Tag Archive | Mati Shemoelof

What we left behind in Egypt: Mizrahi thoughts on Israel

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Even when they had reached the borders of the Promised Land, after 40 years in the desert, all the Children of Israel wanted was to go back to Egypt. In Erez Biton’s poem, the immigrant from Algeria and his son fail to build a home in Israel. Independence Day is also the tale of the rift in our identity, created by immigrating here. Full Article

“And the children of Israel said unto them: ‘Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots, when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’” [Exodus 16:3]

“…And all the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron; and the whole congregation said unto them: ‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! or would we had died in this wilderness!;

And wherefore doth the LORD bring us unto this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will be a prey; were it not better for us to return into Egypt?’;

And they said one to another: ‘Let us make a captain, and let us return into Egypt.’” [Numbers Chapter 14 2-4]

Before we discuss the Mizrahi present in Israel, let us examine the trauma as it is reflected in the desire of the Israelites to return to Egypt and postpone the narrative of redemption in the Promised Land. Looking back at this theological question is important for a psychological understanding of the modern perception of identity, and the impossibility of achieving inner autonomy within Zionism and its holidays and Independence Day in particular.

At the beginning of the Israelites’ journey, and at the end of it after 40 years, the Israelites ask to return to Egypt. Both requests are impossible, as Egypt is already impossible. They are in a never-where, in the desert, which is neither the Promised Land nor Egypt. But in both cases they do not speak to God or to Moses and Aaron, and if they do, all they ask for is life and death in the land of Egypt, which still seems like a safe place to them. How could Egypt be a safe place for them, after having left it with such sturm und drang? How could they ask to return to Egypt, having drowned Pharaoh and his army in the Sea of Reeds? And how dare they ask to return to Egypt, a moment after the Song of the Sea, and all the miracles the Lord has performed for them?

It can be understood when they are still Egyptian slaves at heart, and so the moment there is hunger, and they are in the desert, they are afraid and want to go back. But after 40 years, during which they have received the Ten Commandments, Moses as a prophet and Aaron as his right-hand man, received the greatest technology there is, acquired monotheism, which no nation around them had. And with all these wonders, they still want to go back to Egypt. How does this happen?

Yearning for the cut-off hand

I wish to argue that Egypt in this context is not the Egypt of an enemy. Egypt is their identity. Egypt is their mother tongue. Egypt is the first memory. Egypt is the frame of reference, the context in which they live. When they say that they want to return to Egypt, it is like saying that they wish to return to their mother, to the womb. They are Egyptian slaves who following the awakening of a new identity have been thrown on a journey.

And they reject the terms of the journey. This is perhaps the context in which we may understand the golden calf. At Mount Sinai of all places, a moment before the theophany, they are Egyptians, and as such they speak with Egypt, even if at present Egypt is the land of the enemy, is the perfect other, is the one that wanted to put them to hard labor, to annihilate them.

Thus, a moment before entering the Promised Land, after 40 years, and also a moment after the escape, they discover Egypt as a place of love, a place where they’d rather die than live hungry in the desert, or fighting wars in the Promised Land against large nations, and huge kings such as Ogg King of Bashan, and the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Hivites and the other local peoples. They want Egypt, even though Egypt is impossible. They hold a dialogue with Egypt, and we may re-read Pharaoh’s reluctance to give them up also as Pharaoh’s reluctance to give up the Jewish-Arab aspect of his Hebrew-Egyptian subject. Suddenly the Israelites’ hyphenated identity, as Hebrew-Egyptians, and the Egyptian identity of Moses, as the grandson of the previous Pharaoh, and as a leader opposed to the current Pharaoh – all these do not seem so far fetched.

The Israelites’ cry is to bring Egyptian-ness into their world. In the crisis of hunger and threat of war, of all moments, they go back to speaking with Egypt, in Egyptian, and give up the spiritual guidance of their prophet, who comes from a different class, and is already speaking with God face to face. This is a class-based rejection, directed at an elite that no longer understands their daily life problems.

