North Africa, France, and Israel:
Sephardic Identities in the Work of Chochana Boukhobza
By Nina B. Lichtenstein1
About her Sephardic heritage and identity frequently reflected in her oeuvre, Chochana Boukhobza has said "Strange people, really, my people, torn between a lost homeland; a country in which to live, get married and work; and a promised land. Strange people squeezed between the past, the present, and prophesy."2 I found this quote particularly fitting as I began to ponder the topic of our MLA Sephardic Studies panel: "Bridges between Past, Present, and Future Sephardic Cultures, Literatures, and Identities," and wanted to share with you some thoughts about how one francophone Jewish writer creates notions of 'Sephardic difference', in her own identity and work; that is, how Boukhobza elaborates connections between a distinct Jewish past, present and future through personal and creative narratives of unique experiences shared by many Jews from the Arab world.
Born in Sfax, Tunisia in 1959, speaking Arabic and Hebrew as a child, Boukhobza immigrated to France in 1964 with her family, as most of the Tunisian Jewish community was forced to do in the years following decolonization. A teen, she moved to Israel to study mathematics and physics in Jerusalem, a period which has influenced her writing in its passionate vision of Israel's significance for the Jewish people, while she simultaneously and candidly expresses ambivalence toward its politics and compassion for all its inhabitants. In France she has worked in radio and television as well as being a journalist, and has written several screenplays. Speaking of how her writing is influenced by memories of her childhood in Tunisia and its abrupt end, Boukhobza has said: "I don't know how to tell you about that. I can't. It's erased…I don't know if I write in order to remember, or if I write to create my own memories."3 She yearns to recollect a past that was lost, one that was incessantly recounted by her parents and grandfather as they struggled to find their footing as new immigrants in France. In Une enfance juive en Méditerranée musulmane Boukhobza recalls:
I listened to them speak. Their words came to me like stones in a well. Their words filled the well of my childhood. Each word had a considerable weight. And each word was a mental shock. Each word resonated one on top of the other. And still resonates, because strangely, the well of my childhood cannot be filled. The more words fall into it, the more it demands. The more it records details the thirstier it gets to hear them. I was four years old. I should remember many things. Yet, I see nothing. My native country became unreal. (82-83)
Boukbobza is the author of several novels: the first, Un Été à Jérusalem (1986), received the prestigious Prix Méditerranée, and the second, Le Cri (1987), was a finalist for the Prix Fémina. Her other works are Les Herbes amères (1989), Bel Canto (1991), Pour l'Amour du père (1996), which is now translated in English, Sous les Etoiles (2002), Quand le Bible rêve (2005), and a children's book, Le Troisième Jour (2010), which received the Prix Wizo, and has been translated into English and Italian. Fureur, her latest novel (2012), has received the Prix Landerneau Découvertes.
Her novels are critically acclaimed, and although none of them are announced as being autobiographic, 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. 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. They endure the multifaceted experience of conflict between homelands and exile, tradition and modernity, freedom and dependence. Signs of trauma ensuing from the often multiple exiles undergone 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 unique heritage it represents, and infinitely painful and complicated family relations, marked by resentment, mourning, anger, and rage. Her narrative style is quick, precise and often historically anchored, yet seizes the reader with its sensuality, evoking raw emotions, capturing dramas and plots with flow and ease. She also frequently portrays characters navigating their lives through the ever-existing human condition of loneliness in togetherness. Several of her novels present some sort of mystery which launches the female characters on both internal and actual journeys, as they search for answers to questions left behind or newly raised by enigmatic male figures. Boukhobza describes her inclination to search for sources and answers as perhaps stemming from the fact that her grandfather, a rabbi, shohet [ritual slaughterer] and scribe in Tunisia, was the author of several manuscripts subsequently stored away somewhere unknown in Israel. In her family's heritage there is thus a hidden and forgotten voice to which she has no access but which represents a literal witness to the link of her family's Jewish past in the Maghreb.4
Here, I will focus briefly on Un Été à Jérusalem and Pour l'Amour du père, published in 1986 and 1996 respectively, as they are the most clearly inscribed with the author's own life-trajectory and experience, and those shared by so many Jews exiled from their North African homelands during the second half of the 20th century. Her first novel, Un Été à Jérusalem, represents one of Boukhobza's most passionate and intimate texts. It is the story of twenty-year-old Sarah who is returning to Israel from France for the summer after having left her family behind three years earlier. The Promised Land had quickly become a disillusionment to her as it spiraled toward war and political mayhem, and Sarah felt suffocated by her father's oppressive behavior. Sarah's family has migrated from Morocco to France, they then leave behind their relative comfort because of their daughter's enthusiasm for Zionism and her wish to settle in Israel. During Sarah's visit and the repressive summer heat in Jerusalem, the mother tries to explain the father's silence and exasperation as the result of their multiple uprootings, the disappointments, and the fear of losing his children, as Sarah's two brothers are in the Israeli army during the Lebanon war. While the country and her family seem engulfed in animosity, rage, and distrust, Sarah's mother desperately tries to achieve normalcy, but feels marginalized and lonely as a new