Monday, October 31, 2005

Arab-American museum features Jews

According to an article of 24 October in the New York Times, the 900,000 'Arab' Jews who lived in the Middle East and North Africa 50 years ago have earned themselves a place in the new Arab American National Museum at Dearborn, Michigan, together with a photo of the Tunisian synagogue in Djerba (via JIMENA Voice).

This is progress - at least there is some acknowledgement that Jews once lived in these countries.

But as Edward Rothstein writes, there is little attempt to explain why Arab immigrants moved to America, nor to distinguish between successive waves of Christian and Muslims. Many Christians left because they were persecuted: 66 percent of the Arab American community is composed of Christians, but out of deference to the Museum's sponsors perhaps - Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Dubai - the Museum gives the impression that they are - and have always been - one big happy Arab family.

Read article in full

Friday, October 28, 2005

The last of the Tunisian Mohicans

Bernard Allali is President of Tunisian Jewish Arts and Popular Traditions, an organisation dedicated to preserving the Tunisian Jewish heritage. Here's an extract from an interview he gave recently to CRIF, the representative body for French Jewry.

Q:The French protectorate came into force after the signing of the Treaty of Bardo in 1881. Did France hasten the westernisation of Tunisian Jewry which began in the second half of the 19th century? What was the Jews' legal status under the Protectorate and how did it differ from that of their Algerian neighbours?
The Jews of Tunisia welcomed the French with much hope. The French protectorate marked the end of their dhimmi status. They threw themselves into westernisation, which would open the gates to knowledge and freedom. In a few decades, the Jews left the Ghetto and joined the most desirable professions - as doctors, scientists, lawyers, teachers. Most Jews were Tunisian citizens under French protection. Theirs was a very different status from that of the Algerian Jews, who under the Decret Cremieux (1870) became French citizens.

Q: Under the Protectorate, did Jews and Muslims share a number of characteristics (language, habitat, social condition?)
A:The Jews were in Tunisia for millenia. There is proof of their presence in archaeology and epigraphy. The Jewish necropolis of Gammarth and the Naro synagogue at Hammam-If date back to the early centuries of the Christian era. The Arab Muslim conquest came later. The Jews adapted themselves to the new civilisation, creating a language - Tunisian Judeo-Arabic. Under the protectorate they opted for westernisation but were still close (to the Arabs) in language, cuisine and music. But they slowly left the alleys of the ghetto for the European city. Their social conditions became better than that of the Muslims.

Q: Under what circumstances did the Jews leave?
It happened in stages. Israel's creation sent shockwaves and people thought it was a sign from heaven that the ancient vow 'Next year in Jerusalem' should become a reality. The country's independence and the automatic arabisation of society, administrative and economic hassles, the dissolution of the Rabbinic courts and Jewish community institutions, the turning of the Jewish cemetery into a public park, all this worried and frightened the Jews who began to leave for France and Israel. In 1961 the 'Bizerte affair' (war between France and Tunisia over the town's naval base) caused more Jews to emigrate. Due to the repercussions of the Israeli-Arab conflict leading to the burning of Tunis's Great synagogue in 1967, a community of 120,000 has dwindled to 2,000 today.

Q:How do you view their departure in restrospect?
The Jews were victims of the pitiless wind of history. Independence was right and inevitable. But it happened at the expense of the Jews. They were pushed into leaving. Half went to France, half to Israel, some to the USA. By and large they have been very successful in the countries in which they settled. They are still trying to keep memories of their homeland alive.

Q: Is the Tunisian Jewish community looking back on its past, exile, arrival in France or Israel and integration?
Unfortunately the younger generations are not interested in their parents' Tunisian Jewish past - well, not with the same passion or warmth. My generation is the last of the Mohicans of the Tunisian saga. We have turned over a new leaf. All that remains are the summer trips to the country of jasmin and sea breezes.

Q: Do you think Tunisian Jews have an unduly rosy picture of the past, magnifying those periods of peaceful understanding between Jews and Muslims and airbrushing out the darker moments?
Yes, undoubtedly. Many Tunisian Jews only remember the Protectorate years when their life was particularly pleasant. They tend to cast a veil over the difficult years that followed independence. Most importantly, they are ignorant of the centuries of oppression which their ancestors went through.

Q: What's your dearest wish?
That there should be peace between Israel and the Palestinians and full diplomatic relations between Jerusalem and Tunis. Direct charter flights between Tel Aviv and Djerba, resurrected synagogues and the Jewish community as it used to be.

Read article in full (French)

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

'Iraqi Jews are nearly all Arabs'

Having nothing better to do on a train journey, Iraqi Muslim blogger Wafaa' Al-Natheema decided to write a complaint to Nissim Rejwan about his book The last Jews in Baghdad, with its introduction by Joel Benin, published in 2004. (With thanks: Iraqijews)

Wafaa' did not like the fact that Joel (who Wafaa' thinks is a she) and Nissim (or 'Naseem' as she pointedly arabises the Iraqi-Jewish author's name) insist on referring to Arabic-speaking Iraqi Jews, alienated by the pan-Arabism of the majority. Wafaa's view is that 'Iraqi Jews are nearly entirely Arabs'.

If the Iraqi Jews are Arabs of the Jewish religion, then Wafaa' can take pride in their achievements as Iraqis. But as Arabs, they cannot belong to the 'Jewish people'. Therefore they have no right, nor no need, to be Zionists. So many Arabs seem to take this line, but Wafaa' is a well-educated Iraqi who has lived in the USA since 1980.

It gets worse. One realises how deeply Wafaa' is in denial when she attempts to negate that Arab Sunnis are in a minority in Iraq.

And the world is flat.

