When We Were Arabs

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 25 Jun 2019

Member Reviews

'Arabeness is a personal identity, it is my politics, my inheritance, how I was raised, my relationship and bond to others who share in that legacy, the soil from which I emerge. Judaism is my faith and my understanding of metaphysical things. (...) I am Arab first and last. Judaism is an adjective that modifies my Arabness'.

After all, identity is a matter of personal choice and in the 21st century we are provided with a richness of conceptual frameworks and ideas to create our very specific identity. It is a matter a choice and of taste, after all.

In When We Were Arabs. A Jewish Family's Forgotten History, Massoud Hayoun wrote a memoir about his grandparents story and experiences as Jews living in Tunisia and Egypt. Interesting narratives that completes the landscape of Jewish identities in the Middle East. Which is not that easy as it might be and far from being black-and-white. However, focus to built his 'Arabeness', Hayoun is ignoring some important details while in some cases takes for granted anti-Semitic propaganda from the yellow Arab media. 

He is unhapppy with the 'de-Arabization' of the young Jews from Northern Africa, that followed the directions of the various French Zionist organisations from the end of the 19th century. Those organisations preached - through the French language - a Westernization of those cultures, that affected not only their dressing style but also the state system. Further on the Jews were used to 'colonize' the Muslim world. The critics against 'Westernization' are common at the beginning of the 20th century all over the Far and the Middle Eastern. The 'third-world'/'tiers-monde', to follow the French Marxists discourse has to do with those critics as well. But it is worth to evaluate negativelly those influences. Was it exclusively a one sided approach? What about the fact that thanks to this 'Westernization', the education for girls was made possible? Those details are not discussed at all by Hayoun. 

Hayoun is also excessively using the metaphor of the 'peaceful Arab-Jewish co-existence' in those areas. The truth is that sometimes it worked, sometimes not. Perfect peace was not and when the situation is not evaluated on a case-by-case basis it does not bring any value to an eventual understanding the Arab-Jewish relations in the Arab world. What Hayoun mentions more than once is that many problems appear following the creation of the Jewish state and sometimes even 'Zionist' themselves created such skirmishes in order to speed up the migration to Israel. Nothing, for instance, about the alliances between Nazi Germany and some states and religious leaders in the area. Or, about how the anti-Semitism originated in those areas - yes, it is an example of 'Westernization' that Hayoun aparently missed when preparing his research.  

Plus, there is the clear bias that I've seen repeated ad nauseam about the anti-Mizrahim attitude of the founders of the state of Israel. Indeed, someone coming from a Polish shtetl,for instance, might have had difficulties in understanding the mentality of let's say, a Jew from Yemen, and the other way round. But there were and are so many nuances and special stories that deserve more than being omitted in the sea of injustice and frustration. 

This clear bias affects at a great extent the quality of the memoir, which has a couple of interesting information about the specific Jewish communities in Egypt and Tunisia. Unfortunatelly the 'ideological' parts are unfortunatelly the only coherent ones, as the story of his grandparents is lost among irrelevant details about half-baked cultural theories. And this is exactly why I was interested in reading this book, for revealing the richness of particular communities and the stories of its people.
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Massoud Hayoun combines two shorter books into one with his debut nonfiction When We Were Arabs. It’s a family memoir, a political history, and a commentary. He uses his own family’s experience, primarily that of his maternal grandparents, to illustrate a wide variety of political, religious, social, racial, and historical issues among Jewish Arabs and the rest of the world.

It’s an ambitious project that unfortunately falls down in the execution. I thought his family’s story of multiple immigration experiences was mostly quite interesting. And parts of the other topics were well drawn and also informative. But the great quantity of the book needed better writing, editing, and organization. Therefore, I truly struggled to finish it.

Hayoun comes from both Tunisian and Egyptian heritage. His grandmother was born in Tunisia, and his grandfather in Egypt. The 20th century was tumultuous for both of them. Separately and together they emigrated to Israel, France, and the United States. Each time they faced different challenges, which tested their resiliency. But because they started life as Jews in colonized Arabic countries, difficulties were just normal life for them.

Hayoun bases the memoir sections on autobiographical notebooks kept by both grandparents. He then takes the information and adds his own commentary. His grandparents essentially raised him, so they often told him of their experiences as well.

