Arab Poetry for Jews: Sasson Somekh

Haim Watzman

“If we had soldiers read the poetry their enemies write, we could prevent war,” declared Haim Gouri , an old poet and an old soldier, at Jerusalem’s literary café Tmol Shilshom last night. Sasson Somekh, whose new memoir was the subject of the evening, smiled. While he was polite enough not to contradict his friend, his career as a mediator between Arabic and Hebrew poetry and literature, and their mutually estranged readers, indicates that he believes fiercely in the power of poetry. But that his faith is a lot more complicated than Gouri’s.

Somekh’s earlier memoir, Baghdad, Yesterday: The Making of an Arab Jew, recounted his boyhood in Baghdad. As a teenage intellectual from an assimilated Jewish family, the budding writer identified first with the Arab poets who gathered at the café next to his Jewish school. Stimulated by contact with the West and Arab nationalism, these poets were, Somekh relates, redefining Arabic poetry, making it less formal, more supple, more down-to-earth. By the age of 15 he was writing Arabic poetry himself, and dreaming of a future as part of an Arabic literary revival.

But Jewish life in Bahdad was becoming ever more untenable for Jews, even assimilated ones who identified themselves as Jewish Arabs. When he was 17, his family moved to Israel. . .

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