Mamie-louche

(an autofiction)

 

George Segal, “Chance Meeting”, 1989 © Wikiart.

There’s a fault in childhood. A hole: it touches my right hip and it stops me dead; it leaves me limping for a year. A small girl, stumbling. A small girl watched, by turns indifferently and warily. A small girl, sometimes mocked. A small girl, just like the others, but also not.

One day, the cartilage will mend. A medical procedure, and my hip will function like new. Only it won’t matter: the whole leg will remain a prosthesis, as far as I’m concerned. It always will.

~~~~~~

“But why make yourself more Jewish than you are? You’re lucky not to have to carry that kind of name around; it just opens the door to anti-Semitic digs. And honestly, who really wants to be Jewish in France these days?”

Raphaël is needling me, but only because our conversation has touched something quite close to him: He does have to carry that kind of name around–that of his father’s father, the only Jew in the family–and, with it, and with it the weight of various misadventures, forced inclusions, and other things over to which he has a very distant connection.

He is my antithesis. He’s my best friend.

He occludes and conceals. I divulge and declare. He is never hurried; I am forever anxious.

~~~~~~

I have a mamie louche[1]. No, she isn’t cock-eyed, isn’t strabismic, doesn’t squint. Of course, she does plenty of ladling–couscous or shakshuka, both ladelled over and over–and I concede that certainly has something to do with the nickname. But if I say she’s louche, it’s only because, though she was born Djora Lallouche, her surname varies a good deal between the various documents on which it appears, and this–well, it’s a bit louche, isn’t it?

I’m not talking about the classic disappearance of the second ‘l’ from ‘llouche,’ either, but of the mysterious fall of that same second consonant in certain documents dating from French Algeria —Djora Allouche. Or of the transformation from feminine to masculine on other papers–Djora Lellouche. Some domestic legends even have her going by Djora Loullouche, though since I’ve seen no proof of this, we can put that down to familial exaggeration. And then the first name–Djora: I don’t know anyone else with it, though I know it exists, in Algeria and, as an import, in France as well. When she arrived there, in the metropole, just after the Second World War, everyone would ask her to repeat it, as if to make sure she heard its incongruity as well as they did

–Laura? Dora? Dvorak?

–No: more like Djurdjura.

Her parents, Abraham and Kakou, born at the end of the 19th century, had given their children names that always sounded, to me, like they belonged to a lost world–like characters in a tale of another place entirely: Semha, Yaakov, Sakina, Eliaou–and then Mordechai and Mezeltoub, who died in infancy.

But what’s even loucher about mamie-louche is that no word of her Algerian history ever reached France. Maybe she lost her baggage in transit–one click, and her history was cleared. A young woman, the youngest of her siblings and the most rebellious, she left Algeria with no studies to her credit to be with the man she loved. En route to Algiers, she married in a civil ceremony this young man–a Kabyle, and clearly not her family’s choice.

We have to conjure another image of them, then, in which we find them in France, in a Parisian banlieue, building–in poverty and through toil–a family more French than even assimilation demanded.

Etymologically speaking, trauma refers to a breach of the body’s integrity that results in a wound. In my grandparents’ case, I imagine it as an ocean separating two lands, the distance forever spreading out before them. Before that, I imagine it as the distance between two villages, a space transgressed by love. Further upstream still, further in the past, there may have been many other fractures, other ruptures–other faults by which the tabula rasa of the mamie-louche identity was arrived at.

This inarticulable transition was manifest by way of a diverse variety of symptoms: severed family ties, children who never learned the Berber of their parents, cultural and religious uprooting so profound as to result in the family’s youngest two children, my mother included, insisted on following their friends from the republican school to church, on learning the catechism. The children won their case. This is how, in the vein of ‘Catholic Muslims’ (the colonial administration’s name for natives who converted to Christianity,) and the ‘Muslim Wandering Jew’ of the books of Hélène Cixous, I can say there are Jewish-Catholic-Muslims in my family. This is, ultimately, a simple logical deduction, and has no real foundation in my mother’s identity, perfectly secular and entirely non-practicing as it is.

I know very little about my grandfather–he died before I was born–except that he completed a middle school education which, though it may not mean much today, wasn’t an insignificant accomplishment for my grandfather, especially for someone of his time, with his origins. A hard worker, he died of his job at the factory–a tumor. The chemicals with which he worked devoured his brain. He succumbed quickly. My mother, barely 23 years old at the time, remembers his haggard frame those last few months, the pain with which it carried around its 40 kilos. She adored her father. She felt loved by him, this man who alternated between delight and anxiety, perhaps with too much intensity; today, he may have been called bipolar. Or, perhaps, he was simply a person who lived a hard life which was cut short by something that ate away at his very being.