See discussion here

Sunday, October 23, 2005

The Egypt that I remember

More and more Jews from Arab countries are writing their memoirs. Invariably, their childhood is idyllic, but brutally cut short by events beyond their control. Here's a short extract translated from an article in French by Sam Mezrahi from Cairo. (With thanks: Moise Rahmani)

"It was more than 50 years ago and I am remembering it, but for a long period I tried not to remember it. Not to look back, but to go forward, rebuild myself after the exodus...Forget a past that had turned its back on me.

"Make a future for oneself, to try to put down new roots, while erasing the old ones, so as not to fall apart. Most of all, not to stumble and re-open sentimental wounds - you never know how deep the scars will be.

"Here I am on the threshold of my 60th year and I feel brave enough to abandon myself to the gentle nostalgia of my childhood. I thought my memories would be blurred but they are coming back to me in a random whirl of smells and sounds and feelings - like a flashback which gradually comes into focus.

The author reminisces about his visits to the Heliopolis Sporting Club where he learned to swim, the assortment of goodies sold by the street vendors, the incomparably flavourful dates, yellow melons, Alphonso mangoes, pomegranates, grapes of every hue, apricots, the vegetables the dishes, the desserts, the street theatre and entertainers. He recalls the first time he swam across the Nile and back, bathing in the sea along with gentle dolphins. Although educated in French or English, the Jewish children spoke Arabic with their Egyptian nannies.

"The Egyptians got along well with the other communities - the Christian Copts, the Greek Orthodox, the Armenians, Turks who used to run the Ottoman empire, Syrian Muslims or Catholics, Lebanese, and Sudanese who used to do the menial jobs an"d the few English or French stationed in Egypt after having fought over the Egyptian protectorate with Muhammed Ali and who then backed Montgomery against Rommel in the Second World War.

"The Jews had their own Quarter, the Haret-el Yahoud but did not stand out and mingled with everyone else. Differences were accepted. They were not a provocation but served to enrich life. Each borrowed customs, culture or traditions from the other. After a death I remember my parents would say Rabaina Kebir.

Egypt was then the cultural lighthouse of the Arab-Muslim world. Its films, musicals, novels and plays spread all over the Arabic-speaking world. Its actors were famous well beyond Egypt's boundaries.

"...And then we were taken by surprise. The sorry Suez campaign in 1956 brutally put an end to the good life.(...) Nasser expelled most of the non-Muslims who had lived there for generations, confiscating their property without notice, without compensation.

"Time has passed and with hindsight one can see these events as inevitable, written in the stars. In spite of their brutality we were lucky not to have been subject to the atrocities all too common nowadays. Hamdoullalah!

"I still have tender feelings for the Egyptian people, who generally-speaking were loyal, never bloodthirsty and non-violent except when they were pushed into violence by false prophets. Nevertheless I remember crying on the Swissair refugee plane that took my family to Geneva, when the airhostess gave me my first glass of exile water, fizzy and unpleasant for a child of ten. I remember thinking," everything is about to change - even drinking water will be an ordeal."

"Soon I will be sixty and in life's journey I was a fascinated but reluctant passenger, at the mercy of wind and sail, knowing neither the destination nor the port, on my way to the way, travelling for the sake of travelling.

Read article in full

Friday, October 21, 2005

Saddam's victims rejoice

The sight of Saddam Hussein in the dock was greeted with satisfaction by the sister of a young Jew hanged in Basra in 1969 on charges of spying for Israel, Orly Halpern writes in the Jerusalem Post:

"For the 50-year-old mother of three, the trial of Saddam helps the healing of a painful wound. "The trial is the closure of a circle," she said. "The closure began when Saddam was caught in a hole, humiliated, by US forces."

"The pain began in 1967. Following the Arabs' devastating defeat in the Six Day War, Iraq's 5,000 remaining Jews suffered increasingly oppressive restrictions from a government who suspected them of dual loyalties. Hanuka's family and other Jews were prohibited from leaving the country.

"The situation became far worse the following year when the Ba'athists, led by Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr and Saddam Hussein, took power through a bloodless military coup. Within a few months, security forces led by Saddam had rounded up scores of people on charges of spying. Fourteen were sentenced to death. Their public hanging was a holiday, and bus and train rides were free.

Read article in full

Yemenite dance queen dies

The death of the founder of the Inbal Dance troupe, Sarah Levi-Tanai, who did much to nurture Yemenite culture and pride in Israel, prompts The Guardian to publish this obituary by Lawrence Joffe:

....."(Sarah)Levi-Tanai's life changed dramatically during 1949-50, when Operation Magic Carpet flew some 50,000 Jews from Yemen and Aden to the newly-independent Jewish state. She tracked down musicians, dancers and storytellers from the remotest villages, and they, in turn, taught her the distinctive footsteps, which she likened to "sinking in soft sand". Their pride and enthusiasm re-awoke her Yemenite roots.

"The timing of the troupe's creation was fortuitous: over time, Jewish immigration from Arab lands grew to form nearly half of Israel's population. Inbal's flamboyant costumes and onstage humour and pathos represented a confident oriental contribution to a nation still dominated by its invariably wealthier Ashkenazi founders.

"Levi-Tanai won the Israel Prize for arts and culture in 1973. Inbal gained a permanent theatre and its dancers co-operated with other groups, including local Arabs, Druze and Circassians. Gradually, however, as other Israeli dance troupes emerged, what had seemed avant garde about Inbal came to seem passé.

"Ora Brafman, who in 1995 released Bare Feet, a documentary about Levi-Tanai, admitted that Inbal had been used as a political tool. The company, she wrote, was depicted as the rebirth of a 2,000-year-old nation, and "a symbol of the smooth integration of newcomers, the adjustment of eastern Jews to prevailing western cultural codes".

