WHEN WE WERE ARABS by Massoud Hayoun


A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History
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Remembering one Jewish Arab family’s past.

Los Angeles–based journalist Hayoun attempts to reclaim his family history and identity through this retelling of his grandparents’ saga. The author, who was mainly raised by his maternal grandparents, Daida and Oscar, identifies as both an Arab and a Jew, two descriptors he believes that many may feel are incompatible. He begins by arguing that, in fact, there is a long-standing tradition of Jewish Arabs, who lived and worked alongside their Muslim neighbors peacefully until colonialism disrupted Arab society and fractured it into various people groups. In addition to being a family story, the book is also an anti-colonial screed. Hayoun blames colonialism—he includes Zionism—for many of the ills that have beset the Arab people, and he sees the fight against colonialism as far from over. “Memory,” he writes, “can subvert colonial authority, it can frighten the colonizers because it allows us to reconfigure this miserable world we live in now, depose the white supremacist…and approach the European sector with open eyes, ready to disassemble empire.” The author’s disdain for the European world is palpable, and his allegiance is clearly with the Arab world. He describes his family’s condition as “our exile in Los Angeles,” and he notes that his religion is secondary to his ethnic identity: “I am Arab first and last. Judaism is an adjective that modifies my Arabness.” The core of the author’s work, however, consists of his grandparents’ stories of growing up in Tunisia and Egypt, surviving Nazi bombing and occupation, dealing with anti-Semitism during the founding of modern Israel, leaving North Africa, meeting in France, and finding their way, in the end, to America. Both grandparents left behind written autobiographical accounts, and from these, and other conversations, Hayoun pieces together a remarkable tale of survival and success, and it is a story worth remembering.

A moving and intriguing family history only slightly marred by the author’s anger.

Pub Date: June 25th, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-62097-416-2
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: New Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 2019


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