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When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History

4.01  ·  Rating details ·  198 ratings  ·  56 reviews
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.

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 after Shabbat se
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published June 25th 2019 by The New Press
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Jul 30, 2019 rated it liked it
In my circles we are taught that a Jew is a Jew regardless of background. This message comes in handy for my kids with the last name Gonzalez as people do a double take when I tell them both my name and where my husband is from. There are many Jews of Hispanic origins just as there are Jews of Arabic origins. Other than the Persian and Sephardic communities; however, Arabic Jews are often overlooked and even denigrated by Ashkenazic Jews who will turn up their noses at their assumed less sophist ...more
ReemK10 (Paper Pills)
Jul 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing
We Arabs have a saying t3ishoo w traboo, which serves as the ultimate compliment one can give about the parenting of a child. When We Were Arabs, is testimony to the young man that Oscar, Daida, and Nadia raised to be this sweet, kind, generous, humble, delightful, intelligent, cultured young man who by writing this celebratory love story to his family embraces their teaching of the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam. Hayoun writes a thoughtful, empowering story that serves to make this world a more ...more
Aug 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing
There is an arabic saying I grew up with, and it is one that i often use: Ibn Khaldun once said “اتفق العرب على ألا يتفقوا” which translates to “Arabs agreed to disagree” which is  - more often than not - true. 
However, there are instances which prove this saying wrong. When We Were Arabs by Massoud Hayoun tells the story of a time when Arabs agreed that they were all Arabs regardless of their faith.

WWWA is without doubt my favorite non-fiction of 2019! Massoud Hayoun, an Arab-American Jewish jo
Apr 06, 2019 rated it did not like it
This was a near-unreadable mess of polemic, history, family history, and memoir. It's poorly organized and written, jumps around in a scattered and unedited way, and ultimately is a chore to get through. I think the author has a story to tell and a point--or several--to make, but those aren't served well in the current state this book is in. ...more
Apr 18, 2019 rated it really liked it
Fascinating. This was a real education for me about Arab, Middle Eastern, and North African Jewry and the mass expulsion from their homelands. The author, who identifies as Jewish Arab American, goes in search of himself through his family’s North African heritage and subsequent displacement. He lambasts French and British colonialism, Zionism, modern Israeli politics, white supremacy and in particular European Jewish white supremacy, for creating the separation, disenfranchisement, and stateles ...more
Barbara (The Bibliophage)
Massoud Hayoun combines two shorter books into one with his debut nonfiction When We Were Arabs. It’s a family memoir, a political history, and a commentary. He uses his own family’s experience, primarily that of his maternal grandparents, to illustrate a wide variety of political, religious, social, racial, and historical issues among Jewish Arabs and the rest of the world.

It’s an ambitious project that unfortunately falls down in the execution. I thought his family’s story of multiple immigrat
Dana Al-Basha دانة الباشا
I haven't read the book yet but I have to comment that from the synopsis that's exactly why we have problems with the jews. As Arabs we never had problems with diversity and as Muslims we always held our brothers from Christianity (and other religions might I add) with love and respect. Our problem with Jews isn't based on their religion until they made it a problem when they enforced their beliefs on everyone in the area, our main problem with them has always been about Israel and occupation. S ...more
Jan 14, 2021 rated it it was amazing
This is a mesmerizing book and I highly recommend it.

Growing up in Iraq, I've heard so many stories about the Jewish communities that used to live there before they were forced to leave the country after Nazi Germany influenced Iraq to oppress the Iraqi Jews. When I was a child my mother told me stories about her Jewish best friends in her neighborhood and how they lived in harmony together with no problems for a very long time.

The stories I had heard from my parents about Iraqi Jews prompted m
Aug 27, 2019 rated it really liked it
An interesting and different read in such a heat wave-concentrated summer, each night guaranteed insomnia.
Samar Dahmash Jarrah
Nov 28, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I loved it. Never enjoyed reading a book as much as this one.. Britain, France and Zionism destroyed Jewish Arab lives. Uprooted people to pursue a most racist endeavor. 
Oct 08, 2019 rated it it was ok
'Arabeness is a personal identity, it is my politics, my inheritance, how I was raised, my relationship and bond to others who share in that legacy, the soil from which I emerge. Judaism is my faith and my understanding of metaphysical things. (...) I am Arab first and last. Judaism is an adjective that modifies my Arabness'.

