Samir Naqqash – Exiled from Babylon | Neri Livneh

Naqqash in 1985: Despite winning prizes for his work, he still felt frustrated and discriminated against. CC: Haaretz.com

Israel was a bitter disappointment to Jewish-Iraqi author Samir Naqqash, who lived most of his life in Petah Tikva – writing brilliant works in Arabic and dreaming of a return to his native country.

Last month, writer Samir Naqqash died in Petah Tikva at the age of 66, after suffering a heart attack. Naqqash was an Iraqi Jew who wrote in Arabic, an author whose greatness was recognized by researchers and by the literary world, but he had few readers. Two weeks before his death, he returned here from Manchester, ostensibly like any good Zionist, and was buried in Israeli soil. But Naqqash was never a Zionist; he spent most of his life full of longing for other countries, and yearned to flee from here. He considered Zionism a racist movement, anti-Mizrahi (referring to Jews of North African or Middle Eastern origin), and saw Israel as a state that turned its back on those who don't belong to, or support, the Ashkenazi establishment, comprised of Jews of European origin.

"All his life, he struggled to find readers for himself," says writer Sami Michael, a native of Baghdad. "A struggle that was doomed to failure from the start, because of his stubbornness and his insistence on continuing to write in Arabic." Naqqash's good friend and teacher, Prof. Shmuel Moreh, says that "Samir used to send his books – by registered mail yet, and of course without a request for payment – to any Arab who greeted him on the street, and that's how he found readers for himself."

Naqqash, who lived most of his life in the Amishav neighborhood in Petah Tikva, very close to the site of the ma'abara (transit camp) tent to which he was brought at the age of 13 with his family, never wrote in Hebrew. All the 13 books that he published, most of them on his own, were written in Arabic, and not simply in standard literary Arabic, which any reader of the language can understand, but in various dialects that had already begun to disappear from the world when Naqqash was a boy. That is why even now – after the Arabic press and Internet sites have become filled with eulogies and praise of his work, repeatedly citing the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz's description of Naqqash as "one of the greatest artists in writing in Arabic" – we cannot expect his literary output to enjoy a revival after his death.

"We can assume that in another 10 or 20 years, there will be nobody who can understand his language," was the regretful comment of writer Shimon Ballas, another native of Baghdad. "And that's a great shame. He's a writer of exceptional talent."

Naqqash never wanted to be here, and certainly had no wish to become integrated into Israeli society. "They humiliated us terribly," he said six years ago, in an interview for the weekly Petah Tikva paper Melabes. "Already during the first days, we wanted to return home." He said that his parents understood the mistake they had made when they decided to immigrate to Israel in 1951, and turned to the Interior Ministry to request passports. "The clerk told us `You have no passport. You're staying here, and go back home immediately,'" Naqqash said.

From that time on, he never lost his desire to find another place of residence for himself. He defined himself as a Jewish Iraqi. He repeatedly voiced anti-Zionist views, and was even willing to publish them in Al Mutamar (The Congress), the newspaper of the Iraqi National Congress – Iraqi exiles in London who opposed the regime of Saddam Hussein – which was published in Britain until the beginning of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

"There is no question that he was a person with a self-destructive mechanism," says Sami Michael. "You can see it even in his decision to write in Arabic. As opposed to myself and Shimon Ballas, who came from Iraq at a more mature age and were already writers and in spite of that became accustomed to writing in Hebrew, he came to Israel as a child, and could easily have become accustomed to writing in Hebrew. And it wasn't that he didn't know Hebrew: He spoke Hebrew well, and read Hebrew, but he wasn't willing to write."

Naqqash was born in the Jewish Quarter in Baghdad, the eldest son of the owner of a spare parts business. His mother was a midwife. After him his parents had another five children, the youngest of whom, Ruth Vigiser, was born in Israel. "In Iraq we had a very good life. We had a house with 11 rooms and servants, and we studied at good schools. He was a year and a half older than I, and I adored him," says his sister Samira Yosef. "He was my childhood hero, and crazy about books. From a very early age … he was mesmerized by books. We read a book about Marie Curie together, and he dreamt of being a scientist and inventing an elixir of life, and I dreamt of going to Paris and studying at the Sorbonne. I followed him everywhere, and when he went to school I cried so much that my parents sent me too, and we studied in the same class for a while. Afterward they separated us."

