We Are Fragments of Rhymes: The Poetry of Erez Biton between East and West
The poetry of Erez Biton, as it found expression in his first book Minha Marokait (1967), was a landmark in Hebrew literature. The starting point for the author—the founding father of Mizrahi poetry in Israel—is his immigration to Israel from North Africa. The article follows the literary structure of the trauma of immigration in Biton’s poetry. Biton contests the attempts at entrapment and domestication that are part of the trauma of immigration and develops a critical stance toward the Ashkenazi hegemony. In this way he develops a poetic voice that opposes the Israeli sovereign, who relates to Biton as an Arab-Jew excluded from the sovereign’s narrative. For Biton’s testimony about his trauma to be accepted, he needed to crack the walls erected by the ruling universal subject of Israeli sovereignty to maintain stability of identity in the face of Biton’s trauma as a Mizrahi immigrant. These walls, which removed the “Arabness” of the Mizrahi immigrant, did not assign a place for him and thus did not allow the testimony about his trauma to be heard. The method Biton proposes to the Mizrahi for simultaneously retaining and not retaining the hyphen in “Arab-Jewish” is to carry on a pretense and use defiant language. Biton is of the opinion that the failure of the Mizrahi to penetrate the walls of Israeli sovereignty’s poetry is predictable and brought on by the attempt to form a cohesive identity. However, he suggests turning this failure into an advantage by using pretense.
This slide toward the “other,” this redundancy at the core of the process of mimicking the Ashkenazi, creates a critical effect. Biton is in fact suggesting that his readers—you, the Mizrahi—be like the Ashkenazi, but not completely like him; in this way you will undermine the Ashkenazi’s subjective self as well as his authority. This rejection provides the time required to cope with the trauma of immigration. The ambivalence of the mimicry that Homi Bhabha writes of not only disrupts the discourse but also transforms it into complete uncertainty, fixing the colonial, sovereign, and oppressing subject as only a partial presence. In other words, it undermines the sovereign subject, and does not give it authority.
Erez Biton recreates the Mizrahi stereotype, thus challenging the coherence of the stereotype and the coherence of the identity of the oppressor who uses this stereotype—the same stereotype Biton uses to undermine the oppressor. Biton, who suggests mimicking the Ashkenazi, is in effect also mimicking the Mizrahi and in doing so reveals the mimicking nature of his poetry—a structure with which he expresses the absence of a stable source for and the contingency of all ethnic identities in Israel.