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Oriental Literature

ORIENTAL LITERATURE

In the vast area between Morocco and the Pacific, Jewish writers were mainly active in areas of Islamic culture; this survey is mainly concerned with the Middle East.

Writers in the Arab World

Few Jewish writers gained a place in the history of Arabic literature from the pre-Islamic period until modern times, yet the number of Jewish authors in the Islamic world greatly exceeds that mentioned by Arab historians. Jews gained fame mainly in the pre-Islamic period (the Jāhiliyya); during the period of Islamic rule in *Baghdad and *Spain; and in the 19th and 20th centuries. In the pre-Islamic period Jewish poets were prominent in *Arabia, notably the warrior-poet *Samuel ibn Adiyā, "The Faithful," and members of his family, and the Jewish poetess Sārā al-Qurayẓiyya, who was famous for her elegy over the dead of her tribe, which was betrayed by its Arab allies. After the rise of *Islam, because of the animosity between *Muḥammad and the Jewish communities and tribes of his day, Jewish poets and writers–with the notable exception of *Marḥab al-Yahūdī, the Arabian warrior poet–ceased to be mentioned, although Arabic-speaking Jews are known to have been prominent in science. It was only during the period of Islamic rule in Spain that Jewish writers reappeared in the accounts of Arab historians. Outstanding among these was the Spanish poet *Ibrāhīm ibn Sahl. Jewish scientists who wrote in Arabic gained fame at this time in Spain, North Africa, and Baghdad. Jews rarely distinguished themselves in Arabic poetry of the period, since they did not usually show great interest in the study of Arabic grammar, literature, and rhetoric. Blau (The Emergence and Linguistic Background of Judaeo-Arabic, 1965) has shown that Jews shunned Arabic poetry because of the difficulties involved in the study of Arabic literature and language, and mostly preferred to compose Hebrew verse. Muslim historians explain the emergence of Ibn Sahl and his fellow Jewish poets by claiming that Spanish Jews began to study Arabic grammar and literature. In the 19th and 20th centuries Jews were active in Arabic culture. Many won praise from their Muslim colleagues and some were considered by Arab literary historians to be leading pioneers of modern Arabic literature. The cultural and social revival of Arabic-speaking Jewry resulted from a number of factors. These include growing commercial prosperity, the equality in civil rights granted to ethnic minorities in the Ottoman Empire, and the competition between the European powers to gain a political and economic foothold in the region. Other factors were the demand for a multilingual intelligentsia and an efficient governmental administration, the awakening of East European Jewry and its interest in the Jewish communities of the East, the opening of Jewish schools by the *Alliance Israélite Universelle, and the intensification of Zionist activity. With the termination of Ottoman rule in the Arab lands, the establishment of the French and British mandates and the institution of Arabic as the official language of the newly emergent Arab states brought about a revolutionary revival of Arabic. Active Jewish participation in the revival of Arabic literature during the second half of the 19th century was spurred by the wish to safeguard Jewish rights in the Arabic-speaking countries. In fact, the use of literary Arabic by Jews in the 19th century was confined mainly to the lands of the Fertile Crescent. Jews actually lagged behind other religious minorities in these countries, notably the Christians, who had adopted Arabic for liturgical and literary purposes in the 18th century. In North Africa, *Yemen, and *Aden, Jews preferred to use either Hebrew and their own *Judeo-Arabic dialect, or else the language of the ruling power. The prevailing attitude of Jewish writers in the Muslim countries toward Arabic was therefore utilitarian and didactic. Jews were also activated by apologetic considerations, defending the position of their people and religion against false accusations. With the rise of *Zionism, the level of Jewish-Arabic cultural life was greatly enhanced. Zionism brought new vitality to the Jewish communities of the Arab lands, developing their national pride, sense of security, and consciousness of progress. Jewish writers began to demand an improvement of existing educational facilities and the furtherance of, and an increased respect for, their national uniqueness and autonomy. These trends were supported by the British and French mandatory administrations, which favored the autonomy of national and religious minorities in the area. It is thus not surprising that most of the Arabic-Jewish press was usually pro-Zionist. Any survey of Jewish literary activity in Muslim lands during the 19th–20th centuries faces a number of serious handicaps. The most serious of these are: (1) the fact that Arab writers mainly overlooked their Jewish colleagues; (2) the lack of any systematic collection of Jewish literary works in Arabic, mainly due to the low regard in which the Jews themselves held the study of Arabic language and literature (in many Jewish schools Hebrew and foreign languages entirely replaced Arabic in the curriculum); and (3) the immense difficulty involved in obtaining the necessary source material as a result of the Middle East conflict. Jewish writers were first attracted to the theater and journalism, since the former offered virtually unlimited scope for education, and the latter scope for apologetics, despite the danger of clashes with government authorites and other pressure groups.