Escape to Lebanon

And then the family decided to leave Iraq. "Why did we come on aliyah? Everyone immigrated at the time," says Samira Yosef. "There was a mass immigration and it was very, very traumatic." Her older brother saw the aliyah not as a "Zionist choice" of his parents, but as a consequence of a joint conspiracy by Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and the Iraqi government, which wanted to get rid of the Jews of Iraq in return for money. "You have to understand," explains Prof. Moreh, who himself came with his parents from Baghdad at the time, "that the Jews of Iraq were divided into three groups. There were the Zionists, who were organized in an underground; there were the communists, like Sami Michael and Shimon Ballas, who dreamt of an equal and universal classless society; and there were Iraqi patriots – mainly officials, doctors, lawyers, writers and poets."

The Zionists and the communists, says Moreh, came to Israel. "The Jewish Iraqi patriots remained in Iraq for the most part, and Naqqash, who in terms of his feeling and his awareness was actually one of them, was brought to Israel with his family, and that is the basis of the tragedy of his life. Several times he even claimed to me that in effect he didn't come on aliyah from Iraq – he was expelled from there, as though he had been expelled from the Garden of Eden. Don't forget that in Baghdad he was an eldest son, and of course very talented and with exceptional verbal ability, and that's why he was also very spoiled. The transition to the situation in Israel, of the transit camp and the humiliation, for him constituted a tragedy that meant the destruction of his childhood."

A short time after their arrival in Israel, the youngest son died, under circumstances that the sisters refuse to discuss. "We came here, and it was a very great disappointment," says Samira Yosef. "We were very humiliated, and as a result, my father died very young, two years after our arrival. He died, like my brother, of cardiac arrest. We were in tents for the first two months, in the Sha'ar Ha'aliyah camp, and then spent a year and a half in tents in the Amishav camp, and then we were there for eight years in shacks, until they built apartment houses."

In Baghdad, the children studied in expensive private schools; in Israel they had a shock in the area of education as well. "Samir and I studied a little in elementary school, but afterward we weren't sent to any high school," says Samira. "So we went to work at all kinds of odd jobs. We worked in agriculture, for example." That was also when her brother started to write stories, which he kept to himself; some of them record the transit camp experiences.

In the Melabes interview, Naqqash said: "Already at the beginning, we wanted to return home. For us, the Zionist idea was empty. They brought us as cannon fodder. To fight in the wars, and to build the country with the sweat of our brows for the government and its worthy sons. We couldn't stand it."

The disappointment experienced by the family in the Interior Ministry didn't prevent Naqqash from trying to leave the country. When he was 15, a short time after the death of his father, he heard a rumor about an Iraqi immigrant who had succeeded in fleeing Israel – crossing the border to Lebanon and from there going to London. Naqqash and his cousin, who was 17, decided to do the same. He packed all his writings and traveled with his cousin to Moshav Margaliot in the north. From there, from a fig grove, they crossed the border and were immediately caught by Lebanese policemen. They were transferred to a military camp and held in detention in comfortable conditions, said Naqqash in one of the interviews, because the Lebanese policemen were sympathetic to the distress of the two boys.

News of the escape and detention was not published in the Hebrew press, and the Israeli government conducted quiet negotiations for their return. After about half a year, during all of which time the relatives of the two had no idea where they were, they were returned to Israel. Their first stop was the Tiberias police station. They were interrogated there for a month, and afterward were indicted for transmitting information to the enemy, but the judge released them for lack of evidence and lack of guilt. This trial wasn't publicized in the press either, and Naqqash's family found out about his adventures only after he returned home.

