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Winter 2019

The Wobbly House

On the presence of Arabic in Hebrew literature

(3188 words)

Of all the questions one could ask about the presence (or absence) of Arabic in Hebrew culture – or Hebrew literature, to be more specific – I am most preoccupied by the questions of belonging; or – to be more precise – ownership. In other words: Whose Arabic is it when it is presented in Hebrew literature? Who holds onto it, and for what purpose? Who does Arabic “occur” to, when it ultimately does? In this respect, I am reminded of how the poet Nurit Zarkhi once explained to me her dislike of the writers who made up the early Israeli canon: “My problem with the writers of that generation is that in their books, almost without exception, bad things happen to other people; to different people, very different people. Never to them – nor to any of the characters for whom they use the personal pronoun.”

At this point, I should try to preempt a likely misunderstanding. I certainly do not mean that Arabic is a bad thing that happens to someone within or without the Hebrew literature (or vice-versa) – despite what some of our more diligent lawmakers might think. Rather: who does it happen to in the realistic realm of fiction? To what degree does the author take responsibility for this Arabic? And, how does it resonate in the story or the novel? Does it happen to Moishe, the soldier in S Yizhar’s wonderfully realistic story Khirbet Khizeh, set in 1948, when he says to an Arab man he is evicting from his home “yalla imshi wallah ya’atik ya hawajah“? Or to the heroine of Umi Fi Shughul, Orly Castel-Bloom’s surrealistic story, who tells us again and again, as if begging for her life, “umi fi shughul” (“my mother is at work”)?

In this piece, I will not try to map out the topography of Hebrew literature where Arabic is visible. Instead, I shall restrict myself to an observation, and no less a testimony, of the literary instances where the first-person narrator is prone, and even likely, to say or write umi fi shughul. The focus shall therefore remain on the writing of Orly Castel-Bloom, as well as on my own; the writing of Mizrahi female writers, second-generation Egyptian immigrants, whose work was first published in the 1980s and back then – at least in my case – still resonated umi fi shughul in one way or another. But it is still not the real thing – it is still not umi fi shughul to the letter.

This story by Orly Castel-Bloom has been on my mind a lot lately, because it serves as a bridge, or a connector, to that suspect and unrewarding thing I’m trying to do here, namely self-analysis. Umi fi shughul briskly conjures the manners and degrees with which I’ve been handling, for all my life, the presence of Arabic within Hebrew. It is worth mentioning – the self-evidence of the fact notwithstanding – that this engagement remains unarticulated and mystified upon the moment of writing. What’s more, it derives from a profound linguistic, social and psychological malaise, and is linked to the urge, or bundle of urges, which are the story’s narrative operating system.

By “operating system,” I mean the powerfully conflicting currents in Castel-Bloom’s story, hurtling towards each other on a collision course. One current owes its movement to the inescapable and all-too-famous “identity politics,” as it has become known, labelling itself as Jewish, Arab or Mizrahi, and complemented by whatever we make of these labels. The other seeks to defuse, fragment and destroy identity politics. It should be emphasized that in Castel-Bloom’s story, none of the somewhat surreal elements of this conflict would have been sufficiently effectual for us – the readers – had the Arabic language not been so conspicuously present in it. The Arabic words are melded into the Hebrew ones, leaving a stitched scar like that on a surgical patient’s skin.

***

Even a reader who encounters Castel-Bloom’s story for the first time would notice the deliberately crude conjunctions between Hebrew and Arabic. The Arabic appears almost out of nowhere (I write “almost” because the precursor to the appearance of Arabic, and the trigger for the conversation between the mother and the daughter on the subject, is the elder woman asking the younger: “What is your ethnic origin?”), the same nowhere that lies under the bench, devoid of psychological, social or political context. And this performance of Arabic, just like the performance of the mother who speaks it, is tantamount to a snakebite. The Arabic bites the reader suddenly, abruptly, through an unintelligible exchange of questions and answers between the mother and her daughter. This dialogue echoes an interrogation, the roles constantly swapping to the point that it becomes unclear who is interrogating who. The point where the story converts itself to Arabic is a maelstrom. The whole story twirls around itself, as it were; it cracks, implodes into another entity, into a wholly different logic, one more commonly associated with dreaming than wakefulness.

