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Testing Diversity, Researching the Invisible: The Jew, the Israelite, and the Margins of Algerian National Identity (in France)

[Screenshot from a debate between Zohra Drif and Bernard-Henri Lévy. Screenshot taken from Youtube.] [Screenshot from a debate between Zohra Drif and Bernard-Henri Lévy. Screenshot taken from Youtube.]

[This is one of six pieces in Jadaliyya's electronic roundtable on the anniversary of the Algerian Revolution. Moderated by Muriam Haleh Davis, it features contributions from Ed McAllisterJames McDougallMalika RahalNatalya VinceSamuel Everett, and Thomas Serres.]

Building upon themes that emerged from my ethnography-based PhD research on affective belonging in North African Diaspora in Ile-de-France (greater Paris), here I sketch the contours of a research project in its nascent intellectual stages. My previous triangular focus on Jewish Maghrebi identification to Israel, France and the Maghreb is re-routed towards an analysis of discourses on Jews and Jewishness in Algerian cultural production. My focus is on three important events in 2012, all of which are connected to the discourse of Algerian nation-building and Jewish culture in the Algerian press.

Conceptually, Islamic collective identity is often viewed as quasi-inevitable in Algeria - firstly as a bulwark against imperialism, and later as central to nation building, as demonstrated by James McDougall’s study of Algerian Islamic reformism, which touches on its impact on post-independence Algeria.[1] In parallel, Mounira Charrad’s state-tribe variable relating to gender policy in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, links Arab-Islamic political structure to patterns of kinship and paternalism.[2] However, discursive formations concerning national identity go beyond the dichotomy between indigenous cultural preservation (i.e. the home and the heart) and the material power of the West (i.e. policy, trade, and technological advancement). The influence of migration, post-Socialism and the will to social improvement must also be taken into account in seeking to understand attitudes towards diversity. By exploring the socio-historical complexity of representations around an invisible religious minority (the Jew), I seek to enrich understanding of the relationship between ethno-religiosity, nationhood, and diversity.

Nevertheless, testing diversity is complex. While various barometers (the Arab barometer and the report by the US Department of State) test tolerance quantitatively, I approach the question of contemporary nation-building practices and their relationship to diversity from above (in cultural production) as well as from below (ethnographically). My review of French and Arabic language written press is underway but not yet complete. So far on-line word searches for: israelites, juifs, yahud (but not Israel) have yielded over two hundred results in El Watan and El Khabar (the two most widely circulated French and Arabic language daily papers) in 2012. More than sixty-five percent of the articles, interviews, and comments concerned Israel. I have set aside stories converging around Zionism because, notwithstanding its obvious importance, the often-overused lens of the Israel-Palestine conflict is already a dominant interpretative framework in discussions of Jewish minorities in Muslim majority countries today.

Twenty-five percent of the stories concerned internal French politics, and the remaining ten percent of the articles concerned culture and religion. For this latter group, the articles coincided with the following encounters had 1) in an overheated theater in Marseille watching a discussion between Zohra Drif and Bernard Henri Levy, 2) while interviewing Algerian Jewish pilgrims from Tlemcen, and finally 3) at Le grand Rex for a film and concert double bill. Though they physically occurred in France, these encounters are all intimately concerned with the question of diversity and the Algerian nation.

1) BHL vs. ZD

The closing session at La Criée in Marseille on 1 April 2012 was held to the cries of “vive la République” (in solidarity with) and “criminel de guerre” (directed against) Bernard-Henri Lévy (known as “BHL”) regarding his involvement in the Libyan intervention. During the debate with Zohra Drif, BHL introduced himself as above all a Frenchman, but he also emphasized that he was the grandson of a humble shepherd from Tlemcen. By contrast, Zohra Drif, who is one of the FLN’s most celebrated moujahidat, introduced herself as primarily a “woman, of Arab-Islamic culture and Algerian.” The lessons derived from this debate in El Watan and El Khabar were that BHL should have drawn parallels between Arab and Jewish suffering rather than establishing a hierarchy between them. On the day of the discussion, tensions boiled over in the national theater hall when BHL invoked the concept of “terrorism” in relation to the la bombinette (the small bomb) that Zohra Drif had placed in the infamous Milk bar in Algiers, because it targeted civilians and not the army. BHL claimed:

Had I been of an age to do so I would have supported (the FLN) probably quite radically. However when a cause is just, sometimes we support it in unjust ways that can be dishonorable, for example the Milk Bar in 1956. Terrorism is unacceptable so if an author (of an attack) claims an act of terror and dresses it up with good reasons. I think this does no good to a just cause.

