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67 CHAPTER 3 “Ana min al-yahud”: Mizrahi Literature and the Question of Space and Authenticity Mitahat li'fnei ha-adama (Under the Ground) And how can I help it if for me the operation succeeded and Baghdad died, and all that is left is the music that my father used to listen to on the stations of shame while waiting in the underground parking lot to drive me to the people’s army on his way to work. And I will never forget the sadness of his hand as it gropes for the Hebrew, to switch quickly before we leave and ascend above ground.1 In Eli Eliahu’s poem, “Under the Ground,” a father is driving his son to the army, dropping him off on his way to work. As they wait in an underground parking lot, the father, a Jewish-Iraqi immigrant, listens to radio stations broadcasting Arabic music. While there is not a trace of Arab culture in his son’s heart—“the operation succeeded and Baghdad died”—and he considers that music and his father’s preferred radio stations as sources of embarrassment and shame, the poem describes a certain moment when the son glances at his father and grasps his sorrowful expression. It is the moment in which he switches the Arab radio station to a Hebrew-speaking one as they drive out of the parking lot. This poem reflects the pain of Jews who came to Israel from Arab countries , and discovered that their culture of origin, however rich, was perceived in Israel’s ethno-Zionist space as not legitimate. In the poem, the father’s ties with 68 CHAPTER 3 Arabic culture, coupled with the shame it inspires, lead him to listen to Arab stations only “underground.” Simultaneously, the son is firmly rooted in the Israeli existence. Instead of “Baghdad,” he joins and identifies with the “people’s army,” the IDF (Israeli Defense Force)—an army battling Arab nations, who are often perceived as enemies. Eli Eliahu was born in Israel in 1969, grew up in Ramat Gan, and studied at Tel Aviv University. As Dror Burstein notes,2 Eliahu’s poetry insistently recalls and reflects a sense of belonging; belonging to the family, to its lineage, and to a clan. It illuminates the dual identity of the second generation of migrants from Arab nations. On one hand, they were raised in Israel, where the childish or indigenous desire to keep a distance from one’s roots is a significant experience, as reflected in the lines “I climb up from the death of the night / with the stubbornness of a plant abandoning its roots.”3 Yet on the other hand, in their adulthood they begin to explore this process of forgetting, and even mourn it. I have chosen to open this chapter with Eliahu’s poem because it was recently the topic of a public debate. In the winter of 2012 the high school matriculation exam in Hebrew literature asked students to interpret the poem as part of the exam’s “unseen text” requirement. In her article in Ha-aretz newspaper, Esty Adivi-Shoshan notes that literature students in Israel failed to understand the poem: The vast majority of the students did not grasp the cultural-ideological rupture portrayed in the poem. For us—the teachers—it was instantly clear that the poem describes a pivotal process in the formation of Israeli society—the pain of migrating from Eastern countries, the second generation’s successful integration, and the parents’ generation’s anguish and shame. Yet when the students read and analyzed the poem, they failed, totally and across the board, to notice or understand this social process which was so substantial in building Israeli society.4 Undoubtedly, some students’ inability to read poetry and understand its complexity caused the gap indicated by Adivi-Shoshan. However it is also possible that cultural or social reasons caused students to fail to identify the identity crisis portrayed in the poem. If this is the case, a possible explanation is that the younger generation that is exposed to various cultures in Israel, cannot understand why Arab radio stations and Arab music can only be listened to underground . Perhaps the contemporary multicultural fabric has rendered legitimate such a wide spectrum of cultures in the Israeli space that the “problem” is no longer relevant. However, there is a second explanation: it is possible that the students didn’t recognize the identity crisis depicted in the poem, because this...


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