Sami Michael and Israeli Literature
The Social Novels of Sami Michael
Prof. Yigal Schwartz
Sami Michael, or Salah Menashe, as he was known as a child, was born in Baghdad on August 15, 1926. In 1945, he graduated from the Shamash Jewish high school. At the age of fifteen, he joined the communist underground in Iraq and worked against the regime and for human rights. He studied for one year at the American University, and wrote for the underground press. In 1948, after an arrest warrant was issued against him, he fled to Iran and changed his name. A year later, fearing that he would be extradited to Iraq, he went to Israel. He settled in Jaffa, and moved to Haifa after Emile Habibi suggested he become a member of the editorial staff of the Communist party newspaper Al-Ittihad. He lived in the Wadi Nisnas neighborhood and published stories and articles in Al-Ittihad and Al-Jadid (Arabic newspapers). In 1955, disappointed with the policies of the Soviet Union, he resigned from the Communist party. He worked for twenty-five years as a hydrologist in the Hydrological Service of the Ministry of Agriculture. Michael is a graduate of the psychology and Hebrew literature departments of the University of Haifa. Immediately upon completing his studies, he went from writing in Arabic to writing in Hebrew.
Michael’s works include stories and articles in Arabic and in Hebrew, children’s books, young adult books, plays, non-fiction, a novella, a translation, and ten novels for adults. Michael’s novels are without a doubt the crowning glory of his oeuvre. In terms of sub-genre, these are panoramic social novels. Their plots present the history of two or three central families in one historical period. In all of them, conflicts of identity and existential conflicts of men and women, Jews and Arabs, young and old are shaped. These are personal conflicts whose development Michael follows in detail against the rich and complex background of the ways of life of the members of various classes in his “two homelands,” Iraq and Israel, and in his two beloved cities, Baghdad and Haifa, with massive shifts to the topic of the Palestinian Occupied Territories (mainly Jenin and its surrounding areas) and modest shifts to other areas of the world. The arena of the fictional events in Iraq encompasses the 1920s and 1930s (in Viktoria) through the 1930s and 1940s (in Ḥofen shel arafel and Yahalom min ha-yeshimon) and up to the 2000s (in Aida). The historical range of the works whose plots are set in Israel and in the occupied territories opens in the mid-1950s (in Shavim ve-shavim yoter), continues to the Yom Kippur War (in Ḥasut and Me'of ha-barburim), and has reached, until today, 1982 and the First Lebanon War (in Ḥaẓoẓrah ba-vadi and Yonim be-trafalgar).
Michael’s novels comprise an extensive and rich corpus that grants him a place of honor on the eastern wall of Israeli literature, first and foremost because of his literary achievements, but also due to the clear prominence of his broad novelistic enterprise against the background of the scarcity that characterizes the literary inventory of this genre in general and in Modern Hebrew fiction (from the period of the Revival onward) in particular. A discussion of Michael’s novels against the background of this genre in Hebrew fiction will sharpen our understanding of both his novelistic art and his worldview.
One of the most notable facts regarding the study of Hebrew literature is the absence of any real debate on the issue of the novel. This absence is particularly evident both against the background of discussions of this genre in research on world literature and in light of the abundance of discussions of other genres and sub-genres of Hebrew literature that seem to have a more marginal status in the literary system. A large inventory of works on Hebrew satire, poetry, novellas, ballads, and so on, is available, but works on the panoramic social novel are almost non-existent. The reason for this phenomenon is simple. The inventory of novels, particularly panoramic social novels, in Modern Hebrew literature is very meager. In fact, one could count on little more than the fingers of both hands the Hebrew novels written in the format typical of the Russian social novels in the style of Gorky, Tolstoy, and Turgenev, or the great French naturalists, in the style of Stendhal, Balzac, the Goncourt brothers, and Zola, or the great English and American authors, Dickens, Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, and others, or the novels written in the same period by Jewish authors in Yiddish and other languages, including Zalman Shneur, Yosef Roth, Henry Roth, Albert Cohen, and others.
The notable absence of panoramic social novels in the history of Modern Hebrew literature raises two main questions in the context of this discussion: “What are the sources of this literary anomaly?” and “Why is Sami Michael unaffected by it?”