Read article in full

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Sami Michael: my first novel

Bounding into the literary pages of Haaretz, hard on the heels of Professor Sasson Somekh (item below), comes another talented Iraqi-born writer, Sami Michael. He too reminisces about his earliest work.

"The 1950s were the most tempestuous years of my life. In 1949 I tumbled from the status of a citizen with 2,500 years of seniority in Iraq to the status of an immigrant in a world that was strange to me in its language, customs and culture. During that same decade the sky fell on me when I found out that Communism was not a paradise but rather a tyranny that crushed human dignity.

"As an intellectual, for whom language is the most important tool in his life, my faith in myself was undermined. I spent half of that decade at a moshav and at a kibbutz where the people at that time saw themselves as the elite of Israeli society. I had to find my place among young people whom talented educators had intended as leaders of the country.

Read article in full

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Sassoon Somekh, romantic poet of Baghdad

In this Haaretz piece, Baghdad-born Sasson Somekh, today one of Israel's leading professors of Arabic literature, has trouble recognising the fiery, romantic poet he was in his youth (with thanks:Lily).

Some time back in 1949, in my native city of Baghdad, I started writing poems in Arabic. A few of them were published in the literary supplements of Baghdadi newspapers. The times were out of joint. The war was raging in the land of Israel and the atmosphere in the streets of Baghdad was bitter.

And it was no simple matter for a Jewish boy of 16, the owner of a decidedly Jewish name, a student at a Jewish high school, to publish poems under his real name, no matter how naive and sentimental the poems. Therefore, in most cases I would sign with a pseudonym. One of these names was Qabes ("Spark"), which because of a chance typographical error became Qaes, the name of an early Arab poet who went insane out of his great love for Leila.

Some of my friends, my age or older, warned me not to continue publishing in those days, the days of a storm of nationalism wherever you went. However, an inner urge that is hard to explain impelled me to continue.

(...)In March of 1951 my turn came around to board the plane that would take me to Israel, after having, along with most of the members of the communities in Iraq, relinquished my Iraqi citizenship. Before the fateful flight, I collected all the newspapers in which I had published my writings (poems, reviews and translations of English poetry and prose). I cut out all my pieces (there weren't any photocopiers then, or at any rate they weren't accessible) and placed them in a large envelope.

I put the envelope together with a wide variety of personal possessions my family sent to Israel via Persia. However, the man who took it upon himself to carry out the transfer, that is to say - the smuggling - was apparently too well educated for the purpose. When he opened our suitcase and found my envelope, he thought, I assume, that for our own good it would be better to get rid of it lest the suitcase were apprehended and the printed material caused complications. And thus all the fruit of my literary youth were lost forever.

When the suitcase arrived in Israel a few weeks later, I discovered to my astonishment that all of the "intellectual property" had vanished into thin air. I did remember by heart a few lines of some of my poems, but because of the magnitude of my astonishment I forgot to write them down ...

Read article in full

Sunday, October 16, 2005

HARIF Jews from Arab Countries Week, 14th - 20th November 2005

Don't miss the first ever Jews from Arab Countries Week, which runs from 14th to 20th November 2005. A new UK association representing Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, HARIF, is organising events at various London venues to promote the history, culture and heritage of the Mizrahim.
As well as oriental music and food, there will be a rare opportunity to hear the Egyptian-born historian Bat Ye'or speak on Jewish-Muslim relations. The Iraqi-born Israeli novelist Eli Amir will also be giving a lecture. The premiere of the David Project film,"The Forgotten Refugees" will be followed by a discussion with a distinguished panel. The little-known story of the deportation of North African Jews to Nazi death camps will also be told.
Advance booking is essential for all events. For full details visit the HARIF website.

The Jewishness of Cairo

In this long and whimsical Haaretz feature, Benny Ziffer sees Jewishness everywhere in Cairo, real or imaginary:

"I glanced at my watch. In about four hours, I was due to meet several Cairene friends, whom I'd promised to take on a tour of the Ibn Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo. Time after time I'd evaded such a trip, with the excuse that the nostalgia for the Jews who left Cairo wouldn't be genuine and that it was impossible anyway to turn back history, and even if it were possible, it wouldn't turn out to be worth the effort. Nevertheless, in order to prepare for the guided tour, I bought a recently published book on the subject, by historian Joel Beinin: "The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry: Culture, Politics and the Formation of a Modern Diaspora." The lengthy bibliography includes such names as Israeli writer Ronit Matalon, the Jewish communist Henri Curiel who was murdered in mysterious circumstances, and the essayist Jacqueline Kahanoff (author of "Childhood in Egypt, (who was a tremendous inspiration for an entire generation of Sephardi intellectuals, who through her, discovered their roots in the east, which were really European roots (Kahanoff wrote in English and was much more of a journalist than the leader of a return-to-roots movement. I read her articles in the journal Keshet in the 1970s when I was at an age when I wasn't able to fully understand them. The title of one of them,"We, the Levantines," affected me, though I no longer have any recollection of what the article was about). It's too bad that Jacqueline Kahanoff was totally co-opted by Ronit Matalon and others. Because as soon as I saw that she'd become the bon ton, I completely washed my hands of her. Yes, I admit it: This is the typical reaction of a snob who is incapable of enjoying anything that lots of other people are enjoying.