In addition to his family history, Hayoun explains historical events from the 1300s until present day. It’s probably not comprehensive, but I’m not knowledgeable enough to judge that. On the other hand, it’s certainly full of details, which simply bog down the book’s narrative. Hayoun tries to explain injustices and challenges suffered by Jewish Arabs throughout the centuries. It’s just way too wide ranging.

My conclusions
The reason I picked this book at NetGalley was because of Promised Land by Martin Fletcher. In that book, I learned about the plight of Jewish Arabs in the early days of the state of Israel. Of course, Jews are indigenous to these lands, just as people of other religions are. But I didn’t fully understand the complexity of racial prejudices and injustices happening there.

Reading When We Were Arabs taught me about depth of these issues. For that reason, I’m glad I read it. I just wish it wasn’t such a difficult slog to get through. Truthfully, if Hayoun focused on the powerful family memoir with some explanation and commentary that would have worked for me. As it was, reaching a history section meant groaning internally and skimming the text.

I’m well versed in the political issues of my own country, but am always open to learn about politics in other countries and regions. Unlike a lot of my reads, I have no personal stake in the sides of this political divide. But I appreciate the commentary on how two separate and distinct faiths can live side-by-side. And also how they’re quite divided in other, less obvious, ways.

Hayoun also spends considerable time discussing European colonialism, which he clearly disdains. I think those issues should continue to be raised, as colonialist behavior happens often today.

Unfortunately, I can’t give this book a strong recommendation (2.5 stars). I suspect there are other books that cover these issues with more clarity and less frustration. But I applaud the author’s effort and his family’s persistence.

Acknowledgements
Many thanks to NetGalley, The New Press, and especially the author for the opportunity to read a digital advanced readers copy in exchange for this honest review.
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Hayoun's book has a lot of rich and interesting stories, but they are a bit disconnected. Ultimately the book is neither memoir nor a current events tale, nor is it really a political statement. There's unique detail, but as a whole the story needed polishing - although it's not my particular Jewish culture, I was still interested in seeing a different perspective. But I am less certain that one could easily follow along without any Jewish background - an unfortunate side-effect of both the reality of being Jewish and Arab, and of the editing this book needed to be more easily readable. There's a lot of meat here, but it's also a lot to chew on, if you get what I mean. To be generous - the book is as complicated and scattered as Hayoun's life is.
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A memoir with a bite, in which Massoud Hayoun, a member of the Arab diaspora and a Jew, chronicles his family history in a tale that spans continents and epochs, and weaves that history with politics. He uses his grandparents’ stories to explore the history of a once thriving Arab Jewish community. It’s very much a celebration of a rich and diverse heritage but it’s also a diatribe against colonialism and Zionism, of which he is a fierce critic. He documents the suppression of native culture by both the British and French and he is particularly angry when it comes to Israel and Zionism. The book is a well-researched and intelligent history of the complex situation in the Middle East, but not particularly well-written. It jumps about too much in time and place, and the lack of structure makes the narrative difficult to follow at times. Hayoun is an angry man, with justification, but a polemic doesn’t always make for good reading. However, I did enjoy the book overall, and particularly appreciated being made more aware that being Arab doesn’t automatically mean being Muslim, and that there are many Jewish Arabs as well.
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This is not a story of a family.  This is a history book.  If I wanted to read the history of Jews born in Egypt, I would have chosen a history book.  This is not written by someone who knows how to tell a personalized story and also make it interesting to read
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I found the tone of this book to be disturbing. Rather than educating the public about Judaism, the author seems to be angry that a relatively population of Arab Jews is not more recognized.  Being Jewish myself, I was very aware of the diversity within the Jewish community. So I realize the book wasn't written other Jews, then who is it written for? Someone apparently the author is antagonist towards which is not a good marketing strategy.
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I got a email from the author to read the book and wrote him back apologizing for taking so long in reading his book. Well that was yesterday and so I started reading and reading and halfway through the book so sorry,just couldn't read anymore! I really wasn't sure what the holiness about cause I didn't re-read what the story was about again yesterday when I started. I am so sorry but I got so confused and tried to concentrate on what I was reading and I would understand a sentence or so then didn't understand and so on. All I got was about his grandparents,the different religion and that's about it. Just couldn't finish and I really did try. Not to hurt anyone's feelings.😪. This if the book is rewritten it may make more sense I kept waiting on a story about his grandparents,him growing up all I seem to get us a bunch of facts thrown at me . I consider myself a pretty well educated person but even if this was taught in a school all the difference in religion they would fail the class!!😒
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A memoir so well written so enlightening  a look at the world of the authors grandparents a blend of world being an Arab and a Jew,A look inside a time in history of people I knew nothing about their lives their world and I enjoyed learning about them.#netgalley #newpressbooks.
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As interesting as the topic was, I really did not enjoy reading this book. I think it could have benefited from much more editing and structure. It jumped back and forth between Tunisia and Egypt and between his family's stories and more general history. Some details were repeated unnecessarily at different points in the book. I enjoyed the stories of the author's family much more than the general historical information, which was a slog to get through. While I'm happy to have learned about Jewish Arab identity and the history of the region, I think the author could have done a better job of integrating the information with his telling of his own family history. Thank you to NetGalley and The New Press for providing me with an early review copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.
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Massoud Hayoun's debut is a memoir dealing with his shifting identity as an Arab and a Jew in the current political and social climate surrounding those labels.  It's an important topic that is sure to appeal to many who share his background.  I was excited to read this book and, despite my criticisms below, I enjoyed learning more about Jewry in the Middle East and North Africa.

