Being Jewish and Muslim Together: Remembering Our Legacy

28 March, 2021

Jew­ish-Mus­lim Inter­ac­tions: Per­form­ing Cul­tures between North Africa and France
edit­ed by Samuel Sami Everett and Rebekah Vince
Liv­er­pool Uni­ver­si­ty Press (Nov 2020)
ISBN 9781789621334 

Togo Mizrahi and the Mak­ing of Egypt­ian Cin­e­ma by Deb­o­rah Starr
Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia Press (Sept 2020)
ISBN 9780520366206 

By Joyce Zonana

Available from  Liverpool University Press .

Through­out my child­hood in our Egypt­ian-Jew­ish immi­grant house­hold in Brook­lyn, I was reg­u­lar­ly dis­heart­ened by the sight of my grand­moth­er Rose, slumped on our liv­ing room sofa, weep­ing loud­ly as she played and replayed scratched LPs of Farid al-Atrash and Mohammed Abdel Wahab. La musique arabe, “Ara­bic music” as we called it, evoked for me our fam­i­ly’s bro­ken past, the nev­er-to-be-retrieved glo­ry days of their lives in Egypt before the 1952 Free Offi­cers’ Revolt. In my hunger to be Amer­i­can, I want­ed noth­ing to do either with that past or with my shat­tered, griev­ing grand­moth­er, who spoke most­ly Ara­bic and whose only plea­sure seemed to be retelling sto­ries about Goha, the ubiq­ui­tous wise fool of North African and Asian folklore. 

But just the oth­er day, I hap­pened on Safinez Bous­bi­a’s stun­ning 2011 film, El Gus­to, show­cas­ing Mus­lim and Jew­ish Alger­ian chaâbi musi­cians reunit­ed after fifty years of sep­a­ra­tion (most of the coun­try’s 140,000 Jews, denied Alger­ian cit­i­zen­ship in 1963 after inde­pen­dence, had left for France, although under French colo­nial­ism, Jews were grant­ed French cit­i­zen­ship by the Crémieux Decree of 1870, and Mus­lims were not). Watch­ing the film, I was swept away by the music, ecsta­t­i­cal­ly danc­ing and recall­ing my grand­moth­er with a new sense of com­pas­sion. The sounds were so famil­iar, so deep, so infec­tious and joy­ful — chaâbi, the music of the North African “folk,” an amal­gam of Andalu­sian and Amazigh tra­di­tions, along with strains of Islam­ic and Jew­ish chants. The film’s close­ups of those elder­ly yet still vital Jew­ish and Mus­lim men call­ing each oth­er “broth­er” and unabashed­ly embrac­ing, brought tears to my eyes. 

I’d been led to El Gus­to — how had I missed it all this time? — by my read­ing of Samuel Sami Everett and Rebekah Vince’s new edit­ed col­lec­tion, Jew­ish-Mus­lim Inter­ac­tions: Per­form­ing Cul­tures between North Africa and France, a wide-rang­ing explo­ration of what one of its writ­ers — speak­ing of the con­tem­po­rary French com­e­dy duo Younes and Bam­bi — calls “a jovial reimag­in­ing of what it means to be Jew­ish and Mus­lim togeth­er.”

Everett and Vince — who met at Ella Shohat’s 2017 lec­ture on “The Ques­tion of the Arab-Jew and Judaeo-Ara­bic” at the School of Ori­en­tal and African Stud­ies in Lon­don — have care­ful­ly com­piled four­teen essays by a transna­tion­al net­work of emerg­ing and estab­lished schol­ars in fields as var­ied as anthro­pol­o­gy, phi­los­o­phy, his­to­ry, lit­er­a­ture, cul­tur­al stud­ies, and dig­i­tal human­i­ties. (Liv­er­pool Uni­ver­si­ty Press has made four of the 14 essays avail­able online here.)