If I may put it bluntly: Why is flying the Arabic flag in the midst of the Hebrew landscape perceived, in the first place, as flying a flag?

Irrespective of the content and meaning of the exchange between the mother, lying underneath the bench, and her daughter (a conversation about identity and identification – what a person, and their role in this world, is), the sudden appearance of Arabic in the story seems coerced and inevitable. It imposes itself on the narrator, who is coerced, no less, to speak it, to extract it from some silent and dark place within her. The Arabic emerges from the text as it does from the heroine, in a virtually violent manner, and cracks it again when it leaves the chasm intact, without any attempt by the narrator to mend it. It would seem reasonable to argue, following in Julia Kristeva’s footsteps, that the eruption of Arabic on to the surface in Castel-Bloom’s story is symptomatic of the text’s, rather than the narrator’s, subconscious.

***

Nonetheless, I would like to dwell on this just a little longer. Why is the appearance of Arabic in a Hebrew-language story so special, so specific? Why is the rupture created by the penetration of Arabic into the Hebrew text different, considerably or not, from the rupture created by a similar penetration of any other foreign language – English, French, or, of course, Yiddish? Or, to put it more bluntly: Why is flying the Arabic flag in the midst of the Hebrew landscape perceived, in the first place, as flying a flag? And if so, what kind of flag is this, and what does it stand for?

It would come as a surprise to no-one if I stated that every aspect of the presence of Arabic in the Hebrew text, whether in Castel-Bloom’s or S. Yizhar’s stories, in Avot Yeshurun’s poems, or in my work, however different they may be from each other – is never self-contained. It never stands alone. It always ushers in a long line of friends and relatives, pots and pans, a cart overflowing with objects, or in other words – a bundle of problematics: The problematics of Mizrahi Jews; of Arab Jews; of the children of Arab Jews, and the children of those who don’t see themselves as Arab Jews; the problematics of the Jewish-Arab conflict; the problematics of the Israeli identity within the Levant; and the variant positions within these problematics. Therefore, the friction created by the penetration of Arabic and its presence within the Hebrew can seldom remain in the confines of the individual memory – which is more or less nostalgic – because it promptly nudges the numerous layers of literary texts towards the more burning questions of identity, identification and positioning. It forces the text to take sides. The text must take sides and give an answer, however vague, about its identity and positioning within these problematics.

There is a thick underpinning, made of layers of guilt, desired repentance and absolution, which are blown up to epic proportions; there is also the dread of the parents’ revenge and persecution as representatives of an abandoned culture.

This is exactly what Castel-Bloom’s text does, maybe in a similar way to what my own story from the early 1990s, St. John the Divine, did in its day, when Arabic first appeared in my work. The two stories provide an answer to questions of Mizrahi identity and location; even though it’s rather vague, it’s still nevertheless an answer.

This answer pertains in the main to the impossibility or unwillingness to make clear statements on Mizrahi identity and location, and not only because these stories wish to avoid the pitfalls of language and ethnicity. They cannot and will not provide a clearer answer, because the real materials from which the answer is made hark back to the murky water of childhood, and the evasive and fluid nature of childhood memories and experiences. In both stories, Arabic emerges in tandem with the experience of childhood, not the biographical fact so much as the mental category. I would even go as far as to say that there’s no such thing as Israeli childhood without Arabic.

Both Castel-Bloom’s girl/woman narrator, who repetitively recites to her mother the absurd sentence umi fi shughul even though she’s not at shughul at all, and the girl/woman narrator in St John the Divine, who joins her father for a surreal voyage of repentance to New York in an attempt to find the estranged sister who he had abandoned in Egypt, return to or reconnect with the childish state of the presence of Arabic, as it was coerced upon them by their destitute, neglected Mizrahi parent, full of anger and yearning for redemption or absolution.

