K. readers have already met Cléo Cohen. Joseph Benamour introduced her to us in “When young French Jews return to the Maghreb of their parents”. At the age of thirty, Cléo Cohen is representative of a movement that is sweeping through part of the younger Sephardic generation: the desire to reconnect with their Arab history, overcoming the silence and sometimes reticence of their parents and grandparents. More to the point, Cléo Cohen is at the forefront of this movement: after making a feature-length documentary on the subject, she went to live in Tunisia, where she felt “at home”, as she puts it. Three weeks ago, Cléo Cohen was in the Ghriba synagogue when the attack took place. In this text, she talks about her anxiety during the attack, and above all about the way in which the event impacted on her journey to re-establish her roots. She evokes the latent anti-Semitism in Tunisian society, the anti-Semitism that prevents Jews from being recognised as victims, and the great silence, in Tunisia as in France, in the midst of which this anti-Semitism unfolds. It is an ordeal that concerns her and, with her, a whole generation of Jews, Jewish-Arabs and Arabs.
I need to write.
About the sense of unreality that has struck everything around me up to now, first of all: the light, the sounds, the smells, the people, their laughter, their tiny lives.
And my own tiny life, suddenly rendered even more insignificant by this nagging feeling of solitude that has been consuming me since my return from the island. Because the party took place on an island where this famous old synagogue is located, and the shots rang out on this island of coexistence, and the screams too, right in the middle of the party, and the trembling little girl crying in my arms at the back of the little room where we huddled like rats, dripping with fear, only spoke Arabic and no French, and yet she might die today, a Jew, on her island, on her land, in Djerba.
I’m Tunisian only by diaspora. I didn’t have the words in her language to reassure her.
It was on the island that I froze to the core, froze for a long time I think, when I saw the despair that makes you almost suffocate hiding in tiny toilets, that turns you into a hunted animal despite the prayer books, the crazy eyes that look in all directions for ways out, but there are no ways out, if someone pops up, armed, on the roof, we’re dead. That’s what we’re all thinking at the time: if someone comes in with a gun, we’re dead.
And we don’t want to die in this synagogue, or in the adjoining open-air fondouk.
I don’t want to die at almost thirty, locked up like cattle in a holy place where my ancestors must have prayed fervently. Me, who returned with such joy and determination to the land of my grandparents, proudly asserting my Jewishness, my Arabness, my Tunisianness, all these allegiances, against the skeptics, the anguished, the reactionaries, the jealous. I’m not interested in dying a martyr. I look around at all these people, most of them Jewish, others non-Jewish, religious, secular, atheist, all in the same shit. All subject to this crushing fear of dying, this fear that turns us into animals who lie in wait, who howl at the slightest noise, who panic at the threat of a gun that is stronger than anything else. I tell myself that surely, if a guy with a gun comes along and shoots into the crowd, my best chance of getting away will be to throw myself to the ground and hope to survive buried under more corpses. It’s a terrible thought, isn’t it?
When I see my friends so dignified.
I see them looking after the weakest, reassuring, putting hands on shoulders, calming the delirious spirits that create devastating panic movements for the tetanized crowd. It’s silly, but they’re the only ones with this kind of courage. I look at them. We’re all scared shitless. We could kill each other running around, crashing into the uncontrolled waves. I see my friends with their absolute dignity, which gives them the strength to move around, to talk, to hand out water, even though they too are looking all around them, incessantly, worried, racked with anxiety. They try to keep things under control, to soothe restless minds, hearts compressed by anguish, stomachs twisted with pain. If I die, it will be in mad admiration for them. That’s a nicer thought, and it’s in me too.
I have a monstrous urge to vomit. To vomit my fear of dying. I can hardly breathe. Me, the scaredy-cat of the family, I’m not particularly brave, that’s for sure. I’m trembling. But I’m Jewish and proud of it. I have a Jewish name and a little Star of David around my neck. And I wouldn’t die by chance if I got killed today; I’d die because I’m a Jew on a Jewish pilgrimage, regardless of my beliefs, my political battles, my revolts, my French passport, my family tree rooted in Tunisia and Algeria.