immigrant. Even the films on TV are in English with Hebrew subtitles, leaving her outside the modes of understanding since her languages are Judeo-Arabic and French. During her visit, Sarah's grandmother dies, and Sarah fears that without her the family will lose their last attachment to North Africa. The family matriarch represents the vivid memories the narrator can still trace as she thinks back to her childhood. About the family's path, Boukhobza writes: "The road was long, a trajectory like the mark of a circumflex accent. First awakening: North Africa. Then the exile to Paris, Marseille, Lyon, with sneezes of nostalgia, pricklings of the sinus, annoying tête-à-têtes with 'paradise'. Behind the panicking compass, they again packed their bags, a fantasy. Jerusalem. A whim that costs a lot. Their kids, surely, speak Hebrew and have fun in the open landscape imitating the young sabras. But the parents, they remain renegades, awkwardly managing the language, nursing the Bible as a last recourse."5 Thus the novel narrates the challenges faced by the young Sarah as she tries to liberate herself from the oppressive fatherly presence that suffocates and paralyzes with demands, expectations and prohibitions. These constricting and unreasonable expectations are often reinforced by the mother or the extended family, suggesting the lastingly powerful influence of the 'Oriental' Jewish heritage that the exiled parent generation clings to for an anchor in their own struggle for meaning, despite the fact that their daughter lives a completely different life as second-generation immigrant. The young narrator's quest for freedom and a space away from her family's view of her conduct takes the form of rebellion infused with gendered, sexual, and political elements, as well as psychological and emotional factors. Pain and suffering are caused by the silence that each family member withdraws into--as an instinctual mechanism for surviving the various traumas they share--and the effects of this silence only plunge each one of them further into isolation and insanity. Using a language of victimhood, of colonization, and resistance, the narrative outlines a unique Sephardic Jewish experience of the twentieth century. This delineates a different offense, a different struggle, and a different rebellion than that lived by Ashkenazi Jews, or, for that matter, by the Arabs in post-World War II and postcolonial France.
Pour l'Amour du père tells a story at once intimate and universal, where Boukhobza is again driven to write about the family of another Sephardic female character inspired by her own life experience. It is universal in that it narrates the traumatic experience of exile and its aftermath, of displacement and of the challenges of resettlement in a new country, shared historically by many people, and in post-colonial times specifically. The Saada clan is but one family of the nearly 500,000 Jews who were exiled from their native countries of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco in the nineteen-fiftiess and sixties. It is through the eyes of Alice, the youngest of five siblings, now a thirty-eight-year-old single woman and successful lawyer in Paris, that we are given an intimate look into a family ravaged by loss. First that of their mother Chachïa, who dies of cancer just months before their dramatic departure from and loss of Tunisia, when Alice is only eight years old, followed by the loss of their country, and finally the loss of Sassou, the father's favorite daughter, the youngest, the only one he called lovingly omri, kedbi, ayouni.6 This is also the sister who as a young woman runs away from home to pursue a relationship with a Christian man, a Frenchman who sees the Saadas as pathetic immigrants. However, the most crucial loss endured by all the Saadas is perhaps that of each other, since they all seem to spiral deeper into silence, estrangement and loneliness as they try to grapple with the many challenges of life in France. Poverty, immigrant youth disenfranchisement, adultery, death of a husband who gambles away the few resources the family has in a futile attempt at giving them better material comfort, childlessness, and depression, are all part of their daily battles. Looming over the family conscience is the fear and compulsion of finding out what has happened to Sassou since she disappeared twenty years earlier, and Alice has to decide if she can liberate herself from her family's painful past and recover her own memory, without renouncing the love of her father. We follow this independent and strong, yet vulnerable woman as she seeks to understand herself and her own fears, while confronting, as well as consoling and seeking consolation and answers from her lovers, friends and family. A young man with whom she shares greater moments of tenderness than any of her lovers, is an expatriate Algerian Arab, as they reminisce about their respective villages, the lost smells, colors and light, and all that Paris is not:
Alice and Saïd remain alone. Alice talks about Tunisia, the trauma of the departure which erased her already scarce memories. She talks about Arabic, the language she hasn't forgotten, not her. She says, the words have remained alive in me like embers. Saying this, she thinks about Edmée [her sister] who gets all fired up listening to Arabic music, her hands on her breasts and her hips swaying, without respect for the father who is watching her, not caring that her husband is practically croaking from rage. "So, let's continue in Arabic…" Saïd suggests. Alice refuses, her Arabic is too mediocre, she understands better than she speaks… (102)
While Alice's father treks across town on his weekly outings to Belleville in order to sit in a North African owned café with his fellow expatriates, speak in Arabic about life in Tunisia while enjoying the sweet zlabia pastry, her brother has made a life for himself in Israel, and comes to visit as a tanned and vibrant but increasingly worried man pre-occupied by the never-ending threats of troubles in the Promised Land. In this novel too, there is a constant link between the past in North Africa, the present in France and the hope or dream, often shattered or tarnished, of a better future, or a promise of redemption in Israel.