But this is not the only meeting point between these two literary occurrences, which are so different in their modus operandi, their style and their poetic conclusions.

I have to point out that upon a recent rereading of these two stories, Umi fi Shughul and St John the Divine, I was struck to realize that the concluding scenes are almost identical: an exclamation directed at God (yaster ya rab – God help us).

I don’t mean it as literary intertextuality in the classic sense, but as something more far-reaching, that applies to the symbolic infrastructure of the metaphors they harbor. These attest not necessarily to a literary similarity between the two stories, but to the certain molecular composition of the biographical, social and political atmosphere in which we were immersed; we, the children of Mizrahi immigrants – Castel-Bloom and myself in this instance – whose formative decade was the 1960s.

But both these stories, Umi fi Shughul and St John the Divine, are not dated. They take place in what Freud called the “timelessness of the unconscious,” and in faraway, oblique places. In the latter it is New York, in the former it is the park. Both recount an uncertain encounter with the Mizrahi parent who seeks, in no uncertain terms, and by acceptable and unacceptable means, to coerce their kicking and screaming daughters into their world, their values and above all their language – Arabic. It is perhaps worth noting that my narrator shaves her head at some point. In both stories Holocaust references emerge out of nowhere, in an absurd manner and in great proximity to the traumatic experiences of the Mizrahi parents. And in both, I’m sorry to say, there is a formidably strange confusion, not to say an almost complete erosion of identity and identification. The questions that are raised are: Who is who? Who reminds who of who? Who plays who? and, Who says what and in what language? Whether it’s my girl-woman narrator in St John the Divine, who in the eyes of her father is the incarnate of his sister in Egypt, and whose picture comes across as that of the sister; or whether it’s Castel-Bloom’s heroine, who collapses into an absurd dialogue in which she asks whether her mother is really her mother, who her mother is – and therefore, who her mother’s daughter is.

And if this list is not enough to describe the “biographical, social and political atmosphere” which I alluded to earlier, and from which these two stories emerged, then the most startling metaphor – a snakebite – comes in different variations in both stories. In Umi fi Shughul, the mother lurking underneath the bench might attack the narrator at any minute. In St John the Divine, a mantra repeated endlessly by the mother of the narrator’s father, who was abandoned by him: “Tu’eban inkan yinzal min bitni kan ahsan mino” – if a snake had come out of my body, it would have been better than him (the father).

What is then the role of the snakebite metaphor in the context of Mizrahi identity, and the self-constitution of the narrators or, rather, the lack thereof vis-à-vis the Mizrahi parents and the Arabic they speak? Why, if I may phrase it this way, does the parents’ Mizrahi identity, as constructed by these stories, bite the Hebrew-speaking self of the narrator?

There is no unequivocal answer to that question because, among other things, the stories either refuse or are unable to develop this metaphor fully, or even partially. Their entire existence is confined to a vaguely liminal space, in which pieces of discourse and fragments of dreams and indirect dialogues, with a certain emotional and political reality, converge into an entity that can hardly be defined and refuses to do so. Therefore, an answer there is none: but in both stories there is a thick underpinning, made of layers of guilt, desired repentance and absolution, which are blown up to epic proportions; there is also the dread of the parents’ revenge and persecution as representatives of an abandoned culture. Arabic emerges from underneath the bench, the space from which the metaphor of the fear of being bitten emerges, as the abandoned thing that comes to reassert itself and claim its rightful property.

The guilt, and the resentment it entails, have in both cases a first name as well as a family name. I think that the guilt’s first name, in both cases, is the guilt of writing – in Hebrew. Writing in Hebrew signifies more than anything else the transformation into Israeliness; the great chasm, that cannot be bridged, between the immigrant parent whose language and culture have been disgraced by the establishment, and their sons and daughters, who feel at home in its language. And for this reason precisely, specifically for the reason that Arabic emerges from a fertile ground of guilt and abandonment anxiety, it appears alive, vibrant and effervescent; and not as a third-hand reference, by a realistic character that imitates Arabic speech. It should be noted that the snake, physically as well as metaphorically, is a living one.

