Journalist Massoud Hayoun is the author of a new memoir, When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family's Forgotten History, which explores his own family's Jewish and Arab roots. He will speak at Source Booksellers (4240 Cass Avenue, Suite 105 in Detroit) on Friday, July 12th, at 6:00pm. We wanted to know more about the issues he explores in his new book, so we asked him a few questions…
1. You identify as a Jewish Arab. What is a Jewish Arab? Explain the significance of that term and why you embrace it.
A Jewish Arab is an intentionally nebulous and confusing thing. Ultimately, my identity is a choice that forces people to question everything they know about their own colorized, national, faith-based, gender, and other identities — at least that’s the aim. I am not the first to identify as a Jewish Arab. But when I choose it, it is designed to stun, particularly in this current political and social environment, because we all deserve to be stunned into sobriety in this moment of confusion and weaponized identities. It is also a term that allows me to — without shame or apology — embrace all of the belonging that is my family’s legacy.
2. Your memoir started as a collaboration with your grandmother. Tell us about the inspiration for this project. What did you want people to learn from her stories?
I was living in New York, smoking outside my building, chatting with my grandmother on the phone about my experiences as a reporter for the now-defunct media outlet Al Jazeera America. So for hours, we were ruminating on what Arabness means — what it meant in the past and what it should mean — and where we as a Jews fit into that broader fabric. We chose in 2015, with international news as it was at the time, that it was the right moment to shift the discourse.
My grandmother’s stories mean a lot of things to me. They show how identity should be fluid enough for a woman to choose a strikingly different identity in her last weeks of life (she died three months after we got our contract with our publisher). They also show that if we don’t condescend to our elders— particularly older women — they can stand to reveal themselves as revolutionary philosophers.
3. In your memoir, you connect the stories of your family to the larger story of Jewish Arabs. What is that larger story?
The story of the Jewish Arabs is, of course, diverse — the Arab world is diverse and a great many proponents of the Arab identity today are keen to welcome that diversity. For my family and those like us, our story is one of resilience and survival, in the face of the eras of oppression we faced in our home countries. But it is not only a story of oppression; it’s also a story about a religious minority helping to build what became modern Arab societies. It then becomes a story of psychological manipulation-as-foreign policy, under the various colonial regimes we lived. Finally, for my family — as I discuss in the book — it’s a story of rejecting those colonial machinations and returning to something that feels more authentic.
4. How do your Arab roots influence your Judaism? Can you give us an example of a Jewish custom or celebration that is different for a Jewish Arab than a Jew who is not Arab?
There are good and bad things about the influence of the Arab culture on my religious practice. I write in the book that my synagogue growing up placed women at the back, behind a wooden barrier — my mother hardly saw my bar mitzvah. This is the case at a lot of mosques attended by Muslim Arabs; the spirituality of women is physically forced to take a back seat. But overall, I would say that what was Arab about our Judaism was beautiful: On Passover, we would flush wine meant to represent the 10 Plagues and the women would do an Arabic ululation. Arabness infused many other things. On Shabbat, one of our prayers at our synagogue would be chanted to the tune of popular Arabic music from the 40s and 50s — for example, Asmahan’s Layalee Ons Fi Vienna, a song known by most Arabs, regardless of religion.
5. What do you hope Jews take away from your memoir? What do you hope Arabs get out of it?
I hope that Jews feel empowered to identify ourselves in whatever way feels authentic and enriching to us. I want us to realize that the forces that would like us to have no simultaneous identities or allegiances are responsible for the global populist wave and the suffering it wreaks on so many families trying live in safety and dignity.
I hope that Arabs feel that our many diverse peoples are much greater and more beautiful than anything we’ve been taught to believe for the past several centuries of imperialist domination — psychological and physical. I hope that at the end of the day, this book fights for dignity for our families in a time when we are constantly assailed, in our region and abroad. I hope it acts as a rallying cry for us to build relationships with others struggling for dignity and ensure a bright future for our children.
This book is dedicated to our youth. That “our” is — coming from a North African Jewish Arab American Angeleno who embraces the Indigenous and Mexican cultural heritage of his city and is left-handed — intentionally vague.