One of the things that interests me about the Middle East is its relationship with Jews. Since visiting Morocco so very long ago, then Egypt and Turkey just recently, and now Kuwait and Tunisia, I've been particularly fascinated by the expulsion of Jews from these lands (which is so similar to their expulsion from Spain in 1492; in the educational portal I discuss below, I learned that many of the Jews expelled from Spain were well received in Tunisia); so, I've been reading mostly memoirs like André Aciman's Out of Egypt: A Memoir, keeping my eyes open as I discover Tunis, and just culling information. I'm especially interested in the ways Jewish women are depicted in "home grown" films, postcards and other visuals. I want to share some of the things I'm learning, and some of the visuals I've been gathering.
Jewish women in the Tunis cemetery. Watercolored postcard published by Garrigues.
Tunisian Jewish women, postcard c. 1910. Beth Hatefutsoth-Visual Documentation Center, Courtesy of Abraham Attal, Israel. Girls' Festival/Esther & Judith
In Tunisia, Jews celebrate the sixth night of Hanukkah (which coincides with the first night of Tevet) as the Girls' Festival; in French it's called La Fete des Filles. Because of the holiday's timing, it is also called the Daughters' Rosh Hodesh or, in French, Roch Hodeceh el Bnat. The Girls' Festival is held in memory of the Jewish heroines Esther and Judith who during the month of Tevet acted in ways that impacted their entire Jewish communities. As inscribed in the Scroll of Esther (and as celebrated on Purim), around 470 BCE Esther saved the Jews of Persia from death, by (although hiding her true identity as a Jew) being bold enough to approach the king and ask him to foil the plot to destroy all Jews there. And, as inscribed in the Apocrypha, around 600 BCE Judith saved Jerusalem from capture by the Babylonians by walking into the enemy camp, tricking the Babylonian general, Holofernes, and cutting off his head with a sword.
Jewish woman in Tunis. Published by Lehnert and Landrock. On the night of the Girls' Festival, Tunisian girls receive gifts of special pastries. For example, they receive "Yoyos," which are donuts, and "makrouds," which are semolina pastries filled with dates and fried and dipped in a light orange flavored syrup. They also get "debla" that are made of fluffy dough that's fried and dipped in light orange flavored syrup; debla look like delicate ribbons. And of course, girls get "baklava," which are baked layers of nuts, dates and cinnamon in between thin sheets of filo dough moistened with honey syrup.
Jews walking. Published by Römmler and Jonas.
Jewish woman at home. Published by Lehnert and Landrock. The pointed bonnet is called a “duka” of “takayda.” The name for women’s generic bonnets is “shkufiyya” or “jufiyya.”
I find the depictions by photographers Lehnert and Landrock really interesting. Lehnert and Landrock lived in Tunis for a while.
Hospital for Jews in Tunis/Hôpital d'Israëlites. Published by E.L.D.
There's a documentary film about the mass exodus of Jews from Arab countries and Iran called "The Forgotten Refugees" produced and directed (in 2005) by Michael Grynszpan. I think the film is owned by the David Project, a non-profit organization. The film explores mainly the history of Jews in Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Iraq, but the organization has a useful educational portal that provides a lot of information about Jews in Tunisia.
Jewish women walking. Published by Lehnert and Landrock.
And, a color version. Published by Lehnert and Landrock. According to the educational portal, Jews arrived in Tunisia following the destruction of Jesuralen's First Temple in 586 BCE. The historian Herodotus, wrote that Jews arrived in Tunisia on Phoenician ships. The writings of Saint Augustine refer to Jews in Utica and Toseur. Jews lived all over Tunisia, but were concentrated in certain areas. An intellectual community lived in Carthage, where there was also a Jewish cemetery.
Jewish woman wearing a red dress. Published by Lehnert and Landrock. In 1945 there were about 105,000 Jews in Tunisia. Subsequently, most emigrated to Israel, many to France. Djerba Island, the "Jerusalem of North Africa," is the most active Jewish community in the Arab world. In the portal it says,
"Although in its heyday in the early 1950s the island boasted thousands of Jewish residents and nearly 50 synagogues, today 11 synagogues and 900 Jews still remain in the two main Jewish quarters, known as Hara Kebira ["Big Quarter"] and Hara Sghira ["Little Quarter"]. Djerba is home to Tunisia’s only Jewish school for girls and the last yeshiva (Jewish study house) in the Arab world. The community is the subject of a documentary, a book-long study called The Last Arab Jews [by Udovitch and Valensi, Harwood Academic Publishers, 1985], and appears prominently in a new book called Scattered among the Nations."
