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H’emsha

Fatima’s eyes glowed with terror as she ran to Maurice, who had just arrived at his fruit and vegetable store in downtown Algiers. “They killed Mr. Malek! They killed Mr. Malek!” she cried. Maurice knew that “they” were agents from the FLN, the Muslim National Liberation Front which fought to oust the French from Algeria and violently harassed French sold­iers and civilians. Mr. Malek was a Jewish “pied noir,” or “black foot,” as the French in France had nicknamed the French who grew up in Al­geria, which had been a French colony for one hundred and thirty-two years.

Maurice was immensely sad as he tried to calm Fatima, the most popular cleaning lady of the predominantly Jewish mercantile neighborhood. He was not concerned with the Algerian War. He had grown up in Mar­rakesh, Morocco and, like most Jewish boys whose father owned a store, he had entered his family’s business right after high school. Life had been sweet in the Moroccan Atlas mountains. Maurice’s family had made a comfortable living selling fruit and vegetables to the French army. Maurice, a dark and handsome man, had often had little roles in the various movies that were being shot around Marrakesh. When Suzanne met him, at piano lessons, they immediately fell in love.

Maurice’s family lived in the Gheliz, or European neighborhood, but Suzanne Ouazana’s family lived in the Melah’, or Jewish ghetto. Her father, Rabbi Eliezer, was a head of the Jewish community: his name inspired respect and awe among both the Jews and Muslims of Marrakesh. He was the last in a line of rabbis who had acquired a reputation for wis­dom and for deep knowledge of both the natural and the mystical laws that rule the world. Old Jews and Muslims could tell you the story of Rabbi Eliezer’s grandfather, who was such a holy man that Elijah the Prophet himself would spend days studying the Talmud with him in one of the numerous caves of the Atlas mountains. In the mornings of those days of study, a lion and a snake would wait for Rabbi Eliezer’s grandfather. He would travel from Marrakesh into the mountains’ heights, riding the lion and holding the snake as a rein.

Rabbi Eliezer’s wisdom equalled his ancestor’s reputation. People from Marrakesh and the neighboring villages came to ask for advice or blessings, or to bring complaints. His house was open to all who needed shelter or food. Because of the awe inspired by his name his decisions were taken as laws, and he used this power to promote the welfare of the community. Everyone in Marrakesh could tell you how he brought a smile back to the faces of many young women who were battered by their drunken husbands. Rabbi Eliezer had simply rationed down wine to the minimal amount necessary for the sanctification of the Sabbath. No one dared to show disrespect for this decision.

When Maurice married Suzanne, all of Marrakesh partied for several days, according to the custom in Oriental Jewish communities. Suzanne and Maurice lived happily in Marrakesh for a few more years until 1956, the year that Morocco, which had long been a French Protectorate, became independent. The departure of the French left the Jews uncertain as to the attitude the new, independent Muslim kingdom would adopt toward them. Many Jews had already left for the newly-created State of Israel. The very existence of the Jewish state and its conflict with the Arab nations had made relations between Jews and Muslims difficult. There was a widespread rumor of pogroms among the Jewish communities. Cases of arbitrary imprisonment and beatings of Jews by the independent government had been reported. The richest Jews, who had connections with the king, chose to stay in Morocco. The poorest Jews chose to leave for Israel, where the government promised financial aid. Other wealthy Jews went to Canada, and the middling ones to France. Maurice was loathe to leave North Africa, whose culture he found familiar and comfortable, so he and Suzanne followed the French army to Algiers, where it was still in power and needed Maurice’s fruits and vegetables. The day that Fatima announced the murder of Mr. Malek, Maurice had been in Algiers for six years. As he drove to Mr. Malek’s house, expect­ing to find Mrs. Malek and her son in tears, he wondered whether it was not time to leave the turmoil forever. Maurice felt alien to the conflict between Algerian Muslims and French Christians. On the one hand, he spoke perfect Arabic. The Muslim customs and hospitality in Algiers reminded him of his native Marrakesh. But on the other hand, having attended a French high school in Morocco and done business with the French for so many years, he also identified with them. If Mr. Malek, who was also a merchant and uninvolved in the war, had been shot, what would keep the FLN agents from shooting him? Maurice certainly felt neutral, but wasn’t he feeding the whole French army in Algiers?

