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New Texts Out Now: Ella Shohat, The Question of Judeo-Arabic

posted on: Jan 21, 2016

By Ella Habiba Shohat



Interview with Ella Shohat about her new text, “The Question of Judeo-Arabic,” Opening Essay for Arab Studies Journal Vol. XXIII No. 1 (Fall 2015).


Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this article?

Ella Shohat (ES): This essay revolves around a very personal question for me—the name of the language I spoke with my grandparents and parents. Baghdadi-Jews like my family spoke the language, first in Iraq, then in Israel, and later in the US. For us, it was simply Arabic, although we also knew of course that it was a dialect, a specific form of an ‘amiyya; in our case, Iraqi, Baghdadi, Jewish Arabic. Within the Jewish-Baghdadi dialect itself, we commonly referred to it as haki mal yihud (the speech of the Jews) in contrast to the neighboring dialect, haki mal aslam (the speech of the Muslims). Our dialect is a variation of the Muslawi dialect, jointly spoken, even if with some nuances, by Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike in Mosul.

Yet outside of Iraq, we were told that we were actually speaking a language called “Judeo-Arabic,” supposedly common to all Arabic-speaking Jews. And often we were told that it was “just like Yiddish”—the common language of Ashkenazi Jews, seen as a separate language and distinct from German. But my grandmother, who spoke Arabic yet was illiterate and never spoke Hebrew, had to struggle to communicate in Arabic with Moroccans in Israel. Iraqi and Moroccan Jews, especially those lacking knowledge of fusha, did not share a mutually intelligible language called “Judeo-Arabic.” The same regional difficulties that characterized the communication among Muslims applied in exactly the same way to Arabic-speaking Jews from different regions. I began to reflect on this curious discrepancy in the definition of the very same language, the one that we spoke.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the article address?

ES: I examine these questions not as a linguist but rather as a cultural studies scholar looking at academic categories as embedded in the larger politics of naming. This essay proposes to interrogate the genealogy of the notion of “Judeo-Arabic language” and what is supposed to be its axiomatic ontology as a cohesive unit separate from Arabic. The essay asks multiple inter-related questions: What is this Judeo-Arabic that the Jewish studies linguists talk about? What makes it distinct? Is it distinct because of its Hebrew script, characteristic also of texts written by Jews in a number of other languages? Curiously, the Arabic of our liturgical books, which typically also included Hebrew and Aramaic, was not called “Judeo-Arabic” but “Arabic,” and, when not in fusha, its vernacular was defined by its city/region. Yet over the years I have observed that such texts are now seen and categorized as paradigms of “Judeo-Arabic language.” I discuss for example Hakham Yoseph Hayyim’s Qanun al-Nisa’ (The Law of Women), published in Baghdad over a century ago and written in Arabic, but in Hebrew letters, where the author indicates that the text’s language is “lafdh ‘arabi” (idiomatic Arabic) spoken in Baghdad and intelligible in “Arabistan” and “Hindustan,” since there was a Jewish-Iraqi diaspora in the subcontinent, especially since the nineteenth century. Although one could find the phrase “Judeo-Arabic text” useful for cataloguing purposes (as a reference to Arabic written in Hebrew script), “Judeo-Arabic language” was not a term used by the community itself.

[Hakham Yoseph Hayyim’s Qanun al-Nisa’ (The Law of Women). From the Jewish Iraqi Archive.]

While writing this essay, I found it harder and harder to speak of an “it” called “Judeo-Arabic,” wondering in effect: Is Judeo-Arabic really a language or just a conceptual chimera? As we know, relationships between dialects and language are embedded in power. But the suggestion of Judeo-Arabic as part of the family of “Jewish languages,” standing always-already apart from their (non-Jewish) Arab neighbors, was significant enough to prompt my questioning of this notion of a linguistic family as a kind of a Jewish national allegory. The Fulbright Program’s official list of languages for applicants, for example, posits Arabic and Judeo-Arabic as separate language categories. It is noteworthy that out of the rich panoply of Arabic idioms, out of all of Arabic’s myriad regional, ethnic, and religious speech variations and dialects, only one version—“Judeo-Arabic”—is regarded as an isolatable language. In this sense, only “Judeo-Arabic” has been secluded from its Arabic linguistic “family” and dialectal “neighbors.” I gradually reached the conclusion that the conceptualization of this supposedly distinct language was intimately linked to the cultural politics surrounding the question of the Arab-Jew generally.