Zohra Drif, unperturbed, responded that Algerians had done what they could, that they too were a part of civil society, and that disparate perspectives on the war could not be reconciled easily. However BHL, a man of the present who uses words as actions, ably fused past and present discourses of terrorism and intolerance. Indeed, it would seem that subjecting the actions of Zohra Drif to a tribunal far exceeds the demands of French-Algerian repentance.  

The debate between Zohra Drif and Bernard Henri Levy highlights the danger and sensitivity of “testing diversity” in and through such moments of dialogue. When two such symbolic iconoclasts are pitted against one another, it often molds them to represent antagonistic positions and plays on pre-existent postcolonial tensions (here between fils de pied noir and indigène Franco-Algerian). The lived realities of their experiences may, however, reflect a wider repertoire of modes of thinking and acting.

2) Pilgrimage

Perhaps spirituality can also allow for a discussion regarding diversity. In May 2012, two articles appeared in El Watan that discussed peacefully-received Jewish pilgrims to Tunisia and Morocco (in which Israeli citizens had participated). One implication of the story was the fact that this did not happen in Algeria. In effect, Algerian authorities have maintained an ambiguous stance to this centuries old cultural-religious practice. Under Bouteflika’s rule, restrictions on these pilgrimages, in particular to Tlemcen, have loosened and tightened. The National Union for the Friends of Tlemcen, a Parisian association principally made up of elderly Jewish people from Tlemcen, organized one such pilgrimage (known as Hiloula, which comes from the Aramaic for festivity) to the tomb of the Rabbi Ephraïm Enkaoua (le Rav) just outside of Tlemcen.[3]

During an interview a leader of the association, Marc Siksik, told me that he was interested in perpetuating the spiritual and cultural life of his hometown Tlemcen.[4] He spoke to me about his role in planning a pilgrimage in 2005, which had been the first official pilgrimage to the tomb of the Rev since 1970s. He recounted that: “The ambassador called me and told me that the hotel was fully booked, I went to see the hotel manager and told him to give the ambassador my suite.”  Moreover he noted “Ben Bella asked me about a friend of mine …he raised his arms to the sky and asked “’arlish b’adou”? “Darkum hna!” (Why did you distance yourselves from us? Your home is here!)

Marc Siksik explained that he felt western Algeria was safe—alluding to its proximity to Morocco—as opposed to what he perceived was a more radically Islamic East (referring perhaps to the intensity of violence during the Algerian civil war). His understanding of the Algerian political landscape and his interactions with the elite underlines his proximity through what BHL calls “des droits” (rights) vis-à-vis Algeria. But the security apparatus deployed in conjunction with his trip tells another story – one that focuses on the danger perceived in any Jewish presence that includes Israeli citizens on Algerian soil. While the opening for non-Muslim tourism and culture in Algeria appears to have closed again, the experience of 2005 shows some signs that North African Hiloulot (plural of Hiloula), a formerly shared practice, is of concern in Algeria.[5] Indeed, it may provide a terrain for a frank—as opposed to dogma-driven and rhetorically charged—discussion of cultural and religious diversity.

3) El Gusto

Safinez Bousbia’s documentary El Gusto, set in the present, films the re-constitution of the eponymous Algérois Chaabi music group, which was composed of Jewish and Muslim musicians. Chaabi music, steeped in the Andalusi musical tradition, was historically the preserve of Arabic speakers mentored by Chioukh. For example, Hadj Si Mohamed El Anka, father of El Anka (junior) who appears in the film, was a pupil of the Jewish Cheikh Edmond Yafil, who was still alive at the turn twentieth century. The music was played in working-class urban areas of Algeria, hence the name that the genre came to acquire. Developing between two World Wars, Chaabi became a site for gatherings in the 1950s, but the violence of the War of Independence obscured the fact that it was a shared musical form.

