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Ammiel Alcalay on Mizrahi Literature

© 2002, NITLE

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Mizrahi is the term that refers to Jewish communities of Middle Eastern origin in Israel. In this portion of the interview Ammiel Alcalay, who has done much work on Mizrahi Literature, including translation of a substantial body of this work, is asked to introduce the literature to those unfamiliar with it. He does so by placing it within a larger context, pointing out that much of what might be considered classical Jewish literature comes out of an a hispano, Arab, Jewish atmosphere. Islamic Spain is well represented by figures such as Maïmonides, but little else is represented, although such production went on well into the 20th century. He argues that there are literally thousands of writers producing a wide variety of texts, but they are not well known outside of Israel were they are bound by ideological considerations. No serious literary history has been written, and the literature is neglected, even suppressed. Alcalay’s anthology of Mazrahi literature, Keys to the Garden included 24 writers, 22 of whom were living at the time. But when he was putting it together he found that most of the writers were not even aware of each other's existence due to their lack of access to public discursive space. It took his anthology, published outside the country, to make the people in it understand they were part of a larger group. Eventually two of the writers included in the anthology started their own press and published an anthology of their own that went from the pre-state period to the present day. He explains that he called his book an “anthology of new Israeli writing? because he wanted not to be marginalized, and also to point out the irony of the fact that traditional anthologies of Israeli literature usually do not have Mizrahim in them, whereas his anthology had no Ashkenazim (Jews of European descent) in it. He then addresses some of the characteristic of the literature, arguing that it is both highly innovative and “incredibly painful.? He then gives a number of examples of writers from Morocco, Iraq, Egypt and other Arab countries who are attempting to come to terms with their identity through their writing. He then briefly discusses the reception of this literature in the United States and compares it to writing by other minority groups, such as those from the Caribbean, Africa, and other places. Today most of these writers write in Hebrew, though some such as the Iraqi Samir Naqash, write in Arabic.

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