Silent Exodus and Forgotten Voices:
Sephardic Women Writers in PostColonial Discourse
By Nina B. Lichtenstein1
To write is to try to understand, to try to repeat the unrepeatable, to write is also to bless a life which has not been blessed. (Clarice Lispector)
Increased attention has been paid to the marginal and the silenced ‘other’ in postcolonial studies, and women writers have been able to finally claim their place in the politicized narrative of identity and memory. Yet, despite the many invaluable stories by women writers that have become the focus of seminars, papers and books, some voices still remain so marginalized that they seem forgotten. Jewish women, who were part of the now disappeared Jewish communities of the Maghreb, or North Africa, represent one of these forgotten minorities in postcolonial discourse. Their families have roots in the Maghreb going back centuries, in some cases millennia, but within a decade after World War II, the establishment of the State of Israel and the end of French colonial rule in the region, these thriving Jewish communities vanished, quietly and almost eerily.
This paper proposes to shed some light on that silent exodus and some of the problematics surrounding its aftermath for the Sephardim who suddenly found themselves thrust into the cultural and political realities of new countries, even though one, Israel, had been in their prayers since time immemorial, and another, France, held the promise of a bright future in a nation steeped in the values of libérté, égalité et fraternité. After a brief historic background, I introduce some of these Jewish women writers born in the Maghreb, now living and writing in France. How is their writing anchored in the Magbreb and in their experience of exile and loss of homeland? In what ways does their writing express their Sephardic identity and memory?
As noted by historian Michel Abitbol, the Jewish exodus from North Africa was hastened by such events as Tunisia’s accession to internal autonomy in 1954, Morocco’s proclamation of independence in 1955, the Suez campaign of 1956, the 1962 conflict between Tunisia and France over the military base at Bizerte, the March 1962 signing of the Evian agreements that put an end to the Algerian war, and the independence of Algeria in July of that same year.2 Add to that the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, with the subsequent Arab-Israeli war, a situation only magnified in gravity and intensity with the Sinai Campaign in 1956 and the Six Day War of 1967. All these historical/political events became catalysts for the Jewish exodus from Arab lands.
A term coined by filmmaker Pierre Rehov, the “silent exodus,” this mass-emigration is so called because much of it happened quietly and clandestinely due to restrictions on emigration and other complications, such as issues of citizenship. Although Jews from Arab lands and Iran have settled in communities as divergent at South America, North America, Canada, Australia, France and Israel, this paper highlights the challenges faced by those who arrived in France. The numbers of Jews that left the Maghreb in the years since 1948 are anything but insignificant: At the end of the colonial era, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco were the home to some 480,000 Jews, and today only 1-2% of these remain, mostly older people who have decided to stay behind.
With the arrival of Jewish North Africans in France, the Jewish population doubled from 235,000 to 500,000 between 1957 and 1970; today Jews from the Maghreb constitute the majority of Jews living in France and have been largely responsible for the re-Judaization and revitalization of French Jewry. A great deal of attention has been given to the various problematic issues relating to immigration in France, and the pied-noir, Arab and Beur [second generation Arab immigrant] communities have been greeted with much xenophobia and ambiguous political, social and cultural messages despite France’s official language of integration and tolerance. This situation was acutely sensed by the French Jewish community, in part because most Jews from North Africa were able to assimilate with more ease than the average Arab North African. Thus, a form of public cultural auto-silencing became a subconscious tool for the new Sephardic immigrants to limit the possibility of becoming targets of French racial intolerance.