Imagining an Alternate Bridge, or Séph-Arabe
Sefarad, that is Spain. And Sephardism is that which has come to represent the experience of the Jews from Spain. In the recently published book Sephardism: Spanish Jewish History and the Modern Literary Imagination, Yael Halevi-Wise explains "Sephardism tends to operate in the junctures between political systems. Its heroes and heroines are usually on the move, crossing borders. In fact, among the creators of Sephardism, we find many figures of in-betweenness…"7 Boukhobza, like other creators of Sephardism, lived this experience of in-betweenness. She recalls: "It has to be said that we were going in the opposite direction from a society into which we had no other choice but to transplant ourselves. We were here and over there at the same time."8 Speaking of her early years in Paris, Boukhobza continues: "In the apartment building, they called us the Tunisians…One day I suddenly understood that we were foreigners."9 Ana barani. I am a stranger, the father of main character Alice in Pour L'Amour du Père confirms. When they lived in Tunisia, they were the Jews, when they came to France, they became "the Tunisians," and when they made aliyah to Israel they were perceived as Arabs. Shifting identities, but firmly rooted in Arab culture, rather than a collective memory of a Spanish heritage, Boukhobza and her identities created through literature can be said to warrant an –ism: Dare I propose a neologism reflecting the identity unique to Jews from Arab lands whose collective memory does not necessarily hail back to Sefarad or Spain, but instead to North Africa and other Arab cultures: Seph-Arab. The two words that create this unique whole are intricately woven together as they inform the way Jewish writers from Arab lands look at their shared events in history and experience the present, and even, in some ways, how they imagine the future.
In Sephardism, Halevi-Wise posits the trope of Sepharad or Sephardism as "a politicized literary metaphor, discourse or device, perfectly positioned to reconfigure conventional markers of identity by unsettling them through historical counterpoints."10 She notes, for example, that the Sephardism of Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua functions as "an imaginative conceptual platform from which he promotes conversations across cultural barriers in ways that insist on sympathy for, and also from, other ethnicities, religions, and nations."11 She further points out that Sephardism "can in turn enrich Sephardic Studies by demonstrating that Sepharad occupies a far more central position within Western culture that has been generally realized."12 Similarly, I suggest that through Boukhobza's evocation of a specific Seph-Arab-ism experienced by Jews from Arab lands, she, and her contemporaries, stimulate an increased awareness of the often shared cultural heritage between Jews and Arabs, thus promoting a sorely needed conversation across the perhaps greatest political abyss we witness today, that of the Israeli-Arab, turned Jewish-Arab, conflict. Rather than insisting on the central position that Sepharad occupies within the development of Western culture, it is also important to bring attention to how the specifically Eastern resonances, those permeated with 'Arabness', have had an important and symbiotic role in this same development. This, however, is not such an easy sell in today's market. For while literary imagination has historically been rich with images of the often mythically proportioned and ideal concept of the convivencia of Andalusia, the reality and notion of a contemporary Jewish identity deeply rooted in Arabness, has proven more complicated. Rejected as it was by the nationalist project of the modern State of Israel, the cultural heritage of Jews from Arab lands was indeed a complicated issue: for now Jew and Arab were seen as incongruous. As noted by the Iraqi-born Jewish cultural critic Ella Shohat,
For our families, [who have lived in Mesopotamia since at least the Babylonian exile], who have been Arabized for millennia, and who were abruptly dislodged to Israel 45 years ago, to be suddenly forced to assume a homogeneous European Jewish identity…was an exercise in self devastation. To be an Arab Jew has been seen as a kind of logical paradox, even an ontological subversion. This binarism has led many Mizrahi Jews to a profound and visceral schizophrenia, since for the first time in our history Arabness and Jewishness have been imposed as antonyms.13