Naked gods

His failed attempt to escape only intensified Naqqash's decision to leave Israel. Even before he was 18, says his sister, his trips to Iran – then Persia – Turkey and India began. "He didn't find himself here," says Samira. "And he also thought he might find family and some of the family property there. He lived in Persia for a few years, and then for a few years in Bombay and in Turkey, and he also wrote about that period in his stories. Only years after his return, in 1968, did we both go to the Ministry of Education, and we took a list of books and studied together for external bagrut matriculation exams in all the subjects."

In an interview four years ago, Naqqash said that he would never have returned from abroad had his widowed mother not needed him. When he returned he studied accounting, so that he could help support the family. After he received his bagrut certificate, and his drawers became full of writings that he hadn't succeeded in publishing yet ("I think that almost all his books were already in the drawer 30 years ago," says Ballas), he decided to move to Jerusalem.

"He came to our house," says Moreh, the man who helped Naqqash more than anyone else, raising money to publish most of his books, writing prefaces for them and recommending them for prizes. "My father was a wealthy man, and Samir heard that we had been neighbors of his family in Baghdad," says Moreh. "Actually, he came to my father to ask for financial assistance, in order to publish his first book, `Al Khata' (The Mistake). That was in 1971, when he was already over 30 years old, and my father asked him: `How much money do you need?' He mentioned a sum, and my father gave him the typical Iraqi advice: `Wouldn't you be better off taking that money and getting married, instead of wasting it on a book in Arabic that nobody will read?'"

Apparently, in the end Moreh's father gave him the money, and Naqqash's book was published. "Immediately, one could see his great talent, the talent for storytelling and the writing talent and the verbal genius of Samir Naqqash," says Prof. Moreh. "I told him already then, you have rare talents, you should go over to Hebrew, otherwise the Arabs will consider you a Jew and the Jews an Arab – as in fact happened. But he said to me, Arabic is my mother tongue, and only in it can I express myself precisely, only in it can I be a writer. I told him, do as you wish, but it's a shame that your greatness won't be recognized."

Naqqash registered to study Persian and Arabic language and literature, at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he studied with Moreh as well. In order to make a living, he worked as a news editor on Israel's Arabic radio station, and lived in the student dormitories, and later in a rented apartment in the city. Soon Moreh also discovered his difficult nature: "He was ambitious as a student, with exaggerated self confidence, and he wanted to run things and invent the rules by himself. On the one hand, self- confidence is good, but on the other hand, when it's exaggerated it's damaging, and it definitely damaged his academic career.

"I remember that I told him that he should write his master's thesis in Hebrew, so it could be published and people could react. In response, he sent me a registered letter, no less, in which he wrote that he had sought legal advice, and had discovered that he could sue me if I tried to force him to write the paper in Hebrew. That shocked me, I must say, and when I met him I said to him: Do as you wish, I was simply thinking of your own good. And by the way, he received a grade of `excellent' on his master's thesis. He was a very stubborn person, but on the other hand he was also very friendly, and he made friends very easily – mainly with Arabs, and they admired him."

For years, Naqqash claimed in interviews that he hadn't received a doctorate because he was discriminated against in the university because of his origin. Once he even implied that Prof. Dov Noy, a widely praised expert on folklore, had tripped him up out of envy of his greatness as a writer. "He even asked me why I needed a doctorate, since I was a world-renowned writer about whom people wrote doctoral dissertations."

The truth, according to Moreh, is entirely different. "I greatly admired the tremendous treasury of poems and songs and riddles that he had brought with him from Iraq," says Moreh. "And one must remember that he was only 13 when he came. The treasure that he managed to accumulate by this age truly amazed me." Moreh says that he suggested to Naqqash that he serve as his doctoral mentor, along with Prof. Dov Noy, who is an expert on folklore and folktales. "But Samir was of a different opinion. He wanted someone else, who didn't even have a doctorate yet, to be his mentor in folklore. I told him that the doctoral committee wouldn't approve that. But somehow he saw that too as a kind of discrimination, instead of understanding that the academic world has rules."