Expand­ing the con­cept of the Arab Jew to also con­sid­er Jew­ish-Amazigh con­nec­tions, the com­plex and mul­ti­fac­eted vol­ume prop­er­ly reflects the com­plex, mul­ti­fac­eted world that is its sub­ject. The writ­ers explore var­i­ous “per­form­ing cul­tures”— film, the­atre, music, street art, graph­ic nov­els, stand-up com­e­dy — in Alge­ria, Tunisia, Moroc­co, France and Israel. Some of the essays glance back at the ear­ly decades of the 20th cen­tu­ry; some study the cru­cial inter­war years of the 1920s and 1930s; still oth­ers tack­le the imme­di­ate present. All are informed by crit­i­cal, prob­ing per­spec­tives as they con­sid­er “mul­ti­lin­gual and tran­scul­tur­al spheres” that encom­pass “inter­re­li­gious ambiances.” Eschew­ing the term “Fran­coph­o­ne” as a “colo­nial hang­over,” the vol­ume delib­er­ate­ly takes the Maghrib (rather than “Maghreb”) as its start­ing point, refus­ing con­ven­tion­al nar­ra­tives of “con­flict, trau­ma, and nos­tal­gia,” and any total­iz­ing gen­er­al­iza­tions. Instead, the assem­bled writ­ers focus on “cre­ative inter­ac­tions between Maghribi Jews and Mus­lims on both sides of the Mediter­ranean, high­light­ing their inter­con­nect­ed­ness across time.”

And so we meet the Jew­ish Alger­ian actress and singer Marie Sous­san, known as the “Sophie Tuck­er de l’Afrique du Nord,” per­form­ing with her roman­tic and pro­fes­sion­al part­ner, the Mus­lim Rachid Ksen­ti­ni through­out the 1930s. The two reg­u­lar­ly por­trayed a Jew­ish-Mus­lim cou­ple in their play, Aicha et Ben­do, “reworked and rerun” so often that the phrase “Aicha et Ben­do” has become “a pop­u­lar expres­sion in Alger­ian Ara­bic, used to char­ac­ter­ize two peo­ple who argue over the small­est things but nev­er­the­less remain togeth­er.” We learn about the pio­neer­ing work of Albert Sama­ma, a Jew­ish Tunisian film­mak­er whose films in the decade before World War I “crossed the bound­aries between col­o­niz­er and col­o­nized.” And we are intro­duced to the bold images of con­tem­po­rary Parisian street artist Com­bo, born to a Lebanese Chris­t­ian father and a Moroc­can Mus­lim moth­er, who “decon­structs and dis­arms both Islam­o­pho­bia and anti­semitism” through his artis­tic per­son­ae, “Mohamed” and “Moshe.”

Two espe­cial­ly thought­ful essays probe the haunt­ing doc­u­men­taries of Moroc­can-French film­mak­er Kamal Hachkar: Tinghir-Jérusalem: Les échos du Mel­lah [‘Tinghir-Jerusalem: Echoes from the Mel­lah’] and Dans tes yeux, je vois mon pays [‘In Your Eyes, I See My Coun­try’]. Tinghir-Jerusalem, first aired in 2012, reveals the direc­tor’s attach­ment to and explo­ration of the past of his home­town, Tinghir, once known as “the Jerusalem of the desert.” The film doc­u­ments Hachkar’s return to Tinghir, record­ing the mov­ing silences as Mus­lim res­i­dents recall their emo­tions when their Jew­ish neigh­bors left en masse in the 1960s. “The place where you were born and grew up, that is your coun­try,” mus­es one old man. “You have a house … and sud­den­ly you have to leave it. It’s bound to be hard!” 

Hachkar also vis­its Jews from Tinghir now liv­ing in Israel, lament­ing their lost home­land. (Before 1960, Moroc­co had a pop­u­la­tion of some 250,000 Jews; today it is esti­mat­ed at few­er than 3,000.) Hachkar expe­ri­ences the mass emi­gra­tion of Moroc­can Jews as a per­son­al loss: “I am an orphan of this oth­er­ness. A piece of our­selves has been hacked off. It’s a tragedy for which Moroc­co pays a heavy price to this day.”