They wish to replace Moses and Aaron, to effect a revolution. They wish to die with full bellies sitting on the fleshpots of Egypt. In both cases, the first and the last, they reject the Lord’s leadership, despite all the wonders and the miracles, all the parting of the sea, Mount Sinai, water from the rock, manna from heaven, the pillar of cloud going before the camp, the tabernacle, the ark of the covenant and other super-natural moments.

Their call to return is almost childish, infantile, but could be considered as a desire to unite aspects of their identity that are irreconcilable in modern Jewish thought. Their wish to be Egypt is a wish to be with the dead parent, with the hand that was cut off. But in today’s thought there is no way to heal the trauma and to make peace with it. Especially not on Independence Day, because of its absence in the public sphere, within all the exclusion from the culture in general in Israel.

“Scaffolding,” By Erez Bitton (translated by Tsipi Keller)

On the threshold of half a house in the Land of Israel

my father stood

pointing to the sides and saying:

Upon these ruins

one day we will build a kitchen

to cook in it a Leviathan’s tail

and a wild bull,

upon these ruins

we will build a corner for prayer

to make room

for a bit of holiness.

My father remained on the threshold

and I, my entire life,

have been erecting scaffolding

reaching up to the sky.

Erez Biton in his poetry does not deny the darkness, the night and gloom – the trauma – entailed in immigration. He has no moment of redemption, he does not come to Independence Day with flag in hand. On the contrary. The father holds on to hope, as he moves from Algeria to Israel. But the father does not enter the Promised Land and has not a shred of Zionism’s redemptionist concept of itself, as celebrated on Independence Day. Biton’s father remains on the threshold. Belief in the Messiah will yet awaken, the father promises, with the Leviathan’s tail and the wild bull. He will yet build.

Erez Biton (Screenshot, Social TV)

Erez Biton (Screenshot, Social TV)

It is he, with the faith, who believes he will yet enter the Promised Land, but fails to do so. There is no kitchen, no temple. The son is busy with just erecting scaffolding to the sky. What does erecting scaffolds to the sky mean? Is it asking God to make his promise come true? You build the scaffolds, He’ll build the rest. Is it defiance? Like the Tower of Babylon? This is the internal Mizrahi state, which is hard to understand. Even if we wave the flag, that doesn’t mean the psychic trauma has been healed.

The father comes to half a house, to ruins. We know that Erez Biton grew up in Lod. Does he mean the ruins of the Palestinian city of Lod, or does he mean metaphorically, the ruin into which the Arab-Jews are thrown under the Ashkenazi-Zionist regime?

When we connect Biton’s poem to the theological part with which I began, we may see the perception of the impossible part of identity, which one wishes to unite. Therefore we see the dialogue between the father and the son: the father leaves behind hope, but remains outside. What does remaining outside mean? Can we compare this to the Israelites who remained outside of Egypt? Even stayed in Egypt at heart, despite arriving at the threshold of the Land of Israel, unable to enter the Promised Land? The Promised Land is the Independence Day celebration. As if the sovereign status of the State of Israel can cure the psychological problem of Mizrahim in Israel.

Did Moses die in the desert because he sinned, or because he was an Egyptian through and through, who could not have entered the Promised Land? This threshold is precisely the point of immigration, a point between here and there, between there and here. A point at which it is impossible to enter a culture that does not accept or contain the different parts of your identity. It leaves those parts outside, and so you remain outside as well. The father in Biton’s poem is full of hope that he might be able to go in, with a kitchen and a temple, in half a house, in the ruins; but the son discovers the truth, that the father’s promise has remained as scaffolding to the sky, remained outside.

Is Erez Biton’s “Scaffolding” the desire to build a Jewish-Arab culture within a state that has set it as its purpose to erase the Arab parts in its inhabitants identity? Do we think that with bestowing the Israel Prize the process of accepting Erez Biton and the Jewish-Arab poetry has been completed? Even if so, the trauma still stands, with the son looking at the father, and the grandson looking at his father, who is still looking at the grandfather, who still remains outside. The memory of exclusion passes as a collective viewpoint, a lamentation of parts excluded, leaving entire communities outside.

