Arabic: my dead Jewish language

Méssaouda is an Arab-Jewish great-grandmother who has just passed on. Yossef Murciano, her great-grandson, remembers her history, her humor, her language, and, above all, the memory of a lack of understanding. In this text, the distant descendant recalls his strange familiarity with Moroccan Jewish culture, in which he has been immersed all his life, without ever really knowing it.


Jewish women of Tiznit, Souss region, Morocco, 1930s. Photograph by Jean Besancenot © mahJ


Today, Mémé died. I received the news via the family WhatsApp group, at 5:21am. 

When I heard it, I thought: I didn’t know her well enough. For that, I would have had to speak Arabic. It wasn’t that we didn’t speak, but rather that all our discussions were similar. She would pour out streams of prayers in Arabic, and I would say Amen and pretend to understand something. The scene was always the same: she would grab my hands and the flow would begin. In this one, I could make out wishes for long life and wedding vows. She wanted me to get married quickly, so that my wife could have a baby boy, and become, as she dreamed, a great-great-grandmother. I didn’t fulfill her dream. Instead, I’m left to trace the blurred thread of this lineage.

In the beginning, there’s misunderstanding. Sometimes my mother or one of her sisters would translate it for me. More often than not, I was alone with her, her smile revealed by the folds of her veil – for us, we call it a headscarf. If the veil sometimes made me wonder about her, I took it for granted. I said to myself: she’s very old, and was a very old woman, when she came from Morocco, she wore a headscarf, be she Jewish or Arab.

When I was younger, I insisted on understanding. Eventually I accepted that I would have to pretend.

I can’t say for sure, but I think she was funny. It’s unusual not to be able to talk to people close to you, and the back-and-forth between Arabic and French was losing me. My translators, her interpreters, always ended up dropping French. They’d turn to my great-grandmother, away from me, and respond to her jibes in Arabic for what usually seemed to be the punchline of a joke. When I was younger, I insisted on understanding. Eventually I accepted that I would have to pretend. 

Méssaouda (with an é over the e) must have been born in the 30s. No precise date available, so I calculate: I take generations 20 years apart, between me and my mother, between my mother and her mother, and so on. Méssaouda must have been born in a small village in Morocco, near the desert. Everything is missing, even the outlines. I’ve always known her in her single-storey house in Evry, surrounded by her daughters. Behind the house, there’s either a forest or a large garden. I don’t know what became of that house. I just remember jumping around in it, and eating royally too. At the end of her life, her husband David’s legs were still aching. He’d watch us run and shout at us in Arabic. To keep up the nonsense, it’s handy sometimes not to understand the warnings.

Of the many memories I have of her, not one involves discussion. Why did they immigrate to France? What was this moment in their lives and in history? In the car, on the way to the hospital where she eventually left, I hesitate. But I don’t ask. It’s still too early. As an indiscretion, I understand that Méssaouda and her husband arrived from Morocco in the 2000s. A good ten years after my mother and her parents, and a few years after I was born. At eighty, why and how should they learn French? They could only live surrounded by their children and grandchildren.

There’s a kind of blind trust in the gestures of mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers. A presumption of correctness. If one of their gestures seemed to contradict a Halacha (a commandment of Jewish law) that I’d been taught at school, my reflex was to question my understanding of school teachings.

If the path for her was not in the direction of my mother tongue, I had to ask myself: what about me, do I want to learn Arabic? I answer a small, lost yes, because I no longer know what I’m looking for. I found myself fascinated by Ashkenazi Judaism and Arab culture. I roam Poland and its destroyed shtetls, I sing in Hasidic liturgy, I joke in Yiddish, I study Talmud with Lithuanians or Jews from Strasbourg, I try to understand Levinas and Jankelevitch, or I learn Middle Eastern recipes, I imitate a Lebanese accent with friends, I follow Egyptian DJs online, my Instagram is bursting with memes in Arabic I don’t understand. And always this point of avoidance, of Moroccan Jewish culture, where I come from, in which I bathe, which belongs to me.

Méssaouda’s passing is like a page in our history turning before our very eyes.  And it is written in Arabic, this feminine and matriarchal page, the story of a whole world of Jewish women who decide everything – except their marriages. Traditionally, Judaism is transmitted through the mother. If I translate, I say, the women know. It’s in their gestures that we learn, almost more than in school. There’s a kind of blind trust in the gestures of mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers. A presumption of correctness. If one of their gestures seemed to contradict a Halacha (a commandment of Jewish law) that I’d been taught at school, my reflex was to question my understanding of school teachings. When my father got involved, a layer of difficulty and contradiction was sometimes superimposed. For him, at home, it’s the men who know. It’s become a joke: he returns from synagogue thinking that an ancestral gesture is not halachic (in accordance with Jewish law). The ensuing argument with my mother can last several minutes. It’s always the same ritual. We check. She’s right. Women know.

