How the war in Gaza has deepened one Jewish artist's connections with his Arab roots

Journalist-turned-painter Massoud Hayoun uses his work to reimagine common bonds destroyed by history

An Arab Movie House features in an exhibition by Massoud Hayoun at Larkin Durey gallery in central London. Photo: Larkin Durey gallery
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In the early days of the Israel-Gaza war, American artist Massoud Hayoun began painting an imagined audience of moviegoers at an Arab cinema.

In An Arab Movie House, a young man in a cinema front row wears a keffiyeh. At the back, Hayoun has painted himself sitting beside the late Egyptian author Nawal El Saadawi and close to his grandmother, Daida, who is wearing a Tunisian chechia.

Many in this fictional audience are moved to tears as they watch a film depicting a different struggle, The Battle of Algiers, about the Algerian War that culminated in the country’s independence from France.

“I wanted people [to feel that in this] perilous, hopeless situation, justice will prevail,” said Hayoun.

As the war in Gaza nears its ninth month, Hayoun is now leaning towards despair.

The work is part of the journalist-turned-painter’s exploration of his family’s North African Jewish heritage. In his writings and art, Hayoun often questions his family’s exile.

“I'm not trying to reclaim Jewish Arabness. I'm trying to say that people who are of Jewish faith can be an active part of this cultural production, even if we no longer live in our home countries,” he said.

Hayoun, 37, was born in Los Angeles and was raised by his maternal grandparents, Dadia and Oscar – Jewish exiles from Tunisia and Egypt. They had settled in the US after not making a home in Israel or France.

Arabs in America

Oscar, a disillusioned Zionist from Alexandria, actively sought out Arab communities in Los Angeles, shopping in Arab-owned stores, making sure there were always Arabic pastries available in the house for his grandson.

“My grandfather died when I was 16, and I spent and continue to spend my whole life looking for him by going back to Arab countries. That’s why these paintings exist,” said Hayoun.

“He was from an old-fashioned generation that doesn’t exist any more. He was that Abdel Halim generation,” he said, referring to 1960s Egyptian musician and performer Abdel Halim Hafez, whose patriotic songs were frequently sung during the 2011 Arab Spring in Egypt.

Dadia appears in many of Hayoun’s works in her chechia, smoking a cigarette or coring chillis to make Tunisian harissa paste. She often appears twice in the paintings: as the more traditional mother who is cooking for her family, and as a more radical women’s rights advocate.

Hayoun says “everything” is about Dadia. “About how cool and revolutionary she was.”

His exhibition at Larkin Durey gallery in London comes as US and UK campus protests against the war in Gaza are in the spotlight. Jewish students have played a role in encampments, sparking debate about generational shifts in the community’s relationship with Israel.

The show is not explicitly about the war in Gaza, some paintings produced at the time of the war make reference to it. By showing his work in London, Hayoun hopes to reach an audience that may be more open to his work than in the US.

“It has become more and more difficult to show art that sympathises with the Palestinian liberation cause for various reasons in the US,” he said.

“I would definitely be called anti-Jewish for having these conversations, even as a person who does believe in God and whose parents were of Jewish faith,” he said.

In another painting, Dadia appears next to a bridge overlooking the Parisian Seine, as Il Kahina, a Berber queen who led the indigenous resistance to Muslim conquests of North Africa. The Islamic traveller Ibn Khaldun believed she came from a Berber Jewish tribe.

“She has been used by Jewish North African people to talk about the indigeneity of Jewish people to North Africa,” said Hayoun, adding that French colonials also drew on her story to diminish growing Arab nationalist fervour of the time.

Written along the walls of the river bank in the painting are slogans from France’s race protests, including “Justice pour Nahel” – justice for Nahel – after the police killing of teenager Nahel Merzouk in a Paris suburb last June.

Another piece of graffiti “Ici on noie les” – here we drown the – is a reference to Algerian liberation protesters who were shot at and thrown into the Seine by police in Paris in 1961.

At least 40 demonstrators, and as many as 300 by some estimates, were killed. Afterwards, graffiti appeared on Pont Saint-Michel across the Seine stating, “Ici on noie les Algeriens” – here we drown the Algerians.