To Maurice’s surprise, Mrs. Malek was not crying but quietly knitting in the living room when Maurice entered the Maleks’ house.   Through the door of the kitchen, he could see Mr. Malek sitting with coffee and reading the newspaper. Mr. Malek saw the expression on Maurice’s face and gestured to him to enter the kitchen. No, he had not been shot. Yes, he had been very lucky. He had sold the store to a Frenchman from Marseilles who had taken possession of it that very morning and had been shot in Mr. Malek’ s stead. No, his wife did not know. Yes, he would leave the day after. “Be careful, Maurice,” he said as they hugged good­ bye. “Leave as soon as you can.”

But Maurice and his wife, who taught French in an Arab high school, stayed. That year, 1962, the Algerians finally won their fight and obtained independence. Maurice knew some Muslims who were now highly placed in the independent government and started selling fruits and vegetables to the newly-created Algerian army. But the new government was suspicious of people who had had any connection with the French, and in 1964 Maurice was warned by his friends that his past was being investigated by the government.

One day his truck was stolen and he went to complain at the police station. Looking at the man sitting behind the desk, Maurice recognized Brahim, formerly a low ranking member of the FLN who came to the mer­chants to raise funds for the movement. When Brahim, now chief of the police station in the commercial neighborhood, saw Maurice he started laughing hysterically. “God must love you, Maurice,” he said. “God must love you.” Brahim rose, walked to a file cabinet, and opened the drawer marked “FLN Files.” He pulled out a folder containing a list of names: the people the FLN planned to kill in the years preceding indepen­dence and the date planned for each assassination. On 13 March 1962, right under Mr. Malek’s name, there was Maurice’s name! He had been driving to Mr. Malek’ s house at the very moment he was supposed to have been shot.

Maurice took this incident as a sign from God that he should leave Algeria. A week later, he and Suzanne landed in a cold, gray city called Paris. A few months later, they found out that Suzanne was pregnant. One year after Maurice and Suzanne arrived in Paris, I was born.

The first time I struggled with my own identity was when, as a seven­ year-old boy, I watched an international soccer game involving the French national team. As the excited commentator cheered the French team with his famous “Go small ones,” I wondered whether I could follow the urging of my heart to identify with the struggle of the “small ones.” Almost everything in my daily life reminded me that I was not a real “pur Gaulois Frenchman,” as they were called, but the son of Moroccan Jewish parents.

At the French public high school I attended, the North Africans had been nicknamed “Beurs,” which is the word “Arab” in the popular Parisian jargon which reverses the syllables of regular French words. The Oriental customs and the Mediterranean mentality which prevailed in my house made me feel much closer to the Beurs than to the French whose culture was so different from mine.

The French firmly believed in rationality and science. I too believed in science, but I did not despise more mystical explanations of the world as the French did. Like most Beurs, I had heard at home about the “evil eye.” One who was successful and boastful about his success was likely to attract it. There were a few ways to avoid the evil eye, such as wearing a necklace with an open hand, symbolizing the number five, “h’emsha” in Arabic, which was supposed to offer protection. Hanging a porcelain fish over a doorway could also work. My parents and I half-believed in the evil eye. But whether it existed or not, the evil eye was a subject one could discuss only with Beurs and other North African Jews, or “Feujs’ as we were called. The French would dismiss any such discussion with disdain.

My conception of the family was much closer to the Beur view than to the typical French view. The French were more individualistic than we were. Most of them called their parents “old folks” and did not hesitate to talk about their elders in derogatory terms when they disagreed with them. I shared with the Beurs an idea of the family as one entity whose members are as close and dependent on each other as the five fingers of a hand — h’emsha. In my culture, as in the Beurs’, parents had to be respected no matter what they did or thought, or what their children did or thought. Parents carried the wisdom of the ages.

