Ross Singer

Reflections on Sami Michael’s Trumpet in the Wadi

In the wake of the passing of Sami Michael last week, with trepidation, I share these thoughts about his novel A Trumpet in the Wadi.

Spoiler Alert – I give away the ending.

Sami Michael was born in Bagdad in 1926. Already as a teenager Michael became a communist. His politics put him at odds with the government and he fled Iraq eventually landing in Israel. Here, he experienced discrimination at the hands of the Ashkenazi elite. Michael became an anti-establishment and controversial critic of Zionism and Israel. He did not define himself as a Zionist. His work shined a light on what he perceived to be Israel’s injustices and its oppression of its non-Ashkenazi Jewish and Arab population. Michael served for years as the only Jewish editor of two communist Arab language newspapers. He collaborated on more than one occasion with the Palestinian author Emile Habibi. After leaving the communist party, he continued to consider himself a Marxist. Michael left behind an extensive literary legacy. Having only read his A Trumpet in the Wadi, I can’t speak about his overall contribution. I am no literary expert. But reading this novel made a strong impression on me and what I took away from it seems to me to be as important as ever.

In my experience, criticisms of Israel and Zionism coming from figures as radical as Michael frequently tend towards one-sided, simplistic, partisan presentations that lack the complexity and nuance necessary to capture what is going on here. A Trumpet in the Wadi is a powerful exception to this rule.

The book is beautifully written and there is so much to say about it, but I will limit myself to sharing just what is most significant to me.  The novel tells the love story of the unlikely couple Huda and Alex. Huda, our narrator, is an Arab Christian living in Haifa with her family. Alex moves into the building and the two fall in love.

As one would expect from Michael, the book is laced with an often ironic critique of Israeli society.

There are Jewish characters whose casual remarks reveal racist sentiments. The Arab characters are victims of prejudice and marginalization.

Alex is a Jewish Russian new immigrant who knows next to nothing about being Jewish, who did not really want to move to Israel, and who speaks a butchered Hebrew. One might wonder, to what extent does Alex belong in Israel especially when compared to Huda? Huda speaks beautiful Hebrew and is an avid reader of Yehudah Amichai’s poetry which is one of her rare pleasures. Much of Huda’s mother’s family was expelled from the land during Israel’s war of independence (which they surely call the Nakba). The contrast between Alex who is reluctantly forced into the land (his family being persecuted in the USSR) and doesn’t speak its language(s), and Huda, who is fluent in both Arabic and Hebrew, whose extended family have been forced out, is poignant. Yet Huda is constantly made to feel an outsider.

No doubt that the narrative that says that Zionism is merely a European colonial settler project is a perversion, but this plausible story shows that from a certain limited, yet real angle there are elements of our return that are discomfiting.

While the book’s critique of Jewish Israel is real and sharp, that is only one of its layers. The fact that Huda’s beloved grandfather fled Egypt for Palestine just two generations ago counters the dichotomy of seeing the Palestinian as indigenous and Alex the European Jew as “the alien.” In Huda’s Arab society she encounters patriarchal misogyny and criminal extortion. Huda can’t find happiness there. In fact, outside of her positive relationships with her grandfather and sister, her pleasures come largely from Jewish Israel. She is smitten by the beauty of Yehudah Amichai’s poetry. Her friends are her Jewish co-workers. For all of Huda’s negative experience in Jewish Israel, there are large doses of beauty and generosity that she finds there. Atop it all is her relationship with Alex which promises her redemption.

Tragically, that was not to be. The first Lebanon War breaks out. Alex is called up into the reserves and is killed in the war. Huda had pondered the possibility that one of her refugee relatives might take Alex’s life in battle (she also contemplated the possibility that he might kill one of her relatives). The irony that it is violence at the hands of Arabs that brings about Huda’s tragedy is profoundly poignant. And yet in another twist, the widowed Huda is pregnant and distraught over the dilemma of how to raise her child – as a Jew or an Arab – each option presenting agonizing consequences for her.

In A Trumpet in the Wadi, Israel is deeply flawed but it is not a villain persecuting a blameless victim. Palestinian and Arab society share the blame for Huda’s unhappiness, and Jewish Israeli society, despite its faults is a source of beauty and goodness for her.

I share this read of A Trumpet in the Wadi with misgivings and ambivalence. Especially at this vulnerable moment, I am very protective of the country that I love. Moreover, for all of my sense of the nuance and complexity of our conflict, much of this moment is clear and unambiguous for me. Finally, I do not share Michael’s political positions and I am uneasy about his tone.

Nevertheless, because of the extreme harm that I fear critics from without and from within are causing with unthoughtful lazy clichés, dogmatic misplaced ideology and counterproductive name calling, I felt moved to highlight this alternative.

Alongside my read of A Trumpet in the Wadi, there is another piece of Sami Michael’s work that I think bears reflection at this moment – his reception within Israel. Michael was awarded honorary doctorates by, Ben Gurion University, Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, and the University of Haifa. He received many awards and prizes from Israeli establishment and governmental bodies including the President’s prize for Hebrew Literature. This says much about Israel’s capacity to tolerate and even embrace soul searching introspection and alternative voices. Israel cannot be summed up in a caricature, even a book as provocative as A Trumpet in the Wadi demonstrates that as does Michael’s place in Israeli literary history.

At the 1931 World Zionist congress, Chaim Weizmann quipped at his bellicose vociferous opponents that while the walls Jericho had fallen at the blowing of trumpets, he never heard of walls having been erected by such means. It seems to me that the sounds of A Trumpet in the Wadi, have the potential to both tear down walls and construct something positive in their place.

About the Author
Ross Singer lives on Kibbutz Maale Gilboa and works as a tour guide, educator, and translator.
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