Sami Michael, Iraqi-Israeli writer who bridged divides, dies at 97 | EUROtoday

Get real time updates directly on you device, subscribe now.

Sami Michael, a author whose youth in a Jewish enclave in Baghdad and immigrant journey to Israel impressed novels that explored overlays of tradition and id, together with the struggles and suspicions confronted by Arab Jews in Israel, died April 1 at his dwelling in Israel’s Mediterranean port of Haifa. He was 97.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, a watchdog group the place he was president, introduced the loss of life however didn’t present a trigger. Writers, activists and political leaders throughout Israel in shared tribute amid the divisions and turmoil of the Gaza conflict.

Writing in his adopted language of Hebrew, Mr. Michael (pronounced me-KA-ale) grew to become a literary voice of the “other” within the Middle East — whether or not throughout the historic Jewish communities in Muslim nations or among the many Jewish émigrés to Israel from nations resembling Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere.

The tales created by Mr. Michael over greater than a dozen books have been fictional, however they illuminated acquainted realities. His Arab Jewish characters confront discrimination and indignities large and small. They additionally grapple with the burden of historical past and politics, together with Israel’s previous wars in opposition to Arab states and the occupation of Palestinian territories for generations.

For many non-Arab readers, Mr. Michael’s novels provided a starkly totally different model of the Israeli expertise, as seen by means of Arab Jewish immigrants recognized in Hebrew as Mizrahim, or Easterners.

Mr. Michael’s first novel in Hebrew, “All Men Are Equal — But Some Are More” in 1974, loosely borrows its title from George Orwell’s political allegory “Animal Farm” and chronicles members of a middle-class Jewish household from Baghdad as they search their bearings in Israel within the Nineteen Fifties and past.

The household arrives dressed of their “best garments, tailor-made of expensive English wool and pure silk,” Mr. Michael wrote within the e book, whose title in English translation could be “Equal and More Equal.” They anticipated the identical enthusiastic welcome given to immigrants of European heritage. Instead, the household was positioned with different Arab Jewish newcomers in a squalid transit camp.

“[A] gray bunch of pasty-faced bureaucrats appeared … in five short minutes the new homeland turned my father from an energetic man in the prime of his life to an old broken abject fool,” he wrote.

Mr. Michael’s work grew to become thought to be important studying in understanding the tightly knit Arab-Jewish communities and positioned him amongst a number of the most celebrated Israeli writers, together with Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua and Meir Shalev. Israeli President Isaac Herzog referred to as Mr. Michael a “giant among giants.”

“Sometimes I feel that there are two identities inside me,” Mr. Michael as soon as mentioned. “The one is of an Arab from Iraq, while the other one is of an Israeli Jew.”

Mr. Michael, then often known as Kamal Salah, fled Baghdad in 1948 after the institution of Israel, which was instantly locked in battle with Arab states. Mr. Michael, who was additionally a Communist Party activist, mentioned he feared arrest and attainable execution in Iraq. He spent a yr in Iran earlier than leaving for Israel.

He settled in Haifa and wrote articles for Arabic-language editions of a Communist Party newspaper. He stop the social gathering after Soviet chief Nikita Khrushchev in a 1956 speech acknowledged the brutal purges and repression of his predecessor, Joseph Stalin, however Mr. Michael remained energetic in left-wing politics. Meanwhile, he was employed as a hydrologist in Israeli agriculture division; it was a place he held till 1974, and he put his writing on maintain as he mastered Hebrew.

Nearly all his novels carry some autobiographical echoes. In “Refuge” (1977), set within the aftermath of Israel’s victory within the 1973 October War, the characters embrace a Jewish asylum seeker from Iraq who turns into demoralized by his second-class standing in Israel.

“A Handful of Fog” (1979) follows the devastation of Iraq’s once-flourishing Jewish neighborhood, and “Victoria” (1995) relies on observations of his mom’s life in Baghdad’s Jewish quarter and the dominance of males over the neighborhood’s affairs. The e book ends in Israel, the place the Iraqi immigrant males have misplaced their energy and the ladies extra simply modify.

His 2003 novel “A Trumpet in the Wadi” explores prejudice by means of a romance between a Christian Arab girl and a Russian Jewish immigrant in Israel. In a evaluate of the novel, famend Israeli author David Grossman mentioned Mr. Michael possessed a strong means to interrupt down “us and them” stereotypes.

“My biological mother is Iraq, my adopted mother is Israel,” Mr. Michael mentioned at a 2015 literary occasion at Northwestern University. “I belong to both sides.”

Politically, he discovered fault on many fronts. He decried anti-Israel rhetoric of Arab leaders. Yet he additionally was a longtime supporter of Palestinian statehood and was more and more bitter over hard-line Israeli insurance policies he asserted had eroded the nation’s soul.

“Racism is gradually becoming entrenched in Israeli society with the political strengthening of the religious right,” he mentioned in a 2012 speech in Haifa. “Racism is directed at Jews from Arab and Islamic countries, immigrants from Ethiopia and Russia, Arab citizens of Israel, Palestinians in the occupied territories, refugees and working migrants, gays, and the list goes on.”

In September 2023, a month earlier than the Hamas assaults on Israel that started the conflict in Gaza, Mr. Michael stepped down after twenty years as president of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. “He expressed his pain and rage toward the injustices in Israel, demanded where justice must be served and instilled in us a spirit of hope for change,” the group mentioned in a press release.

Kamal Salah was born in Baghdad on Aug. 15, 1926. His father was a service provider and dealer; his mom was a homemaker. He modified his title to Sami Michael after arriving in Israel.

He mentioned he grew to become conscious of the ability of literature as a boy through the crushing warmth of a Baghdad summer time. He started studying Jack London books set within the Arctic. “As I read the book, I shivered from the cold. I said, ‘Ahh, this is a magic man.’ Something happened to me while reading his work,” he recalled. “I wanted to be a writer.”

In Baghdad, he attended Jewish colleges and, as a youngster, joined the Communist Party that opposed Iraq’s more and more nationalist authorities. In June 1941, Muslim mobs attacked Jewish areas of Baghdad, killing scores of individuals and burning properties and retailers.

He got here to Israel amid a wave of Arab Jewish immigrants who felt persecuted of their homelands. Mr. Michael mentioned he selected to write down in Hebrew out of a necessity to succeed in readers — though it took him a long time to really feel snug with turning the language into prose.

“I didn’t have any lessons in the Hebrew language. It entered my body through my skin. I was caught by the musicality of the language. I created my own Hebrew,” he mentioned. “I was 48 when I started writing in Hebrew, and I used every cell of my body to write to the Israeli reader.”

In addition to his novels, he wrote a number of nonfiction books, performs and youngsters’s books, together with “Storm Among the Palms” (1991), and obtained the 1992 Hans Christian Andersen Award for youngsters’s literature. He translated into Hebrew the Cairo trilogy — “Palace Walk,” “Palace of Desire” and “Sugar Street” — of the Nobel laureate Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz.

Survivors embrace his spouse, the previous Rachel Yonah; two youngsters from his first marriage to Malka Rivkin; and 5 grandchildren.

Mr. Michael, the previous hydrologist, was keen on utilizing water metaphors to explain his life and work.

“I am Iraqi and I am also Israeli. These two identities exist in me and I love them both because they are a part of me,” he as soon as mentioned in a roundtable dialogue with different writers. “Both these rivers flow into my work.”