Sil­ver assem­bles detailed evi­dence to show how at least three Jew­ish North African musi­cians — the Tunisian Habi­ba Mes­si­ka and the Alge­ri­ans Lili Labassi and Sal­im Halali — record­ed songs that sup­port­ed Arab nation­al­ism.

Hachkar’s 2019 film, Dans tes yeux, je vois mon pays, con­tin­ues the explo­ration begun in Tinghir-Jerusalem. Milé­na Kar­tows­ki-Aïach sen­si­tive­ly exam­ines its pre­sen­ta­tion of an Israeli cou­ple’s life and work. Neta Elka­yam and Amit Hai Cohen, both of Moroc­can descent, have devot­ed them­selves to research­ing, record­ing, and per­form­ing Jew­ish Moroc­can music, par­tic­u­lar­ly chaâbi. Hachkar accom­pa­nies the two back to their par­ents’ Moroc­can villages—Tinghir and Tizgui—where Neta and Amit seek rem­nants of their fam­i­lies’ pasts. “What is one’s true coun­try, one’s native land?” the film asks, sug­gest­ing that Neta and Amit, in their quest to “revive a bygone Judeo-Berber world,” are “com­pos­ing a new polypho­ny,” whose sounds res­onate far beyond Moroc­co and Israel.

Among the most sur­pris­ing and provoca­tive essays in the vol­ume is Christo­pher Sil­ver’s “Nation­al­ist Records: Jews, Mus­lims, and Music in Inter­war North Africa.” Trac­ing the move­ment of records “across nation­al bor­ders,” Sil­ver assem­bles detailed evi­dence to show how at least three Jew­ish North African musi­cians — the Tunisian Habi­ba Mes­si­ka and the Alge­ri­ans Lili Labassi and Sal­im Halali — record­ed songs that sup­port­ed Arab nation­al­ism. “Between the two world wars,” Sil­ver writes, “Jews and Mus­lims craft­ed, record­ed, per­formed, passed around, and con­sumed nation­al­ist music togeth­er.” For exam­ple, in 1928, Mes­si­ka, hailed as “the queen of musi­cal ecsta­sy,” record­ed the Egypt­ian nation­al anthem, El Nachid El Mous­ri. “For fans of the Jew­ish artist in the Maghrib, an Egypt­ian anthem hail­ing lib­er­ty was eas­i­ly imag­ined as theirs.” Along with Mes­sika’s record­ings of oth­er nation­al­ist songs (from Syr­ia, Iraq, and Tunisia), El Nachid El Mous­ri cir­cu­lat­ed in Moroc­co and Alge­ria as well as Tunisia, lead­ing French offi­cials in all three nations to cen­sor her records. Still, fol­low­ing Mes­sika’s assas­si­na­tion in 1930, “her voice was every­where.” More than 5,000 Jew­ish, Mus­lim, and Euro­pean fans attend­ed her funer­al, alarm­ing secu­ri­ty offi­cials, who feared the pres­ence of anti-colo­nial­ist fol­low­ers of the nation­al­ist leader Des­tours. Sil­ver’s arti­cle reveals the pow­er­ful polit­i­cal poten­tial of “per­form­ing cul­tures,” while also coun­ter­ing the wide­ly held view that North African Jews were exclu­sive­ly aligned with colo­nial powers. 

Yet, even while high­light­ing such “Accents, Affil­i­a­tion, and Exchange” (the title of the vol­ume’s first sec­tion), Jew­ish-Mus­lim Inter­ac­tions does not shy away from “Absence, Influ­ence and Eli­sion,” as its sec­ond sec­tion is named. Thus, Christi­na More­na Almei­da’s explo­ration of Moroc­can rap reminds us that Moroc­co’s offi­cial con­viven­cia nar­ra­tive, pro­mul­gat­ed espe­cial­ly in its bur­geon­ing music fes­ti­val scene and used to pro­mote tourism, obscures the fact that there is lit­tle inter­ac­tion between Jews and Mus­lims in the nation today. And Eliz­a­beth Perego shows how Alge­ri­a’s state-sup­port­ed graph­ic fic­tion (ban­des dess­inées) of the 1970s and ‘80s  failed to acknowl­edge the sig­nif­i­cant Jew­ish pres­ence and influ­ence in pre-inde­pen­dence Alge­ria. Still, the vol­ume con­cludes with the pos­i­tive exam­ple of stand-up comics Younes and Bam­bi, encour­ag­ing French audi­ences to “laugh their way out of the dom­i­nant, politi­cized mod­el of oppo­si­tion­al rela­tions,” remind­ing us that Mus­lims and Jews occu­py a “shared lim­i­nal­i­ty in white West­ern Euro­pean imag­i­nar­ies,” or, as Yulia Egoro­va puts it “Mus­lims have always already been Jew­ish in the Euro­pean imag­i­na­tion, while Jews have always already been Muslim.”