playwrights

The theater was a most effective mass medium for the purpose of education, enlightenment, and social criticism, since its aim could easily be concealed behind the camouflage of entertainment. Among the first Jewish journalists and writers to enter the field was the versatile Yaʿqūb *Ṣanūʿ, known also as Abu Naẓẓāra ("The Bespectacled"). An outstanding pioneer actor, stage producer, playwright, and journalist, he established his first theater in one of *Cairo's large cafés. Sanuʿ was much influenced by Molière, Sheridan, and Goldoni, but his Arabic operettas were more to the taste of his public, which preferred lighter entertainment. One of the first stage producers in the Arab countries to employ actresses, he wrote 32 plays (mainly short comedies) and translated many others. Ṣanūʿ's criticism of the khedive Ismāʿīl and his ministers in the Egyptian paper Abū Naẓẓāra Zarqā' ("The Man with the Blue Spectacles") led to the closing down of his paper and his self-exile to France in 1878. While the Arab national theater flourished in Egypt, enjoying government support and the visits of Syrian and Lebanese stage companies, the Jewish theater was mainly confined to amateur activity in Jewish schools. Nevertheless, premiers, ministers of education, and even the khedive Ismāʿīl and King Fayṣal i of Iraq attended its performances. Jewish amateur theater also flourished in *Lebanon. The plays of Salīm Zakī Kūhīn, the son of Rabbi Zakī Kūhīn of *Beirut, were staged in 1894–95. In *Iraq, the Jewish schools of Baghdad and the Baghdad Jewish Literary Association promoted Arabic-Jewish theater. Original works by Jewish playwrights were also staged. In Egypt Raḥamīm Kūhīn wrote and translated many plays performed on the stage during the 1930s. His al-Malik Dāʾūd ("King David") was published in the Cairo Arabic-Jewish weekly al-Shams ("The Sun") in 1944.

jewish religious literature in arabic

With the rise of the Zionist movement, Arabic-speaking Jewry experienced a cultural revival. This led both to the establishment of new Hebrew periodicals and publishing houses and to the intensive translation into Arabic of Hebrew books, including many religious works. Selections of the Babylonian Talmud were translated into Arabic under an English title by Shimon Joseph Moyal (The Talmud, Its Origins and Its Morals, 1909) and Hillel *Farḥi published Hebrew-Arabic liturgical works, including the high holiday maḥẓor, prayer books, and Passover Haggadot. Farḥi also wrote religious tales in both languages. The *Karaite scholar Murād *Faraj published an Arabic commentary on the Pentateuch and other works, including translations of Proverbs and Job. Such activity encouraged the compilation of Hebrew-Arabic lexicons, notably the Hebrew–Arabic dictionary of Murād Faraj (1925), the Hebrew–Arabic–English dictionary of Hillel Farḥi, and the pocket Hebrew–Arabic dictionary of Nissim Mallul.

novelists and prose writers

Very few Jewish writers in the Islamic world produced original novels, although many engaged in the translation of novels from various European languages. Outstanding in this field was Esther Azharī *Moyal, who translated nearly a dozen novels by European writers. With the exception of Najīb Ashaʿyā, who wrote in Egypt, all the Jewish writers of Arabic novels were Iraqis who immigrated to Israel during the 1950s. Ezra Menasheh ʿAbid, an editor, wrote the novel al-'Ālam al-Sa'īd ("The Happy World," c. 1952); and Ezra *Ḥaddad, who translated from English and Hebrew, wrote Fuṣūl min al-Kitāb al-Muqaddas bi-Uslūb Qaṣasī ("Chapters from the Holy Bible in Narrative Form," 1947). The outstanding Jewish novelist in Arabic was Ibrāhīm Mūsā Ibrāhīm, whose works include Asmahān (1961) and who joined the editorial staff of the Mapam Arabic paper al-Mirṣād. Greater distinction was gained in the field of the short story. Saʿd Litto Malkī, an Egyptian pioneer of the genre, published some of his work in al-Shams. His first collection of short stories, Yarāi al-Awwal ("My First Pen," 1936), contained one piece about Egyptian Jewish life, on antisemitism in Muslim schools. The Jewish role in this genre was more significant in Iraq, where the Arabic short story was virtually created by the Jews. Those who published fiction of this type include Meer Baṣrī; Yaʿqūb Bilbūl, who was author of al-Jamra al-Ūlā ("The First Ember," 1937); Shalom Darwīsh; and the versatile Anwar Shaul, whose works called for social reform. Shimon (Balāṣ) Ballas (1930– ), who eventually switched to Hebrew, published the novel Ha-Ma'barah ("The Transit Camp," 1964) and a collection of short stories, Mul ha-Ḥomah ("Opposite the Wall," 1969). Esperance Cohen (1930– ) published stories in the semiofficial paper al-Anbāʾ and in the Histadrut daily al-Yawm, later joining the editorial boards of the Histadrut journals. Most of these writers immigrated to Israel in the 1950s, two exceptions being Meer Baṣrī and Anwar Shaul, both anti-Zionists and Iraqi nationalists.