Naqqash's revenge wasn't long in coming. He wrote a book entitled "The Nakedness of the Gods," "in which the naked gods were of course the professors at the university, including me," says Moreh. "The novel is structured like Joyce's `Ulysses' – 24 hours from the time the hero leaves the university until he arrives in London, with everything written in flashback. He describes a meeting that did in fact take place between us in the university bathrooms. And he writes there: `I told the professor, I'm about to get married, help me find work in the department as an assistant.' That really happened, and I thought it was very improper to make such a request in the bathroom, but still I said to him: I'll bring your request to the department council, and I did so. But the council didn't accept his candidacy and he, years later, in an interview, said that Shmuel Moreh and Sasson Somekh didn't want to work with him, because they were afraid that he knew everything better than the two of them."

Dreams of a Nobel

Naqqash was already a well known writer among Arab intellectuals all over the world. His first five books, which were published before 1980 – all privately, and with money from foundations, which Moreh made an effort to obtain for him – were distributed among concentrations of Iraqi exiles, not necessarily Jewish, in Europe and all over the United States, and after the peace agreement, even in Egypt. After that he wrote no fewer than eight additional books, says Moreh.

Naqqash's unique style immediately brought him admirers. "There's nobody like him who knows the various dialects that were used in Baghdad," says Moreh. "There was the Jewish dialect and the Muslim dialect and the Christian dialect and the dialects of rich and poor, and each of these groups had its own folklore as well. And he, who came to Israel at the age of 13, managed to absorb all the dialects and folklore so perfectly, as well as the layers of Iraqi Arabic, which included Turkish, Persian, Hebrew and English influences. So although he wrote in Arabic, we have to be grateful for the fact that at least he agreed to write his dialogues in Judeo-Iraqi, which was the Arabic language spoken by the Jews from the period of Caliph Harun al-Rashid, in the eighth century. This language has already become extinct, and that's why his books are also a treasure for linguists and historians of the Arabic language."

Naqqash's stories, says Moreh, are autobiographical for the most part, "but he endowed them with philosophical, historical significance. He was strongly influenced by the stream of consciousness writers, and his books are written in stream of consciousness, with a great deal of surrealism and many absurdities. He was influenced by James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Kafka, Sartre and Camus, all of whom he read in Arabic translation. I acknowledged his greatness, and I knew that he was the greatest, not only among the Iraqi Jews, but among all the writers in Arab countries."

Several dozen master's and doctoral dissertations have been written about Naqqash's work, in departments of Arabic literature and language in many countries. "He is taught in foreign universities," says his nephew Kobi Yosef, "but not in Israeli universities."

Lital Levy, who is writing her doctoral dissertation in comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, met Naqqash four years ago. "I came here to study Naqqash's books with Prof. Sasson Somekh," she says. "I published one article about Naqqash, and now I'm working on another one. He's a very special writer. He describes the world of Baghdad, a world that disappeared when he was still a child, as though it were alive. In terms of language, his stories are rich in a way that's hard to describe, and in terms of content he describes experiences that were already anachronistic in the 1940s. He has stories that are completely surrealistic and fantastic, and on the other hand, stories of social realism. He also has stories about ghosts and superstitions, and he documents a very rich folklore of various ethnic groups and countries."

"My brother was a person who knew everything," says Ruth Vigiser, "and his command of various Iraqi dialects made his books impossible to translate. He also wrote in a philosophical and very lofty language. It's very difficult to translate the many layers of his language into other languages. I myself translated the story `The Day the Universe Conceived and Miscarried' into Hebrew for him. Because I only speak Arabic but don't read it, because I was born in Israel, he would call me and explain, and I would translate. In the end I think that this translation, which was published by Sifriat Hapoalim and is the only translation of his work into Hebrew, doesn't really do justice to the book."

Vigiser also expressed her admiration on the Web site that she established for him a few years ago. On the site, she invites surfers to recommend her brother for a Nobel Prize. Apparently he liked the idea, too. "He was sure he'd receive a Nobel Prize," says Moreh. "He told me so more than once, when he was still in Jerusalem. He said that he was sure he deserved the prize. I told him, it's true that you're a genius, but who will give you a Nobel Prize? You're an Israeli Jew who writes in Arabic. On whose behalf will you receive the prize?"