On the 8 and 9 January 2012 at Le Grand Rex in Paris, a special screening of the film, with a director’s question and answer (Q&A), preceded a Chaabi performance by the band “El Gusto.” The audience was mostly either Algerian or descendants of Jewish and Muslim Algerians. During the Q&A, visibly excited, one young man said that seeing Algiers again after fifty years, his mother had expressed a wish to return. He had booked flights and they would be visiting together. Some people staged a mini-walkout in protest against the “politicization” of the Q&A when the first question concerned the War of Independence. It appeared the silent protesters were unhappy to be reminded of “those bad times.” Others stayed to ask Bousbia questions about the issues of gaining the accord of Le Pouvoir given the context of the film, a conversation that revealed sobering accounts regarding the difficulties of performing in Algiers during the 1990s. Continuing this theme, a man recounted that Salafi friends allowed him to play Chaabi in his car because, he explained, “it’s not music, it’s part of us.”

A spate of articles in El Watan and El Khabar published at the beginning of 2012 wrote of the deep integration of Jewish people in Algeria. They argued that the film brings this mixed history to life and shows that the cultural heritage of Algerian is, in fact, plural. Bousbia’s film strengthens this idea by attesting to a Judeo-Muslim musical collective consciousness. Recently Glasser,[6] after Bouzar-Kasbaji in Algeria,[7] and Roth in France,[8] has indicated that Andalusi music (the grandfather of Chaabi) was a syncretic cultural production that represented tolerance at the time. However Bousbia’s project is anchored in the present, in line with the interdisciplinary development of a cultural-political epistemology. Bousbia is politically engaged with both sides of the Mediterranean in deconstructing taboos in Algeria and complicating the image of a singular identity in France. 

Conclusions

I have formulated my conclusions as a series of observations and contingent questions. Concerning the BHL/Zohra Drif debate: Judeo-Muslim relations in conjunction to the war of independence, and reinterpreted through the lens of “terror,” can easily become reified. On the margins of such simplifications, a more interesting question might be whether the dominant frame of Islamic violence has shut down a more subtle conversation about Judeo-Muslim solidarity or specificity? On pilgrimage: Marc Siksik successfully organized a pilgrimage that included citizens from across the globe and among them Israel, through his passion for Judeo-Tlemceni culture. At elite level in Algeria there is complex discussion about national diversity that is troubled by geopolitics and ambivalent towards the existence of Algerian-Jewish forms of expression. Is it possible, then, that Judeo-Muslim syncretism can help us to rethink that ambivalence? Music: In the same way as Algerian Hiloula fuses elements of Sufi mysticism and Maghrebi folklore, Andalusi music reaches beyond the reductive logics of orthodoxy and insularity. Can transnational stories, romanticism and engagement for another different kind of life have cross-border influence in a debate around diversity that, somehow invisible to those who want change, is not currently being had?


[1] James McDougall, History and the Culture of Nationalism in Algeria (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[2] Mounira Charrad, States and Women’s Rights: The Making of Postcolonial Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

[3] Susan Slyomovics, “Geographies of Jewish Tlemcen,” The Journal of North African Studies, 5:4, 81 – 96.

[4] For reasons of sensitivity, this name has been changed.

[5] Although it is important to note that this was marred by the local press that often merged the terms pied noir and juif.

[6] Jonathan Glasser, “Edmond Yafil and Andalusi Musical Revival in Early 20th Century Algeria,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 44, (2012), 671–692. 

[7] Nadya Bouzar-Kasbadji, L’emergence Artistique Algérienne Au XXe Siècle: Contribution de La Musique et Du Théâtre Algérois à La Renaissance Culturelle et à La Prise de Conscience Nationaliste: Reflet de La Presse Coloniale et “Indigène”1920-1956 (Alger: Office des Publications Universitaires, 1988).

[8] Arlette Roth, Le Théâtre algérien de langue dialectale, 1926-1954 (Paris: F. Maspero, 1967).

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