When We Were Arabs

A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History

The stunning debut of a brilliant nonfiction writer whose vivid account of his grandparents’ lives in Egypt, Tunisia, Palestine, and Los Angeles reclaims his family’s Jewish Arab identity

“I am Arab, I am Bedouin
And I am a daughter of the Arabs!”

—“Daughter of the Arabs,” performed by Jewish Tunisian singer Louisa Saadoun (known as Louisa Tounsia/Louisa the Tunisian), from a record released in 1961

There was a time when being an “Arab” didn’t mean you were necessarily Muslim. It was a time when Oscar Hayoun, a Jewish Arab, strode along the Nile in a fashionable suit, long before he and his father arrived at the port of Haifa to join the Zionist state only to find themselves hosed down with DDT and then left unemployed on the margins of society. In that time, Arabness was a mark of cosmopolitanism, of intellectualism. Today, in the age of the Likud and ISIS, Oscar’s son, the Jewish Arab journalist Massoud Hayoun whom Oscar raised in Los Angeles, finds his voice by telling his family’s story.

To reclaim a worldly, nuanced Arab identity is, for Hayoun, part of the larger project to recall a time before ethnic identity was mangled for political ends. It is also a journey deep into a lost age of sophisticated innocence in the Arab world; an age that is now nearly lost.

When We Were Arabs showcases the gorgeous prose of the Eppy Award–winning writer Massoud Hayoun, bringing the worlds of his grandparents alive, vividly shattering our contemporary understanding of what makes an Arab, what makes a Jew, and how we draw the lines over which we do battle.

Praise

“A masterpiece that reads with the same themes of complexity and romance, pain and longing, that are indigenous to the land of his grandparents, and the entwined Arab and Jewish identity that flourishes on every page of this book.”
—Khaled Beydoun, law professor and author of American Islamophobia
“A beautifully written, compelling argument for compassion, solidarity, and love, in a time where they are so woefully scarce.”
—Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking
“A rare, multifaceted book that dares tell the story of the Arab Jew as it was without propaganda or prejudice and which chronicles how the nuance that had been there in Jewish Arab political identities disappeared under the onslaught of Zionism.”
—Raja Shehadeh, author of Palestinian Walks and Where the Line Is Drawn
When We Were Arabs is not only a deeply researched account of one family’s North African history, but one of the best books available on the postcolonial foundations of contemporary Arab American identity. It is nothing short of a triumph.”
—Moustafa Bayoumi, author of This Muslim American Life and How Does It Feel to Be a Problem
“A stunning piece of storytelling, a necessary work of history, and in its portraiture of a lost world, its corniches populated with the great singers and film stars of old, it is a work of poetry.”
—Safia Elhillo, author of The January Children
When We Were Arabs wonderfully braids cultural history, memoir, poetics, and politics into a completely unexpected but necessary artistic intervention destined to obliterate our brittle understandings of what is Jewish, Arab, and radically loving. The book is as good as it is important.”
—Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy

News and Reviews

Library Journal

“Hayoun’s debut memoir offers a new perspective on world affairs and will be appreciated by readers interested in family histories told through personal narratives.”

NPR Books

"With a clear point of view, Hayoun weaves in his family history with the politics that shaped their lives. When We Were Arabs is a nostalgic celebration of a rich, diverse heritage."