MICHAEL, SAMI


MICHAEL, SAMI (1926– ), Israeli writer. Born in Baghdad, Iraq, to a middle-class family, Michael attended Jewish primary and secondary schools. After the pogroms in 1941 (the Farhoud), he joined the Communist underground. Years later, he explained that it was both as a Jew and as an Iraqi patriot that he chose to struggle for seven years in the underground, in the belief that only Communism had the potential to bring about a liberal society in Iraq which would, among other things, support the advancement of its Jewish citizens ("Unbounded Ideas," 2000). With the outbreak of the War of Independence in Israel, the situation of the Jews in Iraq worsened. Michael, targeted both as a Jew and as a Communist, fled to Iran, from where, with the help of the Jewish Agency in Teheran, he arrived in Israel in April 1949. "I belong to Israel out of love, not out of ideology," is how Michael describes his identity as an Israeli, eschewing a Zionist as well as an anti-Zionist definition. Michael sees himself first and foremost as a Jew, heir to the 2,500-year-old cultural tradition of the Babylonian Jews, which was unbroken until persecution and wanderings finally caught up with them after 1948. In other words, Michael does not consider Israel to be the ultimate, ideal home for all Jews. He believes that the Diaspora is another appropriate dynamic form of Jewish life. His own personal decision in favor of Israel was the result of his emotional bond, and he therefore defines himself as an "Israeli patriot" only in the sense of his attachment to the milieu and scenery of the place.

This nonconsensual view is a guiding force in Michael's life, expressing itself in both his civic and his creative activities. He arrived in Israel in a crucial period, during which the newly established state had to absorb hundreds of thousands of new immigrants from east and west. Michael did not accept the monolithic, culturally coercive attitude of the so-called "melting-pot" policy, and he sought instead to assert himself by remaining, as it were, on the seam. He served in the Israel Defense Forces (1950–52), lived through the trials and tribulations of his parents in a transit camp (1951–56), and made his living as a journalist for the Arabic newspaper Al-Ittihad in Haifa. Michael served it as an itinerant correspondent, covering the lives of the new immigrants in the transit camps as well as those of Arabs living in villages under the military regime that Israel imposed on them in the early years of the state. At the same time, he began writing prose in Arabic.

Throughout this period he was active in the Israeli Communist Party, but in 1955, with knowledge of the shocking details of Stalin's reign of terror, he left the party for good. He worked for 27 years (1955–82) as a hydrologist at the Department of Agriculture, studying hydrology in his free time at the British Institutes as well as psychology and Arabic literature at the University of Haifa.

For 15 years (1955–70), Michael swore himself to literary silence. Only at the beginning of the 1970s, did he turn back to writing – this time only in the Hebrew tongue. Michael's writing is distinguished by its humane and social sensitivity. He is among the prime movers of the literary sea-change that has been occurring in Israel since the mid-1970s. This trend shifted social representation from the central current to the margins, broadening the boundaries of the consensual culture toward a multiculturalism inclusive of ethnic communities and minorities, and stirring voices within a public discourse driven by sectorality and social divisions. Sami Michael deals primarily with "the Other," "the stranger," "the outsider," granting these figures a presence of their own: the immigrant facing the arrogance of the veteran citizen (in Shavim ve-Shavim Yoter, "All Men Are Equal, but Some Are More So," 1974); the Israeli Arab coping with the animosity of the Jewish-Israeli regime (in Ḥasut, 1977; Refuge, 1988; Ḥaẓoẓrah ba-Vadi, A Trumpet in the Wadi, 2003); the woman silenced by patriarchy, in both family and communal frameworks (in Viktoria, 1993; Victoria, 1995; and "The Third Wing," 2000). Of all these figures, the dominant one is that of the immigrant from an Arabic-speaking country, struggling with diverse versions of Israeliness. As might be expected, Michael's depiction draws upon biographical materials and his own experience of aliyah, tossed as he was between a loved, familiar past and a new, alien present, in which he struggled to forge his own Israeli identity. Thus, David in "All Men Are Equal, but Some Are More So," for all his efforts to shake off the past and hold fast to the Israeli present, is constantly made to feel like a second-class citizen; beginning as a penniless child of the transit camps, he emerges as a "hero" of the Six-Day-War, yet his erudition, professional skills, and his prowess as a fighter will never make him an equal among equals.