With nearly one million Jews uprooted from Islamic lands in the past sixty years, this trauma and major socio-political event and re-diasporization has remained mostly silenced and marginalized, leaving repressed scars in the Jews' psyches as well as gaping voids in the communities where their former presence is either sometimes still fondly remembered, as in Morocco and Tunisia, or erased from the national narrative, as in Egypt, Syria or Algeria. As Boukhobza reminisces in her essay "Rien sur l'enfance":
The child that I was had understood that there had been uprooting. Understood that on one end there was the tree, the family tree which looked to recover its depth, its equilibrium, and that on the other end there was a hole, the place that had sheltered roots, a gaping hole, over there, far away. Why? Because they didn't want Jews anymore in Muslim lands? Because Israel existed? Because the arrow of history pointed in a different direction? … We had left Tunisia, but Tunisia didn't want to leave us.14
Speaking about this trauma of Jewish exile from Arab/Muslim lands, Shohat explains: "Since Arabness led only to rejections, many Sephardim internalized the Western perspective and turned into self-hating Sephardim. Thus not only did the 'West' come to represent the 'East', but also, in a classic play of colonial specularity, the East came to view itself through the West's distorting mirror…. Oriental Jews…[had]… to be taught to see the Arabs, and themselves, as Other."15
The Jews of Arab lands who experienced colonialism and the "in-betweenness" of yet another exile as their homelands were being decolonized and their belonging and allegiance were again questioned and challenged in the often painful processes of nation- building, had a unique path in store for themselves, as another layer of the palimpsest was added to their historical family trajectories. In Sephardism, Judith Roumani writes about "The Idea of Sepharad among Colonial and Postcolonial Francophone Jewish Writers" and points out that
A third, slightly younger generation of displaced writers has discovered a new cultural identity in pan-sephardism and a new tone of nostalgia for a lost, possibly mythical, wholeness, whether lost through exile from Spain, or from more recent ancestors' homes…The Sepharad of these francophone Jews…represents not only the Iberian Peninsula but common traditions, religious practices, melodies, and a Mediterranean way of life, crystallizing through their now-shared French language into a reconstructed mythical homeland of the heart.16
Thus, also acknowledging that there are other writers both creating identities and themselves identifying with a past differentiated from that of Spain exclusively, she distinguishes the "Sepharad" they share instead as a more holistic way of life, or the nostalgia of this life, unique to their lost cultures in the Mediterranean basin. Roumani further suggests that "Sephardic Jewish identity, whether spontaneous or constructed as an 'ism,' has offered the francophone world tools to deal with the displacements and incongruities of postmodern life."17 I would like to graft an alternative growth from this fruitful concept in the Séph-Arabe of the identities elaborated in texts like Boukhobza's novels as they help shape the current debates about French national and cultural identity, and at the same time about the heterogeneity of Jewish identities. I believe Boukhobza's work particularly makes an important contribution to raising the awareness of the shared experiences of the majority of Jews in modern day France, home to the second largest non-Ashkenazi community in the world. Furthermore, in light of the current tensions among Jews and Muslims in France specifically, and in the Middle East and worldwide generally, the fact that the majority of these French Jews, as those depicted in Boukhobza's novels, share significant life experiences with their Muslim compatriots, only lends further weight to the timeliness and relevance of such works, as they are bound to invite discussions about the shared history and culture of people otherwise depicted as carriers of mutually exclusive and divergent histories.
