In Plain Arabic

Ahlan! That is to say, Hi! It used to be Shalom, “Peace” (in Arabic, Salam), but Shalom’s for squares and senior citizens, it seems. The hipsters at the café I got to like in Rehavia prefer the shortened form of the common Arabic expression for “Welcome,” Ahlan wa-sahlan, that is generally the response to the greeting Marhaba, which is employed in greeting someone in a public place. Anyhow, Ma ha-‘inyanim, “How are you?” Which actually means, “What of the matters?” (an ‘inyan best known as the designation for a Talmudic issue) and is probably a calque (that is, the word-by-word literal rendering of an idiomatic expression from another language, e.g., “bag’s end” for cul de sac) of Russian Как дела? Let’s hope everything is copacetic (which may be from Hebrew [ha-]kol be-seder, “Alles in Ordnung“) in our hypothetical conversation, that is, okay (an English word whose origins are disputed), in which case one replies hipsterly, Sababa! “Fine!” (also an Arabic loan) or Basa, if, God forbid, they aren’t. One does not pretend here to usurp the wonderful Philologos column of Hillel Halkin that used to appear in the pages of the English Forward. The scenario of good-morning salutations at a Jerusalem café— I will have a hafukh please— is to introduce a point about Arabic.

Until just a few days ago, Arabic was the second official language of the State of Israel. I was always rather proud of this. Here we are, a country right in the center of the Arab world, much or most of which has nothing nice to say about us. (Except when they’re evacuated from some Syrian hell to a hospital in Haifa, anyway.) You know the picture: Israel absorbed more Jewish refugees from Arab countries than our neighbors did from “Palestine”. The latter are kept in permanent limbo, as weaponized people in the interminable existential war against us; the former, ignored by the world, pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and became Israelis.

I know a little of the story firsthand: when I was seventeen I was a volunteer on moshav Zar’it, right on the Lebanese border. Most of the people there were ‘olim (repatriants) from Arabic-speaking countries, way down on the Israeli social totem pole in those days. My fellow Americans disliked their strange food and manners, so untypical of the dominant Ashkenazic Jewry of the US. I rather liked the break from schnitzel and cabbage. Anyhow, I was half one of them: on Mom’s side, Grandpa was from Tetuan (in Morocco) and Grandma was from Salonica (in Greece, but under Ottoman rule when she was born). It was nice to be in a place where a Sephardim was not a rara avis. Moroccan Israelis are today the mainstream: successful, comfortable with the rich heritage everybody else now shares happily with them. They are at the top of the totem pole. The Palestinian case is still a mess.

My Grandpa from Tetuan, Joseph Sananes, zikhrono li-vrakha, passed on when I was three; but I am told he gave me my first sip of Turkish coffee, thereby inaugurating a lifelong addiction. I inherited his Tehillim (Psalm-book) from Tetuan; and Mom told me he used to get up from the table saying Al-hamdu li-Allah, “Praise be to God!” I say it after a meal. It’s a beautiful thing to say, and it reminds me of him. Grandpa had a very hard time supporting his wife, four daughters, and a large extended family during the Great Depression. But at the end of a working day he would come home, take a medicinal sip of home-made raki (Prohibition was still in force, and in any case grapes do grow in Bensonhurst and bathtub hooch is cheaper than store-bought booze), and study the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Maimonides).

The Rambam, a native of Islamic Spain, codified Jewish law, borrowing a designation of Deuteronomy for his monumental work, the Mishneh Torah. His other great book, The Guide to the Perplexed, was written originally in Arabic. As was the philosophical work of Sa’adia Gaon before him. Arabic was the language of much of medieval Jewish philosophy, and Arabic lyric was the model for our great poets— Yehuda ha-Levi, Shlomo Ibn Gabirol, and many others. When Saladin reconquered Jerusalem from the Crusaders (the Rambam was Saladin’s vizier’s physician in Cairo), the Jews, who had been massacred and driven by the uncouth European invaders from our Holy City, rejoiced. When the Inquisition ended the Iberian golden age, Jews found welcome and refuge in the Islamic Ottoman Empire.

Our relationship with Arabs and Arabic goes much farther back. It has been hypothesized that the great and powerful pre-Islamic Jewish communities of northwestern and northern Arabia— the tribe of Khaibar, the community at Yathrib, etc.— had their origins in the first exile, of the sixth century BCE. There was an extremely large, native Jewish community also in Himyar— what is now Yemen, on the southwestern coast of the Arabian peninsula. There are Himyaritic inscriptions in Arabic, in Sabaean script (the precursor of Ethiopic and modern Amharic), invoking Rahmanan, the God of the Torah, and identifying the writer as one of the sa’ab, the nation, of Israel. There are bilingual Himyaritic and Hebrew epitaphs in the necropolis of Bet She’arim, in the Galil. Arab Himyar became an officially Jewish kingdom in the fourth century CE and lasted some two centuries, conquering adjacent territories and on one occasion subjecting the Christians of Najran to persecution, perhaps in revenge for the mistreatment of fellow Jews in Christendom. (Glen Bowersock’s extremely fine and scholarly little book, The Throne of Adulis, is a good introduction to these pre-Islamic Red Sea politics.)

