Sami Michael, Israeli novelist of Arab origins, dies at 97

Sami Michael, an Israeli writer of Iraqi origin whose novels illuminate the world of Jews from Arab countries and the prejudice and discrimination they, as well as Israeli Arabs, have endured, died Monday in Haifa, the mixed Arab-Jewish city in Israel. where he lived. He was 97 years old.

His wife, Rachel Michael, confirmed his death.

Like many exiles, Mr. Michael (pronounced mee-KAH-ale) had one foot planted in the country he settled in and the other in the country he left behind. He fled Iraq in 1948 after war broke out between the newly formed nation of Israel and its Arab neighbors, including Iraq. As a Jew and a communist activist, he had been threatened with prison and execution in Iraq.

In Israel, he said, he discovered that, as a 23-year-old refugee from the Middle East, he was despised and treated like a second-class citizen by Jews of European descent.

“When he came to Israel, he was not seen as an equal to European immigrants, and he had to struggle with that,” said Nancy E. Berg, a professor of Jewish, Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at Washington University in St. Louis and author of “More and More Equal: The Literary Works of Sami Michael” (2004). “That led to the kinds of things he writes about in his books.”

A native speaker of Arabic, Michael had to master Hebrew, and when he did, he published his first novel in 1974, with the title “All Men Are Equal, But Some Are More,” a variation on a quote from “Farm of animals.” (The title was also rendered in English as “Equal and More Equal.”)

The book is set in the squalid transit camps that housed immigrants, known in Hebrew as Mizrahim, or Orientals, who escaped persecution in the Arab countries of North Africa and the Middle East. The protagonist, David, a son of those camps, behaves valiantly in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, but learns that his heroism and professional experience do not insulate him from discrimination.

In the novel “Refuge” (1977), an Iraqi Jewish character is grateful to Israel for granting him asylum after years spent in an Iraqi prison, but is disillusioned by the difference in economic and social status between Mizrahim and European Jews.

Mr. Michael went on to write “A Handful of Fog” (1979), set in the 2,500-year-old Babylonian Jewish community in Iraq. In the novel, he describes the colorful and ethnically diverse life that flourished there in the 1930s and 1940s but later verged on extinction with the persecutions and expulsions of Jews following Israel's independence in 1948.

Her other novels include “Victoria” (1995), a best-seller in Israel focusing on the patriarchal world of a Jewish woman in Baghdad; and “A Trumpet in the Wadi” (2003), which traces the love story between a Christian Arab woman and a Russian Jewish immigrant and touches on the hostility that Israeli Arabs sometimes face in their dealings with government officials.

He also spent six years translating three Arabic novels by Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz into Hebrew.

“My biological mother is Iraq, my adoptive mother is Israel,” Mr. Michael told Benny Ziffer, literary editor of the Haaretz newspaper, in a 2016 interview as part of a tribute to Mr. Michael at Northwestern University . “I belong to both sides. It's not difficult for me to go back and say that Iraq, and especially Jewish Iraq, are part of me.”

Michael has written a dozen novels, three non-fiction books, three plays and a children's book, winning numerous awards and honorary doctorates and carving out a place alongside world-class Israeli writers such as Amos Oz, David Grossman and AB. Yehoshua. In a statement of condolence, Israeli President Isaac Herzog extolled Michael as a “giant among giants.”

“Sami Michael changed the face of Israeli literature,” said Lital Levy, associate professor of comparative literature at Princeton University. “He wrote in Hebrew about topics and people who were previously unknown to many readers, or were considered outside the scope of Israeliness: Iraqi and Arab-Palestinian Jewish communists, rich and poor Jews in Baghdad, Arabic-speaking Jewish intellectuals ”.

He added, in an email: “He gave his characters complexity and depth, but also made them relatable and accessible to readers, breaking down cultural walls and stereotypes. She used sharp, incisive social realism to expand Israelis' understanding of the ties that bind Jews and Arabs, both historically and in the present. Her popularity among Israeli readers lent legitimacy to Mizrahi literature and the world it contained.”

In the Northwestern interview, Ziffer said that Michael was the first Israeli writer “to describe Arabs, real Arabs, as they are.” And Professor Berg observed that “even though his characters were flawed people, there was an authorial affection for them.”

While Mizrahim generally leaned to the right in tumultuous Israeli politics, Michael was unabashedly left-wing and among the first writers and artists in the 1950s to call for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. For two decades he was president of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

A secular Jew and atheist, he nevertheless praised Judaism in his nonfiction book “Unbounded Ideas” (2000) for being a religion of compassion, grace, benevolence and freedom. But he complained that “an inflexible nationalist leadership has arisen that fights tirelessly to recruit the faith for clearly political objectives.”

“This marriage brought about the corruption of the Jewish religion in Israel,” he said.

Sami Michael was born Kamal Salah in Baghdad on August 15, 1926 to Menashe and Georgia Michael. (Like many Jewish immigrants, he changed his name to one more congenial to Hebrew.) His father, a secular Jew, was a merchant and his mother ran the household.

He attended Jewish schools, graduating from high school in 1945, but mixed easily with Christians and Muslims, Mr. Michael recalled. Disturbed by Iraq's authoritarian regime and the 1941 pogrom in Baghdad, he joined the communist resistance at age 15 and within two years was writing articles for the Iraqi communist press.

When authorities issued an arrest warrant, he fled to Iran and landed in Israel a year later. He settled in an Arab neighborhood of Haifa and went to work for the Arabic-language editions of a Communist Party newspaper. When reports emerged of Stalin's reign of terror in the Soviet Union, he left the party, although he remained a Marxist, and worked as a hydrologist for the Israeli government's agriculture department, a career that lasted 25 years. He didn't publish his first novel until he was in his forties.

In addition to his wife, who was Rachel Yonah when they met, his survivors include two children, Dikla and Amir, from his first marriage, to Malka Rivkin; and five grandchildren.

During a year-long visit to Israel to research her book, the first study of Michael's works, Professor Berg was struck by his popularity among the entire spectrum of Israelis. “He IS a canonical writer that people actually read,” she said. “Because of his humanity and his humor, people can identify with his work.”

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