More than once, I almost wept at the sight of the Muslim mothers, wearing the traditional dress and purple make-up, waiting for their children after school. Even the Beurs who were hooligans at school would tenderly help their mothers find their way through the puddles of the Parisian winter. My parents always dressed like Europeans and so I did not have to feel the embarrassment of the young Muslim children, who had to face the incredulous and sometimes mocking glances of their French coun­terparts for whom the traditional Arab dresses looked backward. I did not need to feel this shame, but still I did. I wanted to cry because I felt so close to the Muslim Beurs.

Once, my French Christian friend Patrick asked my Beur friend Adel which T.V. program Adel’s family watched at night. Adel, whose father worked for a car factory like most Beur fathers, replied that they did not have a T.V. but they often had a typical Gaulois veillée, an old French custom in which the children spend the evening sitting around the father while he plays music and tells stories. After Adel left, Patrick told me with a mysterious look on his face that Adel’s family had veillées only because they did not have enough money to buy a T.V. I felt the same sadness as when I watched the young Beurs walking their old mothers before the mocking glances of their schoolmates. Adel’s family may or may not lack the money to buy a T.V., I thought to myself, but you, Patrick, definitely lack family spirit.

Even though most of the French did not show outward hostility toward me and my Jewish North African descent, I often faced what seemed like “double racism.” People were not sure whether I was a Beur or a Feuj, but they could tell I was North African. Once in the subway, an Arab­ looking young man smiled and handed me a leaflet, accompanied by a pat on the back and a “Long life to you, brother.” The leaflet denounced the “Zionist imperialists” and the “American Satan,” urging me to join an Iranian-backed group which fought those two evils.

The racism I faced, both as a Jew and as a North African, was often very subtle. It was sometimes an almost imperceptible change in peo­ple’s behavior once they found out I was Jewish. It was a feeling that they already had hung negative qualities on my back and that I had to behave irreproachably lest I confirm their opinion and help consolidate the negative generalizations they made about my people. And sometimes the racism was not subtle at all. An old woman screamed at me in a post office in the Latin Quarter,”Dirty Arab! Dirty Arab! Go back where you come from, dirty Beur!” A surprising anti-Semitic statement came from Herve, a supposed friend of mine. One day, as we sat at an outdoor cafe in the Latin Quarter, Herve calmly told me and a friend, “You know, I hate Jews but I like you guys. You are young. You are not like your parents. Your parents are the real bad Jews, hiding money and all that stuff.”

The atmosphere in Paris grew worse with the outbreak of the war in Lebanon. I was then attending a Jewish high school and felt that I was growing up in a Jewish cocoon. I never really had a chance to form my own opinions on this war. Deep down, I knew I was opposed to the Is­raeli army going past its initial goal and getting stuck in a Vietnam-like quagmire. When I saw images on T.V. of the massacres in the Palestini­an refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla, I cried, not only because I saw dead human beings but because those human beings resembled the Beurs to whom I felt so close.

However, the reaction of the French politicians and media made me feel that, as a Jew, I should not allow myself to voice harsh criticism of Israel, that I ought to defend the Jewish state almost blindly since the attacks on it were so biased and unfair. The French press seemed to regard the war in Lebanon as an opportunity to justify their irrational feelings of hatred for Israeli Jews. The fact that Jews were the killers was more important than the fact that people were being killed at all. I had the dis­tinct feeling that many French saw the war as an opportunity to dispose of the old guilt they had carried since their collaboration with the Nazis in World War II. Every day the newspapers used such words as “geno­cide,” “holocaust,” and “fascist forces” and compared the Israeli actions to those of the Nazis in Europe. The main governmental television chan­nel used images from Jordanian television to cover the war and did not even bother to change the commentaries.

I realize now that inside me there was a voice telling me that to sup­port Israel blindly was to play the game of Israel’s attackers, but back then I was overwhelmed by feelings of outrage. I was not strong enough to fight the part of me which said that I should defend myself against those people by using their own methods. The French newspapers and television seemed to play down the fact that many Jews in Israel were opposed to the war in Lebanon. If I were not a Jew, I too might have hated Israel, for at that time Israel was depicted in France as the epitome of all evil. Only the Jews tried to defend Israel. In those dark days of the Lebanon War, I often perceived that the Jews in France were held responsible for Israel’s actions in Lebanon. I often had to face aggressive ques­tions and accusations on the politics of Israel, as if I had some say in Israeli decision-making. All this was only creating a vicious circle. Since French Jews felt as I did, they too blindly defended Israel. This added to the French perception that the Jews were united behind aggressive Israeli policies, thereby fueling overt anti-Semitism and pushing a tiny segment of the population to go as far as drawing swastikas and “Death to the Jews and to Israel” signs on the walls of the subway, thus making Jews even more suspicious and defensive.

