Sami Michael was born in 1926 in Iraq. He emigrated to Israel in 1949. Although he is a famous and worldwide acknowledged Israeli writer, Medarabnews was more interested in his opinions and views as a life-witness of the history of the Middle East. He is also the president of ACRI, the “Association for Civil Rights in Israel“. This interview was conducted by Claudia de Martino and first published on Medarabnews in January 2010.

Sami Michael  CC 3.0

Sami Michael CC 3.0

 

Why there is not a single absolutely happy character in all your novels?

The reason why none of my main characters are ever fully happy is that they all live in the Middle East, and this is a region which has been at war continuously for more than one hundred years. Living here is difficult: people have to face military regimes, backward regimes. I wouldn‘t say people are totally unhappy either, but there is a big emigration from all Middle Eastern countries. For example, only in Iraq more than five million had fled the country and nowadays Iraqis can be found everywhere in the world. Happy people just do not emigrate at all.

Is this also the reason why all main characters in your novel (Mordechai in Refugee, Alex in A Trumpet in the Wadi) always end up dying? Is your message a message of despair?

I will never convey a message of despair as long as I live and as long as there are democratic countries at least outside this region. You have to understand that many people here are refugees, the Palestinians but also the Arab Jews, who have been compelled to leave their Arab countries of origin, by force, by the regimes in place and not because they chose Israel from the beginning. This last one is a just a big lie. Sufferance is a common experience in the Middle East. This is why I decided to let all my characters die. Happy characters, you might find them in the establishment‘s novels, not in mine.

What do you mean by „establishment“

You know, in many Arab countries in the Middle East there is hardly any freedom of speech. If an author writes something critical of the regimes in place, he/she may be taking an extreme risk, be jailed or persecuted for it. In Israel, however, things are different. There is no physical violence or visible persecution. It is exerted in a more sophisticated way, psychologically. Israeli writers who are not part of the establishment do not enjoy promotional or financial assistance.

So, why did you become a writer back in 1974?

I was born in Iraq and immigrated to Israel at 21. Back in Iraq, I was writing in Arabic and it took me 15 years to switch from Arabic to Hebrew writing. In those 15 years, I never published novels in Arabic, but many short and long stories. I also wrote for a newspaper for five years; I was on the editorial board of Arabic language newspapers. But the reason why I never published a single novel in Arabic is that authors in exile have to write in the language of the country in which they live, otherwise they do not find readers and most of them become frustrated.

This leads me directly to the following questions, your characters are always of mixed origins and loyalties

Of course! I myself am a good example of mixed origin. My mother tongue is Arabic and my nationality Israeli, and my identity Jewish. I have always thought of myself as an Arab Jew without distinguishing at all which one of my identities was the dominant one. But it is a very complicated identity to deal with in Israel. Back when the state was established, the Jews were willing to mark their identity as totally opposed to the Arab one. So, all the Jews had to be more Jewish to fit in with the new state and all the Arabs had to be viewed as potential enemies. I don’t feel I need to define myself for anyone, as an Englishman doesn’t get up in the morning and ask himself: who am I?

So, what is the status of Arab-Israelis in the Israeli society right now, according to you?

ACRIIt is better than it was, but there is still a long way to go. The relationship between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews has improved, but very little and it has affected the relationship Israel has with the Arab world, and especially with Palestinians. Things are difficult. In some ways, Arab-Israelis enjoy better conditions than Arabs in Arab countries. In saying that in comparison to the rest of Israeli society, there are still gaps.
Sadly, also we have seen, in the recent annual reports of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, that racism in Israel is rife; it is damaging civil liberties and is on the rise.

 

Do you think that the Operation Cast Lead (2009-2010) had an impact on Arab-Israelis too?

Of course, they are always affected by what happens to fellow Arabs, they are constantly in touch with them. At the end of the day, they are all one people. But there is a difference: Arab-Israelis strive for equality and citizenship rights because they compare themselves with Israeli Jews, not with fellow Arabs or Palestinians. Their standard of living, of civil rights and opportunities need to be compared to those of Israel and not of neighbouring Arab countries.

So, how do you feel about your own state, which is turning more and more nationalist?

I don‘t feel good in Israel at the moment, but then neither did I in Iraq; which is why back then I joined the communist party. I don‘t believe in states, in any state. I don‘t believe in borders either. I long for equality and freedom. I regard myself a citizen of the world. Actually I envy what you have achieved in Europe. Almost envy. Only seventy years ago all European states were at war with each other, and dictatorships were ruling everywhere, in Italy with Mussolini, in Germany Hitler, in Spain Franco, etc., and now look at what you have accomplished!

Do you see anything alike coming for Israel and the region? I mean, any onset of a process of normalization?

No, I don‘t see it coming. We are moving backwards. In Israel the new generations are only taught that Arabs are their enemies and the same happens in the Arab states. It is in the interest of the governments to keep people apart. That‘s also the reason why so few people in Israel study Arabic and the other way round too, why so few Arabs know even a little Hebrew. Arabic and Hebrew are respectively the languages of the enemy. It is a two-way policy. For example recently in Egypt, the Minister of Culture proposed a ban on all Hebrew books and publications from the country’s universities. In my own small way, I challenged this reality. Every now and then I try to translate major Arabic works into Hebrew. I translated the trilogy of the Egyptian novelist Mahfouz, which took me eight years. It became a bestseller in Israel immediately after publication. This further proves that there is an audience for Arabic works in Israel, but the government is not interested in promoting this kind of activity.

According to you, which is the deepest division in Israeli society nowadays: the one between religious and secular Jews or still the one between Arabs and Jews?

Surely the second one is far deeper. But even this one is by no means the biggest conflict if we consider the Middle East as a region: what is the Arab-Israeli conflict compared to the Iraqi-Iranian war of the 1980s that alone caused more then one million dead? And the Lebanese civil war with its 100.000 dead? And again, who knows still today the final number of Kurds killed by the Saddam regime inside Iraq? Throughout the Middle East, minorities are always looked down upon and persecuted. They are considered „interior enemies“. The same goes for Copts in Egypt, Assyrians in Iraq and Arabs in Israel. Israel is certainly more democratic in this sense. At least, you can write and complain and enjoy freedom of speech.

The Arab-Israeli conflict, what is it really about right now?

You know, I would not talk of „Arab-Israeli“ but more of a conflict between Jews and Muslims. Lately, after so many years two opposing peoples in a national conflict, every single argument has been mobilized and exploited; and religions have been so too, to the extent that they have actually turned into a major reason of division. It was not a religious conflict at the beginning, but after so many years it turned out to be so. I am sure that if Muhammad and Jesus were to meet, they would be good friends, but religious establishments do not want this to happen. Those in power don‘t want to see an end to the conflict.

Coming to our final questions, what do you think about the US 2003 military offensive in Iraq and how do you feel about Obama‘s new strategy?

I am persuaded that the Bush administration did not go to Iraq in order to save local people from Saddam Hussein‘s dictatorship but it just launched that operation because of oil and completely succeeded in getting it. I am not a prophet and cannot foresee how the situation in Iraq will evolve in the near future, but I don‘t see a democratic state soon. Sunni and Shiite Muslims are targeting and killing each other much more than the US soldiers and this will go on for a long time. Obama also is no prophet: for the time being, he has just talked at length. I don‘t believe he will be able to deliver any real change. I would have liked to tell you happier things, but living in the Middle East and not being completely stupid, I am not so confident about what to expect.

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