As a young widow, my grandmother continued a life of work befitting someone of her education, finding employment as a nanny and, as I put it as a child, ‘canteen lady.’ Much later, reading the work of Albert Memmi or, in a very different context, of Romain Gary, I learned there was such a thing as Jews who were quite poor and entirely uneducated, not at all like the artists, intellectuals, or committed men and women of the left whom I dreamed of during my studies. Nonetheless, I still wonder how mamie-louche could have been a Jew, since there seems to be no trace of Jewishness in her home. Today, as I keep her fragile body company, observing the way her melancholy gaze meets the television screen, I feel I dare not ask her any more questions about it. I fear she would collapse entirely.

How did they experience the Algerian War from the banlieue? My only notions are pale, half-formed and immanent. It’s quite probable that my grandfather was, briefly, close to the Algerian National Movement, main competitor of the FLN. But then, all at once, he wasn’t close with anything–he went as far as ordering his children never to marry Algerians or Arabs. He retired to a sort of interior cave, even as he lived in the melting-pot of the banlieue’s low-cost housing, among pied noirs of Spanish and Italian extraction, among Jews, among Moroccans and Tunisians–among all who made up the friendly ecosystem of the small neighborhood. My grandmother herself sought refuge in a form of thoughtlessness, immersing herself in housework and the low-and-middlebrow chatter that constituted, and still constitutes today, the basis for daily discussions.

What happened, then, to her brothers and sisters? My grandmother doesn’t know.

My grandparents’ children followed their father’s matrimonial advice. Except my mother, whose choice was a little more ambiguous: a Lebanese man–so an Arab, then? Well, maybe. But he was a Christian, too: a Maronite.

Fast forward

At a birthday party in Paris, a guy I talk to tells me his family, Eastern Jews–Poles, probably; I don’t remember–stopped in Strasbourg and decided to settle there. And why this town, specifically? Because they found the city festive and gaily decorated, found its residents cheerful and welcoming–found them dancing in the streets, as a matter of fact. An enchanting place! It was July 14th, but this brave family had no idea what that meant. We laugh. And then I, in turn, tell him my family stories, including that of the hilarious naivete with which my grandparents learned of the existence of Santa Claus, or of my father, having just arrived from Lebanon, desperately searching for the ‘Du Centre’ school, and enlisting the help of passers-by to do so. They couldn’t have guessed that the young man with the accent had just been accepted as a student at l’Ecole Centrale.

“Look at you, racking up distinctions!” said one of my French colleagues, one day, after I’d confided my family’s story to her. But, the truth is, I never realized that while growing up in France. As a petit-bourgeoise of the west Parisian suburbs, I grew up obsessed with doing well in school, (a chance Mamie Louche never had, and consequently something of a family leitmotif,) strictly prohibited from talking about my family’s Algerian history, and ashamed–shame of which I am, today, ashamed–of the Arabic music my father would listen to in the car. Perhaps it was the physical distance I glanced beneath the surface, the depths of which were hitherto unexplored. I left for the U.S. on a very republican September 4th–the same day my father first stepped foot in France, a few years before the Civil War ravaged his country.[2] I was 23 years old–the same age at which my mother lost her father. That was the age I first began to understand my identities as “so cool!,” as an American woman with a taste for the exotic put it one night at a New York bar. It’s from across the Atlantic that this story’s redeployed.

The catechristic Jew

During my doctoral studies at Harvard, I’m taking a course on Jewish identity in the work of Derrida. There were four of us: two undergraduates, a girl studying for an MA in Jewish studies, and me: a French girl doing her dissertation on the literary writing of minority memory in Algeria–the most goyish of the group. In that course, I discover something simple but fundamental, something neither archival, genealogical and genetic research, nor my own psychoanalytical curiosity, had yet revealed: that even if Judaism is “terminable”, as Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi puts it in the title of one of his books, Jewishness isn’t. And that meant, given this horizon of infinitude, that the indefinable difference at the heart of Jewish identity could, perhaps–could, in spite of everything–be transmitted to me. Before, not being a Jew, I’d avoided calling myself Jewish. Now, I allowed myself to walk with a Jewish prosthesis.

At the end of that semester of revelation, in the cold, subterranean corridors of Widener Library, I run into my Derridean professor. He is an Israeli-German-American whose parents came from Syria, Iran, and Germany,and despite his constant bad temper, I like him very much. We discuss the creative project my fellow students and I are to present during the last class of the semester. Roughly speaking, it’s a collage. It’s written in the tradition of Derrida’s Glas, that completely crazy, completely brilliant text which, on each page, juxtaposes a passage of Hegel with a passage from Genet’s autobiographical writings–and this description excludes the (somewhat Talmudic?) insertions of the author-commentator, which augments the tension between the two referenced texts. It’s no mistake–it is, in fact, quite possibly out of necessity–that, in my reimagining of Glas, the first column of text is occupied not by Hegel, but by excerpts of Albert Memmi’s The Statue of Salt and Hagar.  The same holds for the second column, for which I chose passages from Amin Maalouf’s Deadly Identities and Leon the African. I express the ideas raised by these texts, and by the dialogue between them, to my professor. He agrees with me. Together, we clear a conceptual path through the thickets of identity: Jewishness as a foundational act of becoming other, of a continuous exile from the self, a line of flight, a tension between rootedness and wandering without end.

