In this passionate blend of family history, memoir, and rumination on identity, journalist Hayoun utilizes family lore, journals, and photographs to tell his grandparents’ story and recreate a lost multicultural era in the Arab world. His assertion that “I am Arab first and last. Judaism is an adjective that modifies my Arabness” may sound unusual or contradictory, but, as Hayoun points out, for centuries Jews made up a third or more of the populations of Arab capitals from Tunis to Baghdad. After the establishment of the state of Israel, many were forced to abandon their homelands. Hayoun recounts his family’s stories of exodus (his grandparents emigrated from Tunisia and Egypt to France, where they met, and then to the U.S., where they raised him in a largely Middle Eastern neighborhood in Los Angeles) and his community’s strained relationship with the State of Israel, where “to call a Jew from an Arab country an Arab was to insult them for being uncivilized.” Deeply personal, moving reminiscences from his ancestors will make even those with no knowledge of the subject nostalgic for a bygone age; Hayoun describes, for example, distinctive holidays his grandfather’s Egyptian Jewish community celebrated, like Leila al-Tawhid, named (in Arabic) for an Islamic theological concept, whose prayers included phrases from the Muslim liturgy. Readers will relish this revealing glimpse of that now-obscured world. (June)
Praise for When We Were Arabs:“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.”—Martha Anne Toll, NPR Books
“When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History by Massoud Hayoun is a memoir and an intimate narrative of two Jewish Arab families woven together by time and circumstance as they emigrate from Morocco and Tunisia to Egypt‚ Palestine‚ France‚ and the United States‚ looking for a place to call home.”—Los Angeles Review of Books
“An acutely well-researched and thorough account of the lives of Jewish North Africans before and after most of them left the region.”—Middle East Eye“An intriguing read for anyone interested in furthering their understanding of complex identities and mixed cultural heritage.”—Jewish News“In this passionate blend of family history, memoir, and rumination on identity, journalist Hayoun utilizes family lore, journals, and photographs to tell his grandparents’ story and recreate a lost multicultural era in the Arab world. . . . Deeply personal, moving reminiscences from his ancestors will make even those with no knowledge of the subject nostalgic for a bygone age. . . . Readers will relish this revealing glimpse of that now-obscured world.”—Publishers Weekly“Hayoun’s debut memoir offers a new perspective on world affairs and will be appreciated by readers interested in family histories told through personal narratives.”—Library Journal“Hayoun pieces together a remarkable tale of survival and success, and it is a story worth remembering. A moving and intriguing family history.”—Kirkus Reviews“[This] well researched and timely family history will appeal foremost to history lovers, serious amateur genealogists, and those with a particular interest in Jewish Arab identity.”—Booklist“A masterpiece that reads with the same themes of complexity and romance, pain and longing, that are indigenous to the land of his grandparents, and the entwined Arab and Jewish identity that flourishes on every page of this book.”—Khaled Beydoun, law professor and author of American Islamophobia “When We Were Arabs wonderfully braids cultural history, memoir, poetics, and politics into a completely unexpected but necessary artistic intervention destined to obliterate our brittle understandings of what is Jewish, Arab, and radically loving. The book is as good as it is important.”—Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy “When We Were Arabs is not only a deeply researched account of one family’s North African history, but one of the best books available on the postcolonial foundations of contemporary Arab American identity. It is nothing short of a triumph.”—Moustafa Bayoumi, author of This Muslim American Life and How Does It Feel to Be a Problem “A beautifully written, compelling argument for compassion, solidarity, and love, in a time where they are so woefully scarce.”—Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking “A stunning piece of storytelling, a necessary work of history, and in its portraiture of a lost world, its corniches populated with the great singers and film stars of old, it is a work of poetry.”—Safia Elhillo, author of The January Children “A rare, multifaceted book that dares tell the story of the Arab Jew as it was without propaganda or prejudice and which chronicles how the nuance that had been there in Jewish Arab political identities disappeared under the onslaught of Zionism.”—Raja Shehadeh, author of Palestinian Walks and Where the Line Is Drawn
Remembering one Jewish Arab family's past.
Los Angeles-based journalist Hayoun attempts to reclaim his family history and identity through this retelling of his grandparents' saga. The author, who was mainly raised by his maternal grandparents, Daida and Oscar, identifies as both an Arab and a Jew, two descriptors he believes that many may feel are incompatible. He begins by arguing that, in fact, there is a long-standing tradition of Jewish Arabs, who lived and worked alongside their Muslim neighbors peacefully until colonialism disrupted Arab society and fractured it into various people groups. In addition to being a family story, the book is also an anti-colonial screed. Hayoun blames colonialism—he includes Zionism—for many of the ills that have beset the Arab people, and he sees the fight against colonialism as far from over. "Memory," he writes, "can subvert colonial authority, it can frighten the colonizers because it allows us to reconfigure this miserable world we live in now, depose the white supremacist…and approach the European sector with open eyes, ready to disassemble empire." The author's disdain for the European world is palpable, and his allegiance is clearly with the Arab world. He describes his family's condition as "our exile in Los Angeles," and he notes that his religion is secondary to his ethnic identity: "I am Arab first and last. Judaism is an adjective that modifies my Arabness." The core of the author's work, however, consists of his grandparents' stories of growing up in Tunisia and Egypt, surviving Nazi bombing and occupation, dealing with anti-Semitism during the founding of modern Israel, leaving North Africa, meeting in France, and finding their way, in the end, to America. Both grandparents left behind written autobiographical accounts, and from these, and other conversations, Hayoun pieces together a remarkable tale of survival and success, and it is a story worth remembering.
A moving and intriguing family history only slightly marred by the author's anger.
Journalist Hayoun (Al Jazeera English; Pacific Standard) begins this nostalgic family history by describing a world he's never seen; gleaned from journals of his much-loved and loving grandparents who raised him as a Jewish Arab in Los Angeles during the 1990s and 2000s while his single mother worked long hours. The author describes his childhood and his grandparents' lives in Tunisia, Egypt, Israel, France, and New York before arriving in L.A., drawing on film, food, and song to demonstrate their Jewish Arab identity. Moving to history's contribution to his family's journey, Hayoun starts from the premise that the suffering (illuminated for him in the works of Frantz Fanon and others) of Jewish Arabs and all North Africans is caused by "European colonizers" who invented a transnational Jewish nation united only by victimhood and supported by Zionism. He dismisses any claim of Ashkenazi Jews being part of the biblical People of Israel and considers them colonizers of "occupied Palestine." VERDICT Hayoun's debut memoir offers a new perspective on world affairs and will be appreciated by readers interested in family histories told through personal narratives.—Joel Neuberg, Santa Rosa Junior Coll. Lib., CA