In contrast to David's angry protest, Mordokh, in Refuge, has spent years languishing in an Iraqi jail for his activity in the Communist underground and is grateful to the State of Israel for giving him asylum. Nevertheless, he finds it hard to reconcile himself to Israel's social reality, in which the class gap is continually widening, resulting in injustice and discrimination against both Jewish and Arab communities. Unable to withstand the tension, Mordokh flees to the past. In Mayim Noshkim le-Mayim ("Water Kissing Water," 2001), a sense of reconciliation with life in Israel begins to make itself felt. Joseph, who, like the other figures, came to Israel in the mass immigration during the 1950s, arrives only many years later at an alternative Israeli identity of his own, one that even now incorporates a wrenching internal oscillation between past and present and is repulsed by the communal rifts between Jews and Arabs, religious and secular Jews, and Jews of Ashkenazi (European) and Mizraḥi (Middle Eastern or North African) origin. Now, however, these dilemmas are played out in a context of pride, self-esteem, and a sense of belonging.

Along with his concern with the Israeli present, Michael devotes a large part of his oeuvre to the past – that is, to Jewish life in Baghdad in the 1930s and 1940s. Here too, he sets out to subvert the stereotypical image of the "galut Jew" by depicting episodes of a colorful, tempestuous past, unfolding a heterogeneous community of traditionalists, secularists, and intellectuals. These themes underlie Ḥofen shel Arafel ("A Handful of Fog," 1979) and Victoria, as well as two of Michael's novels for young people, Ahavah bein ha-Dekalim ("Love among the Palms," 1990) and Sufah bein ha-Dekalim ("Storm over the Palms," 1975).

The poetic fabric of Michael's writing is engaging for its plots and characters, but also for the play of his texts with multiple languages and cultures. The overt level is that of the Hebrew language, with the variety of styles which it embraces; implicitly, however, Michael continues to "flirt" lovingly and longingly with the Arabic (and Judeo-Arabic) language and culture, which emerges in a wealth of sayings and customs.

Michael's other works include novels for young people: "Tin Shacks and Dreams" (1979), "Brown Devils" (1993); plays: "Demons in the Basement" (1983), "Twins" (1988); and collected interviews: Eleh Shivtei Yisrael ("These Are the Tribes of Israel: Twelve Interviews about Social Integration in Israel," 1984), "The Israeli Experience" (2001). Michael also translated Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy into Hebrew. His books have received many awards and have been translated into many languages, including Arabic. Information concerning translations is available at the ITHL website at www.ithl.org.il.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

D. Meirovitz, "Meẓi'ut Murkevet, Ketivah Funkẓiyonalit: Al Ḥasut," in: Siman Keriah, 8 (1978), 414–417; Y. Oren, "ViktoriyahDugma le-Roman Etni," in: Dimui, 10 (1995), 42–50; D. Ben-Shitrit (director), Samir, a Documentary Film about S. Michael (1996); N.E. Berg, "'Sifrut ha-Ma'abarah': Transit Camp Literature, Literature of Transition," in: Critical Essays on Israeli Society, Religion and Government (1997), 187–207; H. Hever, "Lo Banu min ha-Yam: Kavim le-Geografiyah Sifrutit Mizraḥit," in: Teoriyah u-Bikkoret, 16 (2000), 181–195; D. Ben-Habib, "Margalit, Moladeti: Migdar ve-Edah be-Sifrei ha-Ma'abarah shel S. Michael," in: Teoriyah u-Bikkoret, 20 (2002), 243–258; N.E. Berg, More and More Equal: The Literary Works of Sami Michael (2004).

[Yaffah Berlovitz (2nd ed.)]


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.