Out of North Africa

Sephardic Women’s Voices 

Out of North Africa
By Nina B. Lichtenstein

Santa Fe, NM : Gaon Books, 2017  ISBN 978-1935604884

Reviewed by Youness Abeddour *

On a Tel Aviv--Paris pre-Pessah flight where the plane turns into a sort of North African Jewish quarter — relatives and friends visiting each other, men gathering in the corridor to perform Minha prayers, religious women changing seats so as not to sit next to men — my seat neighbor, looking rather bored and lonely in this family-like ambiance, glanced at the book in my hands: Sephardic Women’s Voices, and simply pointed out to the word Sephardic and then moved his finger to Lichtenstein and said with a confident-looking smile, "they don’t go together, she wouldn’t know." 

This anecdote made me pose the following question: What inspired an ex-pat from Norway who lives in Jerusalem and holds a PhD in French literature from the University of Connecticut to write about Sephardic Jewish women from North Africa in English? I hope this review helps to answer that.

Nina Lichtenstein’s book on Sephardic Women’s Voices out of North Africa is concerned with contemporary North African Jewish women’s writings, both memoirs and novels, in the colonial period and its aftermath. In this critical period, new ambivalent relationships emerged between different groups. The multiple presence of Jews, Arabs, Berbers, and the French ruler, in the same time and space, caused relations of power to take place. She brilliantly explores, or in her quality of a storyteller narrates, these individuals multi-layered identities and their multi-faceted relations with each other. She uncovers both differences and commonalities in the identities that have been marginalized through the colonial/post-colonial experience.

The book combines two disciplines, that of Jewish studies, examining the Jewish colonial experience in the Maghreb, and French studies, investigating the post-colonial "adjustments and challenges required by their mass-migration from North Africa to France" beginning in the 1950s. 

The book is divided into three main parts, "Historical Context", "Literary Considerations", and "Voices". Part I provides a comprehensive historical account that goes back to the "beginning of" the diaspora and reaching contemporary Jewish life in colonial North Africa. Both chapters in this part pave the way to "understand the scope of a loss" (p.23), the significant factors that caused the uprooting and exile of these Maghrebian women from their ancestors’ lands to the land of liberté, égalité, and fraternité. Part II provides a literary lens and defines concepts such as "What is Jewish literature?" preparing the reader to engage with the texts. Part III is devoted to Jewish Maghrebian women’s (hi)stories. Seven stories were selected in which women have vividly recorded their memories and narratives in exile, nourished by the painful colonial subjugation they experienced. The author takes us on the journey of these women through their autobiographical characters. This intimate voyage makes us identify with their loss, live their exile, feel their uprootedness, and join their rebellion.

Nine Moati’s Mon Enfant, Ma Mère (1974), Annie Cohen’s Bésame Mucho (1998) and Gisèle Halimi’s Fritna (1999), appear under the chapter entitled "Mothers, Fathers and Rabbis: Sephardic Traces in Writing Memory and Identity". With Nine Moati’s quote "a country is, after all, the presence of a mother," the author establishes the tone of the chapter. The maternal figure becomes closely linked with la patrie, or to be more accurate, la matrie, the land. In these three pieces of writing, we witness different mother-daughter relations. In Fritna, the daughter strives to get affection from the ‘present-absent’ mother to put an end to her "emotional exile," while Bésame Mucho is written as a means to eternalize the author’s love for her mother. The third mother-text is Mon Enfant, Ma Mère, where the author, herself a new mother, is caught between her daughter’s birth, and her mother’s death, like the comma of the title.

The following chapter embarks upon questions of memory and nostalgia in the texts of Annie Fitoussi’s La mémoire folle de Mouchi Rabbinou, and Annie Cohen’s Le Marabout de Blida. The rabbi and marabout, both significant spiritual figures for Muslims and Jews in the Maghreb, serve in each text to stir nostalgia and memory. The last chapter in this part has as a theme Rebels with a Cause. Paule Darmon’s Baisse les Yeux, Sarah, is a rebellion against the father figure that comes to embody cultural expectations and patriarchal societies. Ending the book, deliberately or subconsciously, with Chochana Boukhobza’s Un Été à Jérusalem is very significant. This text takes place in Jerusalem, the ‘Promised Land’, not in France, as was the case with the previous narratives. Yet Sarah, Boukhobza’s protagonist, feels unhomed, torn between different localities, Tunisia, her bithplace, France, and then Israel, realizing that "she may never belong anywhere."

Both the author and these women see empowerment in writing their own stories. The act of writing becomes a desire to "write her marginalized Algerian-Jewish self into her own story as attempt to re-writing herself back into the history that has excluded her," as Lichtenstein writes about Hélène Cixous’ autobiographical writings. They chose the role of active participants manifested in self-writing, and therefore self-defining. This reveals a shift of agency, hence producing power as they momentarily dominate action and narration. 

Interestingly enough, all of the chosen Maghrebian authors write in the colonizer’s language, French. We can agree that language is a key element in understanding identity politics. So what is the choice behind choosing French to write literature? Lichtenstein elaborates on this question in the sub-chapter entitled "The loss of language and Amnesia" that she opens with a quote from the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, himself of Judeo-Algerian heritage, "I have but one language, and it isn’t mine." She continues explaining the school system under French colonialism, where there was "a total eclipsing of not just any Jewish cultural or religious heritage, but also of North Africa as a primary source of cultural pride, belonging, and knowledge." (p.61)  Additionally, the promising process of westernization, and more specifically, frenchification, of North African Jews often resulted in giving up Judeo-Arabic and embracing French in the hope of assimilation into French society. Yet, they were constantly reminded of their otherness in France.

The discussion about language is carried on in the sub-chapter "Language Matters and Sephardic Literature." Writing in French determines the authors audience as well. It becomes "a vehicle for expressing a hybrid, heteroglot universe, what (Françoise) Lionnet has coined as ‘linguistic métissage’" (p. 118). Lichtenstein is writing for an anglophone audience who might be unfamiliar with such complex colonial stories experienced by North African Sephardic women. This book expands the voices of these French-writing Maghrebian authors and makes them heard in the English-speaking world.

This book’s relevance derives from the current concern of reviving Mizrahi and Sephardic cultures which were previously relegated to the periphery. It is not until recent years that Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews have come to receive some critical attention.

In conclusion, the author’s dual perspectives, both as an insider (being a Jewish woman) and an outsider (a non-Sephardic, non-North African), give the book a holistic approach in understanding issues of identity, loss, exile, hybridity, and ‘entre-deux’ in the construction of identity.

It is interesting to note that the book opens with a dedication to the authors parents rather than to her sons, as if making it a tribute to the preceding generations who might not have had the chance to record their memories or express their voices. As for the coming generations, there is hope!

* Youness (Yona) Abeddour is a graduate student at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Middle East Studies Department.

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