoods. In tribute to their lost worlds, Hayoun dedicates When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History to “our youth.”

Grandfather Oscar was born in Alexandria and came of age as a polyglot in multicultural Egypt, where Jewish families attended Ramadan fests and Muslims came to Jewish holiday celebrations. Oscar’s father, an accountant for a shipping firm, fasted during Ramadan out of respect for friends and co-workers.

Oscar’s mother died when he was a boy. Unlike his pious father, Oscar loved the streets. His friends were Jewish, Muslim and Christian, bound by shared culture and class, rather than separated by religious practice. Oscar attended a French Catholic school, and he looked back fondly on a childhood where Jews could practice their faith openly in Egypt. In his young adulthood, Oscar worked as a traveling salesman for a pharmaceutical company, charming his customers with affability and cross-cultural ease.

Grandmother Daida came from a Tunisian Jewish family. She was especially fond of Ramadan, as each evening ended with the break fast — ftour. Hayoun writes:

“[Her] family left their neighborhood and went to a nearby mosque and an adjacent souq and the homes of Muslim friends for a carnival of sweets and toys. …”

Daida attended a French school in Tunisia, although she had to leave at the age of 9 to prepare to be a wife and mother. She had a strong independent streak, however, and refused her family’s matchmaking.

In a chapter called “La Rupture/The Rupture,” Hayoun draws a line from the ills of European oppression to its impacts on the birth of Zionism. A severe critic of Zionism, he documents the suppression of native culture that both British and French colonialism wrought: “There were two Egypts, two Tunisias.” In 1870, the French Jewish culture minister, Adolfe Crémieux, had Jews declared French citizens in Algeria, while precluding Muslims and Berbers from the same. The impact was to divide communities within Algeria and to separate Algerian Jews from Jews in Tunisia and Morocco, who were not accorded French citizenship.

It is difficult to know how North African Judaism changed with the “imposition of a new, Eurocentric vision of its practice,” but Hayoun finds clues in spoken language. “Before the conquest, the Arabic language — and Islam itself — were central to Jewish North African belief.” The colonists drove “a wedge between our interactions with God.” Forgoing the Arabic pronunciations of his youth, Oscar led Passover Seders in “the accent of Hebrew officialdom.”

Hayoun asserts that Daida’s and Oscar’s “bodies and minds were colonized.” Even with scant schooling and lower-class status in the eyes of the French, Daida hued to the belief that French culture was superior to her own. “I am Tunisian,” she said, “and I am Jewish, but I am not Arab.”

With the fallout from World War II and dimming economic prospects exacerbated by colonialism, Oscar, and separately, Daida’s family, emigrated to Paris. There, Oscar and Daida met at a party. But Paris was not kind to them; discrimination left their North African community segregated from the rest of the city. Oscar could not get an economic foothold. Eventually Oscar and Daida immigrated to Los Angeles, where their author grandson was born and raised, feasting on Egyptian films and the music of Oscar’s and Daida’s home countries.

With a clear point of view, Hayoun weaves in his family history with the politics that shaped their lives. When We Were Arabs is a nostalgic celebration of a rich, diverse heritage. It is also a diatribe against white supremacy in the form of European oppression.

What incentive does the Arab have to embrace Arabness? Hayoun asks. The term has been “maligned and degraded by Europeans since the Crusades.” Arabs have been “detested, unwashed, and segregated in their own neighborhoods.” Whether or not Hayoun’s views about Jewish Arabs are idiosyncratic, he is a humanist who embraces inclusion and difference. He yearns for a time and place where Jews and Muslims can rejoice in their commonalities, rather than highlight their divisions.

With the current intensification of racism and populism around the globe, it can be daunting to fight regressive, destructive trends. “Arabness is a choice to belong with other Arabs,” Hayoun states at the end of the book. In a sweeping gesture, he proudly proclaims his identity:

“I am Daida. I am Oscar. … I am Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Palestine, and all adjoining nations that identify as Arab. I am the wealth of love I feel for the people of those nations.”

Perhaps that declaration of love is his most important takeaway.


Martha Anne Toll is the executive director of the Butler Family Fund. Her writing is at www.marthaannetoll.com and she tweets at @marthaannetoll.

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