Two Tunisian Jewish Novelists:
Claude Kayat and Marco Koskas
Interviewed by Judith Roumani
1.) As a Jewish writer of Tunisian origin, who left some time ago and, by now, having lived longer abroad than in Tunisia, do you feel that you are more Tunisian or more French , or Swedish? Or perhaps still pulled apart by these different identities?
Claude Kayat1: Depending on the circumstances, I feel that I belong by turns to each of these identities. Among others! Identity is not always and solely a national identity! Having said that, my greatest passion, ever since my childhood, remains the French language.
Marco Koskas2: It’s strange, but I never ask myself this question, and I think I know why. In each country (Tunisia and France) there is a culture and a history that are mine. But only partly so. I don’t recognize myself in Arab nationalism, but I do recognize myself in Bourguiba, for example, in the man’s French-Arab duality. How, you may well ask, could one not recognize oneself in an ideology but recognize oneself in its flag-bearer? Well, that is the equation of Tunisian Jewish identity. Feelings and emotions relegate reason to an uncomfortable corner, but so be it. In the same way, I love listening to the “Marseillaise” but I detest French jingoism. It’s he same thing with Israel. I am attached to the country viscerally, I am entranced by its enlightenment and its production of myths, but I find unbearable everything in the Israeli mentality that reminds me of anti-Semitic stereotypes. Particularly cupidity.
2.) What is Sephardic identity for you? And Sephardism?
Claude Kayat: In my own case, I would speak of Jewish-Tunisian identity rather than Sephardic identity, which in my view is much too broad a concept. Though they are also Sephardim, the Moroccan Jews, or Turkish Jews, or even the Jews of Djerba, have customs which seem to me as strange as those of the Ashkenazim. Jewish Tunisian Identity is what I experience when I am in the company of other Tunisian Jews and I find shared cultural references. Or when I enjoy a good dish from back home! Or—something even rarer—if it happens that I find myself in a synagogue where the Tunisian Jewish religious tradition is being followed. I must admit that I do not know what Sephardism could be.
Marco Koskas: For me, Sephardism is just a word. It refers to Jews like me, who originate from the Mediterranean. But does that mean, then, that Israelis are Sephardic?
3.) How would you explain that Tunisia has giving rise to a large number of Jewish novelists and writers?
Claude Kayat: I don’t know whether Tunisians Jews have a particular inclination toward literature (that is not the impression I had when I was living in Tunisia! Among all the Jews and non-Jews in my class, I was the only student who would devour novels all day long). But I do know that studying always had a place of honor for our families. Having said that, I can understand that when one belongs to a culture that is threatened with disappearance, one desires to preserve at least some written trace of it at any price.
Marco Koskas: I didn’t really have a personal idea about this question, but the answer was suggested by a Polish University researcher who has taken an interest in my work. Her theory is that if there has been a proliferation of novels from Tunisian Jews, it’s in order to make up for an absence of history. It is true that by now the historians have drawn up the balance sheet on the ethnic cleansing of which the Jews of North Africa have been the victims. The Ashkenazim have the Shoah, and it is recognized by almost all nations as the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century. The Jews of North Africa have not been accorded any recognition as a sacrificed population group or as a culture that has been sacrificed. Literary production thus compensates for this lack.
4.) Leaving one’s country of birth is always difficult, even traumatic. Has your departure played an important role in your thinking? Do your novels reflect this possible trauma, and if so how?
Claude Kayat: The trauma I suffered stemmed from two factors: my age—emigration to Israel at the age of sixteen, thus, interrupted studies and the necessity, in order to live, to perform menial jobs—and my visceral attachment to the French language which I suddenly no longer heard around me. In my free moments, I wrote like a maniac so I would not forget it. That effort led, much later on, to my first novel, Mohammed Cohen.
Marco Koskas: Yes, of course, that is the cornerstone of all the books I have written, including those whose subject has nothing to do with the exile of the Tunisian Jews.
5.) On the other hand, you might have experienced your departure as a liberation: did the chance to live in a country where there is no dhimmitude change a lot of things for you? What do you say about recent European anti-Semitism?
Claude Kayat: There was no dhimmitude in Tunisia during the 1950s because the country was a French protectorate. The French presence contributed greatly to the emancipation of Tunisian Jews.
The recent European anti-Semitism seems all the more repulsive to me because it hides under the label of ‘anti-Zionism’ as if the fact of denying the Jews their right to a countrywere not the worst kind of anti-Semitism. What makes it particularly shameful is that it is often the work of the extreme Left, which is traditionally atheist, suddenly allied with the worst of religious obscurantism. A revolting cocktail!
Marco Koskas: I didn’t experience dhimmitude because it ceased to exist with the arrival of the French in Tunisia. Having said that, I have just finished writing a book in which my mother is the central theme, and in this book I pose the hypothesis of liberation. That the exile to France was a liberation not from dhimmitude but from a tribal system which subjects one side or the other. I was also struck when I was young by seeing extended family relationships where brothers and sisters could live under social conditions that were radically different. Or even, sometimes, that a sister might be the domestic servant of her brother. Thus, for my mother, our arrival in France represented a rebirth, because in Tunisia she had been the one in the family who was always sacrificed, and the one least loved. Strangely, her brothers had reproached her for having had too many children, but in France the Family Allowances system rewarded her for that….Yes, the French Republic liberated us from a sort of tribal curse.
