Sunday, March 16, 2014
Libyan refugee: 'our flight was voiceless'
Among my most disconsolate memories, there is a night spent burning all photos and letters from relatives in Israel. The Libyan government, after putting the Jewish community under its direct control, appointed a governmental officer to collect information about those who left the country. I cried all night for those photos: they were the only visual memory I had of my family.
I was not sure I would have met them. We were hostages. If someone had to leave, even for medical reasons, someone had to stay hostage to guarantee the other would return.
Violent attacks broke out again in 1967, after increasing hostility against Israel and the Jews: what happened?
On Friday 2 June 1967, the ulemas incited to holy war from the mosques, while meanwhile the government joined the Syrian and Egyptian initiative of celebrating a week in solidarity with the Palestinian cause. The King declared the state of “defensive war” and offered support for the liberation of Palestine. Radios reverberated everywhere that the Zionist entity had no chance to survive.
Jewish notables sent to the King a declaration of solidarity, recalling their neutrality and loyalty. We were disquieted and, as every year in occasion of the Palestine Day, the wealthiest men of the community had to give a “donation” for Palestine. Hideously maltreated, they had to pretend to be happy, hoping that would prevent further harm. We fasted; we lighted candles in honour of Rav Meir and Bar Yochai.
I was terrified of violence against women; I was in fear for what could happen to my sister, my mother, my father. Somehow this fear toppled with the distress of Arab armies surrounding the Jewish state. Tel Aviv was a few kilometres away from the Eastern border, while the border in Jerusalem was just barbed wire.
During the silent and gloomy nights, I wondered what could happen if the Arabs would attack first. When the war broke out, on 5 June 1967, the crowd was exulting in the streets. Radio Cairo announced the destruction of Tel Aviv and Haifa: we knew that it was just Arab propaganda, but we were in fear. From the PLO building, voices cried out for holy war.
Waiting endless and voiceless hours for my loved ones and my neighbours to come back home, I wondered what we should do had the crowd tried to break into our home. My brother Isaac managed to jump out of the window while the building where he worked was burning.
As in 1945 and in 1948, youth had put a sign to tag Jewish homes and businesses. After declaring the state of emergency and imposing the curfew, the authorities managed to get back in control. On Thursday 8 June, the police had to hold back a crowd of peasants from the nearby village of Zawia, where several volunteers were recruited for “the holy war against infidels”. They were heading toward Tripoli to cleanse it of Jewish presence.
The plan was to incite a general uprising backed by the army, but Jews were evacuated from the old city and settled in the new neighbourhoods, in police stations, and in the periphery of Tripoli. News of clashes between the police and the rioters mingled with the fear of imminent Israeli attack.
People deemed Israel was all-powerful, believed Israeli soldiers could reach everywhere to avenge the innocent Jews who had been brutally attacked. Collective history was fired up by the news Israelis entered into the Egyptian air space from West and not East, as it was expected. The fear to go toward the end concocted for the Jews turned into fright and panic.
The overexcited crowd believed Israelis would arrive anytime to take revenge and they began fleeing.
How did you live those moments?
Behind closed windows we could not understand much of what was going on, but we could see cars and motorcars fleeing. People would wonder around dazedly. No more hugging of volunteer soldiers at the OLP building, before joining the Arab armies toward assured death.
Overexcitement was taken over by despair. During the noiseless nights, we would only hear soldiers heavily pacing through the street while guarding our homes. Police would patrol desert streets. We would spend entire days in front of the television.
We knew nothing about our relatives and about my brother Simon, who had moved to Israel seven years earlier. We talked about what we had to do, had the police come to collect us to transfer us to the camp of Gurgi. It could have been an ambush.
We have to gain more time: we kept saying we lived near the police station and we kept in touch with embassies thanks to those who held foreign citizenship. My mother was obsessed that the police would behave like the Nazis: who could assure that the true intentions of the police were not to kill us? Wasn’t it what happened in Europe? We were alone and isolated.
My mother had no rest: she instructed us not to follow the police in case we were requested to. Accordingly, she also encouraged our neighbours: we had to pretend not to be isolated, to have friends among the police; we had to make other believe that people cared about us; and we had to be careful about any request, exchanging information with the police, embassies and friends.
We were later informed that a group of soldiers collected and assassinated two families promising to bring them in a safe place. The day before, I had a chat with one of the murdered young ones, telling him we were in danger and we could expect anything, but that Israel would never be destroyed.
We were 52 people living together, eating the food my mother obtained from a friendly Muslim black family. The children took part in the pogrom, but with us they behaved decently. Not to draw the attention of Arab and Palestinian neighbours, they would call my mother by the name of their youngest girl, ‘Isha, so my mother would know she had to fetch the food they bought for us in exchange for small donations.
The day we left, the Muslim woman asked God to pardon their sins: I never forgot this.
We were lucky. We lived near the police station. We would gather on evenings to listen to the latest news announced by Arrigo Levi. In order to ease the tension, some of us would imitate the last speech by Nasser, in which he retired and the following conversation with King Hussein tapped by the Israeli intelligence. Someone would maliciously smile at an older man, recently married, who took a bath every night before slipping over to his room. Another woman would bake David star biscuits for his joyful husband. Our hearts inflated with a new sense of safety. New lives were created.
We were pervaded by deep emotion at the sight of Israeli soldiers praying at the Western Wall. But the thought of those who were not there tormented me: I wondered if I would ever meet my brother again.