Mati Shemoelof is a poet, editor and author who lives in Berlin. Join him on his FB page, website. And Twitter. This essay was originally part of a sermon delivered in Fraenkelufer Synagogue

Memory for Forgetfulness

1441452_10152327182085904_9153935621981010488_nAn afternoon of readings & music to gather our attention back to the events of last summer in Israel and Palestine, particularly in Gaza, the events of this moment, continuous and discontinuous with this past, and the events of many possible futures

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Readings by

Ammiel Alcalay — a poet, novelist, translator, critic, and scholar. He teaches at Queens College and The Graduate Center, CUNY. His books include After Jews and Arabs, Memories of Our Future, Islanders, and neither wit nor gold: from then. His translations include Sarajevo Blues and Nine Alexandrias by Bosnian poet Semezdin Mehmedinović. A new book of essays, a little history, and a 10th anniversary edition of from the warring factions came out in 2013 from re:public /UpSet. He is the General Editor of Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, a series of student and guest edited archival texts emerging from the New American Poetry

Sousan Hammad — a writer and translator. Her reportage, essays, and works of short fiction have appeared in Guernica, Al Jazeera America, Boston Review Blog, and [wherever] magazine. her translations of the Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish are available in book form by (Fabrications El Feel 2013) and in The White Review No. 10. www.sousanhammad.com

Mati Shemoelof — a poet, playwright, editor, and journalist
His works have been translated from Hebrew into six languages, and his editorial work includes “Echoing Identities” (Am-Oved 2007), one of most highly viewed and quoted academic works regarding 3rd generation Mizrahi writers in Israel, and “Aduma” (Red) – a working class poetry collection. “Remnants of the Cursed Book,” his first short story book, was published by Kinneret Zmora-Bitan in Israel. Some of his recognitions include the award for Best Debut Poetry Book of the Year by the Israeli National Art Trust of the National Lottery (2001), Best Poetry Book of the Year by the Haifa Cultural Foundation (2006), and Winner of the Acum Prize for advocating literature in Israel (2013).

Miriam Atkin — a writer and performance artist based in New York City. Her work has been largely concerned with the possibilities of poetry as an oral medium in conversation with avant-garde film, music and dance. Since 2010, she has collaborated with artist Kurt Ralske on various multimedia experiments combining poetry with the moving image. Their 2011 artists’ book, Rediscovering German Futurism: 1920-1929, accompanied a series of performative lectures which were presented in New York at The Poetry Project, Soloway Gallery and Spectrum Performance Space, as well as in Providence at the Empire Black Box Theater and the Granoff Center at Brown University. In 2013 the collaboration expanded to include improvising musicians Jonathan Wood Vincent and Daniel Carter, generating various performance pieces which were staged at Outpost Artists Resources and Spectrum Performance Space in New York. Miriam regularly contributes art criticism to Art in America and ArtCritical, and her poetry has been published in the Boog City Reader and This Image journal. She is a 2014 Emerge-Surface-Be fellow at St. Marks Poetry Project

Iris Cushing — a poet and editor living in Queens. She is the author of Wyoming (Furniture Press Books, 2013). Her poems and critical writings have appeared in the Boston Review, Jacket2, Bomblog, Hyperallergic, and Barrelhouse, among others. Iris is currently a Process Space resident through the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and has been a writer-in-residence at Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, her former home. She is a founding editor for Argos Books and studies in the Ph.D. program in English at the CUNY Graduate Center

Nicola Masciandaro — is Professor of English at Brooklyn College (CUNY) and a specialist in medieval literature. Recent publications include: Sufficient Unto the Day: Sermones Contra Solicitudinem (Schism, 2014) and Dark Nights Of The Universe, co-authored with Daniel Colucciello Barber, Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker (NAME, 2013). Current/forthcoming works include: Floating Tomb: Black Metal (Theory) and Mysticism, co-authored with Edia Connole (Mimesis, 2015) and Dark Wounds of Light, co-authored with Alina Popa. He is the founding editor of the journal Glossator (glossator.org)