It is possible to identify several sources of this anomaly in Modern Hebrew literature, which was for many decades mainly Ashkenazi and Eastern European. Most of the reasons have to do with the almost impossible mission that the authors took upon themselves: to create a new, modern, secular society in a new-old place, Ereẓ Israel, the land that had been promised to their fathers, in the Hebrew language, which for years was used primarily as a sacred tongue. First, the writing of panoramic social novels requires, according to Y. H. Brenner in his renowned article “The Ereẓ Israel Genre and its Artifacts,” a complex semiotic system, that is, a society with rituals and traditions familiar to everyone, distinct classes, clear personalities, and so on. The New Yishuv, the group of immigrant writers who came from Europe, out of which came the writers who formed the backbone of the literature of the period, lacked all of these things. This lack could be filled by means of adopting parts of the rich semiotic system that authors such as Yitzhak Erter, Mendele Mocher Sforim, Shalom Aleichem, Peretz Smolenskin, Y. D. Berkowitz, Zalman Shneur, Yeshayahu Bershadsky, and many others created in the Diaspora, enriching the Hebrew and Yiddish bookshelf with exemplary social novels. They did so by making the necessary adaptations to the characteristics of the new existential space. And indeed, the authors who came from the Pale of Settlement and nearby areas of Eastern Europe, as well as many of their offspring, turned their backs on the Old World, with its rich and complex semiotic system. They adopted the “Lot’s wife command” when it came to their recent historical past and thus willingly cut themselves off from a rich Hebrew and Yiddish social novelistic tradition, for which most of them found no replacement. The same group of writers (and poets) also faced an almost insurmountable obstacle to cultural difference. Most of them, especially the men who were students of traditional Jewish educational institutions, had to cope with the fact that the Ereẓ-Israeli space was both physically new for them and semiotically inadequate, much like the parallel spaces of other immigrant-settler authors. But in addition, and in this their situation differed from that of immigrant writers who settled elsewhere, it was linguistically and culturally “occupied territory.” This is because a thick screen of terms and symbols from the Jewish bookshelf separated them from the old-new land that they faced, and any attempt to ignore it would involve, as Gershom Scholem predicted, virtual explosions of religious charges.
In addition to these obstacles, there was an ideological one. Most of the Hebrew writers who came from Eastern Europe wrote within the framework of the paradigm of the national Zionist meta-narrative, whether they agreed with it or opposed it. Both the authors who created hegemonic Zionist texts and the rebellious authors who wrote subversive texts played on the same ideological-political field, a narrow fictional field with a set of rigid rules regarding the degree of legitimacy and relevance of every component of the world of writing. The fact that most Hebrew writers who wrote in Ereẓ Israel in the early and mid-twentieth century supported the socialist-Zionist doctrine attests to this. However, when we examine their works, a significant gap between the ideological platform and the literary performances is revealed. Thus, according to the ideological doctrine, proper weight should have been granted to both national factors and social/class factors. However, the Hebrew literature written in Ereẓ Israel is almost entirely marked by the clear dominance of the national component. For example, according to the ideological doctrine, authors should have devoted considerable space to the shared class fate of the Hebrew and the Palestinian tenant farmers who suffered at the hands of the “feudal” landowners, peasants, and effendis. Yet this issue was marginalized due to the priority of another subject with a clear national character: the conquest of labor and protection against the Palestinians.
The desire and ability of the Eastern European Hebrew writers to write panoramic social novels were limited from the start by a variety of factors. These included the renunciation of the huge semiotic reservoir of Hebrew culture and literature in the Diaspora, the absence of a unified, solid social order in the new-old country, the need to contend with a sacred phantom language in a mainly secular life situation, and the narrow ideological matrix that did not make it possible to become openly acquainted with the new space and its inhabitants.
The reasons for the delay in the development of the panoramic social novel in the framework of hegemonic Ashkenazi Hebrew literature did not apply to Sami Michael. This is true both because he grew up in a different cultural environment and because he refused to accept some of the basic assumptions of the center of the Hebrew literary system he encountered in Israel, and in which he began to write, probably not coincidentally, at a relatively late age. Shavim veshavim yoter, his first Hebrew novel, was published in 1974, when he was forty-eight years old!