We know, historically, in which societies the Jews from North Africa created new homes and lives, but what happened to the narratives of this experience? Jewish historian Shmuel Trigano speaks of both “the power of repression” and the “the blockage of Sephardic memory, of its breakdown.”3 Similarly, Ruth Tolédano Attias recognizes a paradoxical attitude among Sephardic Jews: their awareness of being the “carriers” of a history, of a culture and of a civilization, on the one hand, and their profound silencing of memory on the other. Attias also sees that the absence of written history can in part be explained by the fact that Sephardic Jews lived in countries where oral transmission of (hi)stories was practiced and widespread, as well as a certain “repugnance,” among religious Jews, at seeing their lives, perceived as holy and spiritual, secularized in a written text (other than Holy Texts)..4 Although this could help explain the silence of those who immigrated to Israel, which for many was seen as the ultimate redemption, the final end of all exiles, what about those arriving in France? How can we explain their silence? Here Attias suggests that the memory of the Shoah intimidated the Jews of the Orient into silence.5
Although the Jews of Arab lands certainly had their share of misfortunes, there was already another Jewish narrative much more gut-wrenching than theirs that had become the central Jewish narrative, as the world was to know it. Tunisian writer Albert Memmi pointed out that
“Jewish history has so far been written by Western Jews; there has been no great Oriental Jewish historian. This is why” – he says – “the ‘Western’ aspects of Jewish suffering are widely known.”6
Although occasional lootings, humiliations, riots and killings in the Jewish quarters throughout the Arab world could not compare to the horrific and systematic slaughtering of the European Jews, it is as if there was no room for the annals of this modern Sephardic trajectory. For those having arrived in France, Trigano acutely describes the psyche of this post World War II and postcolonial dilemma:
The bad conscience … attached to colonialism rebounded on them. Their drama did not deserve to be considered, less so bemoaned. They were themselves often doomed to forgetting and repressing, even to contempt, by the state of mind that so inescapably brings this on, the suffering induced by the collapse of their world. In Diaspora, the settling in the ‘métropole’…experienced as ‘repatriatization’, a ‘return’ – where the access to the ideal France dreamt of in the colonies made imperceptible this ‘occultation’ that could not be named.7
In his study on Francophone Judeo-Maghrebian literature Guy Dugas points out that although Francophone literature by Arabo-Muslim authors from the Maghreb has benefited from a great infatuation in postcolonial studies, two other literary productions have been left largely in the shadows. These two are equally inspired by the North African space and include Western literature with Maghrebian resonances, as well as Francophone Judeo-Maghrebian literature. More than just a simple forgetting or disregard, this disinterest seems to stem from a methodological difficulty inherent in the models of classification thus far adopted, since the most important criterion has been that of ethnicity as inherited from the concept of national literature.8
Since the Jews who lived in the Maghreb did not always have the legal status of Moroccan, Algerian or Tunisian nationals, (many not holding passports and being denied citizenship in their country of residence) they have not been defined “simply” as Maghrebian authors.9 Being part of a greater Jewish civilization, which in itself has always been an international and migrant phenomenon, as well as always defined by diversity, literature produced by Jewish writers has trouble fitting in to the hitherto narrowly defined national literatures. We are faced with a difficulty of placing or classifying, and therefore it becomes difficult to find texts by authors whose works fit neither in the canonical corpus of French literature nor in the heterogeneous field of Francophone literatures.
