Culture, Global


Shimon Ballas is an important Hebrew writer. Born in Baghdad in 1931, he moved to Israel in 1951, and ever since, has been a prolific and effective, if underrepresented, Arabic and Hebrew writer. In an essay by professor and poet Ammiel Alcalay, Ballas remarks:

I’m a Jew by chance — the realm of ideology, ideology as a world view, of Judaism, of Israel, of Hebrew, and the total identity between Hebrew and the Jews — none of that plays that much of a role with me. Zionist ideology is essentially an Ashkenazi ideology that developed in a different culture, in different surroundings, in a different world and which came to claim its stake here in the Middle East through alienation and hostility towards the surroundings, with a rejection of the surroundings, with no acceptance of the environment. I don’t accept any of this, this is all very different from what I am. I am not in conflict with the environment, I came from the Arab environment and I remain in constant colloquy with the Arab environment. I also didn’t change my environment. I just moved from one place to another within it. The whole project of a nationalist conception, of Zionist ideology, of the Jewish point of view, the bonds between Jews in the diaspora and Israel, all of this is quite marginal for me and doesn’t play a major role, it’s not part of my cultural world.

His latest novel, Outcast, is about a Iraqi Jewish convert to Islam. It will appear in English translation on May 1st. Does the quote above convince you to read the book? Why or why not?

13 thoughts on “Oudcast

  1. Why won’t I read the book based on the quote: because he sounds like an alienated jerk not only out of touch with western Jews but with Jews from Arab countries – don’t you just love pompous intellectuals who claim to speak for a group (i.e. Jews from Arab lands)when in fact they speak for the own little group of self haters.

  2. Actually, he’s the exact opposite of a self-hater and a self-denier: he’s true to the part of himself that is Arab and sees the recent nationalist construction (“Israeli” “Zionist”) as synthetic and false — which it is for someone of his age. It’s not his fault that Israeli culture forces Arab Jews – Mizrachim – to choose between two essential elements of their identity and cultural inheritance.
    And by the way, as far as I understand, he writes only in Arabic, not in Hebrew (as it says above). And for that reason, he for the most part unread and unknown because who is his audience? I read in an article in the Israeli magazine Mitzad Shayni that he was nominated for the highest prize for Arabic literature in the country but it was clear that they would never give it to him because he’s a Jew. (Understandable tension – “the Jews also have to come in and take our prizes?”) I think his story illustrates some of the absurdities of the modern state of Israel.

  3. Oh, but I forget the reason I started writing: “oudcast”??? It sounds like the podcast of traditional Arabic music… ; )

  4. Jo,
    according to The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature:
    “Ballas published his first novel in Hebrew in 1964 and has been writing fiction and essays ever since. He has been awarded the Prime Minister`s Prize for Literature twice (1978, 1993) and the President`s Prize for Lifetime Achievement (2006).”
    The Transit Camp (novel), Am Oved, 1964 [Ha-Maabarah]
    Facing the Wall (stories), Massada, 1969 [Mul Ha-Homah]
    Ashab from Baghdad (novel), Am Oved, 1970 [Ashab Mi-Bagdad]
    Clarification (novel), Sifriat Poalim, 1972 [Hitbaharut]
    Arab Literature Under the Shadow of War (non-fiction), Am Oved, 1978 [Ha-Sifrut Ha-Aravit Be-Tzel Ha-Milhamah]
    Downtown (stories), Tarmil, 1979 [Ba-Ir Ha-Tahtit]
    A Locked Room (novel), Zmora-Bitan-Modan, 1980 [Heder Na`ul]
    Last Winter (novel), Keter, 1984 [Horef Aharon]
    The Heir (novel), Zmora-Bitan, 1987 [Ha-Ioresh]
    He Is Different (novel), Zmora-Bitan, 1991; Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2005 [Ve-Hu Aher]
    Signs of Autumn (stories), Zmora-Bitan, 1992 [Otot Stav]
    Not in Her Place (novel), Zmora-Bitan, 1994 [Lo Bimkoma]
    Solo (novel), Sifriat Poalim, 1998 [Solo]
    Tel Aviv East (novel), Bimat Kedem, 1998 [Tel Aviv Mizrah];
    Tel Aviv East-Trilogy (novel), Hakibbutz Hameuchad/Siman Kriah, 2003
    Oudcast, thought it was a clever play on words; his new novel is called Outcast, and the oud, as you said, is the quintessential arabic musical instrument.

  5. “It’s not his fault that Israeli culture forces Arab Jews – Mizrachim – to choose between two essential elements of their identity and cultural inheritance.”
    Actually, I expect it’s the Muslim Arab nations trying to destroy all the Jews of Israel whatever their origin that creates tension between one Arab and Jewish background – I don’t think too many Jewish who escaped from Nazi Germany boasted of their German past when they made it to America.

  6. I dont know any Mizrachi or Sephardic Jews that feel the same way. They all feel a connection to all Jews no matter where they are from. He may be explaining how he genuniely feels, but he is only speaking for himself and not for Mizrachi or Sephardic Jews as a group. I would also like to point out that his life would have been very much different if his family had stayed in Iraq.

  7. Uh, I don’t think he’s trying to speak for anyone- it’s a novel, a complex one at that, which I think only tries to get at some kind of human truth, however confusing, confounding or perplexing that may be. The narrator of the book is in fact based on a real person, Ahmad (Nissim) Soussa, a Jew who stayed in Iraq, converted to Islam in the ’30s and figured into the history of the Hussein regime.
    Truth is complex, and people are complex. You think Germans who escaped Nazi Germany to the US didn’t boast of being German?? Come up to my neighborhood (Washington Heights) sometime and you will hear little old ladies still proudly speaking German as they lunch at Angela’s Diner. Read Peter Gay’s My German Question. German Jews felt profoundly German and it wasn’t a thing to be simply shaken off, no matter what. The protagonist in Outcast is a convert, yet still struggles with his feeling of being an outsider, no matter how much he changes. (I read an excerpt on line, can’t wait till it comes out!)

  8. The quote above does not convince me to read the book. It’s a familiar post-Zionist argument i.e. the author is Mizrahi, Zionism is an Ashkenazi ideology, therefore the author is not a Zionist. But this is rather simplistic for an author who deals with the complexity of identity. My own discussions with Mizrahim in Israel and the Diaspora regarding their relationship to Zionism make it clear things are far more nuanced than the standard post-Zionist rhetoric would lead one to believe. I agree with Ballas that Zionism started as an “Ashkenazi ideology.” I’d also add that it started as a primarily secular ideology. But Zionism, like all ideologies, has changed over time. Who is a Zionist has changed as well. In Israel today, religious Mizrahi Zionists—members of Shas, for example—are not uncommon. I agree rokhl, truth is complex and people are complex but this quote is not.

  9. Interesting. I guess we don’t have many non-Ashkenazi Jews willing to comment; or there aren’t many non-Ashkenazi Jewish readers of Jewschool. I guess there isn’t really a way to know.

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