Michael, who was followed by other authors from Arab countries, firmly refused to follow the “Lot’s Wife Command.” Like Aharon Appelfeld, who also refused to follow this command (and hence there is great spiritual kinship between them), he considered the biographical past and the traditions of the Iraqi Jewish tribe to which he belonged a vital and inexhaustible source, both as a writer and as a person. Baghdad, the great city, its diverse population, its various quarters, and its long and unstable history, a central axis of which is, as Michael repeatedly emphasizes, hundreds of years of continuous Jewish existence, served him as fertile ground for realizing his artistic plans and, at least in retrospect, as a model for what he sees as the optimal political conduct of the Jewish community in the Middle East. In the bosom of this semiotic space, he created social novels that shape personal and interpersonal conflicts against the background of a diverse and colorful ethnic, religious, tribal, economic, and ideological tapestry.
This anthropological diversity fit Michael’s worldview like a glove. As a young man, he became an educated communist revolutionary, determined and conscious of the human texture of Iraqi society, with its various factions. Indeed, as he noted in an interview with Ruvik Rosenthal, in the nineteen forties, the years in which the communist underground in Iraq was active, there was no real proletariat in Iraq. However, Iraqi society was characterized by extreme class differences and tensions, which are expressed in countless ways in his “Iraqi novels.” This is so, for example, in the many descriptive passages in Viktoria, whose focus is the Jewish Quarter of Baghdad in the early 1920s and the 1930s. This is the site of extreme demographic change that is significant for the characters of this extraordinary novel.
These descriptions often employ a graduated close-up technique. First, we learn about the broad cultural and historical context, and then the narrator leads us in measured steps to the Jewish Quarter in the recent past and in the present, when its condition is steadily deteriorating. Thus, for example:
Baghdad has existed for over a thousand years. The great city, which developed from a remote village on the outskirts of the Sassanid kingdom, owed a lot to Victoria’s ancestors. Jewish doctors, scientists, philosophers, statesmen and men of letters made a considerable contribution to the Arab culture which flourished there. But generations of conquests, floods, plagues, persecutions and massacres not only dwindled the spiritual resources of the Jewish community, they also caused it to lose its memory. The Jews huddled together in a cramped quarter, and most of them were born and grew up and grew old and died without ever leaving its confines. A community whose forbears had composed the Babylonian Talmud and whose aspirations had encompassed the world and the fullness thereof, narrowed their horizons drastically.
The actual central and emotional site in the Jewish Quarter is Victoria’s family home. This is a disintegrating, crumbling site, which is deliberately described through the relationship of its revealed occupants, the generations of Victoria’s family, with its concealed occupants, “ants, fleas, worms, cockroaches, scorpions, beetles, mice and snakes”:
… the human occupants humbly recognized their transience. Consequently they invested a minimum of effort in the upkeep of the building. Months went by before a broken window pane was replaced. Sometimes it was replaced by wooden boards or cardboard. The cesspits were emptied only when they overflowed. Broken floor tiles were left to disintegrate. The present occupants were in no hurry to wield hammers and picks. The line between the natural and the supernatural was thin and fragile, and few dared to touch it or cross it. Young and old, the members of the household believed that under the floor the earth was alive and kicking with demons and harmful spirits. It was better to ignore a cracked tile than risk startling the vengeful forces of the underworld from their slumbers.
Victoria's father, who makes no effort to improve his family’s living conditions, is such an occupant. But the narrator tells us about Jews of another kind, “men of his [her father’s] position”:
Other, more enterprising men of his position had already gone far, they were living in the new neighborhoods in solid houses with electricity whose windows look out on trees. And her father was still wallowing in the squalor of the alley. Ma’atuk Nunu had already rented his spacious home to twenty poverty-stricken families, and bought himself a mansion in the suburb of Batawin.
The class distinctions among Jews intensify in Yahalom min ha-yeshimon, set ten or fifteen years after Viktoria. This becomes clear when we compare the spacious, modern, peaceful, and safe neighborhood to which the family of Kamel (the central character) moves to the house of Yehuda, a poor errand boy who Kamel and his lover Almassa (a maid in his home) visit after he is injured in a work accident. Both sites are depicted through the sensitive eyes of Kamal.