In an attempt to place the Jewish/Sephardic woman writer within the current literary considerations of postcolonial discourse in France, we see that the many narrative elements that form an integral part of this discourse are also tantamount to what constitutes the reflections of Sephardic women writers. Narrating her difference in French society as an immigrant, a French national, a Sephardic Jew, and as a woman is a multifaceted endeavor, engaging the reader to remain open to new ways of understanding another element of diversity within the hybrid literary corpus of modern day France. Thomas Nolden notes that approximately 350 books and innumerable journal and magazine articles covering various aspects of the past and the present of Judaism appear every year in France. More than three dozen Jewish writers born after the Shoah have found access to France’s major publishing houses, joining the ranks of the prominent writers of the older generation. The Sephardic contribution to this literary burgeoning has been substantial.10 Dugas points out that this literary contribution remains profoundly Maghrebian by its rootedness in the Maghreb, by the spaces and the imagination it evokes, and by the themes that it continues to put forth.11
We find many texts by Jewish women authors who weave Sephardic traces in their writings steeped in identities formed by childhood memories from North Africa. The texts have typically not been included in the discussions on minority or immigrant literatures in France, nor in the syllabi of postcolonial Francophone literary studies. Their letters have been thus far largely unexplored especially in Anglophone contexts, and are still unknown territory to many who profess an interest in post-colonial, marginal or minority immigrant literatures. In general, if one looks at books presenting collections of voices from the Maghreb, writers like Albert Memmi and possibly Edmond Jabès and Edmond Amram El Maleh may be included, but one is hard pressed to find a Jewish woman writer in such collections, with the exception of Hélène Cixous, who although from Algeria, is of Ashkenazi background.12 Similarly, recent works that portray immigrant or minority voices in France concentrate mainly on the narratives of the second generation Arab immigrants, and other minorities from the Francophone world who now have made France their home.
Although half of France’s today 650.000 Jews may not be called immigrants, those who arrived in the years leading up to and following decolonization have certainly endured many of the challenges associated with being a new national in a country where they are very much a minority, perhaps even an invisible minority. Jonathan Boyarin suggests that “The silencing of discourse about Jewish difference is generally accomplished through the subordination or assimilation of Jews in categories presumed to be dominant.”13 As North African Jews have a large success rate educationally, professionally, and financially, relative to most Arab immigrants, they have thereby assimilated more easily into the mainstream economic system in society. The success rate among Jews has, paradoxically, led to a certain blindness and unwillingness on the part of French officials to acknowledge the increasing anti-Semitic sentiment among Arab immigrants and of the “le Pen-esque” citizens who need a villainized Other to blame for their society’s challenges. In a study on stereotypes and representations of ethnicity in French society, Mireille Rosello notes that Jewishness continues to remain an elusive signifier in French culture. “Paradoxically” she says, “the challenge here may be to question an absence of representation that is easily confused with an absence of stereotyping. The lack of stereotypes can also be the expression of a stereotype of invisibility.”14
The predicament, then, of “forgotten voices” stems from sources both within and without the Sephardic community, and we shall see how narratives of women will illuminate aspects of a social totality previously overlooked. Moreover, as minority women, in our case Jewish, this exposition is capable of transforming narrow views of what it means to be non-Muslim, non-Arab, non-pied-noir and yet deeply rooted in the Maghreb and its cultural, historical and political past. One Francophone author who speaks of this lacuna in her Sephardi consciousness is Tunisian-born Annie Goldmann who writes about the emancipation of the women in her family: “Dismissed from Hebrew culture as a girl, from Arab culture as a Jew, it was in French that acculturation took place.…Until recently I knew nothing of Oriental Jewish culture. I did not know there are schools of thought having played a role in the culture of the Mediterranean.”15 Consequently, as the Jewish Maghrebian women settled in France, aside from having lost their home country and all their familiar surroundings associated with the formative years of their childhood, there was also a feeling of an abyss, an emptiness, that made the loss all the more ambiguous, difficult even to verbalize and impossible to fill or recover now that the physical space of that culture was gone forever. Even today there is an acute awareness among these Jewish women born in the Maghreb of being alienated within their own religion and their original culture.
For the writers I have considered in my work,16 it is mothers, fathers and rabbis (and even a marabout) who have become powerful cultural symbols of that lost world and that have a central and vital presence in their writings. They move beyond mere symbols and become catalysts for profound internal turmoil through evoking notions of nostalgia, mourning, opposition, rebellion, contradictions, and exile within the writer and accordingly her protagonists. Most significantly, they are catalysts for writing and for change. As such, their presence in the lives of the protagonists make them channels through which the women writers can let their selves develop and reclaim a space of autonomous subjectivity, a space from where they will be able to make sense of the chaos of complex (Sephardic) memories and hybrid identities. These authors spent their formative years of childhood in North Africa, some were young girls as they left hurriedly and clandestinely in their father’s arms, and others were young adults eagerly seeking out the French capital for its educational possibilities. Knowing that a return to the homeland or to the safe womb of the mother is impossible, we are faced with the reality of inaccessibility of the source, and reminiscing–sometimes obsessively--about our childhood becomes a means to cope with the eventuality of eternal exile, or death.