"I've been to Fustat, the ancient quarter of Cairo where the Ibn Ezra Synagogue is located, countless times. I recently went there with my wife and together we watched a group of Poles pouncing on the souvenir stand at the entrance to the synagogue. A few bought postcards of the colorful Shiviti calendar, attracted by the quaint-looking Hebrew characters. One family lingered there longer than the others and I told myself that they must be Jews, or have Jewish ancestors and are rediscovering their roots. In the synagogue's rear courtyard, we saw three Dutch youths studiously poring over their guidebook. Given the looks on their faces, I speculated that they were the progeny of anti-Semites who imagined that by being here they were somehow getting back at their parents.

"The postcard vendor was a cheerful young woman. When she saw us and apparently recognized us she pulled out a little piece of paper with a phone number on it: of her aunt in Rishon Letzion with whom she had lost contact. She asked my wife to call her for her upon her return to Israel because every time she tried to call herself, people answered in Hebrew and she didn't understand what they were saying to her. Her name is Aisha and she is part-Jewish, on her mother's side. The aunt had managed to arrange for her sister to marry a Jewish man in New Jersey, so she alone of the whole family was left here and was able to earn a living thanks to the kindness of the community president Carmen Weinstein, who gave her this job.

"The other person who works at the site is an inspector from the Egyptian Antiquities Authority, Abdel Hamid, who studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He opened his briefcase and pulled out computer printouts of the op-eds printed in Haaretz that Friday and asked for my help with some words he didn't get in Doron Rosenblum's piece. It was an article denouncing opponents of the disengagement. Abdel Hamid opened up the room containing the synagogue's library, which is situated in a separate building in the yard. The library contains primarily holy books that were collected from Jewish institutions and Jewish homes that were abandoned, and it is one of three Hebrew libraries in the city. In an unusual move, the guards had opened the door leading to the mikveh in the cellar of the synagogue and the well from which the mikveh waters come. Some of the guards at the synagogue have a profitable little sideline from this well, in which, according to some vague tradition, the basket that carried baby Moses is said to be preserved. From the corner of my eye, I saw two innocent victims fair-haired tourists being led to the back yard. There they would gaze into the gloom of the well and nod their heads, and the guard would demand a special tip for this revelation.

"I waited for my friends, who were late in arriving, by the entrance to this ancient part of the city. The streets around Old Cairo are blocked and protected by military men, some of whom stand behind steel defenses with weapons cocked. The row of stores within the compound has been a tourist trap since time immemorial. The peddlers have all learned the special phrases a tourist likes to hear, such as, "Come have a look, very cheap price." One shopkeeper who has evidently guessed where I'm from pulls out of his desk drawer a Jewish prayer book, or siddur, in French translation, whose first page is decorated with a beautiful lithograph. He found the book amid the recently sold contents of a Jewish home on Al-Jaysh Street. Along with the siddur, he found a bunch of old family photos in an envelope. The photos were taken in France or somewhere else in Europe. Apparently, the son of the people who lived in the house whose contents were sold had emigrated to Europe and sent from there a photograph of himself sitting in front of a shop, and a photograph of his wife and children. And there was another family photograph, evidently taken during a visit by the grandmother from Cairo to her son who had done well for himself in Europe. The hunched and wizened grandmother is in the middle, and the group is posed in front of a neatly tended garden. I turned over the photographs to see if I could find any trace of written information, but there was none. Mutely, the pictures told me the story of the disappearance of a Jewish family from Cairo. But what point is there in trying to turn back history, I asked myself again.

"Here is the proof that the Jewishness of Cairo is everywhere and not confined to any specific site. To me, for example, a totally Jewish place is the Sa'ad Zaghlul underground metro station and Al-Falaki Street that passes above it, because on Al-Falaki Street is the library of the French Cultural Center, an institution that in my mind is as Jewish as they come, even if not a single Jew still uses its services. After all, the deep and sometimes tragic bond that Oriental Jews once had with French culture is well known. And sadder than that is the slow fading away of this love that Jews once had for everything that France represents, and its replacement by hostility. Lost in such dreary musings, after coming out of the metro station, I mistakenly walked in the wrong direction and instead of getting closer to the French Cultural Center I moved farther away from it, and when I realized my mistake, I had to retrace my steps. I was holding out a sliver of hope of finding a book there that I had been searching for for quite some time: a novel entitled "Les Couleurs de l'Infamie" ("The Colors of Infamy") by Albert Cossery, a French-Jewish writer from Cairo, who writes novels about Cairo (and excellent ones at that, apparently), though he lives in total anonymity in France. I wouldn't have known anything about him either had I not taken the bus to Be'er Sheva one winter and sat next to someone who was reading a book of his that he warmly recommended. So I thought that this might be my chance to take a peek at it, if it was really on the shelf there."

Read article in full

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Mizrahi art everywhere

This long piece in Haaretz reveals that a new joint Arab-Jewish art project, produced by the fringe anti-Zionist Sephardi Democratic Rainbow and a Palestinian group, is holding exhibitions up and down the country on the theme Mizrahiyut Ve' Araviyut (Middle Eastern-ness and Arab-ness).

What do these two groups of artists have in common? Not much, at first sight. Ah, of course. A shared sense of victimhood - at the hands of the Ashkenazi establishment in Israel.

Yes, but aren't the Mizrahi Jews known for not being overly fond of their Arab brethren? " This perception is created by the media, which zeroes in on the lone, Mizrahi protester who shouts 'death to the Arabs'", says Shula Keshet, an artist and social activist.

Keshet peppers her conversation with expressions such as ' silencing' and 'cultural suppression'.
The two groups (Arabs and Mizrahi Jews)" suffer from racism against them. We live in a racist state, primarily towards non-Jews and then towards ethnic minorities," says Shula.