Even readers of Arabic – and Naqqash was aware of that – need a translation from the dialects to Arabic. In some of his books, the pages are divided into two parts: On the bottom half, Naqqash himself translated the stories into standard literary Arabic. Kobi Yosef, who teaches in the Department of Arabic Language and Literature at Tel Aviv University, says that he can't read his uncle's books without the translation.

When asked in an interview for a literary supplement why he insisted on continuing to write in such complicated language, Naqqash naively replied: Why is it that when a writer like James Joyces does that in his book `Ulysses,' the whole world salutes his genius, whereas when Naqqash does it, everyone comes to him with complaints?

In 1981, Naqqash received the Prime Minister's Prize for Arabic literature for the first time, for "Yawm Habalat Wa Ajhadat Al Doonia" (The Day the Universe Conceived and Miscarried). "We of the Department of Arabic Language and Literature, recommended him," says Moreh. The decision to award the prize for Arabic literature to a Jew repeatedly aroused the anger of Arabic writers.

But even the prizes didn't diminish his feeling of being shortchanged. In order to make a living, he translated literature and documents from Hebrew to Arabic. He translated the Oslo Accords into Arabic, as well as "My Country" by Abba Eban. "He translated one of my books," says Ballas. But when Naqqash was asked to translate Sami Michael's book "Victoria," "for some reason he considered it humiliating," says Moreh. "He protested – how can it be that I, the foremost Iraqi Jewish writer, I, the greatest of them all, have to translate a writer who is inferior to me?"

At the age of 44, Samir Naqqash married Victoria. "But he had many girlfriends before that," says his sister Samira. "He was simply busy writing. He considered writing and being a writer his destiny." Victoria Naqqash refused to be interviewed for this article, and did not allow us to speak with their three children. "Everything there is to tell about him has already been written, and my story and that of the children is nobody's business," she said over the phone.

Naqqash himself, when he wasn't blaming the university or the State of Israel for his failures, tended to blame his wife. "She is a delaying factor in my continued development and progress as a writer," he said in one of the interviews. "During the years of my marriage I published books that I had written before I got married, but I haven't been able to create almost any real work during the years since my marriage. My wife is not willing to help support the family. I would expect her to leave me free time in order to create, because that is my fulfillment."

Life with a bitter man who barely made a living, and spent his time thinking about fleeing from Israel, certainly could not have been easy for his wife and children. Naqqash sent his children, a daughter and two sons, to religious schools, although he himself was secular. "Like all Iraqis," explains his sister Samira, "we observed holidays and customs. For him, tradition was also connected to romanticism. He was a romantic, and for him, tradition was a longing for life as it was in Baghdad before he immigrated to Israel."

Escape from Egypt

One of the people to whom Naqqash sent his books was Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz. "Mahfouz was a great admirer of Samir Naqqash's books," says Moreh, "and they started to correspond and to meet." Naqqash began to travel to Egypt regularly. "He went there in 1982 for the first time and met Naguib Mahfouz," says his sister Ruth. "On one of the next visits he took me with him, and I met Mahfouz in Cairo, at the Cleopatra cafe, and it was an exceptional experience."

Naqqash got to know all the important writers there; they treated him with respect and admiration, and his friendship with Mahfouz deepened. That's how he got the idea of going to live in Egypt. "In 1991 he took his religious, kippa-wearing children to Egypt," says Moreh. "I warned him. I told him, it's a known fact that the Egyptians regard every foreigner as an enemy and a spy. But he told me, they appreciate me there very much. There I can live from my books like a king. What happened was that after three months he and the whole family returned here, because the Egyptians almost lynched him."

"There was something strange about him," says Sami Michael. "All his life he wanted to return to Iraq, but actually, he had an intense hatred of Arabs. I have letters that out of respect for him I'm not publicizing, in which he writes to me how much he hates Arabs. But in spite of the fact that he hated Arabs, he wanted to live in Iraq, or Jordan, or Egypt. Fortunately for him he was a coward, and therefore he didn't travel to Iraq or to Jordan, and he returned from Egypt because of his fear. Had he been courageous, he would have fulfilled his desires and been killed. The cowardice kept him alive, until in the end he died of a broken heart and disappointment and bitterness."