It’s on this short December day, spent at my desk in Widener’s imposing stacks, I confide in my professor: I tell him about the uneasiness my perforated family history makes me feel, tell him about my thirst for community, my feeling of imposture–how very fraudulent it feels to say my mother is a Jew on account of her Jewish origins.

It’s at this point my Derridean professor utters a magic formula: “But, Mona,” he says, “catachresis! Do catachresis! You are Jewish by catachresis.”

I am amazed by this forbidden magic, this process by which language can, with a single word, shape the very fabric of reality. You should know my professor has a passion for this notion of catachresis: He even wrote an article in the Crimson denouncing the misuse of catachresis in relation to anti-Semitism. (He said it was detrimental to the fight against it.) This somewhat technical term, I realize, may warrant some explanation: It is the application of a term to something it does not exactly–doesn’t correctly– designate, or else to the perversion of an idiom or metaphor. More simply? It’s expansion. It’s granting a word lexical domain that it didn’t previously have. Like the word ‘Jew’ in the phrase ‘Mona the Jew.’

In other words? To be Jewish-by-catechresis–to be a catechrecristic Jew: It’s to be Jew-ish.

Le non du père 

Though I grew up without any particular religion, they all were invited to my parents’ table. When we talked about the Middle East, about Lebanon and Israel, about the Palestinians–my parents would say things like, “Ah?” and “Really?” and “Perhaps,” and “Yes, but…,” “No, but…” This has since changed. Over the years, like the world, my parents’ discourse has grown more hermetic, making use of exclusive, and even sometimes authoritarian language. Today, when we talk about Israel, my father–the intellectual of the couple–closes himself off completely. He’s not receptive, not even listening: All that he is becomes a big NO. His ‘no’ isn’t an impetuous no, either. It isn’t a ‘no’ of hatred, of ignorance, or of outright rejection. It’s an enlightened no, a no bolstered by a lifetime of reading, of study, of knowledge–and this means there’s something harder about it, almost intractable. It’s a no of disappointment, which invariably withers into silence.

But it isn’t absolute, either. It took me years to understand this. There is an optical effect at play, a relativity in his negation. As Israel was built and strengthened, my father’s country was attenuated and destroyed. There is, of late, a certain gerontic nihilism in my father’s no, and this makes it all the more violent. Would this be so if Lebanon were able to integrate its Palestinian refugees–if it were able to overcome its sectarianism, and its rampant corruption? I don’t know.

What do I know, then? I, who never had to pray five times a day for twenty years in a Christian school, who studied a very different history than the one he did?  What can I know? Only this: That, it would require more than one word to name this no, result of the sedimentation of personal neuroses and of collective psychoses, a cataclysm of exogenous knowledge.

Yet, sometimes, a kind of parenthesis opens up –a chasm cleaves his lucid pessimism, and he fills the space thus created with happy memories of his childhood. He recounts the idyll of the all-Abrahamic trio he formed with Daoud the little Jew, and Marwane the little Muslim. They were the best of friends–inseparably. And they were, of course, separated. And so the parenthesis closes. Syria, the predatory occupier, and Israel, with all its phantasmagoric malevolence and power, reappear. They come to negate my father’s Beirut childhood all over again.

If my father sees Israel as a looming bloc of politico-economic power, my mother sees it as a block, the constituent part of all great and ambitious construction projects. And for this she admires it. My mother likes a deftly executed project. Reacting to my father, or reacting out of the deepest conviction, my mother, all ears, is all YES. Positive by nature, my mother feels a benevolent tolerance toward Israel which she feels toward no other country in the region. For it is a principle. It is a rule which, not without some violence, can be stated as follows: Even when Israel is wrong, it is right because it must be right. There’s something almost pathetic in this sense of necessity, hiding behind the sturdiest of walls: “Because it must be?” Or what?

Sometimes, I think my mother is secretly afraid. It’s a fear that goes back a long way, certainly predating her adult life, and possibly predating her whole life. A fear, lurking and tightly leashed, that has made her a strong woman with a strong peremptory streak.

