“Séph-Arabe” – About Imagining an Alternate Bridge

Hamsa4Jews and Arabs. Right off the bat, you probably think about conflict, but it hasn’t always been that way. Did you know that less than 60 years ago, Islamic lands in North Africa and the Middle East was the home to almost 1 million Jews? Jews that for many generations shared the Arab majority culture with their neighbors. A Jewish baby would nurse from the same breast as an Arab baby.

Imagine Arab Jews. Jews that identify positively, even passionately, with this culture. Jews who refuse to see the two terms as mutually exclusive. For that would negate who they identify as.

Today there are 0 Jews left of Algeria’s 140,000 Jewish inhabitants before 1948. 1,100 left of Tunisia’s 105,000; 60 left of Iraq’s 135,000….3,200 left of Morocco’s 365,000 Jews. The last kosher butcher of Marrakech is an old man who just opens his store to have a place to sit during the day. He has almost no customers left.

Mind you some of these Jewish communities predated the Arab conquest in the 7th century C.E., as they had landed there after the destructions of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem in years 586 B.C.E. (by the Babylonians) and 70 C.E. (by the Romans) respectively.

The modern Jewish exodus from Arab lands – since 1950’s – was not easy for the families involved. Nor was it easy for their Arab neighbors to be left with the vacuum that was created. Relationships were lost. Scars and traumas resulted. Problematic memories constructed.

Literature and art was created to express these experiences.

I write about this in my “Academic Stuff.”

For those of you with an interest in literature and Jewish cultures in general, and Jewish culture of the Arab world in particular, or if you would simply like to read an article that will doubtlessly give you something to think about, check out my “North Africa, France, and Israel: Sephardic Identities in the Work of Chochana Boukhobza” published here:


As I note in my article, Boukhobza has written many extraordinary novels in French, some prize-winning, and If you are a Francophone, you can order them from Amazon.fr. It’s pricy, but they do ship to the U.S, of course!

One of her books is published in English: The Third Day, available on Amazon.com.

You can read about it here:


And one is translated to English, (by yours truly) and is looking for a publisher: For the Love of the Father (or Pour l’Amour du Père) which I discuss in my article linked above.

So call your publisher friend today, who owes you a favor, and spread the word!

Yalla! (= “Let’s go!” in Arabic)


7 thoughts on ““Séph-Arabe” – About Imagining an Alternate Bridge

  1. There are numerous problems with this post; I don’t really know where to start, and I feel like listing them all would be to give critique without suggesting alternatives. But you should know that to start an article on sefarad issues by conflating ‘there were one million Jews in Arab lands’ with ‘there was not no conflict’ is not only intellectually void logic-wise, it’s also contradictory to reality, and further pushes us to close our shell, the gates of our memory and present realities, to those who simply will not or cannot understand.

    It’s a void, recycled approach to the multiple pasts and presents of REAL LIVING human beings, not characters in novels you read on your trans-a flights, and screams neo-romantic ‘new learner’, ‘deftly secular ashkenazi or bt’, or just plain ‘sweeping statement’. Strong words perhaps, but your romanticizing made me feel characterized and you have to take the consequences for anti-intellectual mental colonialism, even if you are merely mirroring the secular academe around you. Ironically what Boukhobza was trying to do was communicate some individual truth to people like you for whom we are Orientalist romantic characters in barely imaginable histories, and you have managed to reduce it to yet another generalization. Again, one member of the Tunisian post-memory generation does not represent present or past realities in their entirety, unless you are one of those people who has no other analytical tool but conflating the literary with the lived, the memoir with the lived-remembered.