As for the new European anti-Semitism, it makes sense. The Shoah created a prohibition. After Auschwitz it became unthinkable in Europe, and even illegal, to be anti-Semitic. Thus Judeophobia has been corseted for sixty years now, and that is untenable in a Christian country. Israel and its military might have had the effect of liberating this phobia, since it was not exactly a question of anti-Semitism, but of Israelophobia. Now we are seeing how this anti-Semitism, under the guise of anti-Zionism, is proliferating and becoming a fact within the ideology of Europe, on the same level as human rights. And then we have to recognize that the large Muslim population in Europe nurtures another form of anti-Semitism, a more visceral one, since it is based on the difference in status that colonialism created between Jews and Muslims in North Africa. It liberated one group and subjugated the others, and this difference in treatment comes to the fore again in our time, since in France the Jews are generally in a far better social position than the Arabs. But what the young Arabs don’t understand or, at least, what is hidden from them, is that the Jews don't have any French blood on their hands. Thus when the issue of integration came up for the Jews, in the time of the Empire, there was no problem. Young Arabs, though, are held responsible for the crimes committed by the FLN [Algerian independence movement which committed in the 1950s and 60s terrorism in France], even if they had nothing to do with them. Having said that, Arabs will have such large electoral weight soon that we shall see the history of France being rewritten in terms of Arab sensibilities. Already, revisionist films like Indigènes want us to believe that that Arabs fought against the Nazis in the service of France. We know, though that the Arab nationalist leaders hoped for a victory by Germany, and that the Palestinians were supporters of the Wermacht. The most serious aspect is that we are heading toward an Arab-inspired revisionism, to set in parallel with the delegitimization of Israel.
6.) Does literature, for you, have a cathartic role or more of an aesthetic role? Does the writer express himself in the name of his group or solely for himself?
Claude Kayat: For me, without any doubt, the aesthetic dimension is far more important than the need for catharsis. Literature in my view (as for all the classic writers) should bring the reader pleasure rather than offer the writer an opportunity to let off steam and expose his malaise or the most unpleasant corners of his personality. I detest narcissism, especially when it is accompanied by perversity. Faithful to the precept of Boileau, I rewrite my novels twenty times, until I can't change anything else. It's true that, thanks to the computer, that is infinitely easier to do than in the seventeenth century. The writer expresses himself first and foremost for himself. It can happen, though, that others, through a process of identification, have the feeling that he is their spokesperson.
Marco Koskas: Definitely an aesthetic role, even if the autiobiographical source means that as a writer one is trying to address an existential question in literature; but it also definitely has an aesthetic role because, as one French writer who is so well known that I have forgotten his name once said, "one does not make fine literature out of fine feelings."
7.) What do you think about the Jasmine Revolution against the regime of Ben Ali in Tunisia and how do you see the future for Tunisia?
Claude Kayat: I hope the Tunisians will be intelligent enough to avoid having one dictatorship succeed another! And that they will be able to establish a democracy that will deserve the name and that, through it, brutal and fanatical forces will not take over power and never let it go. That would be the worst of scenarios. However, while watching vigilantly, I am remaining hopeful that the open-minded Tunisians will prevail.
Marco Koskas: This movement pleases me a lot. I have always had a horror of the convulsions of the Arab world, but now I sense something unexpected in that world: the desire to live simply, and a radical break with all the Arab-Muslim ideologies. I also think that the Tunisians will not allow one dictatorship to replace another, and stifle them again. That is not what they really want. My theory is that the Arabs, in general, are tired of being Arabs. It's not fun to be an Arab these days. What can one be proud of, when one is an Arab? Dictatorships? Terrorism? Corruption? These people want to be proud of what they do and of what they are. This Jasmine Revolution has already given them pride: bringing down a dictator like Ben Ali with the determination that they have put into it, that is really something to be proud of. And then I also think that, paradoxically, geography guarantees a democratic and secular future for this revolution, because the Algerian generals would never allow a base for their own Islamists to develop on their frontier. I am sure that the Algerians would stifle this threat with bloody war if there were ever a real danger of the bearded ones' taking over in Tunisia.
Thank you very much, Claude Kayat and Marco Koskas, for your responses!
1 Claude Kayat, born in Sfax, Tunisia, emigrated first to Israel at the age of 16 and then to Sweden, where he now lives. He is the author of seven novels, several of which have won literary prizes. The first, Mohammed Cohen (1981) and the latest, La Synagogue de Sfax (2006) describe the painful process of uprooting for the Jewish community. He has also composed plays, and is an artist.
2 Marco Koskas, born in Nabeul, left Tunisia for France at a young age. His first novel, Balace Bounel (1979) shows the gradual disintegration of the Nabeul Jewish community. It was awarded the Prix du Premier Roman and has been followed by twelve other books. He has also followed a career as a private detective, his most recent novel Aline, pour qu'elle revienne (2009) being a crime novel.