After all, identity is a matter of personal choice and in the 21st century we are provided with a richness of conceptual frameworks and ideas to create our very specific ide
Hamza Ben
Jan 28, 2020 rated it it was amazing
After finishing the first chapter, The origins, as a Muslim Algerian, Messoud Hayoun opened my mind to many subjects about my identity as an Algerian, my Arabness, and my history, particularly in passages where he evokes Tunisia, which has a lot of similarities with my country.
Through his family's journey, and its origin treated in this chapter, mainly the Tunisian part, I can see my ancestors, Muslims living side by side with their other cocitizens non-Muslims, particularly Jews. Those latters
Emi Bevacqua
Young author Massoud Hayoun has an interesting background, he's traveled the world, grown up hearing stories from family members from many corners of the earth, and as a freelance journalist he presumably has researching skills. I like his usage of film and fashion to describe Arab-Jewry throughout place and time, and I learned the meanings of many Arabic and Jewish words I've heard before but without context: Sephardi is Hebrew for Spanish, Mizrahi is Hebrew term for Eastern, the Berbers are th ...more
Jun 27, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: arcs
As interesting as the topic was, I really did not enjoy reading this book. I think it could have benefited from much more editing and structure. It jumped back and forth between Tunisia and Egypt and between his family's stories and more general history. Some details were repeated unnecessarily at different points in the book. I enjoyed the stories of the author's family much more than the general historical information, which was a slog to get through. While I'm happy to have learned about Jewi ...more
Jul 05, 2019 rated it did not like it
Recommends it for: Nobody
Recommended to Gail by: Other reviewers
I was so looking forward to reading this book, but alas, when I finally retrieved it from the library and began reading it, I was dismayed. I could barely get through the first chapter. The prose is impenetrable, dense, laborious, and boring. I never skip any section, normally, but I did with this book, and went ahead to read one chapter about his family. Needless to say, after being turned off by the writing, immediately, I lost interest completely, closed the book and brought it back to the li ...more
Jul 21, 2019 rated it liked it
A memoir with a bite, in which Massoud Hayoun, a member of the Arab diaspora and a Jew, chronicles his family history in a tale that spans continents and epochs, and weaves that history with politics. He uses his grandparents’ stories to explore the history of a once thriving Arab Jewish community. It’s very much a celebration of a rich and diverse heritage but it’s also a diatribe against colonialism and Zionism, of which he is a fierce critic. He documents the suppression of native culture by ...more
Jun 07, 2020 rated it really liked it
A couple of years back, my aunt's husband told me about my maternal family history, my mom's ancestors were Jews who "migrated" from Spain to Egypt and later converted to Christianity and then Islam (as one does). My family's history is so diverse yet not unfamiliar to many Egyptians. Unfortunately, it is also so forgotten as Egypt is now almost a homogenous society with little to no recollection of our multi-faith, multi-cultural days thanks to colonial erasure. Some would even deny these days ...more
Sep 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
Story of the author's family history, focusing on his grandparents' lives in their native countries of Egypt and Tunisia, and how it was they ended up in Los Angeles. Contextualizes their lives in the history of the middle east & North Africa. Contains a great many personal stories and details about daily life in early to mid-20th century Tunis & Alexandria. Focuses on Jewish Arabic culture and its long history. A main idea of this book is that many of the religious divisions of the Arab world w ...more
khalid eldehairy
Jul 13, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Very well balanced mix of historical context and personal experience

The book is a very well balanced mix of a tale of the author's family history and the historical context that shaped this tale. Being Jewish families in Arabic countries while being influenced (and attempts of reshaping) by European Jewish view of the world (and Arab world).

