Almog Behar’s Arabic-Infused Hebrew Poetry Isn’t Like Other Mizrahi Writers’

April 27, 2023 | Meir Buzaglo
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Arabic is never far from the pen of the Israeli poet Almog Behar, who regularly throws expressions from the language of his ancestors into his Hebrew verses. In his new collection of poems, whose title translates as “Rub Salt into Love,” he writes, “And now I start translating myself into Arabic/ Where no one can see/ Tossing and turning from one language to the other.” Meir Buzaglo writes in his review:

Behar grew up in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya, though his family hails from across a wide swath of the Jewish Diaspora, including Iraq, Turkey, and Germany. Alongside Hebrew, some of his relatives are fluent in Arabic, while others speak German. The poet describes his translation between the closely related Semitic tongues as seeking harmony, or at least mutual understanding, between them and their culturally opposed speakers.

Almog Behar is often thought of as a Mizraḥi poet, yet his work is distinct from the most visible expression of contemporary Mizraḥi poetry, the so-called “Ars Poetica” school (an allusion not only to Horace’s classic Art of Poetry but also to the colloquial derogatory term for Mizraḥi youth, “arsim,” which the movement sought to reclaim). Ars Poetica is an identitarian movement that calls for greater Mizraḥi representation in the contemporary Israeli poetry scene. In this way, it both critiques the system while also accepting its basic contours. Behar, on the other hand, is creating new Hebrew poetry that includes, as part of its reconfiguration, Mizraḥi poetry and Sephardi piyyut.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Behar’s poetry is the way it reflects a life devoted to reading. . . . Behar is a scholar who has the privilege of teaching and studying literature at Tel Aviv University. Rub Salt into Love includes a playful “self-interview,” with the following question-answer sequence: “Does your writing come from wounds?/ I write because reading has wounded me.”

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