Svetlana Boym points out that: “At first glance, nostalgia is a longing for a place, but actually it is a yearning for a different time – the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams.”17 For some authors, like Algerian-born Annie Cohen and Tunisian-born Nine Moati, the different time is that when their mother was alive, as their narratives float between joyous or painful childhood memories and dreams of intimacy with the (m)Other whom they need to let go. The impossible realization that this origin is inaccessible, and the fruits of this labor of mourning, become maternal texts where the Sephardic mother-origin is a fertile source of affirmation of Maghrebian identity and memory. Thus the maternal figure is the perfect metaphor of origins, encompassing not only kinship but also race, ethnicity, and language. It is Nine Moati who says “A country is, after all, the presence of a mother,” and in her mother/daughter narrative Mon enfant, ma mère 18 [My child, my mother], we see expressed the notion that it is indeed the heart and soul of the Jewish heritage; in her case that of Tunisia, which is transmitted from generation to generation by the Jewish mother, and it is she who represents the vital link between past and present.
In her autobiographical text a pregnant Moati speaks, through interior dialogue, to her recently deceased mother whose closeness she yearns for as the pregnancy progresses. How will her new baby’s life be as rich as hers with the absence of all the Judeo-Maghrebian ingredients and traditions personified by the grandmother? The essence of their lost life in Tunisia, the smells, the spices, the soft Mediterranean breeze remembered by a mother’s caress; its light and colors by her loving gaze all represent elements that are lost with the mother(land). The narrator worriedly asks for recipes and advice as she assumes a new responsibility in the absence of her mother-source and promises to continue the legacy of her mother’s Judeo-Arabic inheritance. Texts like these are also expressions of a certain marginal space, which is France’s Jewish North African immigrant community, and the narrators are faced with the sometimes painful awareness of the contradictions of their chosen assimilated French life-styles and the Judeo-Maghrebian heritage embodied by the mother (albeit sometimes resented as archaic and problematic).
Female narrators write their Sephardic mothers, remembered as products of their distinct historical formation as female, Jewish, colonial subjects, rooted in their unique Sephardic culture. Annie Cohen, who left Algeria for France in 1962 at the age of 18, has written several works of literature, among them the lyrical memoir Bésame Mucho.19 In this text laden with personal memories of her dying mother, many layers of a mother-daughter relationship are uncovered as they inspire writing and searching for a way to eternalize this bond as well as learning to let go. Throughout the memoir the narrator returns to a verse or two of the beautiful, melancholic love song representative of not only the love between mother and daughter, but between people, language and places.
During a mourning period of nine months, she sings in Spanish and dreams of escaping to Andalusia, her mother’s family’s origins. The narrative structure of this nine month period of grieving is fragmentary, a coming and going of the desire of staying, leaving, returning; between childhood memories and the secret Andalusian memories of the mother recalling their ancient origins, and time spent next to the dying mother, and finally the narrator’s trip to Andalusia, as the freeing process comes full circle. The origin of the Sephardic Jews, not just the mother, not just the narrator, but their “tribe,” this place symbolizes the arch-origin of Sephardism, a time in Jewish history that can never be returned to, just as a return to the womb of the mother is impossible. The Jews, however, have always kept the memories of their other origins, from Jerusalem to Spain, to Algeria, and now France, and thus the cultural passions remain ingrained, in infinite waves of palimpsests of memories from different times and different places that become a natural part of hybrid identities, whose very hybridity unites them.
