Why Does Ayelet Tsabari Hesitate Over the Term Arab-Jew?

Leeron Hoory: You’ve written about choosing to write in English rather than in Hebrew. I’m wondering if you were concerned about meaning getting through, especially writing about situations unique to Israel.

Ayelet Tsabari: It’s always a challenge to write about a particular place, to describe it in a way that readers understand, without being overly didactic. I benefited a lot from consulting with my trusted readers, my mentors, friends, and peers. Throughout the process, I would overwrite and end up cutting a lot of it, or assume that things were understood and then find out they weren’t. One of my teachers said to always assume that your readers are more intelligent than you are. It eliminated the worry of cultural and contextual translation, which often results in over-explaining or needing to handhold. 


LH: I also think a lot of readers could relate to the themes in your book—immigration and generational differences and tensions—without necessarily knowing the particulars of the country. Were you thinking about the reactions of Israeli readers?

AT: I did. I tried not to ruminate too much on my imagined readers while writing the book. The process of writing a first book is unlike the following ones, because you are still in your own world; the idea that the book will be out in the world one day is still abstract. There were a lot of things I worried about, and Israelis’ perception was one of them. But as it turned out, the reception was mostly good and kind. In May, the book will come out in the Hebrew, and how the translation will be received is yet to be seen. 


LH: How do you find your work relates to other artists in Israel creating work that speaks to the Mizrahi experience? 

AT: I think this speaks to the question of what it means to be an Israeli. I was worried that writing from Canada in English would somehow place me as an outsider to the movement of Mizrahi work happening in Israel, even though I consider myself an Israeli writer.

Yet, lately I’ve been talking and meeting with other Israeli writers who write both in English and Hebrew, and I realize the conversation about Mizrahi Jews is actually wider than the confines of Israel. I think it makes Israeli literature bigger than the border of the country and that’s a really positive thing.

The revolution of Mizrahi artists in Israel is really exciting and something I craved as a child, growing up without seeing myself portrayed in literature or history classes. I find the idea of what it means to be Jewish to be pretty narrow also outside of Israel. The majority of the books translated from Hebrew have been mostly by Ashkenazi authors, and so hopefully this book might contribute just a tiny bit to the act of complicating Jewish identity and showing that there’s more to Jewishness and more to the Israeli story.


LH: Has your own understanding of Mizrahi identity evolved through the process of writing and publishing stories about it? 

AT: I think when I first started looking back to my heritage and exploring this part of my identity, I was really attracted to the Arabic-ness of it. For a while I really enjoyed using the term Arab-Jew. There is something very romantic about it, and it also makes sense in many ways: my grandmother speaks Arabic, a Yemenite dialect. At the time I worked in a Lebanese restaurant in Vancouver when there weren’t many Israelis, and I felt very much at home there, in the Middle Eastern-ness of the food, music and mannerisms. 

Later on I started to reconsider this term as a way to describe myself. My Arabic is rudimentary at best, and I began to think the term might be better suited to Jew living in Arab society, which hasn’t been true for me as it was for my grandparents. I now see myself as Mizrahi: as Yemeni, Israeli and Jewish. I think these terms are more correct and more accurate, but I had to find this through the term Arab-Jew. 

I’m still fond of the term Arab-Jew, but I’m also hesitant to fully claim this identity considering I grew up in Israel.


LH: You’ve written about an imposed prerequisite for writing set in Israel to be inherently political. Did your thinking about Israel change as you were writing this book?

AT: I think there is an expectation when writing about Israel for it to be political, to be about the conflict, the situation (“hamatzav”) and this can be frustrating for someone not inclined to focus specifically on war stories. I’m interested in many conflicts: cultural clashes and dynamics within families and romantic relationships. I also wanted to capture how the political situation is always in the background: the way we live our lives with the sense of contention that is always present but not always on the forefront.

The question is also what is political, because to me the book is political. My decision to write strictly Mizrahi characters was a political decision for me. To shed light on characters who are marginalized in Israeli society was also a political choice.

Whenever I watch news from other places these are the things I want to know too: I want to see the family dynamics and love stories, and how people live amidst tragedy and war. This is one of the things I think fiction does best. 


LH: It’s interesting because the stories we often consider quintessentially political, such as war stories, are so often male. I found your book does deal with these themes, but through a different lens.

Could you share more about the gender dynamics in these stories? How do you think that your perspective as a woman writer shapes your understanding of some of the complexities and diversities in Israeli society? 

AT: I like to think my female characters are badasses. A teacher of mine once commented that my female characters often display characteristics that could be stereotypically masculine: they are assertive, sometimes sexually aggressive, tough. It wasn’t something I had planned. I just wrote the kind of female characters I like to read. But I think it stems from my interest in gender dynamics in Israel, and how the mandatory army service shapes young men and women. The army is still very much a male dominated environment, so of course it has an impact on women in one way or another. We learn to act tough, because you need to do that if you want to belong in the army or be taken seriously, regardless of your gender. And of course, living with a sense of threat may have something to do with that too; it’s a survival mechanism. 

On the flip side of it, I was also interested in how the Israeli Jewish ideal of manliness affects men, especially when they are not naturally inclined toward these prescribed roles, and many of my male characters challenge the idea of the stereotypical Israeli man.