Scholar explores Hebrew’s debt to Arabic

Scholar explores Hebrew’s debt to Arabic

Lital Levy and Benjamin Conisbee Baer at Labyrinth Books
Lital Levy and Benjamin Conisbee Baer at Labyrinth Books

For many Israelis, the Arabic influence on Hebrew extends perhaps to only slang words — like yalla (come on!), sababa (cool!), habibi (dude!).

But the relationship between the two languages is far deeper and more complicated than that, Lital Levy explained during an appearance at the Labyrinth bookstore in Princeton.

Unbeknownst to many, said Levy, assistant professor of comparative literature at Princeton University, Arabic initially was a model for Jews of the second aliya — those arriving from 1904 to 1914 — who were trying to revive Hebrew into a “modern, everyday, quotidian language” and “to redefine and recreate themselves in a new image — not Diasporic Jews, who were not in charge of their own destiny.”

“They wanted to take a new identity that would fuse language and place, and they needed a model,” Levy said. “The people who had an organic connection to language and place were the Palestinian Arabs.” Arguments were made by some for using Arabic as a template, literally borrowing from Arabic roots.

In dialogue with her departmental colleague, associate professor Benjamin Conisbee Baer, Levy spoke Nov. 19 about her new book, Poetic Trespass: Writing Between Hebrew and Arabic in Israel/Palestine (Princeton University Press).

In her book, Levy said, she explores the changing view of Arabic in Israeli eyes. The language, once considered “cool” by those who spoke it colloquially or borrowed various idioms, became derided, reviled, and considered the language of terrorists and low-skilled laborers.

Levy said she also goes beyond that story and explores “zones of fertile, creative interaction between Hebrew and Arabic.” 

According to Levy, Israelis who write in Arabic fall into two groups: bilingual Arab citizens of Israel whose forebears remained in Israel after 1948 and Jews from Arabic-speaking lands and their descendants. 

Of the latter group, Levy studied three generations of writers.

The first arrived in Israel between the 1950s and early ’70s. They grew up in Arabic countries and were fluent in literary Arabic. Most arrived as refugees, experiencing economic duress. 

At the same time, these Sephardi Jews were coming into a new society established chiefly by Ashkenazi Jews, who, as Europeans, held a host of preconceptions. They assumed, said Levy, that “people from the Middle East are dirty, uneducated, and primitive.” 

“Arabic is their lived language and the language of the world they left behind,” Levy said of this first generation. “Using Arabic…is a way of trying to rekindle an entire world they left behind, and there is no space for it in Israeli Zionist culture.”

For the second generation of writers, born in Israel or arriving as young children, and growing up in families that spoke colloquial Arabic at home, the language had a different valence. “Arabic is the language spoken by their parents in the home that they are ashamed of; their parents are old world, speaking of the motherland,” Levy said. Because of their social marginalization as children of lower-class immigrants, she continued, “there is shame and secrecy; they are writing in a more pidgin Hebrew, creating a literature that will reflect a Hebrew vernacular at odds with the standard Hebrew used in literature.”

The third generation was born to parents who grew up speaking Hebrew as their first language. “Although they don’t have an immediate connection to Arabic, they begin to yearn for it and write about it,” Levy said. “It is an idea, theme, or symbol that is written about. It has to do with their identity; they want to open a different space in Israeli society that would recognize it.”

This generation, she said, is confronting their parents and asking: Why were you ashamed? Why did you change your names? Why were you willing to give up your roots and the past? At the same time, they don’t know the Arabic language. Dealing with themes of loss, Levy said, their work is haunting. 

“The third generation is very political about contesting the assumptions of Zionism and trying to reclaim a place for Arabic as part of Jewish identity,” Levy said.

Arabic today is present for Israelis largely in their slang. “Arabic is okay for vulgarities or to talk about food; it is limited to low-register domains,” Levy said. “It is not that there is no Arabic in Israeli Hebrew, but it is always associated with negative perceptions or low prestige.”

After 1948 and particularly through the 1950s and ’60s, Israel increasingly aligned itself with the West, Levy explained. “Especially after ’67, Arabic was valued for military intelligence and security purposes,” Levy said, noting that there is little appreciation for Arabic literature, for the Mizrahi cultural heritage, or for the importance of knowing Arabic as a way to understand the other’s culture.

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