LynleyShimat Lys — is on the poetry track of the Queens College MFA in Creative Writing and Literary Translation. They come from Berkeley, California, and return to New York after five years in the Middle East studying and working in Jerusalem. Lynley has a B.A. in Comparative Literature (Hebrew, Russian, English) from UC Berkeley and an MA in Middle Eastern Studies (Palestinian Poetry) from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Lynley’s current interests include contemporary African-American women poets, intersections between Israeli and Palestinian poems of place, and plays in verse. lynleyshimatlyspoetry.weebly.com

Sami Shalom Chetrit — is a renowned Hebrew poet, writer, inter-disciplinary scholar and teacher. He’s been teaching for the last fifteen years courses on Hebrew modern language and literature, culture and politics of Israel. He writes and publishes scholarly work, poetry and prose and makes documentary films

Music by

DisOrient Demet Arpacik, Ozan Aksoy, Onur Sonmez, Mehdi Darvishi, Insia Malik

Demet Arpacık is born and raised in the Kurdish region of Turkey. She grew up with listening to traditional folk music and instruments. Inspired by the Kurdish dengbêj (bard) tradition, Demet started singing for her friends and relatives. She gradually extended her repertoire to include songs from other traditions in the Middle East. She is currently singing in the band DisOrient, which has brought musicians of different backgrounds together

Mehdi Darvishi is a player and instructor of Iranian percussion instruments like daf (frame-drum), tombak (goblet-drum). In his extensive performance career, Mehdi worked with music groups such as Khalvat Gozideh, Par Savoush, Darvish Khan, and Masnavi. He has contributed to soundtracks in the Iranian national television as well as working with Tebrizden Torosa ensemble broadcast on Turkish Radio and Television

Onur Sönmez is a musician from Turkey based in New York. After performing in Izmir’s music scene for years and obtaining his masters degree in ethnomusicology, he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship for PhD studies in the U.S. and moved to New York in 2012 pursuing a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology at the CUNY Graduate Center. He plays bass guitar along with classical guitar, drums, and piano

Ozan Aksoy was trained on the bağlama or saz (long-necked lute) by his father. He then developed an interest in the rich musical tradition of Turkey as he attended Boğaziçi
University in Istanbul. There he joined the University’s Folklore Club and the band Kardeş Türküler [Ballads of Solidarity] as an arranger and a performer. He received his
his Ph.D. in ethnomusicology at the CUNY Graduate Center in 2014 where he is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Middle Eastern and Middle Eastern
American Center

Insia Malik, violonist, plays in an array of musical idioms and performs regularly with several Arab music ensembles, both in New York and across the United States. She is also a PhD student in ethnomusicology at the CUNY Graduate Center

Hosts
Öykü Tekten, Tom Haviv, Liz Peters

$12 advance/$10 door
http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/989616

Cover image by Amer Sweidan. “A State of Devolution.”

Awda: Imagined Testimonies from Potential Futures

Awda – Book cover

Awda assembles 12 short stories who will take place in an imagined reality after the return of the Palestinian Refugees. The stories were written by Umar al-Ghubari, Tzvi Ben Dor-Banit, Daniela Karmi, Mati Shemoelof, Isra’a Kalash, Amal Eqeiq Adi Sorek, Yehouda Shenhav-Sharabani, Husam Othman, Hanna Eady, Ala Hlehel and Tomer Gardi. 
The book will be sold in a special price of 50 nis. The book is published by Zochrot and Pardes

The following is a list of all content on the website tagged with the above keyword: Awda

Digital roundtable brings Israeli writers to campus | Linda B. Glaser

A “digital roundtable” held Nov. 14 is the latest example of how 21st century technology is breaking down international borders and transforming Cornell’s campus in the humanities as well as the sciences.
“New Mizrahi Writing in Israel: Digital Roundtable,” held in a Martha Van Rensselaer Hall videoconferencing facility, brought together writers on three continents to discuss the contemporary Israeli literary scene for an on-campus audience of students and faculty. The writers were chosen, said organizer Deborah Starr, because their work grapples with the cultural and linguistic heritage of their families who immigrated to Israel from Arab or Muslim countries (termed “Mizrahi Jews).