Hayoun’s grandparents, who lived in Paris at the time, often told this story to Hayoun, who refused to believe it for many years.

Obscured identities

How Jews lived in and why they left the Middle East is a hotly contested issue, and one which Hayoun has sought to tackle in his book When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History which tells his grandparents' story.

Like other minorities, Jews were second class citizens in the Ottoman Empire – known as dhimmis – who were subject to pay a jizya tax until this was abolished in 1856. Elite families from these minority communities served as intermediaries with European powers.

Jews and Christians participated in Arab nationalist movements and were prominent figures of the Arab renaissance, or Nahda.

“Jewish Arab people started to stand together with Christian and Muslim Arab people to advocate for a progressive, free and federal Arab world,” said Hayoun.

At the centre of our identity is this Arabness above any religious identity, above any other identity
Artist Massoud Hayoun

But Jews were expelled from Egypt and Iraq in the 1950s, and hostility in other countries towards the community after the creation of Israel caused many to flee the region.

Many other communities, including Egyptian Greeks and Armenians, were also targeted.

Hayoun says he does not shy away from this fraught history, but that an Arab Jewish identity has been wrongly obscured.

“At the centre of our identity is this Arabness above any religious identity, above any other identity. We stand with the political and cultural and socio and social movements of the Arab peoples that our families have belonged to since time immemorial,” he said, citing the works of Moroccan Jewish writer and human rights activist Sion Assidon, who he interviewed for his book.

“Colonial-era documents from the French and British spoke of how each generation of Jewish Arabs would be progressively de-Arabised in a politic of a divide and conquer.”

Oscar grew up in a city remembered nostalgically for its Levantine cosmopolitanism.

In letters which Hayoun discovered and had translated in LA, his grandfather wrote: “Only Egyptians speak so many languages and are so sophisticated.”

So much so, that his wife regularly accused him of an “arrogance mal placee” – a misplaced conceit.

This may be why Oscar struggled to fit in to Israeli culture driven by Eastern European socialism, or as a North African immigrant in France, a country still reeling from the traumas of the Algerian war, in which the story of displaced Algerian Jews vanished from collective memory for decades.

Yet Oscar’s worldly spirit appears to live on in Hayoun, who converses in French, Arabic and the Spanish he picked up in LA. He also learnt Mandarin as a foreign correspondent in China, and references to all of these cultures appear in his work.

Reflecting on his time as a correspondent in Beijing, Hayoun paints Dadia in her two iterations alongside an American and a Chinese woman, who sit at opposite sides of a table coring chillies to make harissa.

The American woman, Hayoun explains, knows she will continue to work until she is old owing to the absence of social services, whereas the Chinese woman is based on a waitress he had met in Beijing, whose wages had been stolen by her employer.

“Coming from the United States, I thought that capitalism was a freer, more human rights-orientated system, even though I was from a leftist family,” said Hayoun. “I came to find that both in the United States and in China, you are what you do for labour there, you have no other identity.”

In this sense, his work is as much about America's place in the world, as it is an exploration of his family's lost heritage.

In another work, Hayoun places his grandmother in Buenos Aires alongside the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who gathered weekly at the square seeking answers about their children who had disappeared during Argentina’s military dictatorship.

Hayoun first shared this work on social media, where he was contacted by Argentinians of Middle Eastern descent, a historic community there from present day Lebanon, Syria and Palestine.

It was a community in which Hayoun perhaps saw a lot of himself. Though many no longer speak Arabic, he noticed how they shared a “deep, spiritual, ethnic collective connection with their homelands”.

“They experience great solidarity with the Palestinian people in this time, with anybody who identifies with an Arab cultural legacy,” he said.

It is a lasting connection which also gives him hope.

“The fact that Arabs are such a diverse thing, with so many different kinds of skin colours, lived experiences, political ideas, ways of being, that it's still deeply felt by people who are three or four generations removed from their Arab citizen ancestors, is a beautiful thing,” he said.

Between Broken Promises, Harissa, an exhibition of work by Massoud Hayoun, runs at Larkin Durey gallery, in St James’s, central London, until May 24.

Updated: May 21, 2024, 8:02 AM