J: How does this article connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

ES: My interrogation in “The Question of Judeo-Arabic” forms part of my longstanding concern with the question of the Arab-Jew. Since the eighties, I have been trying to formulate a broad critical framework for an analysis of the history and culture of Arab-Jews/Sephardim/Mizrahim, one that transcends the Zionist narrative and in a different way transcends certain Arab nationalist discourses. It is only in recent years that I have begun to extrapolate this critical framework to apply to “Judeo-Arabic” as part of the problematic rubric of “Jewish languages.” The essay partly interrogates the premises of Zionist discourse, which I examined in Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation (1989) and further elaborated in the Postscript for its recent republication.

Hyphens can be used to indicate either a joining or a splitting or both. While the hyphen in “Judeo-Arabic” could equally indicate a joining or a splitting, the drift of how it tends to be deployed highlights a detachment of “the Jewish language” from its Arabic surrounding. In contrast, the hyphen in the “Arab-Jew” tends to stress attachment to Arab culture. As a result, the Arab-Jew—whether as a demographic category or as a trope—has been seen as menacing in a Zionist context. Meanwhile, the linguistic construct of “Judeo-Arabic” has come to form part of the nationalist narrative of the “ingathering of the exiles.” For Arabic to exist as a legitimate language of Jews, it has had to be redefined in ways that correspond to a new national belonging. My argument here is premised on my earlier critique of the taboos against joining the word “Jewishness” with the word “Arabness” (a taboo transgressed in the very term “Arab-Jew”) as well as against joining the word “Judeo” with the word “Muslim” (encapsulated in the “Judeo-Muslim”)—addressed in various essays (included in my book Taboo Memories, Diasporic Voices.)

There is indeed a common element in my earlier work on Arab-Jews and in my more recent work on Judeo-Arabic. In both instances, I am resisting a segregationist logic that would turn “Arab” and “Jew” into the antonyms that they had never been historically. My purpose, therefore, was to highlight the porous boundaries, the elasticity and fluidity of interlocution across the “religious divide.” The essay forms part of my ongoing interest in displacement not simply as a matter of demographic diasporas but also within transnational perspectives (addressed in my and Robert Stam’s book Race in Translation) and within diasporic readings (which I discussed in my co-edited volume with Evelyn Alsultany, Between the Middle East and the Americas.

J: What sort of impact would you like the article to have?

ES: The symbolic cutting off of “Judeo-Arabic” from Arabic becomes especially consequential in the wake of the actual dislocation of Jews from Arab spaces. The traumatic departure of Arabic Jewish speaking-subjects away from their home Arab geographies has engendered ideological fault lines within knowledge production. The essay therefore also casts doubt on the “endangered language” discourse. As an “endangered language,” Judeo-Arabic figures on UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. What, then, is exactly this linguistic object that is declared endangered? Is/are Judeo-Arabic/s dying with its/their last speakers, members of a dying linguistic tribe?

While the Jewish generation that actually spoke Arabic at home and in the streets of Arab cities and towns is indeed disappearing, the regional dialects spoken by Iraqis, Moroccans, or Tunisians remain vibrant in their countries of origin. Even if these regional dialects may not completely match some Jewish speech-modes, the matrix from which Jewish-Arabic idioms emerged—that is, Arabic itself and the regional dialects with which it is affiliated—is not dying at all. Thus the essay poses the question: Does the salvage project of Judeo-Arabic as a kind of lost language reproduce the same conceptual binarism that produced the supposed disappearance of “the language” in the first place, or perhaps more precisely, does it produce the disappearance of Arabic as a mother tongue of Jews? The recovery project is itself caught in the contradictions embedded in the ambiguous language status and fraught conceptual belonging of “Judeo-Arabic.”