“The webcast panel offered students in Ithaca a glimpse into the vibrant Israeli literary scene,” said Starr, professor of modern Hebrew and Arabic literature in the Department of Near Eastern Studies. “And it gave the writers a chance to get to know each other. It was a pretty lively discussion, as they had very different points of view”.

Michal Held, poet and scholar of Ladino, participated from Jerusalem, and began the event by reading a poem in Hebrew and English that she called a “manifesto” against not being categorized “Mizrahi”.
Her manifesto was echoed by Sami Berdugo, participating from Berlin, who read a poem in Hebrew, Arabic and English that reflected his ambivalence toward Hebrew and his Israeli identity. “I feel I have no community in Israel, religious, Mizrahi, sexual or other,” he said, adding “no category applies to me.
Poet Anat Zecharia, calling in from Tel Aviv, said she agreed with Berdugo. When someone reads her poems “as a manifesto of feminism or as an Israeli poet or as a Mizrahi poet, it makes him see maybe the end of the poem, but he never gets down deep to what I mean or think”.

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But Almog Behar, award-winning author and poet and a visiting scholar at Cornell, said, “For me, you can be Mizrahi and Israeli and Jewish and Arabic and so on and they don’t contradict each other.” He noted that in the previous generation, “calling people ‘Mizrahi writers’ was a limiting title that was meant to place them in a narrow place in Israeli culture which would be marginalized within Israeli literature … but as a self-definition it also has the power to broaden Israeli literature. It allows us to connect with parts of our literature that were hidden from us”

Poet and playwright Mati Shemoelof, participating from Tel Aviv, said he has begun writing in prose “to find a new place in the culture so the categories focused on my writing will be different. In my prose I am less aware of the categories and try to write less politically and more freely than before.” Still, he added, “I’m proud that my work until now has been Mizrahi work. I’m proud of my ethnicity.

The roundtable was sponsored by the Department of Near Eastern Studies, the Jewish Studies Program and the Society for the Humanities, with support from the Hope and Eli Hurowitz Fund. Behar’s visiting scholar appointment is funded by the Shusterman Foundation.

Linda B. Glaser is staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences

This article was first published on Cornell Chronicle

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Finding a place in the Middle East through music

Although the racism and hatred between Israel and its neighbors seems as entrenched as ever, many Mizrahi artists are connecting to their Arab roots. Does this trend portend a brighter future for the Middle East?

By Mati Shemoelof and Ophir Toubul / Café Gibraltar

In an interview with Al Arabiya several years ago, popular Israeli singer Zehava Ben stated that she was interested in performing throughout the Arab world, and especially in Beirut and Gaza. Israel’s security system forbade her entrance into the Strip, due to the fact that Hamas rules the territory. In a later interview, she said that her dream is to perform in Cairo’s Opera House, where her favorite singer,Umm Kulthum, once regularly performed. Ben’s words express the natural desires of many Mizrahi Jews in Israel to connect to the roots of the Arab culture in which their parents lived for generations. Mizrahi music represents the longing of almost half of the state’s citizens for the elements of Arab culture that they know so well. But beyond the question of origin, history and biography, it is a question of Israel’s place in the Middle East, which affects every citizen, Mizrahi or not.

When Israeli music begins exporting Arabic culture to its neighbors, both near and far, it will be able to grow its popularity and double or even triple its sales. Mizrahi-Mediterranean culture can jump over that barrier and draw new audiences. Today, we know that many people in neighboring countries, and certainly in the occupied territories, know and love songs by Eyal Golan and are well-versed in new Mizrahi-Israeli music. It will be easier to sell Mizrahi music in the Mashriq (the geographical region between Iran and Egypt) and the Maghreb (from Egypt to Morocco) in parallel to cultural exports to the U.S. and Europe. It’s important to mention that more than a few Israeli success stories in Europe maintained their Arabic sound, such as Ofra Haza.