Boukhobza's 'Sephardic difference' as inscribed in her texts and metatexts constructs bridges inviting crossings in conversations about this unique Seph-Arabism and what it means today. It is noteworthy that the collection where her personal reflection on her childhood and uprooting from Tunisia appears, together with thirty-four other Franco-Jewish writers and cultural personalities born in Muslim countries around the Mediterranean basin, is a project spearheaded and edited by Arab Algerian writer Leïla Sebbar, born in Algeria of a French mother and Algerian father, herself living and writing in Paris. Thus, Sebbar titles her own preface to the volume, "It Would Be the Same Story," intimating a shared heritage and memories. Her project, she states, is an attempt to reunite those that "History has so often separated in the old colonial empires"18 and that in this shared story and history, her parents never called anybody "Jew" or "Christian" and "Muslim," only later would she learn that "it's bad to be Arab, the daughter of an Arab, it's bad to be a Jew."19 That is why, she says, in her own exile, she has decided to explore with other writers in exile, through them, "a Jewish and Muslim Mediterranean, today orphaned of her Jews who inhabited her before Islam. A sometimes joyful and sometimes cruel History tells us this. Individual stories remember a different time."20 Bridges between the present and the past, then, are being built on both sides, and we must garner from this optimism about the future and the value of literary projects, fiction, memoir, or other, as locations of great possibilities. For while the romantic vision of con-vivencia between Jews and Arabs may not be easily imagined today, the openings for con-versation that are found in the shared literary imagination and memory of Seph-Arabism may very well be the seedlings that can germinate into a meaningful dialogue, if those sharing in a common "Arabness" do not see themselves and each other simply as "Other," through what Shohat calls "the West's distorting mirror," but instead will come to recognize the notion of a shared origin, or what French Moroccan psychoanalyst Daniel Sibony calls "l'origine en partage."21
The yearning expressed by writers of Boukhobza's generation, whose childhoods were indelibly marked by their families' memories from generations of lives experienced and marked by the dominant Arab culture that not just surrounded their communities but rather weaved into and existed within their communities, as much as theirs extended outward, can be seen as articulations of an urge to (re-)connect. Perhaps these literary bridges between the past, present and future of the now hybrid Mediterranean identities will help forge new pathways where Jews and Arabs can venture, again, into a dynamic dialogue with a common "language" and memories, where new meanings will emerge that at once acknowledge a shared past, enable a dynamic and purposeful present and imagine a possible common future. In this potentially rewarding space, forever aware of the life-affirming yet precarious and at times disturbing connections between our past, present and future, the work of writers like Chochana Boukhobza offers itself as a catalyst for con-versation and awareness.
1. Nina B. Lichtenstein (Ph.D., University of Connecticut, 2007) teaches literature and writing at University of Connecticut. While a Scholar in Residence at the Hadassah Brandeis Institute (2010), where she is currently a Research Associate, she began 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 has also translated the novel Pour l'amour du Père by Chochana Boukhobza from French to English. Her research and teaching interests include World Literatures, Sephardic and Mizrahi Women's Writing, Memory and Identity, as well as Film and Holocaust Studies.
2. Chochana Boukhobza. "Rien sur l'enfance." In Lelïa Sebbar (Ed.). Une enfance juive en Méditerranée musulmane (Saint-Pourçain-sur-Sioule: Bleu autour, 2012), 85.
3. Une enfance, 81
4. Nina Lichtenstein. "Chochana Boukhobza." Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World (Leiden – Boston: Brill, 2012).
5. Chochana Boukhobza. Un Été à Jérusalem (Paris: Balland, 1986), 32.
6. "My life", "my faith", "my eyes" in Arabic.
7. Yael Halevi-Wise. Sephardism: Spanish Jewish History and the Modern Literary Imagination, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012),7.
8. Une enfance, 85.
9. Ibid., 87.
10. Sephardism, 5.
11. Ibid., 3.
13. Ella Shohat. "Reflexions of an Arab Jew." In Loolwa Khazzoom (Ed.), The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage (New York: Seal Press, 2003), 117.
14. Boukhobza. "Rien sur l'enfance." 83-85.
15. Ella Shohat. "Sephardim in Israel ," in Melaine Kaye/Kantrowitz (Ed.), The Colors of
Jews: Racial Politics and Radical Diasporism (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana
16. Judith Roumani. "Le Juif Espagnol" in Yael Halevi-Wise (Ed.), Sephardism: Spanish Jewish History and the Modern Literary Imagination, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012), 214-215.
17. Ibid., 234.
18. Leïla Sebbar. Une enfance juive en Méditerranée musulmane (Saint-Pourçain-sur-Sioule: Bleu autour, 2012), 12.
19. Ibid., 11.
20. Ibid., 12.
21. Daniel Sibony. L'Entre-Deux. L'Origine en Partage. Paris: Seuil, 1991.