الأدب الشعبيّ اليهوديّ العراقيّ ومفهوم اليهوديّ العربيّ

Translated title of the contribution: Judeo-Iraqi popular literature and the meaning of the Arab-Jew

Orit Bashkin*, Uri Horesh

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

This article proposes that the Arab culture of Iraqi Jews was not only the product of the Arab Nahḍa and Arab nationalism. Rather, this culture flourished in the early modern period and persisted in the late Ottoman period. To understand this culture, we need to turn to a variety of archives and sources. A case in point is the popular literature of Iraqi Jews. We thus look at texts which, while written by rabbis, offered simplified explanations to religious and historical works; this literature shows the degree of Arabization of Iraqi Jews, and their familiarity with Arab popular and literary cultures and the Islamic faith. The texts in question are written in Judeo-Arabic, an umbrella term for the many regional dialects spoken by Jews in Arab countries. For centuries, these dialects were spoken, often alongside ‘mainstream’ Arabic dialects, as the native language and main language of communication among Jews living in North Africa, the Levant, and Iraq. It is therefore not surprising that a large and diverse body of literature had also developed in Judeo-Arabic, which, similar to the spoken varieties, exhibited dialectal and stylistic variation across the region and reflected local and popular literary traditions. Judeo-Arabic is a case of Middle Arabic, another umbrella term for late medieval and early modern varieties of Arabic that do not fit squarely within either category of Classical Arabic or a vernacular dialect. Some of the more canonical Judeo-Arabic literary texts were written in linguistic registers resembling, though not identical to, Classical Arabic, either using the traditional Arabic orthographical system or a modified Hebrew-Aramaic alphabet. Similarly to other Jewish languages (e.g., Ladino, Yiddish), Judeo-Arabic includes linguistic and cultural components borrowed or calqued from the languages considered sacred in Judaism, namely Hebrew and Aramaic, but was still undoubtedly Arabic. The modern print culture of Iraqi Jews, we show, produced not only newspapers and short stories, but also Judeo-Arabic texts, whose literary and cultural analysis convey clear elements of popular Arab Jewish culture which originated in the early modern period and persisted in late Ottoman period. The texts discussed in this paper are more often than not closer to the other end of the spectrum. We dub these “popular” literary texts, as their style and register are aimed at catering to a readership whose competency in the more formal registers of Arabic was limited, and the texts themselves, while often containing elements based on canonical sacred Jewish texts, were simplified and adapted to reach broader audiences. We illustrate the linguistic, cultural, and literary complexity of this genre of popular Judeo-Arabic with three texts from Iraq. The first is Qānūn al-nisāʾ ‘The Law of Women,’ written by Baghdadi Rabbi Yosef Ḥayim (1835–1909), to educate Jewish women about Jewish laws and traditions. Its contents are quite conservative, yet the language the author uses is often extremely colloquial, perhaps out of a preconception that women would not be able to comprehend the more classically written texts (including, e.g., medieval Judeo-Arabic translations of the Hebrew Bible). The second example is Megilat Paras ‘The Scroll of Persia,’ an 18th century Hebrew chronicle with a 19th century Judeo-Arabic introduction that refers to the historical events of the early modern era that shaped the sociopolitical identity of the Arab Jew in Basra. Finally, we introduce and discuss Qiṣṣat Yūsuf al-Ṣiddīq ‘The Story of Joseph the Righteous,’ published in Baghdad by Rabbi Shlomo Hotzin (1843–1892). This is a printed version of a text whose earlier version dates to two centuries before its publication and which was also published in Yemen and India. The book represents the Šarḥ genre of modern ‘explanations’ of biblical stories, aimed to make them accessible to modern readers, for whom the traditional exegeses (e.g., of Saadia Gaon) were no longer comprehensible. This particular text is based simultaneously on the biblical story of Joseph as told in Genesis and on the Quranic Sūrat Yūsuf. Our analysis of this text includes linguistic, stylistic, and religious analogies between the various versions of the story (Genesis in Hebrew, Genesis in Saadia’s Tafsīr, Sūrat Yūsuf, and Qiṣṣat Yūsuf al-Ṣiddīq). What is clear from an examination of the text is the profound familiarity of the author – and possible the readers – with both Jewish and Islamic traditions.
Translated title of the contributionJudeo-Iraqi popular literature and the meaning of the Arab-Jew
Original languageArabic
Pages (from-to)11–39
Number of pages29
Journalالمجلة - مجمع اللغة العربية، حيفا
Volume14
Publication statusPublished - 2023

Keywords

  • Judeo-Arabic
  • Arabic
  • Jewish Baghdad
  • Jewish studies
  • Popular culture
  • Iraq
  • Baghdad
  • Judaism

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