In recent years, as the article itself acknowledges, "'there have been quite a few exhibitions that focused on the matter of 'Middle Eastern- ness'". For people who claim they're being silenced and 'culturally suppressed' that is not bad going. In fact it sounds like 'Middle Eastern-ness' is all the rage.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Pining for La Goulette

Writing in the Autumn 2005 issue of the Jewish Quarterly Lyn Julius explores what effect the loss of Jewish life in Tunisia has had on Tunisian Arabs:
The year is 1966. The setting is the seaside town of La Goulette, seven miles from Tunis. Among the whitewashed houses and beneath the hanging washing lines, the atmosphere is sensual and carefree. People linger in the cafes and bars, sprawl on the beach, go to the cinema, eat, drink, sing, dance, drop in on each other – in short, do what people do when they are on holiday.
The Tunisian Muslim film director Férid Boughedir chose the Tunisian resort as the backdrop for a film he made in 1996, Un été à la Goulette. It was a nostalgic look back at his own childhood when Muslims, Jews and Sicilian Catholics – the family of the Tunis-born Italian actress Claudia Cardinale, who appears in the film, had been settled in La Goulette for several generations -- did everything together short of the ultimate taboo, intermarrying. The characters are in and out of each others’ houses and are invited to each others’ weddings, while the families from different communities try to keep track of their provocatively wayward teenage daughters.
Lurking in the shadows is the villain of the piece, Hadj Beji, the ageing Muslim fundamentalist, who fancies the Muslim teenage girl Meriem. The bigoted Beji sounds the only note of bitterness and discord in this otherwise lighthearted film. On one occasion he refuses to eat ‘Jewish’ food. This repressed individual faints at the sight of female flesh. When Meriem refuses to accept his hand in marriage, he tries to blackmail her family.
The film opens with Boughedir’s prescient words on screen:
“How can I, an Arab and a Muslim living in a Muslim land, speak as fairly as possible of the friendship and tolerance between Jews and Arabs and Muslims and Catholics in Tunisia at a time when people in the world kill one another in the name of religion and when everywhere fundamentalism would impose a single way of thinking? How can I describe the daily sensuality of my society which always managed to value life above dogma? By telling of the simple things in life I knew at La Goulette.”
Un été à la Goulette is a metaphor for what Tunisia, which this year celebrates fifty years since independence, once might have been. Port cities around the Mediterranean were traditionally cosmopolitan and La Goulette was no exception. After 1967, any semblance of multicultural and pluralistic Tunisia had vanished for ever. The summer of 1966 turns out to be the last before the departure of the remaining Catholics, then the Jews. Riots broke out in the wake of the Israeli Six-Day War victory. Jewish property and cars were wrecked, the Great Synagogue in Tunis was set on fire, Torah scrolls defiled and burnt. The Jews panicked, abandoned their homes and businesses and piled into boats bound for Marseille.
Boughedir was not the only Tunisian to have been left distraught by the sight of departing Jewish friends. Posting an essay on an internet website for North Africans ( entitled Ya Hasra La Goulette (which translates roughly as ‘Pining for La Goulette’), a Muslim, Mustapha Chelbi, reminisces:
“I would spend hours with any of these grandmothers who would swaddle me in their gentle affection. I don’t know why fate chose me to be the Jewish families’ pet at La Goulette.
“My happiness would one day come to an end. It went as suddenly as it came. Without leaving a trace other than a great wound that seems to deepen in my heart. (….)
“The roads of La Goulette have emptied; only the cats roam them, upsetting the dustbins in search of fish. My soul in pain, I stopped in front of the houses of vanished friends: Cardoso, Taïeb, Calvo, Ben Soussan, Hayoun, Bellaïche, Perez, Tartour, Zagdoun, Nataf, Sitbon, Catan, Bessis, Sarfati, Seroussi…My God, so many people gone. By leaving for France, the Jews have shut the gates on La Goulette. My village has for me become a forbidden city. To live there became unbearable. To leave it became unbearable. I felt a little like the last Jew and the last symbol of the Judeo-Arab alliance…I, Mustapha the Muslim, by a curious twist of fate, became the repository of Tunisia’s Jewish memory. ”
One might cynically assume that any paeans of praise to the Jews of Tunisia are made with one eye on the tourist industry which sustains the country. Last year, six million tourists came to Tunisia. Thousands of Jews make the pilgrimage every year to the Al-Ghriba synagogue, one of the oldest in the diaspora, on the island of Djerba for the moving Lag Ba’ Omer procession. Tourist numbers have recovered since Al-Qaeda killed 19, most of them German tourists, in an attack on Al-Ghriba synagogue in 2002. For this year’s celebrations 1,000 Israelis, mostly of Tunisian origin, were among the foreign pilgrims. Hosting a dinner for foreign dignitaries, the media and Tunisian Jews, the Tunisian minister of culture Abdelbakir Kermassi dutifully praised the artistic collaboration between Muslims and Jews in cinema, art and literature.
However, the film director Ferid Boughedir’s message (in La communauté juive
dans le cin
éma Tunisien (posted at is more than a matter of public relations. He is genuinely fascinated by the Jews and their place in Tunisian cinema and feels personally affected by their loss. His is a message of truncated memory, roots and identity. He writes not just of a physical but a cultural void:
“Exile, separation, nostalgia are understandably still-open wounds for many Jews who left Tunisia twenty or thirty years ago and who are today half-French. But they are not the only ones to have been affected. Many Tunisian Muslims, among them intellectuals and men of culture, feel orphaned since our separation.”
It was at the Lycée Carnot in Tunis that Férid Boughedir rubbed shoulders with the children of other communities. The Lycée Carnot produced the cream of Tunisian intellectual society. (As part of its centenary celebrations this year, a symposium was held in Paris for Carnot alumni on relations between Tunisian Muslims and Jews.)
Boughedir traces the start of Muslim ‘orphanhood’ back to the Sixties when Arab nationalism excluded minorities from national life. The Tunisian author Hele Beji (Histoire des juifs de Tunisie, des origines à nos jours, Editions l’Harmattan, Paris, 1991) had a name for this: ‘nationalitarianism’.
The seeds were sown in 1956 when Tunisia acquired its independence. Even though its first President, Habib Bourguiba, was a secular leader and ‘a friend of the Jews’, the first article of the Tunisian constitution stipulated that the religion of the Tunisian Republic was Islam. That meant that 75,000 Jews with Tunisian passports - two-thirds of the community - started to feel unwelcome.
Bourguiba appointed two Jewish ministers, Albert Bessis and André Barouch, but the marginalisation of the Jews had already begun. The representative body of Tunisian Jewry, the Jewish Community Council – the equivalent of the Board of Deputies in Britain - was outlawed as ‘ a state within a state’. The Jewish quarter of Tunis was levelled for ‘public health reasons’ and the Jewish cemetery in central Tunis turned into a park before all the graves could be exhumed. According to Victor Cohen’s Mémoires d’un déraciné ( seven-branched candlelabras unearthed by archaeologists at Carthage and testifying to a millenarian Jewish presence were ‘camouflaged’.