Yaster ya rab – God forbid! – cries out the narrator’s mother in Umi fi Shughul, after her daughter shuns her at her front door and refuses to let her in. Yaster ya rab. I know that yaster ya rab very well. My mother and grandmother would bellow the exclamation, always in the face of something petrifying, inconceivable, abhorrent, or monstrous. And here’s another thing I wanted to say: Both narrators come out of the stories that they concocted somewhat monstrous. That is their own perception of themselves, at least, and it highlights Nurit Zarchi’s earlier statement about the kind of people that bad things happen to. In their tortured and traumatic encounter with the abandoned Mizrahi parent, there is a dimension of abuse, of cruelty, of callousness. They don’t bask in their “Mizrahi roots;” they are caught in them, struggling to break free, in what seems like a losing, zero-sum battle. Whether they are embraced by the Mizrahi parent or abandoned by them, their self will be left shattered, blemished, defeated.

***

What I am getting to, essentially, is the Mizrahi trauma – not the one experienced by the immigrants themselves, but by their children, into whose minds it trickled in convoluted ways and myriad shapes and forms. Those who chose to convey it in their Hebrew writing had to come up with their own language.

This is the thing that emerges from the underlying experiences of the child-women narrators in the two stories: an unequivocally deconstructed syntax of trauma – Mizrahi trauma, as denoted and concentrated by the presence of Arabic in the midst of the Hebrew story. This incarnation of trauma has nothing to do with, nor does it emanate from the manifestation of the Mizrahi trauma in the popular discourse: the humiliation, the marginalization, the stigmatization, the shame. These do not appear overtly in the stories. Nevertheless, their covert representations have undergone such far-reaching transformations and have folded unto themselves so many times that it is hard to tell the origin and the representation apart. These themes emerge from a post-hoc processing of the trauma, and the simplification that the exercise entails. The heroines transpose themselves into the very heart of the traumatic assault, which harks back to their childhood but cannot be put into words yet – at least the words that are often invoked to characterize the Mizrahi trauma in the Israeli discourse. What we are left with is the image, the raw pieces of horrifying nightmares, and an unsteady passage between reality and the hyperbole of an internal and external reality.

I feel the need to say what should always be said about literature; it’s perhaps the most important thing. And that is that these stories are very sad. Their terrible sadness results, among other things, from the fact that they don’t know they’re sad, because they can’t find a corner to lay their sadness in. Their sadness is so incredibly estranged from itself and discreet, it must wear a mask. And these two stories wear a mask to preserve an incognito status among the different forces of discourse – the intimately biographical and the sociopolitical – which seek to deprive them of the most precious asset of their identity: the unstoppable impulse to undermine that identity and move it around, endlessly.

In retrospect, both personally and temporally, I can see how St John the Divine, a story that I wrote in the early 1990s and in which I used Arabic for the first time, laid the incipient, embryonic foundations for my later writing. What happened in St John the Divine required an opening; the presence of Arabic required an opening, that later came in The One Facing Us, and much later in The Sound of Our Footsteps. Arabic, the language of the image, became the language of the characters who became people, who spoke it as their native tongue. And, more importantly, it became the language of the author – not so much in the sense that I took up writing in Arabic, but rather in the realization of how the syntax and the intonation and the bit of glossary that I absorbed as a child started to enrich and transform my Hebrew. The troubling image of the snake that I discussed above has not dissipated and has not been forgotten, even though it has significantly lost its bite. The status of the snake is similar to that of the house snake in Shimon Ballas’ short story The Imaginary Childhood, to which the narrator’s mother articulates what she calls the magic phrase: House snake, house snake, you will not hurt us and we will not hurt you.

 

Ronit Matalon (1959-2017) was an Israeli novelist.

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