I would die having spent some time untangling the threads of my identity. Having decided to go and live in Tunisia because, after all, I’m part of the Tunisian diaspora, and there’s nothing to stop me from packing my bags in the land of my ancestors. Not even my Jewishness, which nourishes and constitutes me. But I don’t want to die in a synagogue in Djerba. I think of my family, so worried about my life in Tunisia, and my friends, so proud of my choice to return home. What will they say if I die here in my vomit, surrounded by my friends bursting with dignity?
I think of my lineage, for whom the experience of anti-Semitism, the fear of dying because Jewish, of not being protected because a minority, has been constitutive for generations and generations. I’m thinking of my family’s departure from Tunis in 1969, and of the abysmal anguish that was passed on to me, with which I was fed for a long time: “You can’t understand that, all of a sudden, when everything was going well, all of a sudden we were afraid, we heard the anti-Jewish slogans, we heard the crowds shouting, the shop windows smashed, the synagogue on fire, we thought we were going to die“. So often I thought they were exaggerating. And today, locked up in the Ghriba and petrified by the gunshots I hear the misery on people’s faces, in the fondouk adjoining the synagogue – which is also full to bursting with miserable Jews – I blame myself.
It could have happened in Paris, where I lived. That’s the first thing I said to my parents when I spoke to them on the phone the next day. It could have happened in New York, where I lived too. It could have happened anywhere. Except that I chose Tunisia as my adopted country as the descendant of a Tunisian Jewish family. I love it as my people have loved it for centuries, that is, passionately. I feel at home here. I trust it. And I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years proudly repeating that, unlike in France, you don’t die because you’re Jewish in Tunisia.
I’m thinking of the thousands of Tunisian Jews whose departure is generally deplored in Tunisian bar-room conversations: why exactly did they leave, we were good to them, we always got on well, the business misses them, but why did they leave, I’m often asked, or when did they arrive, ah well, since always, before the French, natives you say, ah yes? I’m thinking about the abundantly buried Jewish part of Tunisia’s history, which has been occupying me for several years now. I’m thinking of the widespread lack of knowledge on the subject. I’m thinking of the fact that I had to fight with my claws and teeth, first of all among my own people, to reclaim this part of my identity that they had dropped. To reinvest it with pride.
I think of the gaping hole that I, like so many others, try to fill in my work. To this erasure that affects us, the descendants, deeply, but also and above all those who are still here. Who resist. Nationals, Tunisians, Jews. A handful.
Proud to be Jewish Tunisians. What’s the point of all this effort, to remind people that they are an integral part of the country’s history. What’s the point, when the official discourse omits the words “Jew”, “synagogue”, “anti-Semite”. They too, all their efforts were erased. Today at the Ghriba, because we’re Jews, we’re targeted and considered foreigners. Ironic for a holy place whose name pays homage to La Ghriba, “the foreigner”. I think of all the “marhbè bik” and “welcome home” I’ve been served since I started visiting the country. I think of the day before, when in this very courtyard, the crowd sang the Tunisian national anthem. I really don’t want to die.
The horror of the attack was the horror of waiting, literally, three and a half hours of cold sweat, shaking, kids vomiting and pissing themselves, tears, pleading with our heads turned to the sky. 3h30 of imagining that death could appear just like that, unjustly, one blast and that would be the end of my tiny life, of our tiny lives. I think of our terrible helplessness. I think of my friend, with his sad eyes, who said afterwards, “We didn’t have any weapons, we don’t know how to fight, we couldn’t have defended ourselves“. I think of all those who could have defended us with words and positions since then. I think of the silence that followed.
Others died that day, just as innocent as me. Aviel Haddad et Benjamin Haddad.
We’ll never see them again: not their gestures, not their hair in the wind. We’ll never hear their laughter anymore. We’ll never smell their scent anymore. Don’t you care? Too bad. I imagine myself in their place, lying on the pavement. I imagine my dignified friends riddled with bullets. Their lifeless bodies. And I can’t get over your lack of empathy. To your feeling that, after all, it’s well deserved. Because “Palestinians die every day and nobody talks about it”, as the President said a few days after the tragedy, publicly assuming, in the name of the State he represents, the crude amalgam. It would be a good thing, then, if we killed a few Jews, because we’re killing Palestinians. We calculate, we count, and we take little offense at these two deaths, however unfortunate. Two tiny lives. Plus three tiny lives of cops. Abdelmajid Atig, Maher El-Arbi, Kheireddine Lafi.
