More on the Mechanics of Place

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Juan Cole mentions that there is enlightenment to be had from Ella Shohat's meditation on the implications for identity in being an Iraqi Jew, and an American one at that -- and on the cognitive dissonance this produces in many Westerners.

Fun fact: my first Hebrew teacher here was also a Mizrahi; she retired in December, and I'm sorry to say that her replacement doesn't engage nearly as well with the class. (Contrary to the common usage here, the Mizrahi are not Sephardim.) Apparently we were supposed to be able to tell, from the fact that she can pronounce the letter "ain" correctly, that her mother tongue is Arabic. Of course she was just having fun with us, as she knew perfectly well that a bunch of foreigners in Ulpan Aleph (Hebrew 101 for Immigrants, essentially) would know no such thing. Our new teacher has yet to evidence a sense of humor.

At any rate, only about half of Shohat's essay consists of a fairly standard exposition on an underappreciated and, whether she likes it or not, "ontological[ly] subversi[ve]" (precisely because of the bipolarity she bemoans) multivalent identity. Interspersed with about equal proportion is her, to my thought much more interesting, reflection on the dynamics of place and misplaced boundaries.

... even the most religious of our communities in the Middle East and North Africa never expressed themselves in Yiddish-accented Hebrew prayers, nor did they practice liturgical-gestural norms and sartorial codes favoring the dark colors of centuries-ago Poland. ... If you go to our synagogues, even in New York, Montreal, Paris or London, you'll be amazed to hear the winding quarter tones of our music which the uninitiated might imagine to be coming from a mosque.

The Mizrahi Jews are traditionally those that never left the Middle East; Shohat claims that her ancestors have been in Iraq since the Babylonian exile, which is at the very least more plausible than usual for statements invoking millenia-spanning familial ties. That they then behave like Middle Easterners is unsuprising, even if modern expectations are challenged by the existence of Jews who in many ways resemble more closely the fellow Arabs of their homelands than their fellow Jews from Poland. Significantly, as they have been forced into a second diaspora throughout the world, an echo of a former locale is included among the cultural baggage that is preserved.

As such, they stand uncomfortably pinioned in a world that largely tries with a single line to divide West from East and Judeo-Christian from Muslim. Place and culture are, after all, hardly homomorphic concepts. So it's particularly cruel that in the wake of the 1948 war, most of them were expelled from their Arab home countries to Israel, where most cultural, religious, and legal institutions remain dominated by the European Ashkenazi and a viceral distrust of anything Arab.

The same historical process that dispossessed Palestinians of their property, lands and national-political rights, was linked to the dispossession of Middle Eastern and North African Jews of their property, lands, and rootedness in Muslim countries. As refugees, or mass immigrants (depending on one's political perspective), we were forced to leave everything behind and give up our Iraqi passports. The same process also affected our uprootedness or ambiguous positioning within Israel itself, where we have been systematically discriminated against by institutions that deployed their energies and material to the consistent advantage of European Jews and to the consistent disadvantage of Oriental Jews. Even our physiognomies betray us, leading to internalized colonialism or physical misperception. Sephardic Oriental women often dye their dark hair blond, while the men have more than once been arrested or beaten when mistaken for Palestinians. What for Ashkenazi immigrants from Russian and Poland was a social aliya (literally "ascent") was for Oriental Sephardic Jews a yerida ("descent").

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Supplement: On Being a Citizen of the Blogosphere from Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast on February 14, 2005 11:33 PM

(Alert: Mandatory self-reflective blogpost ahead) I'm past the midpoint of my Black History Month posts. I've been pretty successful at posting every day as I had planned. (Hint: Saving multiple posts as drafts is your friend.) But an interesting thing... Read More

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I think you should be much higher in the evolutionary chain than a mere microbe. Although, microbes are likely best suited to survive another whole-earth catastrophe. So anyway, I'll do my part and link to EGAD, as this post especially got me thinking about "place" and "identity." Take care!

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This page contains a single entry by Milligan published on January 24, 2005 6:52 PM.

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