Kamel's new neighborhood:
From then until his final days, Kamel had not asked to be a part of anything. He just wanted to be a part of the human and cultural landscape that he encountered in the street where his new home was. No shrieks of bitter quarrels rose from the windows of the houses, no barking of Radio Berlin in Arabic, which at the time incited racism. On the walls of the houses no graffiti was smeared in threatening black paint, which his eyes were accustomed to seeing, from “be rough and tough, a life of luxury eliminates blessings” to “Hitler destroys germs.” In the Quarter there was police station of a kind that was rare in the city, as the policemen and officers not only were not partners of the burglars and thieves, as they were in many quarters of Baghdad … but also provided a sense of security that stood the test of time to the whole mixed population – Muslims, Jews and Christians. At first, Kamel walked on tiptoe in the new neighborhood, cautious and apprehensive, like a pupil who had skipped two grades overnight. The transition from the Hanuni market to the new, expanding, flourishing district involved a kind of cultural shock.
The house that Yehuda lived in was old, like Kamel’s grandfather’s house, but here the surroundings were even more poor and failing. More than ten families occupied the small rooms. Each family was compressed into a tiny room that had not a single window. The doors were rickety, the paint peeling above them, and the wood was eaten away, so they could block neither the wind nor the mice that easily infiltrated.
When there was no response, Almassa pushed the crumbling door. A stinking breath of excrement and sweat hit the nostrils. In his wanderings, Kamel passed over putrid garbage dumps and filthy pools of dung, but it seemed that the human nose would not stand the stench trapped in this closed room. Inside, there was a mixture of darkness, desperation, a frozen chill, fetid soil, and stinking air in which hung a stench of human excrement that stung the eyes in its intensity...
In Viktoria and Yahalom min ha-yeshimon, Michael primarily describes the class differences and manifestations of wealth and poverty among the Jews. In Ḥofen shel arafel and Aida he mainly describes class differences and manifestations of poverty and wealth among Muslims and Christians. Noteworthy in this context is the appalling stable that is home to Abdul Aziz, the old and dying Muslim friend of the Jewish boy Ramzi, the protagonist of Ḥofen shel arafel, and the destruction of the house and the severe political and gender violence experienced by Aida, the refugee from Kurdistan and the protagonist of the novel of the same name.
In addition to Michael's refusal to accept the “Lot's Wife Command” and his communist training, which sharpened his gaze with regard to social, ethnic, and economic differences, we must add, in the context of the conditions necessary for writing panoramic social novels that take place in Ereẓ Israel, Michael’s unique ideological position. I refer to the fact that Michael adopted a non-Zionist position. He repeatedly emphasized, and also stressed in his artistic practice, that he was a Jewish and Israeli writer, but not a Zionist – not a Zionist, but also not, and this is a huge difference in philosophical and literary terms, an anti-Zionist.
Michael developed this unique position gradually. At the beginning of his writing career, first and foremost in Shavim ve-shavim yoter, he confronted the Zionist meta-narrative directly. This confrontation created a novel that is intense and sharply expressed, but limited in terms of its range of human diversity. This fact could, indeed, be attributed to the fact that it is a debut novel. However, given the considerable leap in this regard in his second novel, Ḥasut, which boasts a rich range of human diversity, a more profound explanation is needed. In my humble opinion, in the period between Shavim ve-shavim yoter and Ḥasut, Michael’s artistic self-examination led him to the same conclusion reached by the brilliant literary critic Linda Hutcheon, that the literary-historical narratives of excluded groups who seek recognition of their place in established history often tend to duplicate, in terms of their structure, the very narratives that they critique. In Ḥasut, Michael elegantly avoided the trap into which “militant Mizrachi” writers and orthodox literary scholars of post-colonialism fell. He played a sophisticated game of cat and mouse with the dominant narrative, which, on the one hand, allowed him to deal with the broad Israeli public and, on the other, to give an actual voice – rich, diverse, and very reliable – to the ethnic and social groups that had been excluded from the central discourse.
The most prominent manifestation of this phenomenon is the extensive space that Michael devotes in his work to Arabs who live in different spaces in Ereẓ Israel-Palestine, both Israeli Arabs who remained within the borders of the country after the War of Independence, and their brethren beyond the 1948 borders, who they again met after the Six-Day War – all of these various factions of the Palestinian people (rural and urban dwellers, educated people, revolutionaries, terrorists, and so on), as well as all factions of Israeli Jews (Ashkenazi Jews and Jews from Arab countries, veteran Israelis and new immigrants, bourgeois nationalists, communists, and so on), are allocated a place of honor in Michael’s fictional world. Michael shaped all of this great human diversity by means of the philosophical-ideological framework he acquired as a young man in Iraq, and then developed and refined during the many years (twenty-eight) that passed between the moment he set foot in the country and the appearance of Ḥasut. Indeed, when we examine all of Michael’s Ereẓ Israel-Palestinian novels, including Ḥasut, we find a deep class-social-economic-political structure similar to the deep structure of his Iraqi novels. The origin of this similarity, I would argue, is both in the reality that Michael faced, but also, and perhaps primarily, in the philosophical-literary process that he created in practice, a clear process of literary-cultural projection. In my opinion, Michael “imposed” on the Israeli-Palestinian social-political reality, behind which there was no long, tribal, national tradition and no rigid class tradition, the mature “Iraqi pattern,” created over the course of centuries, and formed a typical multi-layered, tribal society.