    Firstly, there is the question of gender and migration. I can tell you now as a Judeo-Tunisian woman that accepting the vantage point of North African Jews who made aliyah, and to whom NA is a constructed memory more than a lived memory, like Memmi or Boukhobza, as representing that of all Sephardic, Berber and Seph-Levantine Jewry, is incredibly reductionist. In fact, where there is multiple silences, there is usually more truth. And you have dived straight for the heart of noise via your inability to be incorrect as a secular-educated academic, davka negating real truth, davka replacing the real for the literal. But I’m not sure you could handle our silences successfully, as your analytical approach is overly literary as is that of all Americans who live in an academic bubble of superimposing self-fashioned characters on actual human beings, so best leave it alone. It’s the worst type of inquiry-for-pity, not for real understanding.
    The problem with secular literary types is that there relatedness to learning about Jews and Judaism from without (rather than from within- it’s clear from your post that you have very few North African Jewish acquaintances and thus rely upon the self-fashioning memoirs of intellectuals who we would consider very much culturally tokenistic in terms of their subordinative value to Israeli-ME relations) derives only from one level, the textual.

    I suggest you don’t write about what you don’t know, nor accept the textual viewpoint of one sentamentalist as representative of many- because it’s not. It’s memory production, not our lived reality. Boukhobza is not writing about Tunisia or ‘Judeo-Arab’ pasts, she is writing about the employment of a vessel of memory as a metaphor for her present. As we say, judéité-style, he who grieves too much is not grieving for someone who is lost but someone who lives. Metaphor and projection. In this case, Boukhobza is grieving for Zions-attempted, and you will only literarily speaking, understand this when you understand Judaism, and Yehuda haLevi, and accept these things for us have a history twice as old as ashkenaz-projected yearnings. Perhaps the metaphor/s of the sefaradim are too layered, multi-levelled, multi-lived for non-Jews or ashkenazim or secularly-educated tokenistic minds to grasp?

    I don’t think so. I wouldn’t have bothered writing this response unless I believed that one day someone would understand, and would have pushed themselves beyond the tools, approaches, and normative narrative of anti-historicist Westernizing literary criticism- which is the representation of our experience from the outside, the need to Orientalistically fictionalize through the literary, – or even reduction of our self-representation to the same. What Boukhobza was trying to reclaim, in terms of self-representative space, you bulldozed in your reduction of her space to use for your own pre-held conclusions. Not question, conclusions. But I think you have to push yourself there, and reject the tokenism of the literary representation, the anti-realism of words, and everything that is the enemy of memory.
    We as multiple individual migrants with memories have abandoned the ‘possible’ but that does negate the fact that we were once the ‘real’. Either leave it alone- abandoning the easy way out of replacing the real with the generalized- or accept the silences rather than constructed post-memories as of greater representative value than the need to transform the real to the recorded.

  2. Thank you for your response. Although it is difficult to comment on something as emotional as I find your text to be, I shall try to honor your presence here. For while you claim you seek to suggest alternatives (constructive critique?) you instead engage in an angry diatribe doing to me exactly what you accuse me of doing to sephardim. You do not know whom I know, what (sephardic) lives have touched mine or I have lived intimately; Multiplicity. Post-memory. “Real” record. We/They. You use these terms as if they are yours to define. In fact, your emotional reaction prevents you from imagining me beyond the word or label most easily visible to you. Academic. And so the alienating schism continues in the name of anger.

    Imagine an Ashkenazentric University campus (what we find here in the U.S), or classroom or community center where nobody has ever been exposed to a poem, a novel, a film or a memory by anyone else but an Ashkenazi survivor of the Shoah or a European Zionist immigrant to Israel. This vacuum is what I aim to expose to students, and this is where I seek to engage them. I do not present ONE sephardi voice and experience as representative of all. That would be naive. But each voice and experience matters in the deconstruction of stereotypical representations. Perhaps you also can imagine that there are sephardim who do not share your story or sentiments, and who chose not to be combative in their judgement of those who seek to understand. Just like there are ashkenazim, converts, half-Jews, crypto-Jews or …perhaps even a “VikingJewess” who, like you, whoever you are, use words to re-visit and question, expand and take inventory of memories or a fleeting moment in the present, and then share these noticeable instances that make up a piece of observed or lived (usually it is a mix of the two) human experience in all its complicated or simple “truths.”

    But the last thing to do is tell someone to be quiet.

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