The Jewish community of independent Tunisia also found itself in an economic stranglehold. As Victor Cohen explains, exchange controls and red tape seemed designed only to penalise the ethnic minorities. Jews started to leave in large numbers – some 50,000 fled to Israel -- until only about 20,000 remained prior to the final exodus of 1967. Today, there are just 2,000 Jews still living in Tunisia, 1,000 of them on the island of Djerba.
Looking back, the years between 1881 and 1956 were by and large a golden age for the Jews. After 1881, when Tunisia became a French protectorate, the Jews of this 2,000-year old pre-Arab community ceased to be ‘second-class’ dhimmis and were granted equal rights with the Muslims. A new middle class, equipped with a western education gained at the newly-established Alliance Israelite schools, burst forth from the ghetto. It began to flourish both economically and culturally. Though they only numbered 120,000, or two percent of the population, the Jews contributed scientists, philosophers and artists out of proportion to their numbers.
The film director Férid Boughedir’s personal hero is the Jewish pioneer of Tunisian cinema. No one was more influential than Albert Samama, nicknamed ‘Chikly’ after a small island on the lake of Tunis where he used to hold parties. Chikly became the first Tunisian film-maker, with 11 films to his name. Boughedir is anxious to trace them all.
It was not uncommon for Jewish families, who had a virtual monopoly of trade in the North Africa and the Middle East, to be the first to be exposed to newfangled novelties and technological inventions from Europe. Thus, before he pioneered the Tunisian film industry, Chikly - a man of insatiable curiosity - introduced the bicycle, the wireless telegraph and the first X-ray machine to be installed in a Tunisian hospital. A keen photographer, he was instantly attracted to moving pictures, which the Lumière brothers had invented in 1895. Two years later, Chikly was running film shows in a Tunis shop with a photographer named Soler, and soon after he was making films himself.
Not content to film at ground level, Chikly filmed the region between Hammam-If and Grombalia from a hot-air balloon in 1908. He was among the first to film underwater sequences. He captured on film the Messina earthquake, a tuna-fishing expedition for the Prince of Monaco and the trenches at Verdun during the First World War.
Chikly’s first short feature was made in 1922. Zohra is the story of a young French woman who parachutes from an airplane and is taken in by a Bedouin tribe. Tribal customs are shown in minute detail. Chikly assigned the main character to his daughter Haydée, who still lives in Tunisia, and to whom Boughedir gave a cameo role in Un été à la Goulette.
A leading Hollywood producer, Rex Ingram, who wrote the script for Ben Hur, wanted Haydée Chikly to play in one of his films. But rather than let his daughter go to Hollywood, Chikly brought Hollywood to his daughter. He made Ain el Ghazal (Daughter of Carthage) in 1924, the first full-length feature film ever made in Tunisia.
Samama Chikly’s tombstone bears the epitaph: ‘tireless in curiosity, reckless in courage, daring in enterprise, obstinate amidst trials, resigned to misfortune, he leaves his friends.”
With the exception of André Bessis, a leading documentary film-maker at the time of independence, the Jewish contribution to Tunisian cinema then faded out of the picture.
After 30 years of near-invisibility, the image of the Jew was suddenly catapulted back into the limelight in 1986 - in the shape of the old Jewish carpenter Levy in Nouri Bouzid’s film Homme de cendres (Man of Ashes).
This film, Férid Boughedir believes, turned out to be a watershed. Man of Ashes deals with a number of taboos in Tunisian society. A young man who was sexually abused as a child turns to the Jewish master carpenter who taught him his trade for advice on the eve of his marriage. At the Cannes film festival, critics, especially from the Middle East, disliked the sympathetic portrayal of master carpenter Levy and, in the heavily politicised atmosphere of the time, alleged that the film was ‘Zionist’. At the Carthage film festival, where the film was due to be shown at the Coliseum Cinema, young people gave out flyers urging a boycott. During a debate, the director Nouri Bouzid replied to calls for a ban: ‘You want to wipe away part of my memory!’
An Egyptian actress and star of a competing film, Ferdaous Abdelhamid, desperate to win the prize for Best Actress, demanded that Man of Ashes be banned, calling it pro- Israel and anti-Arab. The jury nonetheless decided to award it the ‘Tanit d’Or’. Beside herself, the actress jumped up on stage and declared: “the festival jury have not wanted to award me this prize, but the real jury will be Tunisian audiences who adore Egyptian soap operas!”
When the film went on general release, Man of Ashes broke all box office records, beating even Rocky and Rambo.
A haven for Yasser Arafat and the PLO after the Lebanon war, Tunisia was then aligned with those countries most hostile to Israel. But Tunisian Jews continued to make visits and maintain links with their homeland – unlike, say, the Jews of Arab countries such as Iraq, who overnight were brutally severed from their cultural roots with no chance of recovery. Serge Moati returned from France after many years’ absence to make Les Jasmins de la Veranda (1996), a film about his Tunisian childhood and lost roots. In 1993 Ariel Zeitoun made Le Nombril du Monde (The Navel of the world) a tale based on his father’s life about an upwardly mobile Tunisian Jew, played by the Tunisian-Jewish actor Michel Boujenah.
In the 1990s Muslim directors also dealt with Jewish subjects. A documentary on the Al-Ghriba pilgrimage was made by Mounir Baaziz, Albert Samama Chikly was made by Mahmoud ben Mahmoud, and Selma Baccar made a film about Habiba M’sika, the great Jewish singer.
“You want to wipe away part of my memory!” the director Nouri Bouzid had exclaimed. For these Tunisian film-makers, the need to reconnect with the Jews appears a recurrent theme.
Férid Boughedir himself seems to feel a personal responsibility not to allow the Jews be airbrushed out of Tunisian history, as they have been airbrushed out of the history of the Arab world in general. “We must sew back on these disconnected patches of memory, “ he declares.
He is convinced that film is a force for good in strengthening dialogue between the communities. Boughedir is proud of what Tunisians of all religions and none have achieved.
“It is only by talking of the things that tore both communities apart that we will be able to transcend them…. It is comforting to know that contact has been renewed with that dimension of ourselves before another generation of Tunisian Jews is born abroad who know nothing about Tunisia. We are living through important times: we are rewriting part of our history, the true history of Tunisia. One-party states too often distort their history by leaving bits out, not just those which pertain to the Jewish community, but events they are ashamed of. ”
In the nine years since Férid Boudghedir made Un été à La Goulette, Tunisia has been working hard to keep the lid on Islamic fundamentalism and to present an enlightened, secular, modernising face to the outside world. With the end of the intifada it has even been marketing itself to Israeli holidaymakers as an attractive sun-and-sea hotspot. No longer will Israelis in search of Mediterranean fun and relaxation need to surrender their passports on arrival. Although still a far cry from the pluralist paradise depicted in Boughedir’s film, perhaps it will not be long before the Jews are back in the cafés and on the beaches of La Goulette.
Férid Boughedir will attend a London showing of Un été à la Goulette, which will be presented with two other films (Turn left at the End of the World and The House on Chelouch St) at the French Institute in early 2006.
Jews from Arab Countries Week, organized by HARIF, a new association representing Jews from Arab countries in the UK, will take place in London from 13 to 20 November. For further details visit

