Citizen of the Middle East: Writer Sami Michael is Jewish, speaks Arabic and is both Iraqi and Israeli
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 8 July 2003)

HAIFA, Israel - Sami Michael grew up in Baghdad speaking Arabic, inside a Jewish family that may have been in Iraq since Babylonian times. In his foolish youth he became a communist. That made him unpopular with the police, and in 1951 he thought it best to emigrate. He went briefly to Iran and then to the infant state of Israel. From the window of his plane he glimpsed white houses dotting the side of a green mountain by the sea. This was Haifa, romantic Haifa, where he has been ever since, now a much admired 77-year-old author, still convinced that he lives in "the most sane city in the Middle East."

He knew no Hebrew when he arrived, so he lived among Israeli Arabs and wrote fiction in Arabic about Jewish life in places like Iraq. This made him the perfect citizen of Haifa, which dreams of cosmopolitanism and sometimes even makes the dream come true. Israel began as a Jewish state and wants to stay that way, but it's also pluralist.

The population contains vast numbers of Russian Jews, many Ethiopian Jews, and thousands of non-Jewish guest workers from Thailand, Rumania and Ukraine, among other places. Talking to Israelis, you sense they are edging toward a self-image something like Canada's (good-hearted, tolerant, multicultural) but must enact this delicate transformation against a morally devastated background of hatred, murder and intense disillusionment.

In Rehovot, a cinderblock landscape south of Tel Aviv, I spent time at a centre for the absorption of Ethiopian Jews. They've been through multiple hells: national poverty, famine, anti-Semitism and (often) forced conversion to Christianity. I spoke to one woman who wore a Star of David on a chain around her neck and had a blue cross tattooed on her forehead. Israel wants desperately to integrate its Ethiopians but so far hasn't figured out how to do it. I sat for a while with a class of women learning elder-care, and was startled to find that many of them (residents of Israel for six to 12 years) knew little or no Hebrew and spoke mainly to each other.

In a kindergarten we visitors were issued drumsticks so we could play a percussion piece with some of the most lovable children I've ever encountered. The Ethiopians of all ages project a sweetness and eagerness, but I had a sense they were over-managed. Some well-intentioned mistakes have left them living in self-contained Ethiopian communities, hardly the path to cultural integration. Recently I learned that six ministries of the Israeli government have lately been brought together in a national program to absorb Ethiopians. Have any immigrants, anywhere, managed to succeed while their lives were organized by six government offices?

Haifa, which has been ethnically mixed for as long as anyone can remember, takes pride in its Arab/Jewish cultural centre, Beit Hagefen, a name that means House of Peace or House of Wine, as you choose. The director, Mordecai Peri, says a lack of religious passion happily separates Haifa from the rest of Israel; it's the only Jewish city in the country that runs streetcars on Saturday.

In his boardroom, with its Arabic touches (thimbles of thick black coffee on a round, brass-topped table), Peri suggested Haifa was fortunate to have no connections to major prophets ("Mohammed was not here, Jesus was not here, and Moses was not here"). Haifa does contain the major shrine of Baha'i, but that quasi-Islamic omnisect dedicates itself to tolerance among all nations and religions.

It was Arab Cultural Month at Beit Hagefen, and the art curator, Hana Kofler, had organized an exhibition of Arab art that ran from the highly sophisticated to the folkloric to the frankly derivative, the last being represented by a Druze artist's multiple self-portrait frankly titled with the name of the artist and his inspiration: "Andy Warhol/Asad Azi." Other artists worked variations on current events, from Israeli tanks entering Palestinian villages to the wall the Israelis are building to protect themselves from bombers.

In the long-running unpeace of Israel, Sami Michael remains willing to see the Arab view. He's never been the most enthusiastic Israeli. He's a patriot, and wouldn't live anywhere else, but he considers Zionism an ideology, outdated like all ideologies. An anti-Zionist Israeli patriot might seem an impossible idea; in Israel, it's just one contradiction in a culture embracing thousands of them.

Eventually Michael crossed the divide from Arabic literature to Hebrew. It took about 15 years, and was accomplished without Hebrew lessons. "Hebrew came to me through my ears, like music. I am still constructing my own individual Hebrew." In both languages he's been praised for writing about Arabs as an Arab, about Jews as a Jew. He wrote A Trumpet in the Wadi about the mingling of cultures in the valley at the centre of Haifa. He set it in 1982 and placed a Russian at the heart of the story. Few Russians were then coming to Israel, but the book's appearance in 1987 coincided with a wave of Soviet immigrants. Thirty printings in Hebrew have sold 150,000 copies, and a stage adaptation has been produced three times. The touching, funny movie version has lately been making the rounds of the film festivals, and next month Simon & Schuster brings out an English translation of the novel.

The story's appeal lies in a multiplied exoticism, perhaps typical of Israeli culture today. Huda, the narrator, a young Christian Arab, lives in the Arab section of Haifa. She and her family are surrounded by Muslim Arabs, who in turn are surrounded by Israeli Jews, who (in a famous national image) exist as a tiny nation in the vast sea of Arabia. Into this Russian-doll existence comes an actual Russian, Alex, a Jew. He's a small, shy trumpet-playing student of engineering who can speak neither Hebrew nor Arabic (the two languages which otherwise casually mix on the soundtrack) but soon proves both brave and charming. Naturally, Huda and Alex fall in love; but naturally, this being Israel, Alex soon goes off to the army.

The layering of that narrative, like Sami Michael's life itself, illustrates a remark made by a man interviewed in a recent documentary about Iraqi-born Israelis. He said he embraces his cultural background because it feels "like baklava -- each layer of my personality loves the other."

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