Images followed one another on the TV screen. A Palestinian woman was staring with her son at the Allenby Bridge. A young girl uttered: “Poor creature”. “Poor creatures a damn!”, cried out someone else, “had they won, we’d be finished!”. “She’s just a little girl”, says someone else; “Little girl be damned”, someone is about to say. People begin to discuss and quickly they change subject. Her dismayed voice, reaching the sky together with our prayers, confirms that fright and anxiety had not stiffened our hearts and empathy for others’ grief.
How did you escape?
Days passed by, and we were locked up in our homes. A telephone rang. Most calls were threats intimidating us. A young Jew who imprudently opened his butchery to fetch meat for friends had been stabbed to death.
A young Jewish girl went to buy some bread dressing in the Arab veil: betrayed by her accent, she was assassinated.
Those holding a foreign passport had already left. But everything was more difficult for us: we needed an exit visa and a country disposed to welcome our transit to Israel. That country was Italy. After long international negotiations, the Libyan government decided to offer a touristic exit visa to Jews who would require it.
I was supposed to rejoice. I longed for that moment for years; but now that it came, I was full of discontent. I did not know who among my friends was still alive after the 5 June pogrom.
In my dreams, my leaving was not like that. We supported each other. People would laugh at those among us who ingenuously called Arab colleagues to say goodbye and received insults and threats in reply. While packing our stuff, a sock fell from my mother’s pocket. It was my brother’s, who left the country seven years earlier. Authorities and neighbours repeatedly asked to explain why he was not with us. My mother had always kept that sock with her, as a sort of charm. My brother had fought in the Syrian front and I did not know if he had come back. In seeing my mother holding the sock, I prayed: “Please Lord, tell me he is alive!”.
The day we left, a jeep was waiting for us. It was early in the morning, the air was chilly from the sea, but soon it would turn into a steamy heat. The policeman was anxious to terminate his thankless task. I felt forlorn with my luggage.
The dream to leave my country forever was about to become true, but this was not the leave I dreamt of.
That is when I started thinking that the biblical story of the Jewish exodus had been softened and embellished. The flight with the unleavened bread was the reality that the Bible bequeathed, while the plagues existed only in the mind of those who escaped. Under this new light, I began considering the “song of the sea” about the enemy that drowns as a real event.
The Egyptian soldiers, drowning in the waters were phantoms of persecutors that we could finally leave behind us. Lonely and confused, I saw a Maltese-Italian friend passing by; we just said a brief, yet weighty, “hi”, as if nothing had happened.
And that is how you became refugees…
For a long time, I have lived as though my childhood were a distant memory. It was a rupture in time and space, a turning point in my life without a conceivable before and after. I have dealt with this problem professionally, by working with people suffering from collective traumas, and I understood that my reaction was consistent to a pattern.
The actors could now live in Rome, Paris, New York, London or Tel Aviv, miles away from where they had spent their childhood. Yet, the inner break follows the same pattern. Only after time passed, with new generations untouched by the trauma, may interest in the past come back. I was not alone in my pain.
Elaborating on my story, I could help those who lived experiences of uprooting and were looking for a reason to endure their loss and sorrow. As an analyst, I have worked with European, Israeli, Arab, Iranian, Jewish, Muslim and Christian patients.
The existence of Israel has always been my personal interest. As Celan wrote, thinking of Israel means caring for its existence. Had I ever forgotten her, and I couldn’t ever, the obliteration of that tiny point called Israel from the maps would have been the symbolic projection of a murderous plan, explicitly articulated by virulent Arab propaganda.
Have you ever thought of going back?
I am deeply involved in supporting the dialogue for a political settlement of the Middle East conflict. But I have never thought of returning to my home country, not even the idea of a brief visit has ever come to my mind. Nothing was left of that past. I considered myself lucky because I survived: the intergenerational chain was not broken since elders could meet youth and people made a new, free life by settling in welcoming, safe places.
But there is always something disturbing in being lucky, because other people were not. Fragrances can recall you of your childhood or simple scenes in an airport or in a train, or by looking at your children playing. Many years ago, waiting for a flight in the airport of Rome, the timetable reported two outgoing flights: Rome-Tel Aviv and Rome-Tripoli.
I was tired and somehow the two signs merged. For a moment, I felt like a place could bring to the other, like I could be at home anywhere because humanity is a big family. My Tripoli travelled with me, together with the rich and expressive rhythms of oriental music, together with love songs and liturgical songs that I would hear for the birkat ha-levana (the blessing on the moon), together with the intense fragrances, the memories of my lost friends, the breeze from the sea, my dreams and fantasies at the sight of a ship, together with the bliss of switching from Arabic to Hebrew and from Hebrew to Arabic, writing in Italian as it were Latin, from Hebrew to Aramaic.
Your story is an untold story: what are the psychological and political consequences?
I was born and raised in an Arab country that I left forever after a gory pogrom – the third my family experienced in twenty years. Over two decades, hundreds of thousands of Jews were forced to abandon their homes and their belongings in every area of the Arab and Islamic world. Jewish minorities had not participated in the war of destruction waged by the Arab League armies against the newborn State of Israel, and they did not represent a danger by any means. They were hostages. Their flight was voiceless, ignored by the international media.
Once the Jews disappeared from the Arab world, the same happened to the vestiges of ancient civilisations that dwelled in the Near East before Arab invasions. The centrality of the Holocaust in debates regarding the legitimacy of Israel eclipsed the pain of Jews from Arab countries, also in the eyes of the Israelis.
Only recently, this story is recognised in its tremendous historical and political implications. Remembering the pain of Jews from Arab countries means to consider the complex Middle East in its entirety.
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Hearing in Italian Parliament on Jewish refugees