He felt that the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the establishment of a binational state under Palestinian leadership, but he claimed that he wouldn't be willing to live in such a state. "I prefer to live in my first homeland, in Iraq, rather than in a binational Israel under Palestinian leadership, although not in Saddam Hussein's Iraq" – because he had written "two symbolic stories" against Saddam's regime, and feared his revenge. In various interviews, Naqqash said that the Arab world would never accept the existence of Israel, which is an alien Western implant in an Eastern world. However, he was torn. "I also reject Western culture," he said. "This is a struggle of spiritual culture versus material culture," and "Arabic literature is much better than Western literature."

To Lital Levy, who met him only once, at the end of 2000, he said: "I'm a Jewish Arab. First in Iraq I was a Jewish Iraqi, and here in Israel I'm also a Jewish Iraqi." She understood from him that his life's dream was to escape from Israel. "It was somewhat saddening to see him," she says. "He lived very modestly, almost in poverty, and was such a well known and important writer in the Arab world."

Six years ago, Naqqash announced his intention of settling in England. As usual, at the same opportunity he gave interviews to newspapers, and described his disappointment with the Zionist state that discriminates against the Mizrahim: "I look at my brothers, members of the Mizrahi ethnic groups; they will never lift their heads here. They will always be humiliated and treated as second-class citizens." He expressed his disappointment with the literary establishment, which in his opinion should have recognized him as an "asset" and didn't do so because "the writers who are admired here are all part of the establishment."

"He wanted me to recommend him as a lecturer in the Middle Eastern Center at the University of Manchester," says Moreh. "I wrote him an excellent recommendation, but he wasn't accepted, apparently because he didn't speak English well enough. When his younger son turned 13, his parents took him for a bar mitzvah trip to England, and visited Manchester as well. They were very impressed by the city and discovered that it was a much cheaper place to live than London. "Within eight days I found a house," Naqqash told Melabes in 2002, in his last interview before his trip. "It's old, but it's big. There's a garden, too."

Al Mutamar offered Naqqash work. "He wrote a column in the newspaper, and sometimes wrote anti-Israeli items as well as stories that showed the Jews in a negative light," says Moreh. "And this in spite of the fact that he was a Jew who was very dedicated to Judaism. Apparently he preferred the naivete and hospitality that in his opinion characterized the Arabs, and that's why he preferred Arabs. When he was invited, they told him they would give him a good monthly salary, and he saw that as an opportunity to improve the family's financial situation. In the end, of course, he complained to me in letters that they were shortchanging him and paying him only 600 pounds sterling a month, so that even from a financial point of view it wasn't a wise decision, and his wife was forced to work in Manchester in order to help support the family."

A year and a half ago, when Iraq was captured and Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled, the paper closed and the entire editorial staff moved to Iraq. "They invited Samir to join them," says Moreh, "but he was afraid to return to Iraq. All his talk about returning to Iraq was more on the plane of fantasy and longing." Naqqash remained in Manchester with his family, without work. Moreh says that he considered the fact that his fellow journalists had left him alone as a betrayal. For about a year, other Iraqi exiles supported the family, and when he was left with no money he gave in and decided to return to Israel, so that he could at least receive the National Insurance Institute allotment. Again the trip here was accompanied by a sense of humiliation.

About two months ago, Naqqash and his family returned to their home in the Amishav neighborhood. For the first time in his life he discovered, as he told a friend, that there is no place like Israel for Jews to live. "She told me that at the funeral," says Moreh. "I was very sad to hear it, because I consider Samir Naqqash a tragic hero. Like the hero of Gogol's story `The Cloak,' every time life offered something he wanted, it was taken from him. He never made his peace with the aliyah to Israel, and all his life he longed to return to Iraq. And when he had already accepted life in Israel, he died suddenly, and now the Iraqi government has announced that it is distributing passports to the Jews who left the country. That was Samir's dream, to return and to be an Iraqi citizen."

 This article was first published on Haaretz.com 

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