Two Jewish women facing each other, Tunisia, between ca. 1900 and 1923. Frank and Frances Carpenter Colleciton, US Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs Division. I learned elswhere that in 1961, President Bourguiba's press conference in New York (which to me is clearly prophetic) was received as a verbal attack on Israel; he said:
"Israel constitutes a colonial problem of a new kind; not domination over one people by another, but still worse, the sub- stitution of one people for another. The people who were in the country now find themselves in the situation that the Jews were in during the war when they were ill-treated and persecuted by the Nazis. They are in concentration camps close to their country. . . . This is a problem for which no solution has been found, and it cannot be solved on points of detail. So long as there is no agreement between the Arabs and the Jews and they come from Europe or Central Europe the existence of Israel is precarious. I think that if the international bodies are not in a position to find a just and suitable solution to this problem, then sooner or later, if not today or tomorrow, then the day after, in a year or ten years, there will be armed struggle in Palestine."
Jewish women walking. Published by Lehnert and Landrock. There were several other issues that prompted Jewish flight out of Tunisia after the 1950s: in the early 1960s President Bourguiba strengthened ties with the Arab League. Postal communication between Tunisia and Israel was disrupted. There was a lot of friction caused between Tunisia and France when they argued over the territory of Bizerte in 1961; since there were about 15,000 Jews with French citizenship living in Tunisia, many of those French Jews were accused of supporting France, not Tunisia, in the fight over Bizerte. A section of the hara (the centuries-old Jewish quarter of Tunis) was demolished in the spring of 1961 to make room for much-needed roads in the heart of the city. And, though not directed at Jews specifically, there were new laws enacted which restricted the merchant class; since most Jews were merchants, the community began to feel highly ambivalent about living in Tunisia. Jewish flight began in earnest.
Jewish woman wearing blue dress/pants. Published by Garrigues. In the early 1960s there were 300 synagouges and most Jews lived in Tunis; other Tunisian cities with high Jewish populations include Sfax, Sousse and Djerba. Despite their massive flight out of Tunisia, many Jews on Djerba Island have refused to leave. Apparently, they feel tied to the ancient El Ghriba, the oldest of the synagougues, whose foundation supposedly contains a stone from the Temple of Solomon; also, it houses the world's oldest Sefer Torah (handwritten holy scriptures). The synagogue is located in Hara Seghira (also known as Er-Riadh), southwest of Houmt Souk, the capital of Djerba.
Interior view of the El Ghriba. Djerba, Tunisia, 1981. Photo by Jan Parik. Beth Hatefutsoth - Visual Documentation Center.
El Ghriba was build by cohanim, Jewish immigrants who arrived on Djerba after the destruction of the First Temple of Jerusalem in 586 BEC--that's 2,000 years ago!
Jewish woman wearing a wedding dress. Published by Lehnert and Landrock. Jews also lived in Kairouan. Early Muslim conquerors founded the city of Kairouan, which became an internationally known center of Jewish learning, but by 1057 when Egypt conquered the area Jews were banished from Kairouan. Jews returned to the city when the French colonized the country in 1881. In mid 20th century, when Tunisia was occupied, the Nazis began building a gas chamber in Kairouan.
Jewish woman reclining. Published by Lehnert and Landrock.
Jewish woman reclining. Published by ND.
Here's one postcard that makes me feel a little uncomfortable (because of the text): A young Jewish woman and her "negro"/Jeune fille juive et son "nègre." Published by Edition de la Librairie et papeterie du Phénix. These two next pictures are of a woman wearing a sifsari. I saw her at the souq in Nabeul. You don't see many women covered in sifsaris; I wanted to take her picture because the sifsari looks so much like the covering Tunisian Jewish women wore at the beginning of the 20th century. Later, I learned that both Muslim and Jews wore the same covering. I trailed this woman but I was too embarrassed to intrude and ask her to allow me to take her picture up close. (I wanted to photograph the front of the sifsari, the folds, the way it's arranged.) Jews in Tunisia were interned in camps beginning July 1942. First the French Vichy government and its dependent protectorate authorities in Tunisia were instigated by the Nazis to intern Jews. Then, when the Germans occupied Tunisia in November 1942, the German authorities became solely responsible for how the Jews were treated. Camps were fenced in and tightly guarded; no one could leave. Hygienic, medical and living conditions were extremely inadequate.