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Moroccan exhibition opens in Holland

According to a report from the European Jewish Press published in Yediot Aharonot, an exhibition designed to educate Moroccans in Holland about the Jews of the country and lessen intercommunal tensions has opened in Amsterdam. (Flagged on 'Point of no return', this exhibition of artefacts, costumes and jewellery, mostly from psychiatrist Paul Dahan's private collection, was first put on in Belgium in May and created much interest in the Moroccan press.)

"For many centuries Jews and Muslims in Morocco have coexisted in harmony, and the two cultures show many similarities. Both worlds come together in the exhibition which is expressed in its title Lihoed: “Jews” in Moroccan Arabic. (We Anglos would say Al-yahud - Ed)

"The shared history is detailed through exhibits featuring like implements, clothing, films and photos. A special room is devoted to traditional Judaeo-Moroccan music as an efficient social binder and a common interest.

(...) "Especially with today’s tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims this exhibition is of utmost importance," Janrense Boonstra, director of the Biblical Museum said. "I expect a lot of Moroccan visitors to come and I think the exhibition will be a surprise for them."

"The vast majority of Dutch Moroccans are Muslims and have a Berber-background. What the Dutch Muslims usually don’t know is that Jews and Berbers were living peacefully together in Morocco. There was even an important mutual cultural exchange for centuries before the arrival of Arabic culture and with the Arab conquest during the 8th century.

"For many centuries the Jewish community formed the most important minority in Morocco," Boonstra said."

Read article in full

Friday, October 07, 2005

The big refugee lie revisited

Re-issued as one document entitled Big Lies: Demolishing the myths of the propaganda war against Israel, David Meir-Levi's series of well-researched and lucid articles in Front Page magazine.

His words bear repeating again. One of the principal myths is, of course, the myth of the Arab refugee problem. When it comes to a solution, Meir-Levi points out that nobody has suggested the obvious: that Arab refugees should be resettled on lands in Arab countries once owned by Jews.

"One reason no one has suggested this is that no Arab state with the exception of Jordan will even allow Palestinians to be citizens. Another point: Taking into account the assets of the Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim lands, one can conclude that the Jews have already paid massive “reparations” to the Arabs whether warranted or not.

The property and belongings of the Jewish refugees, confiscated by the Arab governments, has been conservatively estimated at about $2.5 billion in 1948 dollars. Invest that money at a modest 6.5% over 57 years and you have today a sum of $80 billion, which the Arab and Muslim governments of the lands from which the Jews were expelled could apply to the benefit of the Arab refugees. That sum is quite sufficient for reparations to Arab refugees. There is no way of accurately assessing the value of Arab property left in Israel’s control; but there are no estimates as high as a 1948 value of $2,500,000,000. So, hypothetically, the Arab side would be getting the better of such a deal."

