Saturday, January 19, 2008

Everything the whole Upper West Side wanted to know about North African Jews

Contrary to popular belief (and to the number of comments on a recent post: currently at zero) everyone wants to hear about Tunisian Jews. So much so that by the time we got to Lincoln Center to see Villa Jasmin, a movie by and about Tunisian Jews, the showing was sold out. I was stunned, and hoped this was a good omen for someone whose research interests lie in this area, and who had some reason to be concerned. Luckily the standby line moved quickly, and we ended up with a second-row view of not only the film, but also director Fèrid Boughedir's pre- and post-movie discussion.

The movie, based on Serge Moati's novel, was made for French TV, and as such includes, near the beginning, a gratuitously bare breast of a beautiful, napping Frenchwoman, a character who is mostly irrelevant to film itself. The movie is ostensibly about a son's quest to find out his Tunisian Jewish family's past; the lovely woman is his pregnant wife, who prefers mild to spicy food and is otherwise non-Tunisian, but doesn't say much. Nor does the thirty-ish son, for that matter, who is also pretty but pointless to the story. An otherwise interesting movie about Tunisia around World War II is interspersed with close-ups of a moved-looking young man in surprisingly chic tourist clothes.

Most of what makes the movie interesting is the history. Who knew that there were once many Jews in Tunisia, and that of these Jews, there were two mutually antagonistic groups, the higher class also the newer arrivals, much like German versus Russian Jews in the US? Who knew that the Nazis showed up and made life difficult for Jews who were not even European? Not impossible, as in Europe, but still.

Basically, unlike many other World War II movies, this one presents a history not familiar to the general--or at a Jewish film festival, general-Jewish-- audience. This is not the only recent movie to show the North African side of the war, but it is especially strange to see a movie with Nazis and Jews both featuring prominently in which the Holocaust is not even the major problem the characters face. While the director explained that unlike Algeria, Tunisia still permits Jews to visit and even live in the country, the switch from a community of 200,000 to several thousand suggests that something happened around Tunisian independence. As is clear from the movie (based on a novel which is based on a true story, as the director repeatedly mentioned), some Tunisian Muslims thought the German invasion might help the cause of independence, while some Tunisian Jews truly believed the oxymoronic tenet that France is the bearer of universal culture. In other words, no good guys or bad guys (other than the Nazis, who fit the latter role too well), and no happy ending once the Nazis leave. (Is 'Nazis stole my villa' a first-world problem? I'd have to go with no.) There isn't even much time to reflect on the Nazi invasion, since the next struggle--what an independent Tunisia might look like-- had already begun well before their arrival.

The political message of the movie, if any can be deduced, is that Tunisian Jews were wrong in embracing French language and culture, and ought to have stayed friends with the Arabs, or else their history would not have turned out so bleak. But how bleak is it to live in France, visit Tunisia, Israel, or wherever else whenever you feel like, and have a stunning wife unafraid to show her breasts for no particular reason? For all his family tragedy, life in France, from what the movie implies, is perhaps a bit empty spiritually and culinarily (not a word, it seems) but still preferable to life in Tunisia. Preferable defined as where the main character and many like him prefer to live.


Withywindle said...

Who knew that there were once many Jews in Tunisia?--why, those of us who remember Fall 2006, and George Felix Allen's most unexpected rendition of Roots.

Who are notable Frenchmen of Tunisian Jewish descent? I seem to remember that Derrida hailed from Algeria.

Phoebe said...

What was this "Roots" in 2006?

Albert Memmi. Another famous French-Algerian Jew, though, is BHL.

Withywindle said...

Allen turned out to be half-Lombroso, a Tunisian Jewish family. You didn't catch that. Thanks for the Memmi mention.

Withywindle said...

"You didn't catch that?" I meant to say, with a question mark.

Schmaltzlover said...

Virginia Senator George Felix Allen (the middle named sometimers used by opponents to highlight his mother's foreign roots) called an Indian-American a "Maccaca" during his re-election campaign. The word turned out to be a derogatory term used by the French (and presumably French Jews) against darker-skined (Arab) Tunisians. George claimed he thought it was a nonsense word, but given that his mother was from a Tunisian Jewish family assimilated to French culture, many didn't believe him.

Allen was, until then, the presumed frontrunner for the 2008 Republican Presidential nomination. Just one maccaca away from the job...

(The whole thing was discussed extensively on SepiaMutiny many many times.)