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  You are in: Home > Biography > Life after Baghdad  

Life after Baghdad
Memoirs of an Arab-Jew in Israel, 1950–2000

Sasson Somekh

Sasson Somekh served as professor of Arabic literature at Tel Aviv University for many years, and at other centres of learning in Europe and the US. He has published many books, including a ground-breaking monograph about Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz (Leiden, 1973). During the 1990s he served as director of the Israeli Academic Center in Cairo.


Life after Baghdad is a follow-on volume to the author’s highly successful Baghdad, Yesterday (Ibis Editions, Jerusalem, 2007), which told of Sasson Somekh’s boyhood in the city of his birth and the circumstances under which his family decided to forsake Iraq, a land in which they were rooted for centuries, and move to Israel. It was highly acclaimed in the TLS and London Review of Books, and in the Israeli Ha’aretz, “It is hard to overstate the beauty, originality, lucidity, gentleness, wisdom and importance of Baghdad, Yesterday.”

The present volume continues the story where the 2007 volume ends. Somekh, a noted student of modern Arabic culture, relates his life as a university professor and writer, taking the reader to Oxford, Princeton and Cairo, and introducing scholars and writers he befriended: S.D. Goitein, Mustafa Badawi and Haim Blanc, among others. He devotes a major section to Naguib Mahfouz (1911–2006) with whom he maintained a close comradeship for three decades, and from whom he received the following letter: “Both our peoples knew extraordinary partnership for many years in ancient times, during the Middle Ages, and in the modern era, with … quarrels being few and far between. Unfortunately, we have documented the disputes a hundred times more than the periods of friendship and cooperation …”


Chapter 1: The Transit Camp

Chapter 2: Scouting About the Land

Chapter 3: The Tigris and the Jordan

Chapter 4: “The earth shall rise on new foundations”

Chapter 5: Lovers of Arabic in the First Hebrew City

Chapter 6: Days with Alexander Penn

Chapter 7: An Interrupted Dialogue

Chapter 8: Father

Chapter 9: Higher Learning in Lower Tel Aviv

Chapter 10: Roman à clef: Three Years at the Academy of the Hebrew Language

Chapter 11: A Family of My Own

Chapter 12: Mustafa

Chapter 13: Translating Literature

Chapter 14: Haim Blanc

Chapter 15: Saturday Evenings at the Goiteins

Chapter 16: Students and Colleagues

Chapter 17: 1988—Two Experiences

Chapter 18: A Modern Egyptian Sinbad

Chapter 19: Cairo—The Four Masters

Chapter 20: Cairo—End of the Century

Chapter 21: An Encounter with Taha Hussein’s Granddaughter

Chapter 22: Naguib Mahfouz—Thirty Years of Friendship

“Sasson Somekh is Israel’s literary expert on modern Arabic literature and a fine writer in his own right. Born in Baghdad and educated in Oxford, he became a prominent literary figure and left-wing intellectual circles in Tel Aviv. Baghdad, Yesterday (2007) recorded the fascinating story of a precocious Jewish teenager living in an Arab country before and just after the establishment of the State of Israel. Life after Baghdad is the second volume of his autobiography covering half a century of his illustrious career in Israel. But Sasson Somekh is much more than an academic expert on the literature of Israel’s neighbors. He is a living proof of the possibility of a civilized dialogue and cultural cooperation between Jews and Arabs.” Professor Avi Shalim, St. Antony’s College, Oxford, author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World

Reviewed by Benjamin Ivry in Forward

Life After Baghdad, by contrast, deals with Somekh’s first impressions of Israel, his years in the Israeli Communist Party and in Arabic literary circles in Israel (the two were closely intertwined), and his career as a student and professor both in Israel and during stints abroad in places such as Oxford and Princeton. His is certainly a success story: Somekh was offered a position in the prestigiously stuffy Academy of the Hebrew Language in the 1960s and held the Halmos Chair in Arabic Literature at Tel Aviv University from the early 1980s until his retirement in 2003. Somekh gives us brief accounts of figures who influenced his life and career, such as the brilliant, blind linguist Chaim Blanc, the communist Hebrew poet Alexander Penn, and the eminent historian, S. D. Goitein.

Where Life After Baghdad is more than a merely chronological continuation of the first book is in its focus on the author’s relationship with Arabic language and literature, and by extension with the Arabic world in Israel and beyond. Baghdad, Yesterday sketched the origins, in interwar Baghdad, of his lifelong love for Arabic literature. In the new book he informs us: “The primary goal of this memoir is to reconstruct the ongoing attempts I have made to hold a discussion – even a dialogue – with Arab intellectuals and writers: Egyptians, Iraqis, Palestinians, and others, in the Middle East and elsewhere.”

His focus in this regard is especially on Egypt – the last third of the new book could be titled “Cairo, Yesterday”. Somekh reflects on his sojourns in Egypt, including his time as director of the Israeli cultural and academic center, which was created in the 1980s and has maintained a beleaguered existence since. He devotes a significant part of his book to his encounters with Egyptian writers and intellectuals, above all the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Najib Mahfuz, who was the subject of Somekh’s doctoral dissertation and the object of his devotion as both writer and friend.” Jewish Review of Books


Publication Details

Paperback ISBN:
Page Extent / Format:
170 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Release Date:
November 2011
  Illustrated:   Yes
Paperback Price:
£16.99 / $22.50

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