Massoud Hayoun combines two shorter books into one with his debut nonfiction, When We Were Arabs. It’s a family memoir, a political history, and a commentary. He uses his own family’s experience, primarily that of his maternal grandparents, to illustrate a wide variety of political, religious, social, racial, and historical issues among Jewish Arabs and the rest of the world.
It’s an ambitious project that unfortunately falls down in the execution. I thought his family’s story of multiple immigration experiences was mostly quite interesting. And parts of the other topics were well drawn and also informative. But the great quantity of the book needed better writing, editing, and organization. Therefore, I truly struggled to finish it.
Hayoun comes from both Tunisian and Egyptian heritage. His grandmother was born in Tunisia, and his grandfather in Egypt. The 20th century was tumultuous for both of them. Separately and together they emigrated to Israel, France, and the United States. Each time they faced different challenges, which tested their resiliency. But because they started life as Jews in colonized Arabic countries, difficulties were just normal life for them.
Hayoun bases the memoir sections on autobiographical notebooks kept by both grandparents. He then takes the information and adds his own commentary. His grandparents essentially raised him, so they often told him of their experiences as well.
In addition to his family history, Hayoun explains historical events from the 1300s until present day. It’s probably not comprehensive, but I’m not knowledgeable enough to judge that. On the other hand, it’s certainly full of details, which simply bog down the book’s narrative. Hayoun tries to explain injustices and challenges suffered by Jewish Arabs throughout the centuries. It’s just way too wide ranging.
The reason I picked this book at NetGalley was because of Promised Land by Martin Fletcher. In that book, I learned about the plight of Jewish Arabs in the early days of the state of Israel. Of course, Jews are indigenous to these lands, just as people of other religions are. But I didn’t fully understand the complexity of racial prejudices and injustices happening there.
Reading When We Were Arabs taught me about depth of these issues. For that reason, I’m glad I read it. I just wish it wasn’t such a difficult slog to get through. Truthfully, if Hayoun focused on the powerful family memoir with some explanation and commentary that would have worked for me. As it was, reaching a history section meant groaning internally and skimming the text.
I’m well versed in the political issues of my own country, but am always open to learn about politics in other countries and regions. Unlike a lot of my reads, I have no personal stake in the sides of this political divide. But I appreciate the commentary on how two separate and distinct faiths can live side-by-side. And also how they’re quite divided in other, less obvious, ways.
Hayoun also spends considerable time discussing European colonialism, which he clearly disdains. I think those issues should continue to be raised, as colonialist behavior happens often today.
Unfortunately, I can’t give this book a strong recommendation. I suspect there are other books that cover these issues with more clarity and less frustration. But I applaud the author’s effort and his family’s persistence.
Many thanks to NetGalley, The New Press, and especially the author for the opportunity to read a digital advanced readers copy in exchange for this honest review.