The result of this process is that in dozens of passages in Michael’s works we encounter a complex, layered, multifaceted and multihued Israeli-Palestinian society. An example of this phenomenon is the passage of Yonim be-trafalgar in which two sisters, Palestinian “servants” from the Jenin refugee camp, ponder the behavior of their employers, an educated Arab family similar to families found in the finest British social dramas:
Nabila received the two sisters with a smile and suggested that they take home all the leftovers from last night, including all the fruit and vegetables. They did not conceal their happiness. “And scrub and wash thoroughly everything possible, from the front door to the vine canopy in the garden,” she requested of them. They looked at her in amazement. After all, only yesterday they had given the house a thorough cleaning. “Tafteesh” [inspection], she explained in a voice that cried out for sympathy. “Last night, there was a lousy tafteesh.”
They smiled thoughtfully and with understanding, as expected of them, but in their hearts not a capillary moved. The house was intact. The furniture stood in place, not a single door was cracked, there were no broken plates.
The self-indulgence of the wealthy, the two whispered to one another. Mrs. Nabila, Um Karim should see how tafteesh was done in the dilapidated huts and houses of the refugee camp. If she found herself sitting in a house half of which had been flattened by a bulldozer ...
To the list of reasons why Sami Michael was able to successfully deal with the challenge of writing panoramic social novels, we should add the issue of writing in Hebrew and the philosophical-social character of the books that influenced him in his youth. As noted above, the Hebrew writers who came to Israel from Europe from religious Jewish communities wrote about the country through a thick screen of words, terms, and symbols from the Jewish bookshelf that made their encounters with the landscape of the country difficult (a clear example is S.Y. Agnon). Michael, in contrast, came from a secular Jewish community that had a deep affinity to the Jewish past, but had given up most of the trappings of religion as well as the Hebrew language. For fifteen years, Michael diligently studied Hebrew (at first he wrote only in Arabic) while exploring the treasures and mysteries of the country and the customs of its inhabitants, and only then turned to writing in Hebrew – functional, secular Hebrew that contained the relevant contexts and words and phrases in Arabic that enabled him to draw precisely and with impressive speed natural sights and phenomena (the description of the struggle of Shraga Elkabir, the forester, one of the two brothers who are the protagonists of the novel Me’of ha-barburim, and his friends during the huge Carmel Forest fire, the flood passages in the novel Mayim noshkim le-mayim, the journey to the desert of Kemal and a group of teenagers in Yahalom min ha-yeshimon, and more), urban landscapes (mainly, but not exclusively, Baghdad, Haifa, and Jenin) as well as complex and complicated human situations.
In this context, Sami Michael said the following things, which speak for themselves:
For every Hebrew book, I read twenty translated books. I have a feeling of dissatisfaction with the inner contents of Hebrew literature, most of which is influenced by the fabricated distant past or religious texts. This baggage has permeated Modern Hebrew writing. The most typical example is S.Y. Agnon, who became the lighthouse of canonical literature rather than Brenner or Tchernichovsky, for example.
Michael was exposed to translated literature, or, more precisely, to a specific division of translated literature, in Baghdad during the period of his youth, when his social and class awareness and understanding of his mission as an artist were developing:
We were interested mainly in belles lettres. Maxim Gorky, Sinclair Lewis. Gorky’s The Mother was like a bible for us, the members of the underground, as the book General Panfilov's Reserve was in Israel, a book which, by the way, was not translated because it did not interest us. The Mother deals with the period of the communist underground in the glory days of communism before the Revolution, so it really spoke to us. We also read military literature on the wars of the Red Army for pleasure. The works of Dickens, which dealt with social issues, awakened feelings of empathy in us. We read nineteenth century French literature in English translation. Victor Hugo and Emile Zola.