Poets

Modern Arabic poetry by Jews is again an almost exclusively Iraqi preserve. However, there were two notable exceptions to this rule – the Egyptian Karaite Murād Faraj and the Palestinian ʿAbdallah Nadīm Moyal. The latter belonged to a distinguished Sephardi family which settled in Ereẓ Israel. Moyal mainly wrote love poems, his lyrical collection Ḥanīn al-Nadīm ("The Yearning of Nadīm," 1934) being published in Beirut. At one stage of his career Moyal wrote narrative verse, producing a poetic biography of *Maimonides. Iraqi Jews have played an important part in the development of modern Arabic poetry. In style, form, and idea they have tended to follow the Christian Lebanese poets active in the North American Lebanese diaspora. Those Iraqi Jewish poets of note include Anwar Shaul, Murād *Mīkhāʾīl, Yaʿqūb Bilbūl, Abraham *Obadya, Salīm Shaʿshūʿ, Shalom Katav, Shmuel *Moreh, Benjamin Aaron Zakkay, David Semah, and Sasson *Somekh. Bilbūl's highly introverted poems, which bear the imprint of French writing, include a sonnet collection, and Shalom Katav (1931– ) wrote prose poems collected in Mawākib al-Ḥirmān ("The Convoys of Frustration," 1949) and Washwashāt al-Fajr ("Dawn's Whispering," 1958). David Semah's leftist verse appeared first in Iraqi and later in Israel periodicals. The first part of his collection Ḥattā Yajiʾu al-Rabīʿ ("Till Spring Comes," 1959) contained tender love poems, while the second expressed the author's support for the Algerian war of liberation against the French and the 1959 anti-royalist coup in Iraq. Sasson Somekh (1933– ), another leftist poet, also began his career as poet and translator in the Iraqi press, later writing for the Israeli Communist monthly al-Jadīd. Like most of these Iraqi poets who had settled in Israel, Somekh eventually wrote mainly in Hebrew.

Jewish Writers in Other Oriental Cultures

Though technically part of the Islamic world, some Jewish writers actually belonged to separate cultural traditions. Thus the Tunisian author *Ryvel, who wrote sensitive tales about his life in the Tunisian ḥāra (ghetto), chose French as his literary medium. This was also true of the Tunisian-born French novelist Albert *Memmi, the Egyptian-born novelist Élian-J. Finbert, and the Egyptian-born poet Édmond Jabès. Elsewhere in the Near East, Jews contributed to Turkish literature, notably the poetess Matilde Alçeh, the poet Jozef Ḥabib *Gerez, and the poets Ibrahim Nom and Robert Sezer. Further to the east, Jewish writers made their appearance in India, one of the earliest being Sarmad the Jew, a 17th-century poet of Hyderabad, who converted to Islam. Indian Jews of Baghdadi origin wrote in Hebrew, Arabic, or English, only Bene-Israel authors using native languages, such as Marathi. Most of the works by Bene Israel writers were liturgical, historical, or didactic; but a few produced original works of fiction. These include Bahais Joseph Talker's short novel Gul ani Sanobar ("Gul and Sanobar," 1867), the first of its kind in Marathi, and Jagha che Chamatkar ("Wonders of the World," 1869); Moses Daniel Talker's novels Bago-Bahar ("A Beautiful Garden," 1869) and Premal Shushila ("Lovely Sushila," 1872) and his Hindi play Chhel Batao Mohana Rani ("Stage Your Play, Mohana Rani," 1872); and S.R. Bunderker's drama Ayushache Chitre ("Life Picture," 1956). Other Indian authors were the prolific poet and prose writer Benjamin Samson Ashtamker, who wrote over 30 works from 1868 onward; the Baghdadi novelist Judah Aaron; and the Baghdadi poet Nissim Ezekiel, who was also a journalist. In the Far East, Chinese verse on Jewish themes was composed by three members of the *Kaifeng-Fu community during the 17th century – Ai-Shih-Tê, Chao Ying-Tou, and Shên Chu'üan.

bibliography:

Y. ben-Ḥanania, in: Hed ha-Mizraḥ (Sept. 29, 1943), 12; (Oct. 13, 1943), 6–7; (Oct. 29, 1943), 7; (Nov. 12, 1943), 6–7; idem, in: Yad la-Koré, 4 (1958), 14–21, 119–27; E. Marmorstein, in: jjso, 1 (1959), 187–200; S. Moreh, in: Middle Eastern Studies, 3 (April 1967), 283–94; idem, in: Ha-Mizraḥ he-Ḥadash, 14:2–3 (1964), 296–309; Ezekiel, History and Culture of the Bene-Israel in India (1948), 76–82; D. Salloum, Change of Thought and Style in Iraqi Literature in the 19th and 20th Centuries (Ar., 1959); S. Idris, in: al-Ādāb (Feb., March, April, Dec., 1953)

[Shmuel Moreh]

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