Like my father, there’s something myopic in the gaze with which my mother regards Israel, but that’s where the similarities end. She can’t see the cracks that’ve begun to show in its foundation, or she chooses not to. That’s more like it. She turns away. Away from what? From conversations of Arabs and of Jewish religious zealots alike–from the others, or the other. They’ve no place in her mental construction site. I believe, for her–a woman who’s never been to Algeria, for whom intimate knowledge of a nation other than France is inconceivable—Israel is more concept than country. To her, Israel opened itself to the future while Algeria cloistered itself in the past.

Perhaps this is as it should be. They were built in disagreement, my parents, and they grew old in opposition; and maybe, for them, this qualifies as a form of recalcitrant love.

Potential

During my doctoral years, I spent most of my weekends in New York, my beloved city. I even got a scholarship to attend summer school at Columbia University, to start learning Arabic, which my father never spoke to his children. New York is an extravagant city, populated with many great romantics, of whom I met several. One night, on the Upper West Side, waiting for a subway that would take me to Brooklyn, to a party to which I’d been invited, I met one of these great romantics; and she could have been me.

There are only a few of us on the platform, including a young woman of about my age, who arrives after me and immediately immerses herself in a book. After a few minutes, she approaches me to ask if I have any idea at what time the last subway departed the station; and when she does, I notice her book is in Hebrew. The conversation begins. We talk the whole way to Brooklyn, like two friends finally reunited after years apart. She came to the States three years ago to pursue her studies. She’s from the suburbs of Tel Aviv. Her father’s an Iraqi, her mother an Algerian, and the two met in Israel. She studies philosophy and economics and, though she lives on the Upper West Side now, she’d rather live in Williamsburg or Greenpoint. She hopes to move. She’d like to go to Boston, she tells me, to meet some professors; and then all at once the subway doors open and we’re at my stop. Suddenly, quickly, we must exchange contacts, and I think I hear my name. I can’t believe it. No, it’s impossible, it simply can’t be.

And so it isn’t: When I ask her to repeat it, as we part on the platform, she shouts “Yona! Yona Cohen!” Dazed by the echo of our names, I respond: “Mona El Khoury! Like Cohen, but in goyish!” She laughs. I am, somehow, relieved. A decade later, and we’re still close friends. She’s even awarded me the title of ‘honorary Jew.’

I feel, sometimes, as though I’m house-sitting my name. I feel like I’m staying there, but taking care to avoid making myself too comfortable–a name like a house in which I dare not make myself at home. After all, I don’t speak Arabic, the language in which it’s expressed. I am not a Christian, the faith that it designates. And I am not from Lebanon, the country from which it originates. It links me to my father– to a man who couldn’t transmit his culture to me. It roots me to nothing so much as unrootedness. It’s almost too on-the-nose.

The bottom of a well

During a session, my psychoanalyst said something to me: “What you’re telling me reminds me of that Ingres painting–‘Truth Coming Out of the Well’: Your truth, the truth of your grandmother–it all peels away like an onion skin.” To see what’s hidden by a name–what’s erased by the patronymic. To turn it inside out, like a glove–to reveal what’s hidden on its reverse side, on the inside. I don’t know if this painting she’s talking about–which was actually painted by Jean-Léon Gérôme, an admirer of Ingres, and is often interpreted as a commentary on the Dreyfus Affair–accurately illustrates my story. It shows a naked woman, emerging from a well, one leg out, a martinet in her hand. The martinet’s “to punish humanity,” as the full title of the work states.

What seems certain to me, though, is the relevance of Democritus’ eponymous aphorism to the murmur of my family’s story: “In reality, we know nothing. The truth is at the bottom of a well.” Writing, with its farandole of letters and of signs, is like a dance around this well–a dance I conceive as a kind of Danaïdes’ cask of language which–in pleasure, rather than in anguish–will never reach its final destination.

~~~~~~

“What, because you think it’s so easy carrying this name around? Today? In today’s political context? I’m always equated with some sort of Arabic – Muslim entity, when in fact I don’t belong to either–I’m neither one nor the other!”

“And you hate entities,” says Raphaël, with characteristic humor.

“Do you remember the other night, at your journalist girlfriend’s party? When that guy immediately started pouring his antisemitic poison in my ear the minute he heard my name? Or at the Algeria conference, when that woman in the audience spat a racist comment at me, presumably just for the sake of alleviating her allergy to Arabs? I feel like I’m caught in the pincers of rejection, here.”

“Well,” Raphaël says, “let’s look on the bright side. At least you’ve got a name that can flush out anti-Semites and racists!”


Mona El Khoury

Translation : Ben Zitsman and Daniel Solomon

Notes

1 Translator’s note: In French, the word ‘louche’ can mean many things, including (but not limited to,) “cockeyed,” “suspicious,” “disreputable,” “sleazy,” and “ladle.” All these definitions are of some import where Mamie-louche is concerned.
2 Translator’s note: On September 4th, 1870, Napoleon III, the last monarch to rule France, was deposed. In his government’s place, the Third Republic was declared.

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