Book Review | When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History

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When We Were Arabs by Massoud Hayoun cover artReclaiming the Identity of the Jewish Arab

When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History

Massoud Hayoun

The New Press

Modern-day depictions of Muslims and Arabs can paint them as one and the same, inseparable. But Massoud Hayoun’s love letter to his grandparents is an attempt to highlight the experience of the Jewish Arab while making sense of their lives under European colonial rule and in relation to Zionism.

When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History discusses what it means to be Arab. It not only acts as a biography of the author’s Jewish grandparents, it gives an alternative perspective on Zionism with a comparison to the colonization of the Arab world.

Hayoun tells the story of his grandfather Oscar’s life under British rule in Egypt and of his grandmother Daida living in French-occupied Tunisia. There’s a big focus on how the colonizers attempted to strip away the culture of the native population and replace it with their own. And to some degree, their campaign worked, as many Arabs growing up in that world attempted to emulate Western culture and saw it as superior to that of their ancestors. The Westerners in the book aimed to divide and conquer by separating the Jewish Arabs of the region from their Muslim counterparts, two groups that had lived in peace for generations.

Eventually, Oscar and Daida left their homelands for France, the idealized world of the colonizers that did not live up to their expectations. The “civilized world” was not all that it seemed. And now, stripped of their former citizenship, the couple immigrated to the United States where they lived out their days in Los Angeles.

The author, despite his Jewish heritage, identifies more with his Arab roots and is not entirely friendly to Zionism, drawing parallels between the colonization of North Africa by white Europeans and the establishment of the state of Israel. His conflicted feelings about Israel as a Jewish state are clear, as he grapples with the way Jews of color are still marginalized there.

The first half of the book can be a bit of a slog to get through. A couple of the early chapters are intended for setting the foundation for the text, providing context for the world Oscar and Daida inhabited.

It explains the origins of Arabs and the introduction of Judaism to the region along with the strategies and results of the colonization of Arabs, specifically, Jewish Arabs. However, the academic tone of these sections aren’t as much of a breeze to read through as the tales told about the grandparents’ lives.

When We Were Arabs is an intriguing read for anyone interested in furthering their understanding of complex identities and mixed cultural heritage. “To breathe life into the Jewish Arab is to redefine the Arab,” writes Hayoun, who wants to transform the notion of Arabness. The reader will walk away with a newfound perspective on Jewish identity from a voice that is not always at the forefront of the discussion.

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