This is a belletristic corpus with a clear identity: social class fiction that belongs for the most part to the realistic-naturalistic tradition. This is a corpus whose crowning glory was, without a doubt, the panoramic social novels. Michael found in this corpus a literary home that was missing in Iraqi Arabic literature, which had no continuous prose tradition, let alone a novelistic tradition. He adopted this literary home and reshaped it in original ways that reflect the many stations that mark the course of his life (first and foremost the Iraqi-Baghdadi cultural space with its unique characteristics in the nineteen thirties and forties, but also the cultural space he encountered in Israel and decided to work in while selecting Hebrew, and not Arabic, as the language of his writing), his tendencies, his special artistic temperament, his moral principles and social worldview.
The ten novels Michael has written so far, all of which are in conversation with the European realistic and naturalistic novelistic tradition, are not all cut from the same cloth. They are different from one another in terms of historical and social background, plot, the musical scale in which they are written, and so on. Nevertheless, they all rely on a dramatic pattern that reflects the positions of the central historiosophy of Sami Michael’s great enterprise. This pattern consists of a central plot axis, shaped in the format of a coming-of-age story or a bildungsroman and two secondary plot axes that integrate into the central axis and define its social and existential boundaries.
In all Michael’s novels we, the readers, find ourselves fascinated by the story of the growth and spiritual development of the protagonists, who are trying to pave their way, to realize their desires, and find happiness in a complex and violent social reality. In some of the books, particularly the “Iraqi” ones, the bildungsroman story at the forefront of the book is the story of a character who is a legitimate inhabitant of the place and grows up in relatively comfortable conditions that allow him to follow a relatively easy path of development. In other books, especially the “Israeli” ones, the bildungsroman story is that of an immigrant or refugee, a figure who finds himself in a new environment that dictates a relatively difficult and sometimes even impossible path of development. The first group includes, among others, the story of Ramzi in Ḥofen shel arafel, the story of Victoria in Viktoria (especially in the first part of the novel), and the story of Kamel in Yahalom min ha-yeshimon. The second group includes, among others, the story of David and Shaul in Shavim ve-shavim yoter and the story of Yosef in Mayim noshkim le-mayim.
The division between legitimate inhabitants and immigrants/refugees is undermined – and this is an important fact regarding Michael's artistic enterprise – in his Israeli-Palestinian stories, those that tell a combination of stories of Jewish Israelis, representatives of various groups, and of Israeli and Palestinian Arabs. Thus, because he is careful to give almost equal voice to the representatives of the two groups – for example, Ḥasut includes characters who are Jewish immigrants from Iraq, Jewish communists involved in Israel, urban Israeli Arabs, supposedly legitimate inhabitants, Palestinian refugees in the occupied territories, and others. A similar undermining of the boundaries between legitimate inhabitants and immigrants/refugees occurs in Yonim be-trafalgar.
It should be noted here that even boundaries between legitimate inhabitants and immigrants/refugees in the “Iraqi” corpus, on the one hand, and the “Israeli” corpus, on the other, only seem to be clear and secure. This is because in all the “front” stories of the legitimate inhabitants, there are “shadow stories” that threaten to take control of them and destroy them. This is, for example, the status of the stories of Madeline, the immigrant who becomes a prostitute, and Margalit, the Ashkenazi immigrant – both undermine and detract from the story of David, the immigrant from Iraq, the central figure in Shavim ve-shavim yoter, who is trying to find his place in the new world he inhabits, where the Ashkenazi hegemony is in control. This is also the position of the stories of Aida, a Kurdish refugee in the novel Aida and Almassa, the poor servant in Yahalom ba-yeshimon, and also, in a different and fascinating move, the story of Alex, the new immigrant from Russia in Ḥaẓoẓrah ba-vadi, which is seemingly, but only seemingly, combined with the story of an Arab Christian family in the Wadi Nisnas neighborhood of Haifa.
The blurring of boundaries between legitimate inhabitants and immigrants/ refugees plays aesthetic and ethical roles, as do most of the components of Michael’s prose. The “shadow characters” and “shadow stories” deepen the emotional and mental space of the main characters. At the same time, this deliberate blurring hints at the volatile nature of human destiny and what we should learn from it. Someone who is a legitimate inhabitant in his country and homeland can very quickly become an immigrant/refugee and even a nomad or a homeless person, a situation that calls for humility and tolerance. The vector of desire in the stories of development of Sami Michael’s characters is navigated, like the prototype in the European bildungsroman (an excellent example is Goethe’s Wilmelm Meister’s Apprenticeship), to two paths: the path of public leadership and the path of art.