I finished high school during the war in Lebanon. All through my high school years I had gone from my North African Jewish home to a Jewish school where most of the students were also North African. As high school ended, I realized that I did not want to leave my cocoon for a   French university. I desperately wanted to live and study in a place where I could be myself and not be in permanent conflict with the majority of those around me. I had visited Israel briefly and read a lot about it, so I natur­ally thought that there, in the Jewish state, I would find the solution to my problems of identity.

Little did I know that in Israel, too, I would feel like an outsider. I was especially surprised that anyone would call me “Frenchie,” and yet Is­raelis often did. After a few months in Israel I genuinely started to feel more like a Frenchman than I ever had while living in France. People kept reminding me that I was French, but I also began to realize how profoundly I had been marked by French culture despite feeling alien to it. I was versed in French literature and history, told French jokes about Belgians, wore French clothes, and was accustomed to French music. I spoke French at home, at my Jewish school, and on the way to and from synagogue. I was used to being Jewish in French.

Once again, I felt foreign to the society in which I lived, and most of the population considered me foreign as well. This time I was not a Jew­ish Moroccan but a French Moroccan and, interestingly enough, I felt and acted less and less Jewish in Israel. While in France I had been quite observant I stopped practicing Judaism entirely in Israel. I remember think­ing at the time that in Israel I could assimilate into a Jewish culture, while in France abandoning Judaism meant losing my whole Jewish identity. Israelis thought of me as a French Moroccan. I felt more and more French and grew increasingly aware of my Moroccan identity. For one thing, I felt the North African blood in my veins in my relations with Pales­tinians. I had never really thought much about how I would feel meeting them before I went to Israel. Most Palestinians one hears about in France are either refugees or terrorists, and I had unconsciously formed an im­age of Palestinians before I arrived. But as I met them at Hebrew Univer­sity, where I was studying, or in the Old City, where I loved to loiter, I felt the same feelings for them as I had for the North African Muslims in France, with whose culture and customs I had often identified. Of course, I often felt the Palestinian resentment toward the Jews in Israel, but when friendship with Palestinians was not made impossible by the Arab-Israeli conflict, I did feel that I had much in common with them.

Once, an Arab friend of mine named Majid invited me to his sister’s wedding. It was held in Majid’s house in ‘Issawiyya, the Arab village bordering Mount Scopus. As I entered the house on the day of the wed­ ding, I recognized the atmosphere of Jewish North African weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. Not only was the Oriental music familiar, but some of the other customs, such as the traditional “Leil al-Hanna” ceremony, in which a family elder rubs red henna on the hands of the bride and groom for happiness, are also observed in North African Jewish homes. At the wedding of Majid’s sister, I had the same feeling as at North African Jewish parties in France. The whole family was there, united like the five fingers of a hand, to share the happiness of the bride and groom. They were prepared to dance for days, as if they had no bones.

In my relations with Jewish Israelis, being Moroccan was sometimes an advantage and sometimes a burden. To my surprise, I learned that in Israel Moroccans are reputed to be violent and uneducated. They often suffer discrimination from Ashkenazim. I heard terrible reports about the discrimination against the majority of Sephardic Jews who immigrated to Israel in the early 1950s. I learned about the ma’abarot, the camps where the Ashkenazi government officials placed them, which were supposed to be temporary but which served as home to the average Sephardi for many years. The conditions in the ma’abarot were atrocious. The Ashkena­zi immigrants, who were segregated in the ma’abarot from the Sephardim, generally received better jobs in better neighborhoods, leaving the camps in a matter of months. I read heartbreaking testimonies from Iraqi Jews who in Iraq had been educated in the best schools and were versed in French, English, and Arabic literature. Some had waited all their lives for the historic moment in which they would come to the Holy Land. They were prepared to abandon all the wealth and habits of living they had developed over twenty-five centuries of exile by the rivers of Baby­lon. But they were not prepared to be treated as though theirs was an inferior culture, as though they needed to be taught “true” and “right” European customs for their own good, as well as for the sake of Israel, whose government greatly feared the “Levantinization” of the Jewish state. How could Sephardic Jews have readied themselves for that first experience upon arrival in the Holy Land, that of being sprayed with DDT — for “disinfection” — by Israeli immigration officials?