Jew­ish-Mus­lim Inter­ac­tions is a trea­sure trove of infor­ma­tion, some­times dizzy­ing in its speci­fici­ty, but always provoca­tive and enlight­en­ing. We are treat­ed to exam­ples and analy­ses of Mus­lim-Jew­ish inter­ac­tions across time and space. Most of these inter­ac­tions are between men. Some are between men and women. But what we fail to find are inter­ac­tions between and among women. Cer­tain­ly the empha­sis on “per­form­ing cul­tures” nar­rows the field, but I longed for some dis­cus­sion of what was miss­ing here, and why. The one notable excep­tion is in Kar­tows­ki-Aïach’s dis­cus­sion of Dans tes yeux, je vois mon pays, where she describes a scene in Hachkar’s film that cap­tures Pales­tin­ian doc­u­men­tary film­mak­er Jumana Man­na film­ing Neta Elka­yam cook­ing and singing in her Jerusalem kitchen. Man­na’s film, which address­es the his­to­ry of Manda­to­ry Pales­tine through the music of its mul­ti­ple inhab­i­tants, is enti­tled A Mag­i­cal Sub­stance Flows into Me. In Hachkar’s “mise-en-abime,” Kar­tows­ki-Aïach observes, “the sto­ries and inves­ti­ga­tions over­lap, in search of those crum­bling mem­o­ries that come togeth­er in order to be able to recon­struct them­selves. Through the process of artis­tic cre­ation, each in their own way is look­ing for the self through the oth­er’s medi­a­tion.” This could well be a descrip­tion of Everett and Vince’s vol­ume, enabling us all to recon­struct our­selves through the “oth­er’s mediation.”

Available from the  University of California Press .

Anoth­er recent book may serve as a com­ple­men­tary vol­ume to Mus­lim-Jew­ish Inter­ac­tions. Focus­ing on only one artist work­ing in one medi­um in one nation and writ­ten by one author with one over­ar­ch­ing the­sis, Deb­o­rah Star­r’s Togo Mizrahi and the Mak­ing of Egypt­ian Cin­e­ma is per­haps eas­i­er to grasp than Everett and Vince’s col­lec­tion, though it also offers a com­plex and sub­tle analy­sis of a neglect­ed and impor­tant figure—and sug­gests new ways of think­ing about Mus­lim-Jew­ish interactions. 

Tak­ing us to the east­ern edge of North Africa, out­side the French sphere of polit­i­cal (though not cul­tur­al) influ­ence, the book is a study of a Jew­ish Egypt­ian film­mak­er whose work, Starr argues, con­tributed to the nation­al (and nation­al­ist) project of Egypt­ian cin­e­ma in the 1930s and ear­ly 1940s. Although Mizrahi’s numer­ous farces and musi­cals were extreme­ly pop­u­lar and high­ly regard­ed at the time (he was vot­ed the “most accom­plished film­mak­er in Egypt” by the Asso­ci­a­tion of Cin­e­ma Crit­ics in 1942), he was mar­gin­al­ized after the 1952 rev­o­lu­tion: his films were still shown, but until 1979 his name was removed from the cred­its and he was increas­ing­ly writ­ten out of Egypt­ian film his­to­ry. Star­r’s study is an effort to recu­per­ate Mizrahi’s work, find­ing in it a “plu­ral­ist nation­al­ism” that desta­bi­lizes iden­ti­ty politics—including gen­der, race, and religion.

