Les Juifs et le Maghreb

Les Juifs et le Maghreb: Fonctions sociales d’une littérature d’exil

Tartakowsky, Eva - Collection “Migrations” Tours: Presses Universitaires François-Rabelais 2016  ISBN 978-2-86906-408-9

Reviewed By Ralph Tarica *

The real subject of this French book has to do with the literature, in French, by writers who were forced to relocate to France following the great upheavals that took place in their native countries -- Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia -- during the 1940s and 1950s. The birth of the State of Israel in 1948 would mark the virtually complete depletion of these ancient Jewish communities (the author only rarely refers to them as “Sephardic”). The fear of animosity and violence from their former Muslim neighbors, together with the creation of independent Muslim nations, would guarantee that the Jews would not return. (It should be noted, however, that about 3,000 Jews still live in Morocco with still others in Tunisia.)

While all three countries had been colonized in varying degrees by the French from the 19th century onward, the Jews in each case experienced different paths of exile. The Algerian Jews, who had already gained French nationality in 1870 through the Crémieux decree, opted for France for the most part – 110,000 of them blended in with the 1.3 million ‘pieds noirs’ who resettled in France after Algerian independence. A much larger number of Moroccan Jews, many of whom spoke Arabic or Judeo-Arabic and did not read or speak French, opted for Israel. Of the Tunisian Jews, about half – 60,000 – chose France and half Israel. Other frequent destinations for the Jews of the Maghreb were Spain (mainly from the ‘Spanish’ part of Morocco) and Quebec. A certain amount of vacillation has since then occurred, with Jews in Israel, for example, moving to France and vice versa. With regard specifically to France, the Jews tended to gather in particular neighborhoods in Paris (almost all the Jews in the Belleville district, for example, are of Tunisian origin) and in other large cities, particularly in the south, predominantly in Marseille.

We must turn to the book’s subtitle (“Social functions of a literature of exile”) to understand the author’s particular focus. This is not a study of individual writers or of the ‘aesthetic’ qualities of their writing, as the author explains, but of how the cultural practice of a particular group of migrants in France – the exiled Jews of the Maghreb – possesses objective social functions within a larger social context. The literary texts examined here are considered as ‘documents’ allowing one to see representations of the social reality that they contain and transmit to their public. The author’s slant is that of post-colonialist and multicultural studies: literature is a social fact, writers create in a social context, and so on.

The predominant theme for all the writers covered here is exile. It was both their individual and collective fate to be torn from their home countries and forced to adapt to a new environment. There are 109 such writers who fit into this primary category, the oldest generation of which includes such authors as Albert Memmi, Jean Daniel, Albert Bensoussan, Jeanne Benguigui. The fact that they were Jews – a vigilant minority in either environment – intensified the trauma which became the impetus to create works of self-expression – a kind of therapy for nostalgia --on matters that also concerned their readers as well.

The author’s evidence is based on the identification of common themes -- exile, collective history, memory and nostalgia, Jewishness, adaptation -- not only within the writing itself but also through an analysis of such paratextual evidence as book title and cover. Archetypal scenes of lost life are identified extensively: folklore, the Kahéna legend, cooking, odors, Arabic words recalled, sayings, insults, a somewhat skewed memory of harmonious coexistence with their Muslim neighbors, a grateful disposition toward France, and so on. Transmission of collective memories has thus tended to create the mythic world of a lost paradise, one that is particular to their collective identity.

But there have been reality checks as well: the anti-Semitism of the Vichy years, the violence of the recent Muslim independence movements, the latent and not-so-latent xenophobia in France. Whether they liked it or not, the Jews were made aware of their exotic, ‘Arab-type’ attributes and many have worked doubly hard to become even more ‘French’. Their sense of a perceived inferiority extended as well toward the Ashkenazi Jews, whose history in France was longer and deeper. While North African Jews had also suffered during the Second World War, their suffering was not comparable to that of the European Jews. And women writers, unlike their male counterparts, have been particularly sensitive to the inherent oppression of the patriarchal structure and male domination of their old society.

One section (in chapter 3) provides a few “Examples of profiles,” devoting a paragraph or two to specific writers who can be looked at in terms of how they fit the author’s paradigms. Ironically, this may lead a general reader to crave a more intimate and ‘readable’ approach to the writing, with greater specificity as to the affective and sensory details that make these memories particular to a French North African Jewish culture rather than to some other culture in exile. It is worth noting in any case that, taken together, these fictional, autobiographical and historiographic writings, along with other social and cultural productions, as the author points out, now constitute what the French call a 'patrimoine', a body of heritage works that has taken on significant weight, extending even into the French political sphere.

This is clearly an academic study, written by a Ph.D. researcher and published by a university press. The book provides abundant statistical information and even graphs – for example regarding the sex, social position, educational and professional levels of the writers, whether they are publishers, translators, celebrities or not, and so on. Along the way the author’s examples are taken not only from novels and historical works but also from films and even musical performance (e.g. Enrico Macias). The book includes several pages of handsome color photographs of book covers and film posters and the bibliography provides a wide range of useful scholarly sources. Ewa Tartakowsky’s meticulously researched book will be welcomed as a prime reference source on the subject of Jewish writers from the Maghreb.

* Ralph Tarica is professor emeritus of French and Italian at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Copyright by Sephardic Horizons, all rights reserved. ISSN Number 2158-1800