A physical and digital linkage with the non-Jewish Moroccan, Iraqi, or Yemeni speakers could potentially facilitate a linguistic/cultural return. Only within the nationalist projection of “Judeo-Arabic” as a kind of a non-Arabic Arabic that is a priori separate from its contemporary non-Jewish speakers, would the physical disappearance of the older Arab-Jews mean a complete linguistic death sentence. Can the de-Arabization process of Arab-Jews be reconfigured through cultural re-Arabization? My hope, in contrast, is to see the Arabic dialects spoken by Jews passed on to younger generations, but within a vision that transcends any museological project.

Indeed, the sense of nostalgia for the past mother-tongue has been expressed in various sites and projects. Such longing has formed part of a broader cultural re-membrance, for example in such musical anthologies as Mélodies judéo-arabes d’autrefois where the notion of judéo-arabe refers to an Arab-Jewish heritage rather than to a language. In the case of Iraqi-Jews, songs have been written in Israel in both the Jewish and Muslim Baghdadi dialects. And despite displacement from Arab spaces, the Arabic lahjat spoken by Jews have remained intimately linked, even across the Israeli/Arab divide, to a living assemblage of Arabic variations. At the present-day, the “Arab-Jew” can also be regarded as a trope full of potentialities, including a diasporic “return,” as it were, to the Arabic vernaculars deployed by Jews. I hope to see further revisiting of such taken-for-granted concepts about Arab-Jews and their culture; not merely about the past but in relation to the future—what Walter Benjamin called “revolutionary nostalgia.” For a younger generation of Arab-Jews/Mizrahim, the study of their respective communities’ dialects could form part of dialogical encounters with their past neighbors, who continue to speak, even if with some linguistic nuances, the past lost Arabic tongue of Arab-Jews.

[Cover of Mélodies judéo-arabes d’autrefois album (Blue Silver, 1997).
Photograph Femme Juive dans son intérieur, collection particulière de Bernard Moussali.]

J: What is the significance of your essay for new scholarly directions, especially in Arab Studies?

ES: The problem in the mapping of Judeo-Arabic as a Jewish language of the Diaspora lies in the casting of Jewish specificities as variations on a specifically Jewish theme, without seeing also the converse counterpart of Jewish specificities as variations on an Arabic theme. If Jewish studies scholars have tended to conceive “Judeo-Arabic” within a ghettoizing approach to the history and culture of “the Jews,” scholars within Arab studies have treated it with skepticism, but in an opposite sense. They wonder whether Judeo-Arabic has any actual existence at all apart from its source language—Arabic. Rather than divide these two fields, I was hoping to bring them into dialogue by addressing some of the specificities of Arabic vernaculars written and spoken by Jews, while also grounding “the question of Judeo-Arabic” within the postcolonial story of nation and dislocation. The issue, then, is not simply whether languages/dialects are attached or detached, but rather how transnationalizing the discussion might help us capture the fluidity, the ins and outs and crisscrossings of languages/dialects as they intersect across various kinds of borders.

Although the notion of “Judeo-Arabic” (but not the notion, and the reality, of “Jewish speakers of Arabic”) has been met with skepticism in Arab studies, the idea of the “Arab-Jew” has had in recent years an increasingly positive reception by non-Jewish Arabs. This shift marks a striking contrast to decades of treating the Arab-Jew largely within the simplistic paradigm of “traitors to the Arab nation.” The tragic consequences of ever-spreading diasporization of various Middle Eastern communities—forced to leave for political, ethnic, or religious reasons—has ironically facilitated an historically unprecedented encounter between the various diasporas, both on the Internet and in various countries. From Samir’s documentary Forget Baghdad (2002) to Majid Shokor’s On the Banks of the Tigris (2015), for example, cultural and intellectual reflection on Arab-Jews by non-Jewish Arabs has become more visible. Such recent work begins to explore the inter-communal history in ways that highlight shared cultural expression while also exposing shared painful memories of war, violence, and dislocation, constantly underscoring their inter-related sense of loss. Such work narrates the hidden Jewish history of Iraqi culture, following the long-standing cultural affinities between Muslims and Jews in Iraq, affinities that have persisted through various diasporas. This growing desire to think about the Arab-Jews within Arab artistic, cultural, and academic practices is rich in possibilities for a transformed cultural and political landscape.

