The Horrific 4 is a fiction series deliberately pushing to an extreme the worse prejudices seen in the Arab world, sometimes with a satirical tone. The aim is to bust the taboos around discussing the real sensitive topics fueling those prejudices. The 4 characters are not meant to represent role models. Both appreciative and unappreciative readers' comments will be published. Insults and derogatory language will be edited out.
When I was approached about writing for a new project called “Free Arabs” I was not interested. It is not that I don’t like Arabs (bil3aks, ya habibi). It is that I do not want to bear the burden of speaking on behalf of the Jews to the Arabs. I mean, ya3ni, good luck with that. Most Arabs already have a fixed image of Jews, even if they have never met one in person. And let’s be honest that it’s not the most wonderful image.
So why even bother writing? I am a 100% hot-headed Mediterranean, but even I don’t have the chutzpah to think that I can change the minds of any Arabs. (“Chutzpah” is a great Hebrew word you can’t quite translate, but the way some people define it is with a man who murders his parents and then begs the judge for mercy because he is an orphan.)
Every word I am writing now is probably a waste of time. I desperately want peace and I want to extend my hand to my cousins, but I am not naïve. A little column on a website will change nothing.
Yet there is one thing that makes me pause. “Free Arabs” – this is an interesting phrase. And suddenly I realize, I am a “free Arab” – and I would argue that we in Israel are the most free Arabs in the world. Now I don’t mean that Arab citizens of Israel have more rights than Arabs elsewhere in the Middle East. That’s a provocative claim to be explored another time. No, what I mean is that we Middle Eastern Jews – who grew up speaking Arabic, who still sing songs in Arabic and watch movies in Arabic and speak Arabic with our non-Jewish neighbors – are the most free Arabs in the world.
Don’t believe me? Watch this. “Fuck you, Netanyahu. And you too Peres. You are sons of whores who belong behind bars.” Under Hosni Mubarak – and now under the new management of that teddy bear Morsi – I could get several years in jail for “defaming the president.” Here hurling nasty insults at political leaders is a sport everyone plays – and prime ministers and presidents actually get convicted of crimes by independent judges.
And if I decide I don’t like being Jewish anymore and want to become Muslim, no one can stop me and no laws will get me arrested. (Just Google “Yosef Mohammed Khatib” to learn about the Jewish kid from New York who became a salafi while studying in Israel and now lives in Jerusalem.)
But we are “free Arabs” in a much more spiritual sense as well. Israel is a huge melting pot from the Arab world. I am North African, carrying in me the distinctive dialects, mentality, and culture of the Maghreb. My wife is half-Iraqi (with some Kurdish roots thrown in) and half-Egyptian. Our friends are Yemeni, Libyan, Syrian, and Lebanese. The old man next door grew up in Sudan. Other neighbors have roots in Bahrain, Kuwait, and even Oman (check out the old Jewish cemetery in Sohar). Not to mention the Palestinians who influence the fabric of our live in all kinds of ways.
You can’t get an Arab cultural mix this rich outside of Mecca during omrah. And here it all fuses together: music, food, poetry, films, and of course our children. We have gorgeous “pan-Arab” kids, combining fine Yemeni features, distinctive Moroccan eyes (okay, a lot of that is Berber), robust Iraqi shoulders, and last but not least Syrian brains. Yes, we Middle Eastern Jews in Israel are the ultimate pan-Arabs - and we are free to explore that cross-cultural mix and blaze new identities in one of the most experimental societies in the world.
One million of us once lived amongst you. Ask your parents or grandparents, many of whom were our neighbors, classmates, and even friends. But in the last few decades we have left – some by choice, others coerced. Today, other than a few thousand left in Morocco and Tunisia and a few hundred elsewhere, we all live crammed into Israel: our new ghetto (or better, call it our mellah, hara, or qa’a).
We may be gone from your neighborhoods but we have left our mark all over the Middle East. In Cairo? Enjoy driving through the Maadi, the southern suburb built by Jewish real estate developers (along with the Helwan train line). In Alexandria? Stop by the neighborhood of Smouha City, named after the Iraqi Jew Joseph Smouha, who drained the swamps outside downtown to build a beautiful new suburb that still bears his name (Gamal Abdel Nasser expelled Smouha one night with nothing but his pajamas).
And we weren’t just in the big cities. Head out to the middle of the Sahara in Algeria, by the old Jewish trading hub of Tamentit, and you can still find the “Jews’ Casbah” – a desert storehouse where my ancestors stored their wares for centuries before they were expelled in a brutal attack in (of all years!) 1492.
But now, thanks to the Internet, we are (at least virtually) your neighbors again. Maybe we can even become friends…
Ah, who am I kidding?