Since that appalling treatment of the early 1950s, there has been discrimination in employment, housing, and education. Not surprisingly, many protest groups and organizations have evolved to deal with the problem, which is slowly but surely being recognized and fought. The rate of “intermarriage” between Sepharadi and Ashkenazi Jews is steadily increasing while the inherent value of Oriental Jewish culture is being reclaimed. The day when the social and economic gap between the two groups is closed is just over the horizon.

I still perceived the alienation felt by some Moroccans, whether in the form of their angry recollections of the early years of discrimination in Israel, or the solidarity they sometimes displayed. Although my complexion is dark enough for French people to recognize me as North African, it is light enough for many Israelis to mistake me for an Ashkenazi, espe­cially in combination with my intellectual-looking glasses. In an Israeli electronics store where I once brought my radio to be fixed, the dark Moroccan owner was polite but cold. When I filled out a form and he saw that my name was Afilalo, a typical Moroccan name, his face lit up and he gave me a warm smile. We played “Jewish geography” and learned that he knew my Uncle Asher, who had been a general in the Jewish army.

I also perceived the mixed feelings that some Ashkenazim have towards Moroccans. I was deeply hurt to realize that they feel Moroccans and other Sephardic Jews to be somehow less Jewish than themselves, and that the only way to correct this fault is for the Sephardim to forsake their cus­toms for the benefit of the “norm,” that is to say standard Israeli Ash­kenazic culture.

After living in Israel for three years; I fell in love with an American woman and decided to come back with her to the United States. After only a few weeks outside Israel I realized that I was thinking of it nostalgically, that it had become my new “old country.” I had picked up many Is­raeli habits and had been influenced by the Israeli way of life. I missed going to the corner grocery store and shouting at the owner, “Moshe, give me a box of Shamenet and put it on my account!” I desperately want­ed a cup of coffee from Jerusalem’s Old City, no matter how good the brew in Cambridge’s “Coffee Connection.”

As I sit here in America and reflect on my childhood, I understand that nowhere can I find a country in which I will feel completely at home. I am part of the first generation of North African Jews to be born and grow up outside of their homeland. Since most of the Jews left North Africa, that culture is dying. Looking back at my experiences in France and in Israel, the two countries where most North African Jews now live, I realize that this culture is dissolving into French and Israeli culture, as it is bound to dissolve in all other places where smaller communities of such Jews settle. Each generation will forget more and more of our cus­toms. I never lived in Morocco. My parents speak Judeo-Arabic much better than I do. Whatever amount of Jewish North African culture I can absorb from them is less than what they learned, growing up in Morocco. Having lived in Israel and in France, I feel and act partly French and partly Israeli. Still, many Moroccan customs and ways of life, such as the Jewish North African conception of the family, are still part of me. But how many of these customs will I be able to transmit to my children, and how many will they be able to transmit to theirs? It is unlikely that my great-grandchildren will know that the family is supposed to be as unit­ed as the five fingers of the hand or that, once upon a time, these five fingers were the North African way of scaring away the evil eye.

The home I had been desperately looking for exists nowhere else but in my heart, and in the heart of other North African Jews. It exists in the special place in my soul where I keep the stories of my great-great­ grandfather riding a lion to the caves where he studied with the Prophet Elijah, of my grandfather rationing wine to stop the battering of wives by their husbands, and of my parents’ wedding where all of Marrakesh partied for days. So now I have stopped looking for the place where I will not feel foreign. I carry my home inside of me. I can be at home anywhere.


The author would like to thank Natasha Sabath for her help in editing this article.