In some of the books, one of these paths is more apparent. Thus, for example, the story of Ramzi as a young leader of the revolution in Ḥofen shel arafel dominates this novel. In other books, Sami Michael leaves space for two paths – Ahad Ha’am’s paths of the “priest” and the “prophet” – and creates varied and highly interesting conflicts between them. This is the case in Ḥasut, which features, on the one hand, poets, and, on the other, leaders of the revolutionary movement. In the case of Aida, the tension between the intellectual and the man of political action constitutes the foundation of the philosophical-ethical fabric of the book. In Meof ha-barburim as well, an illustrious failed military leader and a writer who succeeded and failed are embodied in one character (William Alcabir).
The bildungsroman format is most prominent in Yahalom min ha-yeshimon. This novel is a portrait of the artist as a young man at a stage where he is still of two minds regarding whether to be educated as an intellectual with a political consciousness or to train himself to be a leader. The decision falls after Kamel, the novel's protagonist, leads his fellow travelers on a desert journey, but fails, at least according to his understanding, in his attempt to return them home safely. He thinks to himself that it is actually Baruch, his cousin, who “Kamel despised and was frequently ashamed of, who demonstrated wisdom and resourcefulness when he, Kamel, was petrified and felt mentally and physically tired and at a loss.” And his conclusion from this experience is sharp and clear: “I will never succeed as a leader [..] this ambition has absolutely expired.”
The plot of the bildungsroman is optimistic. It assumes that society is stratified, but mobile. A talented person who is properly trained and acquires professional knowledge and social skills is certain that the right doors will open for him (Balzac’s Rastignac in Le Père Goriot). Sami Michael, who has declared many times that he is an optimist, feels comfortable with the narrative format of the bildungsroman, so it repeatedly serves him in his panoramic social novels. However, and this is an essential qualification that has crucial significance in Michael’s literary world, this optimistic format can be put into practice only under ideal conditions, social circumstances that exist only in utopian communities. In the real world, and Michael is a typical realist, a man's life path, and, accordingly the life path of the community, including those whose teleology is clearly progressive, is restricted and inhibited by strong and violent conservative counterforces. In the novels, the conservative counterforces represent two secondary plot axes. One of these is less visible and concerns the relationships between fathers and sons, while the other is more visible and concerns love stories. The world of the characters in Sami Michael’s stories of legitimate inhabitants and immigrants/refugees alike is always accompanied, as Ktsia Alon has aptly noted, by the heavy shadow of a flawed father figure, which is largely a ghost character (as in Hamlet). This is also the case in the novels in which the protagonist is a young immigrant and the father, the authority figure, has a breakdown (the best and most prominent example of this appears in Shavim ve-shaim yoter), and also, less obviously, in novels in which the protagonist and his family, including his father, are legitimate inhabitants, engaged with and thriving in their surroundings. Prominent examples of this phenomenon appear in the Iraqi novels Ḥofen shel arafel, Viktoria, and Yahalom ba-yeshimon, in which the status of the fathers is precarious.
This is a phenomenon that has different planes and requires a distinct and broad platform. It is a phenomenon that has, in terms of the characters, a paralyzing effect. Sami Michael's protagonists cannot believe, in all honesty, that the sky is the limit when they see their father, a symbol of stability and strength, collapsing like a rag doll. The place of the present-absent father is taken by adopted fathers and biological first-born brothers or adopted siblings, with whom the protagonists also develop complex relationships.
The second secondary plot axis that limits and restricts the progressive potential of the development story is the love story, which is more visible and also more significant than its predecessor. The story of the father casts a shadow primarily on the life of the protagonist himself, on his hopes, aspirations, and dreams. The love story, too, naturally plays a role in the life of the protagonists themselves, but it also has – and in this context Michael is following in the footsteps of many Hebrew and non-Hebrew writers – a primary role in the community. The logic behind the specific casting of the roles of the lovers, and the fate of this union in the narrative present and sometimes even the narrative future (particularly the ability to “create” a new, healthy, and functioning generation) function here as clear markers of the situation of the particular communities described in the book: the Iraqi community with its myriad components and/or the Israeli Jewish community with its various factions and/or the Israeli-Palestinian community with its many elements.
