A message from our Israel Director Tamar Morad.
On August 18, we lost a giant. Prof. Sasson Somekh, who passed away at age 86, was one of the world’s foremost experts in modern Arab literature and headed Tel Aviv University’s Department of Arabic Language and Literature for more than a decade. He received the Israel Prize in Middle Eastern studies in 2005.
When I read the sad news with my morning coffee, sitting beside me, by chance, was the final volume in Naguib Mahfouz’ The Cairo Trilogy. I had ordered Sugar Street after having been completely absorbed by the first and the second volumes—and convinced that the Trilogy should be required reading for every Israeli, every Jew, and everyone driven to understand modern Arab history. Somekh wrote his Oxford doctoral thesis on Mahfouz’s novels and went on to become a dear friend of the prolific Egyptian author, whom he had visited numerous times in Cairo. The coincidence wasn’t lost on me.
Somekh had access to Mahfouz’s world because he grew up in an Arab country, had a deep appreciation for what it had to offer, and felt compelled to transfer this knowledge and passion to others. Somekh was born in Baghdad in 1933 and immigrated to Israel in 1951 with the mass exodus of Iraqi Jews, which emptied Iraq of the great majority of its Jewish population. When he was 70 years old, he sat down to write the first volume of his autobiography, Baghdad Yesterday: The Making of an Arab Jew.
I was lucky enough to have had the opportunity to interview Somekh at length as part of my research for the oral history collection I co-edited in 2008, Iraq’s Last Jews. Beyond sharing the moving details of his life in Iraq, he was kind enough to share with me much more—and, as a journalist with little more than a spark of passion for the subject and a last name that hinted that I had married someone with Iraqi roots, I was grateful. He shared his knowledge of the history of the Jews of Iraq, the Arab world, and the challenging integration of the Jews of Arab and Muslim lands into Israel. Baghdad Yesterday, published in English a year later, became essential reading for me.
Somekh’s passing is another reminder of the urgency of telling—now, today, without pause—the story of the Jews of Arab and Islamic lands. His was an exceptional case of a Jewish, Israeli academic driven to convey to others the world of Arab literature and history, and the Jewish experience in an Arab country, from his unique perspective of having lived it himself, as a Baghdadi Jew.
With all best wishes for a healthy and happy Jewish New Year. Shana Tova.