No national tribute. Zero handshakes with victims’ families. Zero commemorations. Zero marches. Zero wakes. Zero candles. Zero candles. Those of you who rejoice, who say an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, know that the calculation will be infinite, that it is thanks to you that the blood will continue to flow. Blood and tears.
I’m thinking of the silence of most of my Tunisian friends, committed leftists, the first critics of the state and its denials, its excesses, enamored of current affairs, driven by always legitimate political anger. You’re not angry that Jews are being killed in front of a synagogue that has already been tragically attacked twice. I’m thinking of those who study North Africa, who love it, who talk about it, who think about it, who analyze it with finesse, day after day. Those who are always talking and writing about the causes that are dear to them, often at great risk, and yet say nothing. You, journalists, activists, anti-fascists. All those who, from near or far, might feel concerned. Hatta shay. Nothing.
A silence that crosses the Mediterranean: French anti-racists, comrades in struggle, those who still count and forcefully denounce racist crimes, who remain silent. The silence of the Tunisian and North African diaspora that hurts me; all those who claim their Arabness, their North Africanness, their attachment to the ‘bled’, you cousins who say nothing. Artists, thinkers, activists. Your words on Palestine, all week after the attack in Djerba. Not a word about the 5 dead in Djerba, because obviously it’s impossible to mourn all those innocents at the same time. It would upset the internal logic, this time, to mourn Jews equally in the news and Palestinians equally in their innocence. I thought it was outdated, this idea that you can’t be in solidarity with Jewish victims if Jews somewhere are oppressing. This way of brandishing the Palestinian cause as a shield to prevent us from thinking about anti-Semitism, naming it, recognizing it. As if elsewhere and at the same time, Muslims and Christians weren’t oppressing too. As if oppression were the monopoly of the Jews, the irony of history, who for millennia have wandered, dominated and crushed. But since it’s Israel today, there’s no pity for the Jews of the world.
The week passes. As traumatized as we are, we do what we can, with the shreds of willpower we have left, to stand our ground, together, in Tunis. It’s anger that really drives us. Anger at the painful silences that are accompanied by a confused anti-Semitic brouhaha in the media, on the internet and on social networks. The few Tunisian voices that courageously say that it is intolerable to justify or legitimize the death of these innocent Jews will go down in history. Those who say publicly that it is the duty of the Muslim majority to pay tribute. To describe the attack as anti-Semitic. To condemn. To mourn their compatriots. I will not forget you. We won’t forget you. But you yourselves seem so appalled to be so alone, that my sorrow does not diminish.
I think of my ancestors, for whom minority life was always accompanied by a very strong fear of death, which was passed on to me neurotically. I think of minority experiences in general, accompanied by small humiliations, lowered heads, discretion, the need to make oneself very small to be loved, not threatened, very small, yes, to be accepted in one’s difference, accepted but dominated, so as not to fear dying because of one’s difference.
I think of my elders who left Tunisia for fear of risking their lives there because they were Jewish, and of all the anti-Semitism they faced when they arrived in France, coupled with the vehement anti-Arab racism they were also the target of. The “savages”, as the manager of the first seedy hotel where they lived for a while in Marseille called them. Still a minority. Life lived with care, always. Be careful, my daughter, be careful.
Before the creation of the State of Israel, there were already plenty of reasons to dislike Jews. After the creation of the State of Israel, there was Israel. But not only Israel. Over the past few years, columnists on TV, Twitter and radio in Tunisia have been talking about the characteristic smell of Jews. This particular odor has always bothered them since childhood. Others have spoken of the distrust Jews have always inspired in them. Their legendary unreliability, their almost genetic ability to betray. Still others spoke of their vicious relationship with money. To power. And I could go on and on.
Of course, life will return. And soon it will be carefree again, or almost. For one thought, rest assured, will never leave me, my friends: if I had died in the Ghriba attack, there would have been a lot of silence. And a great deal of hubbub. There would have been semantic controversies, debates, negotiations, doubts, hateful comments on the Internet, diplomatic incidents, nonchalant columnists, revisionists, indifference, a lot of indifference, and a few brave souls who would have defended my remains; but I wouldn’t have been mourned so easily.
They would have searched my social networks, my emails, my love letters, my sheets; and they would have found proof that after all, Jewish as I am, I wasn’t so innocent after all.
And continuing to live with this new awareness, from which until then I’d been miraculously protected, is already damaging me.