Annie Cohen’s prized autofiction Le marabout de Blida20 was written as testament to the liberating forces coming to terms with, accepting, and embracing the chaotic memory of her Algerian heritage, its devastating uprooting and North African identity. Similarly, in the novel La mémoire folle de Mouchi Rabbinou21 [translated as the crazy as in madness or great as in tremendous memory of Moshi Rabbinou], Tunisian born Annie Fitoussi uses the appearances of a phantom-like rabbi to create stirring emotions in the lives of the book’s characters. The presence of the marabout and the rabbi in these texts becomes a way for the young female main characters to reconnect with their pasts. They act as a conscience speaking to the emigrated Sephardim, encouraging them to keep their memories alive by refusing to repress the vestiges of their past, the cultural traces of their heritage and the complexity of their hybrid identity.
The young protagonists live assimilated lives, and as one of them says “everything that reminded me, near or far, of the southern latitudes nauseated me.”22 Emissaries from the forgotten past, the marabout and rabbi, become catalysts for change, showing the protagonists how to move forward in a life enriched by the ineffable values bestowed by an acknowledged, remembered, and incorporated North African Jewish heritage. Once they are willing to allow their Maghrebian subconscious to become expressed, despite their apparent madness and feelings of loss of control of a carefully constructed northern identity, they realize that repressing their naturally southern beings has been the cause of both depression and neurosis. Identities are revealed that are at once multi-layered and poly-vocal, as Judeo-Arabic expressions begin to permeate the texts: “Crooked pied-noir, the marabout says to me, Frenchman on the outside, Algerian across, Jew on the side, African like nothing, Parisian passing through, Algerian in Paris, Jew from North Africa, Frenchman from Algeria! And so! Why not? You are what you are. A beautiful child of God.”23
Chochana Boukhobza was born in Tunisia in 1959 and her many novels are critically acclaimed in France. Not a single one of her books is announced as autobiographical; indeed, they have all been recognized as going “beyond” personal confession. Chochana personally told me that she does not exactly know why she writes, let alone texts that manifest a vibrant, exuberant Sephardic voice, but she admits that part of it may have to do with the fact that her grandfather, who was a well- known rabbi and scribe in Tunisia, is the author of several manuscripts stored away somewhere unknown in Israel. A hidden and forgotten voice, then, to which she has no access, and which represents a literal witness to the link of her family’s Jewish past in the Maghreb.
In her texts, clearly autobiographical elements engender soul-searching and a coming to terms with loss and exile in narratives that question the role of the father, the effect of that role on sibling relations, and the legacy of the parents upon the next generation. In her novels Pour l’amour du père [For the Love of the Father] and Un Eté à Jérusalem24 [A Summer in Jerusalem], the author illustrates that the drama of exile creates not one tragic male hero, the father, but rather that the entire family is affected, all members having their own individual fears, losses and memories. Throughout her writings the main characters are often strong, independent women who have rebelled in one way or another against the father’s oppressive silence, but who seek his love without giving up their freedom. Signs of trauma ensuing from the violent exodus and of the often multiple exiles endured by the families in Boukhobza’s novels permeate the narratives. These are manifested in evocations of fading memories, the fear of losing all traces of the original homeland and the heritage it represents, and infinitely painful and complicated family relations, marked by resentment, mourning, and rage. The characters in her narratives of displacement often seek love, comfort and protection in one way or another, but in so doing they time and again ignore each other and slip deeper into silence and isolation.
