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Almog Behar

Almog Behar

Almog Behar

(Israël, 1978)
Almog Behar is an Israeli poet, fiction writer and essayist, as well as a figure who may be termed a political-language-activist, one of whose aims is to restore the Arabic tongue to its place in Jewish culture. He is also a scholar: co-founder of an inter-university program in Judeo-Arabic Studies and currently a post-doc fellow at the prestigious Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem.

Behar’s poetry has been called “intellectually fluent” by critic Eli Hirsh, who writes about his third volume, Poems for Prisoners, that

his special talent is to develop philosophical arguments with broad political and cultural implications, without the loss of the subconscious depths of language and poetry. This intellectual side is linked to his sensitivity about several cornerstones of the new Hebrew poetry: on the one hand, the secularization of Hebrew, that is, its detachment from religious tradition, and on the other, its consolidation as the one and only nationalist language, that is, its alienation from the languages of the Jewish Diaspora – such as Yiddish or Arabic. Behar’s determination to overcome these estrangements is [his] openly guiding force…   
The poet's family is originally Baghdadi-Iraqi on his mother's side and on his father's, Turkish: Jews who emigrated in 1917 from Istanbul to Berlin, from which his grandfather escaped the Holocaust by leaving for Denmark. At home, in addition to speaking Hebrew, German and Arabic were present –  but “the feeling was that, outside, they were to be ashamed of”, Behar has said. He acquired Arabic through study.

In what is perhaps Behar’s most quoted line, he attempts to embody his Jewishness inside the Arabic language. The sentence appears in his short fiction and at the end of the poem below: a statement in Arabic, transliterated into Hebrew letters, that “ana min al yahud” – “I am one of the Jews”:

My Arabic is mute
Strangled at the throat
Cursing itself
Without uttering a word
Sleeping in the airless shelters of my soul
From relatives
Behind the Hebrew shutters.  

[Tr. Dimi Reider]

“The language we inherit is not a unity; it is not natural or neutral”, Behar said in a 2017 interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books:

Modern Hebrew remembers a period of Hebrew-Arabic symbiosis even when the politics of the present is one of separation or of violence. And even though secularization tried to cleanse the language of its religious associations, the language remembers God. History gives us a very partial story that is connected to a particular national age; literature is an alternative to that history.

In the poem ‘Kuttab’, (Arabic: elementary school), Behar reflects on fatherhood, and a way ro recover religious tradition without becoming dogmatic:

I assembled a small kuttab with my son in the living room.
On Friday mornings he gets up early with me 

to study, and I remind him that in the cheder
there is no teacher and no student,
only Torah before us. Together we learn by heart

the verses in Hebrew and Aramaic and Arabic.

We are cautious about many words, among them God

and Allah and his many names
A father must teach his son Torah, and if he is unable to teach

he must hire a teacher for his son from the people of his city,
but you, my son, you should remember that a day will come

where you will feel as if your father never taught you
and then you will have to teach yourself all the verses

and the names and the letters and serifs
that never passed between us,
and those that passed between us
without us saying a word

about their place in our lives. 
            [Tr. Seth Shapiro]

Behar's most recent book of verse, Shirim L'asiray Bet-ha-sohar ("Poems for Prisoners" Indiebook), appeared in 2016. It was preceded by two volumes of poetry, Tzemaon Be’erot (“Well's Thirst” Am Oved, 2008 ) and Hut Moshekh Min Halashon (“Thread Drawn from the Tongue” Am Oved, 2009), which won the Bernstein Prize for Literature.  Also in 2008, the short story collection Ana Min al-Yahud (“I am One of the Jews” Babel) appeared; the title story was awarded first prize in the 2005 Haaretz competition, and has been translated and published in Arabic. His novel Rachel and Ezekiel (Keter 2010) was also translated into Arabic and has been published in Cairo, earning positive reviews. In Israel, Behar has been awarded the Prime Minister's Prize for his body of work. It’s a bit of a shock to learn that all of his writing – in the original Hebrew, including commercially published books, and some translations into English – has been made available online by him in PDF form, accessible via a link below and his Hebrew Wikipedia entry.

© Lisa Katz, excerpts from Eli Hirsh 20 May 2016 Yediot Aharanot 7 Nights; interview with Shoshana Olidort 1 May 2017 LARB; interview with Eli Eliahu, Haaretz 7 January 2011.
BOOKS in Hebrew
Well’s Thirst (poems) Am Oved, Tel Aviv 2008
Ana min al yahud/I Am One of the Jews (stories) Babel, Tel Aviv, 2008
A Thread Drawn from the Tongue (poems) Am Oved, Tel Aviv 2009
Rachel and Ezekiel (novel) Keter, Jerusalem, 2010
[Arabic tr. Nael el-Toukhi, Al Kotob Khan Press, Cairo, 2016]
Poems for Prisoners (poems) Indiebook, Jerusalem 2016

In English
Take This Book and Copy It  (poems, stories, essays) PDF, Jerusalem 2017
a bilingual anthology available here

LINKS in English
LARB interview
Not Jewish enough an essay
On Judeo-Arabic university studies
Between Hebrew and Arabic Oxford podcast
A teaching guide to Behar’s work

LINK in Hebrew
The poet’s blog
Gemeente Rotterdam
Nederlands Letterenfonds
Stichting Van Beuningen Peterich-fonds
Prins Bernhard cultuurfonds
Lira fonds
J.E. Jurriaanse
Gefinancierd door de Europese Unie
Elise Mathilde Fonds
Stichting Verzameling van Wijngaarden-Boot
LantarenVenster – Verhalenhuis Belvédère