Maor Adri covers Syrian singer Wafik Habib’s 2012 hit “Yalla Yalla”:

Music and culture have an additional role. Should we be able to export Mizrahi culture to Arab countries, it is likely to reduce the tension and hatred against Israel. The Arab bloc will no longer see Israel as a vestige of European colonialism that came to settle on Palestinian land. They will understand that over a million Jews arrived in Israel from Arab countries, and maintained their Arab identity, which is expressed in music and culture.

Israeli society today cannot see its place between Beirut, Amman and Cairo. But anyone who listens to the many versions by some of Israel’s best singers (Sarit Hadad, Omer Adam, Maor Adri and many others) will discover that they regularly release covers of Arabic songs in Hebrew. There exists today a contemporary Israeli culture that is effectively in dialogue with a contemporary Arab culture, but no one speaks about it openly. There is a conspiracy of silence around the issue. Zehava Ben was brave enough to openly say that her dream is to perform in the same auditorium as Umm Kulthum in Cairo. But Ben is not speaking out of nostalgia – she is up to date and wants, like other artists, to update her work and create new art that corresponds, influences and is influenced by its surroundings. This is the reason that Ben’s album of Umm Kulthum songs made it to the Arab world (despite the boycott), along with albums in Arabic by Ofer Levi, Sarit Hadad and Sharif. Even albums by singers such as Yasmin Levy, who is very successful in Turkey, or Rita with her album in Persian, which made it to Iran (among other countries), or the Moroccan-Israeli singers, who transcend musical horizons within Israel and outside of it.

Omer Adam performs “Wai Li,” a song by Lebanese artist Fares Karam which was originally released in 2009:

The awaited change won’t only come from the Jewish side. It was an important event when Lina Makhoul, a Christian Palestinian from the city of Acre, won first place on Israel’s The Voice television show. Professor Yossi Yonah sees her victory as indicative of Palestinian citizens’ desire to integrate into Israeli culture. Nasreen Kadri’s victory on the second season of Eyal Golan is Calling You, which Israeli educator and activist Shira Ohayon called “a revolution on live television,” was a big step in that direction. Our shared lives here are not only full of negativity, racism and loathing – they also portend a new-old cultural development despite years of political and cultural deadlock that has been forced on us from above. Israel will find its place in the Middle East with the development of Jewish-Arab (as exemplified by Zehava Ben), and Arab-Jewish culture (as exemplified by Lina Makhoul and Nasreen Kadri). The success of these mixed cultures will only bring prosperity.

Nasreen Kadri and Ofer Nissim perform “Sawah” by Egypt’s Abdel Halim Hafez:

Ophir Toubul is a DJ, activist and founder of Café Gibraltar. Mati Shemoelof is an Israeli poet, editor, and social activist. This article was first published in Hebrewon Café Gibraltar.

The english translation of this article was first published on 972MAG

The place where I write: Mati Shemoelof [Israel] | World Poetry Day

Photo: Mati Shemoelof

Poetry made of charms

In order to write, I fill my room with charms. These magical objects transform my simple wooden desk into a space crafted from unknown magic, with no beginning or end. The east opens, and I can see a new world – reaching all the way to the dark edges of town.

I start collecting my charms: a vintage photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron entitled “I Wait”; An old photo of me standing next to Nadav Cohavi RIP, from the time we had a band in LA; A gray plastic elephant my girlfriend Ayala got me, a magical cat standing at the gates of the ancient world of eternity, which I bought during a visit to the Pyramids many years ago; a Palestinian postcard from old Jaffa to complete them all.

I look at them surrounding me, and start hearing an old but new melody of prayer.

A spirit of Love and social change.

                                      Mati Shemoelof, Tel Aviv/Israel

This post was first published on lyrikline.org blog especially for World Poetry Day

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