Jews of Morocco, 1934-1937, photographs by Jean Besancenot © mahJ

As I enter the mortuary, in the basement of the Corbeil-Essonnes hospital, the story that escapes me, what it means to be a Jew from the Sahara, I’ll never know, but a mere descendant. I’ll never know what it means to grow up in a village, to bake bread in a communal oven, to be the only people in a land of Islam who can make and sell alcohol. The women weep over the body of this woman who is no more, for a moment. The men pray. Everyone supports each other. The women hug and weep together. Men touch neighbors’ shoulders without looking at each other. One blows his nose, wipes his eyes. The other, like a brother, silently brings him a handkerchief. Modesty, sharing, pride, prayer, all these gestures. I wonder if it’s transmitted. In a while, they’ll probably argue, too tired from the night, from the road, for dozens of reasons that death hasn’t silenced.  

Time flies. Ten thousand little things bother me. Ten thousand other things go unnoticed. The mortician wants to take the body away, we haven’t had time to finish the chapter of Tehillim (psalms). I ask for more time. I translate, I speak both languages. The one who reads the Tehillim, pretending not to see the mortician, also speaks his language. But sobbing doesn’t go well with our French politeness, so he prefers to continue reading his psalms over his tears. 

Time flies. Ten thousand little things bother me. Another ten thousand go unnoticed. The mortician wants to take the body away. It’s time to stop praying, to let go of this piece of personal and universal history. My cousins want to keep on praying, the last act of gratitude to this woman that we could possibly perform. To the man who wants to take the body away, I ask for more time. I try to translate this desire to continue praying, just as my translators had translated Méssaouda’s jokes. I too want to become an interpreter. One of my cousins continues his Tehillim (psalms of David), pretending not to understand the mortician’s insistence. The sobs clash with the polite formulas, so he prefers to continue chanting, stumbling over his tears.

Tonight, Méssaouda will be transported to Israel, so that tomorrow she can rest beside her husband. From one desert to another. Europe, my Europe, was just a stopover.

One of the sisters lives in Jerusalem. I don’t know her; she’s never been to France. My family history is a sample of Moroccan Jewish history. Everyone tried their luck: some in Israel, others in France. My mother’s brother went to Canada. We all keep remnants of this land, whether we walked on it as children or not. In every corner of the world, we keep a photo of the King of Morocco above the TV. But how do we understand our connection to the land? Israel seems to be a goal; France, a land of passage where you don’t have to rest your dead; and Morocco, a kind of dream, a fantasy, a memory reworked a thousand times. 

All my childhood, I asked myself what it meant for a Jew to live in Morocco. The answer remained vague. The answer is, a happy life that you regret, in a land that you’ve fled. The Jews were rich there, but left to study and find work.

Young Jewish woman in a Tafilalet garb, Erfoud (Morocco), 1934-1939, Jean Besancenot © mahJ

To find out for myself, I went there a few months ago, to Morocco, on a trip organized by the UEJF (Union of Jewish Students of France), of which I am one of the leaders. I found it a magnificent country. The cemeteries are white and the names inscribed on the graves are similar to mine. In the synagogues, the rituals and prayer tunes are familiar. In the streets, I force an accent I don’t have, as if I need to prove something. It’s no use: Moroccans see me as a Frenchman with no connection to their country. And for good reason: I don’t speak the language, my skin is white, my eyes blue and my hair blond. Only the customs officer recognized my name on my passport, and asked me if I was Moroccan. I thank him again, because he allows me to say that I have been recognized, an authority, a professional, as one of their own! One example for a hundred counter-examples. And from there, I have the link with this woman who has just passed away.

Can we call ourselves Moroccan Jews? Can we call ourselves French?

I think Méssaouda lived in France as she had lived in Morocco. With her headscarf and her gold bracelets that made a noise when she wiggled her arm. Beautiful years. They had come here to join their children, who themselves had left Morocco to offer their own children a better future. And that better future was supposed to be me, the first of my line to be born here in France. 

And they… they went to Israel to rest. And their daughter, my grandmother, lives in Ashdod for part of the year. How many generations have there been in Morocco? Ten? Fifteen? Since the expulsion of the Jews from Spain? Before that? Why don’t we stay ten generations in France too? 

We, my brothers and the other sons of immigrants are seeing our grandparents emigrate for the second time in their lives. Without being sure that we’ll finish our lives in France ourselves. Can we call ourselves Moroccan Jews? Can we call ourselves French?   

The coffin closes. Soon, they take it away. Walking behind the long black car, I have to decide. What goes to the cemetery in Givat Shaul? And what stays with me in Paris?. My great-aunt says to me: “She left alive, this woman.” I don’t really know what that means. That is what stays with me.

Yossef Murciano

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