With the advent of the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, the traditions of the Torah and Mishnah contributed richly to the religion, apparently first called that of the Believers, that in time coalesced into a faith that developed a distinct and separate identity from both the other Abrahamic creeds— Islam. The original qibla, or direction of prayer, of Islam was probably not Mecca but Jerusalem. This seems to have been a gesture of favor towards the Jews associated with Mohammed’s movement: even though the Holy Sepulchre and other sites in the city were and are sacred to Christians, the Byzantine rulers of Jerusalem before the Islamic conquest had used the Temple Mount as a garbage dump, and had forbidden Jews to enter the city. We could only observe it from a distance— a nearby hill, which is, of course, how Mount Scopus got its name. The Muslims, by contrast, reverently cleansed the Temple Mount of desecration and erected over the place (many scholars think) of the Holy of Holies the Dome of the Rock. This is an unusual structure, similar to the octagonal churches of the age but not a standard mosque. Fred Donner has suggested in a recent study of Islamic beginnings that ‘Abd al-Malik intended it to house the throne where the Messiah is to sit and preside over the Last Judgment in the valley east of the city walls. The Arab conquerors of the city also struck coins with menorahs on them.

All of which is not to suggest we now sit around the campfire, roast smores, sing kumbaya, and pretend away chants of Itbah al-Yahud (“Kill the Jews”), ignore the often lowly dhimmi status of Jews historically under Islamic rule, or pretend that the media in Arab and Muslim states are not disseminating raw anti-Semitic propaganda. It would take considerable special pleading to deny that the virus of that old hatred has entered the bloodstream of Islam today; and it seems to me amply clear that many supporters of the Palestinian cause, and apologists for Islamic terrorism, would be a great deal less sympathetic to such things, were they not a convenient new cover for Jew-baiting. One has to see reality for what it is, and act accordingly, but never lose hope or abandon one’s own values. And I for one do not allow myself to forget that of all the world religions, Islam is the one closest to my own. I feel my connection and affinity to it is genuine, justified, and irrevocable.

20% of the citizens of Israel, both Muslims and Christians, are native Arabic speakers whose families have deep roots in the land going back many generations. It is their country, too; and the Israel Declaration of Independence makes that clear. That we were treated otherwise, in very many lands where we also had deep roots, does not change who we are and the values that make us Jews. So, an Arab Israeli who commits an act of terror does not cease to be a citizen. He is a criminal to be prosecuted under Israeli law for terrorism. An Arab Israeli Member of the Knesset who calls for boycott, divestment, and sanction against Israel likewise does not become a foreigner. No, he is still an Israeli, and (in my view at least) is probably liable to be prosecuted for treason as such. What, after all, is the long-term interest of the country and of the Jewish people? Shavu vanim li-gvulam, the sons have returned to their border; and our hope is that all our Ishmaelite cousins will sooner or later say, welcome home. Israeli Arabs are Israelis. Arabic is the other language of the state.

And it’s up to us likewise to keep on affirming, we are your family and we want to live with you.

Let me tell you a story. Some years ago I rented part of a house in Ein Kerem, the Jerusalem neighborhood where my family lived. This part of the house was a cave and a cistern, and an Arab Israeli architect from Abu Ghosh, Ramzi, had made it into a livable apartment. I loved my cave; and every so often Ramzi would come by to inspect his handiwork. One evening we were sitting outdoors: he drank tea; your reporter, arak. We admired a palm tree. Look, said Ramzi in a mixture of Hebrew and Arabic. You and I are so blessed to live in this holy land and see God’s creations! If anyone saw that tree, why would they make a sanam (“idol”)? Yes, I replied. So, he continued, you Jews came here and stole the land. No, I replied (just as equitably). We returned to this land because God gave it to us. Well, said Ramzi, Inshallah you will someday move here permanently and I’ll build you a house.

Then he told me a story: Once upon a time a man saved money to go on Hajj, the Pilgrimage to Mecca. He set out and came on the first night to a place where a woman was cooking stones. Foolish woman! Why are you cooking stones? he asked. My children, she replied, are hungry. If they think there is something cooking they will be able to sleep. But, he said, you are cooking stones! By morning, she answered, God will provide.

So our pilgrim waited till she had gone inside and the lights were out. Then he slipped all the money for his Hajj under her door. He went home.

Salam, Hajji Ahmed! exclaimed the neighbors. No, he said, I’m not a hajji. I never made it. Yes, you did, they retorted: witnesses saw you circling the Ka’aba. It was the angel Gabriel who had assumed Ahmed’s outer form and made the Pilgrimage for him, for his act of tsedaqa. (That is, “charity”. But the Hebrew word is cognate to Arabic sadaqa, “to tell the truth”.) Ramzi and I sat back and enjoyed the evening air. I hope you liked the story.

The Arabic language — the richest and closest to our common ancient origins of all the living Semitic languages — is not a liability. It is a treasure. It should not be demoted to “special” status. That term reminds me of the somewhat alarming “special sauce” menus advertise for featured dishes. (“Do you want the plate, or the dish?” as a learned friend occasionally remarks, evoking memories of eateries back east.) It is only right that it be re-instated as the other official language of the State of Israel, first flower of our redemption. Shukran and todah for your attention. Wa-‘l-hamdu li-Allah, Rabb al-‘alamin, And praise be to God, Lord of all the worlds.

About the Author
James R. Russell is Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies, Emeritus, at Harvard University, and has served as Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Associate Professor of Ancient Iranian at Columbia, and part-time Lecturer in Jewish Studies and Biblical Hebrew at California State University, Fresno. He serves on the Editorial Boards of the journal Judaica Petropolitana, St. Petersburg State University; the journal Linguistica Petropolitana, Russian Academy of Sciences; and the journal Homo Loquens, Russian Christian Humanities Association, St. Petersburg. He is a founding member of the International Association for Jewish Studies, chartered in the Russian Federation. He holds the PhD in Zoroastrian Studies, from the School of Oriental Studies of the University of London; B.Litt. (Oxon.); B.A. (summa) (Columbia). His recent books include "Poets, Heroes, and Their Dragons", 2 vols., UC Irvine Iranian Series, 2020, and "The Complete Poems of Misak Medzarents", CSU Fresno Armenian Series, 2021.