However, I received an advance digital copy through Netgalley, and this book is currently very difficult to read.  The sections don't flow, which makes for a laborious read as I tried to piece events and points together to understand the ultimate message Hayoun was trying to share.  I hope that the finished product will remedy these defects.

Thank you to Netgalley, Massoud Hayoun, and The New Press for allowing me to access this advance copy.  As always, all opinions are my own.
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Young author Massoud Hayoun has an interesting background, he's traveled the world, grown up hearing stories from family members from many corners of the earth, and as a freelance journalist he presumably has researching skills. I like his usage of film and fashion to describe Arab-Jewry throughout place and time, and I learned the meanings of many Arabic and Jewish words I've heard before but without context: Sephardi is Hebrew for Spanish, Mizrahi is Hebrew term for Eastern, the Berbers are the Amazigh meaning Free People, the Jewish Bible is called Tanakh,  HamdelA means Thank God, qaid is an official or chieftan, Scots were known as Jock and the Welsh as Taffy, Mabrouk means May it be blessed. The sad theme of this book seems to be that every race has a biological proclivity toward racism and megalomania. 

What this collection of vast and impressive facts and first-hand experiences is in need of, is editing. I felt this opened as a barrage of definitions and historical data, followed by a section that would make several great essays with some editing, and then at the end there were questions posed that answered my wondering, "what is this book about/trying to accomplish?" that would have been more useful presented in the beginning, or even used throughout as a unifying premise. I basically felt like this book had been written without an outline.
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This was a near-unreadable mess of polemic, history, family history, and memoir. It's poorly organized and written, jumps around in a scattered and unedited way, and ultimately is a chore to get through. I think the author has a story to tell and a point--or several--to make, but those aren't served well in the current state this book is in.
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I usually love these kind of memoirs. As a Northern American who had been here for ages, I am drawn to others who have a story to tell. My mother's side of the family came here in the mid 1600's from Belgium. 1638. Can you imagine? Yet, after that nothing, until during the civil war and we bought a baby grand piano, and had it sent to Colorado. Before, during and after? Nothing. That is what we Americans miss. History. We know we have it, but p.b.s. isn't walking into our life, just laying it out! That is probably why I didn't connect with Mr. Hayoun's story. I wanted more. Hell, I needed to feel more. To be honest, being Jewish and Arabian must be one heck of a thing. For me alone? I don't understand enough about being Jewish or Arabian. I just dont. Sadly, this  book didn't resolve things for me. I've always thought that both Jews and Arabs had a mystique. But sadly the truth is not mysterious.  An Arabian Jew?.Just thinking about all the ways that people will hate on that makes my head spin! This should have been a  book to make people think. Sadly, even if this had hit the mark, most folk would ignore it. That right there is my issue. I didn't feel much for these folk. And knowing that I should have but didn't makes a.huge difference. It's a grand idea for a book, but I didn't feel.
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I found this book too heavy for my taste. I generally love memoirs but I felt this called for a reader with a deeper background than my own. There were too few experiential tales, family anecdotes, or charming memories.
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