Two of Mizrahi’s ear­ly films are espe­cial­ly strik­ing to a read­er of Jew­ish-Mus­lim Inter­ac­tions, fea­tur­ing as they do anoth­er Jew­ish-Mus­lim com­ic “cou­ple,” Chalom and ‘Abdu, who have var­i­ous adven­tures and mis­ad­ven­tures togeth­er, includ­ing wak­ing up in bed togeth­er and kiss­ing each oth­er on the mouth. Starr sug­gests that the char­ac­ter of Chalom, played by the Jew­ish actor Leon Angel, “bold­ly inserts low­er-class, arabo­phone Egypt­ian-Jew­ish native­ness into the cul­tur­al imag­i­nary.” The first Chalom and ‘Abdu film, Al-Man­duban or “The Two Del­e­gates,” in which the two low­er-class men court mid­dle-class women, con­cludes with a dou­ble wed­ding, where “the music plays in a con­tin­u­ous, unbro­ken stream over a mon­tage of wed­ding images fea­tur­ing both cou­ples.” The sec­ond Chalom and ‘Abdu film, Al-‘Izz bah­dala, “Mis­treat­ed by Afflu­ence,” also ends with a dou­ble wed­ding that omits specif­i­cal­ly Islam­ic or Jew­ish rit­u­als. Instead, what we hear and see are music and dance. Starr calls atten­tion to how Mizrahi’s tech­nique “serves to blur dis­tinc­tions between the Jew­ish and Mus­lim wed­dings,” under­scor­ing the films’ “ethics of coex­is­tence,” rep­re­sent­ing “deeply inter­twined com­mu­ni­ties of Jews and Mus­lims coex­ist­ing as equals.”

An ethics of coex­is­tence, a plu­ral­is­tic aes­thet­ic, and the per­for­ma­tiv­i­ty of iden­ti­ty are the three ele­ments of what Starr iden­ti­fies as Mizrahi’s “Lev­an­tine cin­e­mat­ic idiom,” and which she explores through detailed analy­ses of numer­ous films, includ­ing sev­er­al that fea­ture not­ed per­form­ers Lay­la Murad, Tahiya Car­i­o­ca, and Umm Kulthum. Starr uses the term “Lev­an­tine” to sug­gest a “porous mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism,” cel­e­brat­ed in the essays of Egypt­ian-Jew­ish writer Jacque­line Shohet Kahanoff, and per­haps made most famil­iar through Ammiel Alcalay’s ground­break­ing 1993 study, After Jews and Arabs: Remak­ing Lev­an­tine Cul­ture (though, inex­plic­a­bly, Starr nev­er ref­er­ences Alcalay). Alcalay had sug­gest­ed that the qual­i­ties of “mobil­i­ty, diver­si­ty, auton­o­my, and trans­lata­bil­i­ty” char­ac­ter­ized the Jews of the Lev­ant, and it would seem that those qual­i­ties too might be applied to the work of Togo Mizrahi. Such qual­i­ties, I sup­pose, also char­ac­ter­ize Goha, my grand­moth­er’s favorite—whose sto­ries I now want to recover. 

Humor and music, the two things that con­nect­ed my grand­moth­er with a past in which Jews and Mus­lims lived togeth­er, emerge from both of these stud­ies as two sig­nif­i­cant media for recon­nec­tion, each what Jumana Man­na calls a “mag­i­cal sub­stance,” link­ing us to one anoth­er and to our histories.

Fur­ther Read­ing
Neta Elka­yam Bridg­ing Time, Dis­tance and Dis­trust, With Music | Aida Ala­mi
Chris Sil­ver obses­sive 78s col­lec­tor, pre­serves North African Jew­ish music | Asaf Shalev
Mid­night in Cairo Review: Queens of Jazz Age Egypt | Moira Hodg­son
Lev­an­tine dreams: The glob­al films of Togo Mizrahi | Raphael Cormack