Excerpts from Ella Shohat, “The Question of Judeo-Arabic”

As in the rest of the Arab world, educated Jews in Iraq could read and write fusha or literary Arabic, including Qur’anic Arabic. Arabic written in Hebrew script—whether literary or colloquial Arabic—was largely reserved for intracommunal purposes that included religious, cultural, educational, and financial matters. In cases where a Jewish dialect differed from its religious/ethnic neighbors, Jews exhibited some versatility. Their spoken Arabic was diglossic, giving them the ability to communicate in the standard Muslim dialect, depending on their degree of interaction with Muslims. The distinctions of the three main Arabic dialects or speech-modes in Baghdad that were marked by religion—Muslim, Christian, and Jewish—existed against the backdrop of an assumed common matrix. [Yet]…some studies of Baghdad’s Jewish vernacular have treated it as completely unintelligible to non-Jews. Within this bifurcating grid, the Baghdadi-Jewish vernacular is thoroughly different in nature and distinct in origin from the Muslim dialect. Researching the speech of the Iraqi-Jews who arrived to Israel, Haim Blanc distinguished the Jewish qiltu from the Muslim gilit dialect, acknowledging a regional North/South influence but emphasizing distinct origins that led to the religious communal division in Baghdad.[1] The Baghdadi religious difference, however, could also be read through an alternative prism and within a relationality that would highlight not simply the gulf splitting Jewish and Muslim speech but rather the linguistic overlappings across and between religious communities. The Jewish-Baghdadi dialect could be renarrated as a variation of the Muslawi dialect (i.e., the Northern dialect from around the city/region of Mosul), spoken, even if with some nuances, by Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. In this sense, a Muslim from Mosul spoke a dialect closer to the Jewish-Baghdadi than to the Muslim-Baghdadi dialect. In terms of pronunciation, meanwhile, the Jewish-Iraqi dialect generally, like the Muslawi dialect, is closer to the fusha pronunciation than that of the Baghdadi-Muslim and Southern Iraqi, despite its status as the dominant dialect. For example, in the Jewish-Baghdadi speech-mode, as generally in the Muslawi dialect, the letter qaf is pronounced as qaf, and not as the hard gim; and the letter kaf as kaf and not as cha. But the ra is pronounced as ghayn, in contrast to fusha and the dominant Muslim dialect, yet in conformity with the Muslawi dialect of Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Certain words, in the Jewish-Baghdadi and Muslawi dialects, would be pronounced differently (e.g., ana for I, as in fusha, but in contrast to the dominant dialect of ani, with stress on the first syllable) while the musicality, as a whole, differs. In sum, the scholarly emphasis on the religious-ethnolect differentiation (especially of “the Jewish” vis-à-vis “the Muslim”) within one city could also be rearticulated so as to highlight regional commonalities across ethno/religious communities and without erasing certain specificities often having to do with religious vocabulary. Understanding Iraq’s complexity requires treating its diverse communities as negotiating multiple tongues that have been shaped by related and intersecting linguistic histories, especially of Aramaic, Hebrew, and Arabic, but also of Persian, Turkish, and to an extent Kurdish. Furthermore, that ethno-religious dimension, however significant, forms only one component for a multi-axis analysis that has to take on region, class, and gender to address the interlocution of the Arabics of Jews in relation to the Arabics of Muslims.