Read the whole thing!

Here's what the unmatchable Melanie Phillips has to say on this topic:

"What Meir-Levi brings forward is the evidence – none of it new, but all of it overlooked or denied in today’s climate of profound ignorance and malice – that the Arab refugee problem was caused by the Arabs and that the flight of Arabs from Palestine was largely the result of being told to flee by the Arabs, who at around the same time forced out, often at gunpoint, some 800,000 Jews from Arab lands who had been living there peacefully for hundreds of years but were ethnically cleansed from countries which even today practice racist restrictions against any Jewish entry, a fact which goes unremarked by a majority opinion which portrays instead the Jews of Israel, the victims not the perpetrators of aggression – and who include those refugees from Arab lands and their descendants – as racist aggressors.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

My return to Morocco

Since leaving his native Morocco in 1972, Hanania Alain Amar had been resisting the idea of returning. But return he finally did - in 1987.

" It took me a very long time to forget or put behind me those years spent in the Maghreb's Lucky Empire. These years were known locally as the Leaden Years, years of fear if not terror. The police were everywhere, feared and fearsome. Fear stalked public places, cafes and restaurants. Antisemitism merrily confused with anti-Zionism suffused the newspaper columns, and in particular the Istiqlal (ultranationalist) daily L'Opinion, TV and radio - all despite calls for calm coming from the Royal Palace, preceding King Hassan's attempts at mediation in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

"What on earth did it have to do with us? Why did we have to put up with the pernicious and sinister effects of what was happening in the Middle East? Did being Jewish make us Israelis or Zionists? Without a doubt this deplorable and regrettable confusion carefully nurtured by people of all types and of all views was primarily responsible for the decline of the largest and most ancient Jewish community in this part of the world. (My emphasis -Ed)

"I therefore left without ever intending to come back. Our friends the P****s insisted that we join them for a holiday in Morocco....I knew that the clash of memory with reality was going to be hard.

(...)"Arriving at the airport in Tangier was a rough experience for me in spite of my French passport. The immigration officer was being overzealous and inquisitorial. Noting that my place of birth was Rabat he felt entitled to interrogate me: 'where are you from originally'?
" I'm French, born in Morocco, in Rabat."
"Where are you from originally?"
"I'm French, born in Morocco, in Rabat," I replied in a monotone.
He must have asked me a dozen times until one of his superiors ordered him to stop playing games.

"Later I learned that the immigration officers were looking for Muslims who had broken the law by marrying Christians. But I was not at all convinced by this explanation, recalling instead the fierce judeophobic campaigns going on in Morocco when I left.(..)

"At Moulay Idris, redoubt of a harsh and extremist Islam, I was struck by the cloying attitude of the street urchins. They claimed a few dirhams and pens from us even as they smiled angelically and 'flogged' us insults such as, 'Get stuffed, a curse on your mother's religion' and other 'kindnesses' which I understood with ease. It's strange how one can have no trouble understanding insults in a good many foreign languages. I had not learned Arabic but had internalised the cadences and a few words of my native country's everyday tongue.

"A few days later these 'charming' words would be employed once again by a baboush seller from the souk in Fez. I was asking him the price of a pair of traditional baboush slippers and in keeping with local custom, made him an offer. The seller, who did not know I understood his language a little, looked at me coldly and mumbled:"I would be a Jew to accept your offer." I then seized the baboush and hurled them across the shop, telling him to keep them for himself. Fez has always been a harsh city, seen by travellers and tourists as the imperial city of most interest to the visitor. It certainly does have a long history but the bumptiousness and arrogance of its inhabitants make it insufferable. I really do not like Fez, I've never liked this closed city contemptuous of others just because it had a glorious past."

Read this Los Muestros article in full (French)

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Secrets of Syrian Kibbeh

"Feminism was not among the considerations in the invention of kibbeh," Doram Gaunt writes in Ha'aretz. "The profile of women bending for hours and days at a time over large tubs, stuffing with agile motions a meat mixture into balls of moist wheat bulgar, is not a portent of women's liberation.

"Grandma Batya, who imported the delicacy from Damascus to Tel Aviv, and then to Givatayim, was not bothered by such questions. The axiom, which was as clear to her as sunrise in the morning, was that the crispy, brown, fried oval balls that conceal a wonderful filling of succulent meat and pine nuts can only be prepared by women. And not just any women, but only women from the Eastern ethnic groups. When her son married Rachel, an Ashkenazi woman of Hungarian origins, she taught her how to cook Syrian food so that her son would not die of hunger. But making kibbeh? It's simply impossible, despite all the good will."

Read article in full

Readers react to 'Sephardim and the post-Zionist question'

In the letters pages of the Autumn issue of the Middle East Quarterly comes reaction to Meirav Wurmser's piece, Sephardim and the post-Zionist question.

In this important article, Wurmser acknowledges that Israel's Mizrahim, who form half the country's Jewish population, have suffered real prejudice and discrimination at the hands of Israel's Ashkenazi elite. A tiny handful of anti- or post-Zionist academics have blamed Zionism for the Mizrahi plight, underrating or belittling Mizrahim achievement in Israel, idealising life for Jews in the Arab world and ignoring the part Islamic fundamentalism and Arab nationalism have played in precipitating the mass exodus of 'Arab' Jews. But these views have very little support among Mizrahim themselves, who overwhelmingly vote to the right and do not identify with Israel's enemies. Morover, post-Zionism, which entails the abolition of the Jewish state, Wurmser argues, is the wrong medicine for the disease.

Read letters in full