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
“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.”
—Martha Anne Toll, NPR Books
“Hayoun pieces together a remarkable tale of survival and success, and it is a story worth remembering. A moving and intriguing family history.”
Kirkus Reviews
When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History by Massoud Hayoun is a memoir and an intimate narrative of two Jewish Arab families woven together by time and circumstance as they emigrate from Morocco and Tunisia to Egypt, Palestine, France, and the United States, looking for a place to call home.”
Los Angeles Review of Books
“An acutely well-researched and thorough account of the lives of Jewish North Africans before and after most of them left the region.”
Middle East Eye
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
“In this passionate blend of family history, memoir, and rumination on identity, journalist Hayoun utilizes family lore, journals, and photographs to tell his grandparents’ story and recreate a lost multicultural era in the Arab world. . . . Deeply personal, moving reminiscences from his ancestors will make even those with no knowledge of the subject nostalgic for a bygone age. . . . Readers will relish this revealing glimpse of that now-obscured world.”
Publishers Weekly
“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.”
Library Journal
“An intriguing read for anyone interested in furthering their understanding of complex identities and mixed cultural heritage.”
Jewish News

News and Reviews

NPR

Selected as one of NPR's Best Books of 2019

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: Massoud Hayoun

Earlier this year, The New Press published Massoud Hayoun’s When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History, his moving and important debut.

LitHub

Read an excerpt in LitHub

Pacific Standard

Read an excerpt in Pacific Standard

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