On 14 June 2006 something really interesting happened: members of the Claims Conference Negotiating Committee met with German officials and pressed for expanding the eligibility criteria for the Article 2 Fund, and Tunisians imprisoned by the Nazis in internment camps in Tunisia became (I think) eligible to receive ongoing compensation payments from the Germans. Article 2 Fund payments are 270 Euros (about $350 dollars) per month.
Photo by AFP/Getty Images. Tunisian Jewish women pray at El Ghriba in Djerba 6 May 2007. Tunisia's Jewish community marked that week to remember the third anniversary of the suicide bombing that desecrated the ancient synagogue and killed 21 people--14 of them German tourists. More than 5000 Jewish pilgrims, including 1000 Israelis, attended events on the island of Djerba from 4 to 6 May 2007.
My "to Read-Screen"/Literature-Films by Tunisians
List in Progress...
al-Farsi, Mustafa. al-Munʿaraj/The curve. 1969. (Born 1931.)
al-Madani, Izzidin. (Born 1938. Drama.)
al-Tabayniyy, Natila. Shayʾun fi Nafsika/Something within yourself. 1970. (Born 1949.)
al-Shabbi, Abu al-Qasim. (Poet 1909 - 1934.)
Azzouz, Hind. Fi al-Darb alTawil/On the long road. 1969. (Born 1926; wrote in Arabic.)
Béchir, Zoubeida. (Born 1938; wrote in Arabic.)
Béji, Hélé. L'oeil du jour (The eye of day). 1985. (Born 1948; wrote in Arabic.)
Ben Mami, Laila. Sawmaʿa Tahtariq/The burning hermitage. 1968.
Ben Saleh, Mohammad al-Hadi. Sifr al-Naqla wa al-Tasawwur/The book of transfer and imagination. 1988. (Born 1945.)
Ben Shaikh, Abdel Qader. Wa Nasibi min al-Ufuq/My share of the horizon. 1970.
Bouraoui, Hédi. La Composée. 2001. (Tunisian Canadian American. Born 1932.)
---. La Femme d'entre les lignes. 2002.
el-Houssi, Majid. (Tunisian Italian.)
Ghachem, Moncef. (Born 1947.)
Hahn, Cynthia T. "The Tunisian Women's Movement: A Socio-Historical Commentary." In Women's Movements and Gender Debates in the Middle East and North Africa. Indiana University Press, 2006.
Halfaouine: Boy of the Terraces, 1995 film directed by Ferid Boughedir.
Laskier, Michael M. North African Jewry in the Twentieth Century: The Jews of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. New York: New York University Press, 1994.
Memmi, Albert. Agar/Strangers. (Tunisian Jewish.)
---. Decolonization and the Decolonized. 2006.
---. Jews and Arabs.
---. La statue de sel/The Pillar of Salt. 1953.
---. Le Desert/The Desert.
---. Le Scorpion/The Scorpion.
---. Portrait of a Jew.
---. The Colonizer and the Colonized. 1957.
Man of Ashes. 1986 film directed by Nouri Bouzid.
Misbahi, Hassouna. Kitab al-Tih/The book of the maze. 1997. (Born 1950.)
Mortimer, Mildred, ed. Maghrebian Mosaic. A Literature in Transition. Boulder CO: Lynne Reinner, 2001.
Nalouti, Aroussia. Tamas/Tengance. 1995. (Born 1950.)
Naluti, Arusiyya. (Born 1950; wrote in Arabic.)
Satin Rouge. 2002 film directed by Raja Amari.
Schely-Newman, Esther. Our Lives Are but Stories: Narratives of Tunisian-Israeli Women (Raphael Patai Series in Jewish Folklore and Anthropology). Wayne State University, 2002.
This book discusses stories about migration told by four Jewish Israeli women from agricultural communities in Tunisia.
Silences of the Palace. 1994 film directed by Moufida Tlatli.
Slim, Fatima. (Born 1942.)
Thamer, Nadjia. (Born 1926; wrote in Arabic.)
Tlili, Mustafa. (Tunisian American.)