In cities such as Baghdad and Basra, linguistic interaction took many forms: Jews who spoke both the Jewish and Muslim dialects; Muslims living in close proximity to Jews who could switch to the Jewish dialect; Jewish singers who sang in the Muslim dialect; and less often, Muslim singers who sang in the Jewish dialect. All these examples reflect the minor/major linguistic dynamics. Even internal Jewish-Baghdadi interlocution was hardly a “pure” vernacular affair, as Jewish speakers would invoke the Muslim-Baghdadi dialect, whether through the pronunciation of certain words to underline a point, or through relaying a proverb commonly expressed in the Muslim speech-mode. This penchant did not fully cease in Israel. In everyday speech and staged events, speakers and performers would sometimes switch to the Muslim-Baghdadi dialect, at times along with literary Arabic and Hebrew. This Iraqi mélange is evident in the cultural events organized by the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda, Israel, even in its Jewish-vernacular oriented series on the wedding tradition, which included a humorous sketch on matchmaking (dlala), written and performed by Salman Abdalla and Yishaq Battat. With their participation in modern Arab nationalism, Jewish writers increasingly used fusha in their essays, books, and memoirs. Yet the texts sometimes deployed local vernaculars to offer the flavor of a dialogue, as in the memoir Qissat hayati fi wadi al-rafidayn (The Story of My Life in Mesopotamia) by poet, journalist, and editor Anwar Sha’ul, or as in Samir Naqqash’s novels and short stories (written in Arabic in Israel), which invoked the polyphony of Iraqi dialects and accents, for example in his Nabuat Rajil Majnoon fi Madina Mal‘una (Prophesies of a Madman in a Cursed City).[2] Even Hebrew novels about Iraq by authors such as Sami Michael, Shimon Ballas, and Eli Amir convey this multiplicity and the displaying of mutual intelligibility.


We find a good example of this kind of fluidity in the crossover movement between dialects in the realm of Iraqi music. In contrast to the fusha of literature, popular music lyrics deploy colloquial Arabic. Jews, like other religious and ethnic communities, participated in a vital way in the creation and dissemination of Iraqi music, contributing to the maqam genre as well as to the popular musical form called pasta. Musicians like Saleh and Daoud al-Kuwaity were among the founders of the Iraqi Radio Orchestra. Saleh al-Kuwaity composed the well-known Iraqi song, “Fog al-Nakhel” (“Above the Palm Trees”), pronounced in the dominant Muslim dialect of Iraq. Sung by multiple generations of Iraqis (and by Arabs of diverse backgrounds), “Fog al-Nakhel” has come to virtually symbolize Iraq across diverse borders.[3] Iraqi-Jews tended to use the Muslim vernacular when writing pasta lyrics, with the result that Jews, including those otherwise lacking Arabic literacy, would sing in the normative dialect. Additionally, apart from singing traditional Jewish-Iraqi songs, Jews would commonly sing local songs in the dominant dialect—such as “Tal‘a min Bayt Abuha” or the lullaby “Dililol.” Furthermore, with the emergence of cinema and radio, Jewish-Iraqis listened to Egyptian music, such as Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab and Umm Kulthum songs, a few of which were inspired by Iraqi music—especially by Saleh al-Kuwaity.[4] In Iraq, apart from traditional piyyutim chanted during religious ceremonies, some popular songs on quotidian matters were performed in the Judeo-Baghdadi vernacular.

At times, Muslim-Baghdadi singers performed in the Jewish dialect. For example, one traditional song of unknown authorship consists of the groom’s mother expressing ironic praise to the bride’s mother. The song, performed on henna nights by a hired group of women called deqaqat, was sung in the Jewish-Baghdadi dialect:

‘Afaki, ‘afaki, (Bravo to you, Bravo to you)
‘ala el-fand el-‘emeltenu (for the trick you’ve played)
ana t‘abtu, wa-ana shqetu (I tired myself and labored)
‘ala el-hadher akhethtenu (And you took him ready made)
‘afaki, ‘afaki (Bravo to you, Bravo to you)[5]

During the 1920s and 1930s, Rashid al-Qundarchi, a Muslim-Iraqi singer who had many Jewish friends, used to perform a repertoire that included the ‘Afaki song at Jewish weddings.[6] He also sang the recorded radio version in which the chalghi players were all Jewish musicians.[7] Yusuf Omar, also of Muslim background, sang another version of the ‘Afaki song in the 1940s. In his recorded version, Omar at times inadvertently switched back to the Muslim-Baghdadi pronunciation, singing shgetu instead of shqetu. Just as Baghdadi-Jews would sometimes slip into the customary Jewish pronunciation of lyrics, some of the Muslims singers would slide in the other direction. Given the minor/major status of the dialects, this fluid code-switching between the two groups was on one level asymmetrical. Yet on another level, it highlights the rather porous boundaries between the so-called “Jewish dialect” and “the Muslim dialect” of Baghdad. This fluidity thus necessitates reimagining the exchange between Jews and Muslims (and other communities) as a case of syncretic speech interlocution.