The Sephardic French women writers of North African origin are witnesses to the silent exodus experienced by their families and communities. Through their auto-fictional writings, or what Thomas Nolden has coined as “autojudeography,”25 these women play an important role in voicing what has been forgotten through an often self-imposed silence. Not only do they bear unique witness to human experiences in the various colonial and postcolonial histories, they also contribute to a redefining of what it means to be a French Jewish woman writer of North African origins. Including their texts in research, syllabi and translation projects thus opens discussions about this nominally understood chapter of Jewish history. It will also help shape the current debate about French national and cultural identity, and develop the discourse on the diversity of Jewish identity generally, and of Sephardic identity specifically. Critic of North African culture and literature Najib Redouane points out that the Jewish narratives whose imaginary world is anchored in the Maghreb will contribute to the transformation of the modes of structure of knowledge and ideas about the Maghreb, since it remains a fact that Sephardism constitutes an essential component, even a fundamental one, of this literary production.26 If opening up the floor to new and diverse voices of the Sephardi/Mizrahi experience can hope to make such a difference as Redouane suggests, then the enterprise of Sephardic studies seems to me an especially necessary and exciting one. Changing “modes of structure of knowledge and ideas” about places in the world where Jews once thrived and shared both cultures and languages with Arabs and Muslims is a most welcome and necessary endeavor indeed.
Notes:1. Nina Lichtenstein (Ph.D., University of Connecticut, 2007) was recently a Scholar in Residence at the Hadassah Brandeis Institute, where she is currently a Research Associate. While at HBI she is editing her dissertation into a manuscript entitled North Africa Lost and Found: Sephardic Women Writers’ Texts and Contexts. With a grant from the HBI Translation Series she is also translating a novel by a Francophone Sephardic author (Chochana Boukhobza) into English. Her research and teaching interests include Sephardic and Mizrahi Women’s Writing, Memory and Identity, as well as Film and Holocaust Studies.
6. Albert Memmi, “Who is an Arab Jew?” on www.Jimena.org. Official website of Jews. Indigenous to the Middle East and NorthAfrica. Source quoted as Israel Academic Committee on the Middle East, February, 1975, 3. Memmi's original statement appeared in a chapter of Juifs et arabes, (Paris: Gallimard, 1974), trans. into English as Jews and Arabs (Chicago, O'Hara, 1975).
9. During WWII Mohammed V is said to have played a significant role in this situation. He refused to sign anything barring Jews from public life or schools, and even went as far as to grant them equal rights before the law and access to citizenship with the same rights and obligations as the Muslim Moroccan. See Haim Zafrani, Deux mille ans de vie juive au Maroc. Paris: Maison Neuve & Larose, 1998, 299. As Michael M. Laskier notes, the Moroccan Jews were granted Moroccan citizenship after the independence in 1956, but many remained fearful and skeptical of accepting the obligation to be conscripted in the army and the possibility of having one day to fight against Israel. In North African Jewry in the Twentieth Century. The Jews of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. New York: NYUP, 1994,187.
12. A brand new study by Lucille Cairns, Post-War Jewish Women’s Writing in French (Oxford: Legenda, 2011) deals with both Ashkenazi and Sephardic women writers, and is the first monograph of its kind in English. Addressing exclusively Sephardic literature, Ilan Stavan’s The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature (New York: Schocken Books, 2005) is thorough, however from the Francophone North African world, only Helene Cixous is included. This may have to do with the availability of primary sources in English. Similarly, Sephardic-American Voices, edited by Diana Matza (Hanover and London: Brandeis UP, 1997) and The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage, edited by Loolwa Khazzoom (New York: Seal Press, 2003.) is limited to authors who have settled in the United States. Available in French, Clara Lévy’s, Ecritures de l’identité :Les écrivains juifs après la Shoah ( Paris: PUF, 1998) includes Albert Cohen and Albert Memmi as the Sephardic representatives. See also Mary Ann Caws, Mary Jean Green, Marianne Hirsch and Ronnie Scharfman, eds. Ecritures de Femmes: Nouvelles Cartographies. New Haven: Yale UP, 1996, where Cixous again is made to represent the Maghbrian experience. In the Voices from Morocco/Voix du Maroc issue of Mediterraneans/Méditerranéennes edited by Kenneth Brown, (No.11, Winter 1999-2000) Edmond Amram El Maleh is included.