If we examine the future of these communities in Michael’s novels according to the results of the pairings depicted in them – and all of these are hybrid pairings that cross all the boundaries – nationality, social and economic class, ethnicity, gender, acceptable age differences, and more – the picture of the future that arises from Michael’s large artistic project is bleak, very bleak, despite the optimistic narrative foundation.
For, indeed, the love story serves Michael’s developing and maturing protagonists as well as the adult protagonists, who undergo a late process of disenchantment (Zakhi Dali in Aida), as an emotionally and ethically challenging test, the ultimate test on the path of their mission. But, unlike many novels inspired by the classic bildungsroman, which end, after a journey down a winding road, in the correct match (for example, the novels of Jane Austen), Michael’s novels always and everywhere – in Baghdad, Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Jenin – end in catastrophe.
This is true in the story of David, the immigrant from Iraq, as well as for the Ashkenazi Margalit, and in the story of the parallel couple, Mordokh and Shula in Ḥasut, whose union results in a deformed child. And so it is with the union between the Christian Arab, Huda, from Wadi Nisnas, and Alex, an immigrant from Russia; he is killed in the war and she debates whether to give birth to his child or to abort it. So it is, too, in Yonim be-trafalgar, in which two sons of the same Arab mother are killed in a nationalistically motivated terror attack. One of them stays with his mother and the other is adopted by a Jewish couple. They meet each other and learn about each other's existence after many years. Something similar takes place in Yahalom min ha-yeshimon. Here the collapse of the central pairing in the book does not take place in the inter-ethnic or national inter-tribal arena, but in the internal social class arena of Iraqi Jews. The “affair” between Kamel, the son of wealthy parents and Almassa, the “diamond in the wilderness,” ends with the separation of the two, the unequivocal meaning of which is that, for Kamal, the protagonist of this novel, which embodies many details of Michael's life, there is a limit to the human capacity to overcome obstacles that are deeply rooted in society.
In other words, the love stories in Michael’s panoramic social novels enable the development of the mission story but also strictly outline the “spiritual limits” of the fictional world that stem from the heavy weight of social class. Michael’s novels repeatedly make clear that a love story, dramatic and exciting as it may be, can never resolve national, class, and social conflicts. On the contrary, these love stories burst, time and again, like balloons that have been burned by fire, and repeatedly expose us to the cruelty, distortion, and stupidity of the social-cultural reality of the modern Middle East.
In conclusion, Sami Michael’s panoramic social novels are a unique phenomenon in Israeli literature. In order to understand this phenomenon, the viability of its growth, its artistic characteristics, and the philosophical and ethical implications that derive from it, it must be evaluated in a new historiographical context that takes into account the social-cultural scene in which Michael grew up in Iraq in the nineteen thirties and forties, the literary scene he encountered when he came to Israel, first in Jaffa and later in Haifa, his social and political activities, in which he worked diligently in parallel with his literary activity, and the sources of his literary influences. This historiographical context as a whole, as a range of factors created by a host of complex reciprocal relations between them, is essentially different from the entirety of the historiographical context in which Jewish Hebrew Eastern European literature grew – a context that, due to the precedence and institutional power of the representatives of this diaspora – became a “natural” context. Lital Levy commented on this important phenomenon, which requires a different kind of historiographical thought:
Ashkenazi writers, whether they are perceived as toeing the line or as innovators, are read in a continuum that began with the Jewish Enlightenment in Europe. Mizraḥi writers, on the other hand, are valued because of the cultural pluralism they bring to the Israeli discourse or because of their intervention in the hegemonic Zionist narrative, but are not examined in relation to different historical contexts. There is almost no discussion of the literary genealogy of Mizraḥi Jews, for example, or of the literary and cultural influences on the works of Mizraḥi writers. Mizraḥi literature is seen, then, as a young and new branch that grew on the tree of Hebrew literature, or, alternatively, was assembled into it.
Every word is true. Moreover, the discussion on the works of Israeli writers who are natives of Arab countries, Turkey, and Persia requires reorganization with respect to Israeli literature as a whole, a corpus whose limits, until now, have not been tested in a systematic way in terms of chronology, geography, existential features, ethnicity, and so on.