Being an Egyptian myself, I definitely learnt new angles to look at my own country's history.
Jennifer Fox
Sep 09, 2020 rated it liked it
I let this sit with me for a while before reviewing. At the time, I hadn't wanted to react hastily, since my feelings about it are complex, but now I wish I had done so sooner, since I recalled more specific passages. On one hand, the book is important in that sheds light on a grievously overlooked culture, and the author's description of the nuanced cultures of both his grandparents are not only beautiful in his profound love and affection, but contribute meaningfully to an understanding of peo ...more
Radney Wood
Jul 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing
What an incredible
Jul 26, 2019 rated it it was ok
This history/family history/memoir actually reads like a manifesto then a mashup of events. It lacks structure and finesse although I agree with his purpose and his disdain for these home dna kits that are so popular right now. The last thing the wold needs is another method of separating groups of individuals into us and them in the name of pseudoscience. Particularly as these false divisions echo early colonization of North Africa and again of Palestine when the allies relocated displaced Jews ...more
Aug 15, 2020 rated it liked it
**Be wary of some "reviews" on this book and please take some with a grain of salt. You will find many folks in the comments giving the book one star because it does not go into details about the history and change in relationship between the two main identities of the author, and complaints that it is anti-Zionist*, or not supportive of Israel, and those are the reasons for the scathing review. You will also find a couple that are just angry that the book is about Jewish people and they are ups ...more
Aug 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
Clearly written. often lovely, and the ending is very touching. A young American, Massoud Hayoun, tells the story of his grandparents, a Moroccan-Egyptian man and a Tunisian woman, both Arab Jews, and equally at home in their Arab and Jewish cultures. There are, in fact, many today who insist that Christians and Jews cannot be Arabs--but many are. There is real hope in Hayoun's move to reclaim a proud culture and history that cuts across national and religious boundaries.

Hayoun gives us a clear
Trick Wiley
Jul 03, 2019 rated it did not like it
I got a email from the author to read the book and wrote him back apologizing for taking so long in reading his book. Well that was yesterday and so I started reading and reading and halfway through the book so sorry,just couldn't read anymore! I really wasn't sure what the holiness about cause I didn't re-read what the story was about again yesterday when I started. I am so sorry but I got so confused and tried to concentrate on what I was reading and I would understand a sentence or so then di ...more
Oct 18, 2019 added it
to start off, regardless of my feelings about some aspects of the book, i do consider it to be very important. the histories of jewish middle easterners and north africans need to be told and preserved.
however, i just could not connect to the author's rose-tinted view of arabness. though i understand his need to reclaim this identity, it's just a very flimsy concept and people from "arab" countries are starting to grow further and further away from it- so i just don't know??
there were also a co
Miriam T
Feb 05, 2021 rated it liked it
I wanted to love this book so much. Its history and genealogy that I find fascinating and love to learn about. His family’s story is indeed parts heartwarming, parts sad, very complex, multi-generational etc but like many other people who wrote reviews for it, I feel like the execution could’ve been better. I needed a family tree at the beginning (a lot of names, and going in and out of histories and time periods) and also I wanted a clearer chronological telling. I couldn’t tell how the section ...more
Nov 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is a very important read, especially for Ashkenazis. Hayoun's writing is thoughtful, probing, stirring. The book is eloquent in describing the loss, sadness, resiliency, and ultimately, joy/relief in finding one's place/home in the world. The indictment of colonialism (physically and mentally) is powerful especially in showing how the French and British promulgated the notions (promulgated by French Jews) that 1) Jews can't be Arabs 2) Jewish Arabs are inferior to Jewish Europeans 3) the st ...more
Aug 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing
An excellent mix of family autobiography, historical research and profound reflections and digging in one’s identity. I admire the poetic and yet -on many occasions - rebellion voice used by the author, a very Arab thing I would argue :). I couldn’t help but draw parallels with my own life and understanding of my own identity, which - even though different - shares much of that struggle to reconcile with my Arab identity, one that Is triggered and passed down with that inherent sense of inferior ...more
Feb 19, 2021 rated it did not like it
UGH. What kind of a Jew calls Israel "the Zionist entity"??
Hayoun is in love with an existence that never was. He is up front about saying that he sees himself as more Syrian, Palestinian, Lebanese, etc., than Jewish. That last adjective is irrelevant to him. He also spends lots of time rejecting the moniker Sephardi or even Mizrachi. He is an Arab #1, despite having grown up in San Fernando Valley. He has no patience, interest, or love for other Jews. He also conveniently avoids having to addre
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Massoud Hayoun is a journalist who lives in Los Angeles. He has reported for Al Jazeera, Pacific Standard Magazine, Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown online, The Atlantic, and Agence France-Presse. He speaks and works in several languages.

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