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Under Andalusian skies
by Louis Proyect
08 May 2002 17:23 UTC
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On April 11th a gasoline truck exploded in front of an ancient synagogue on
the resort island of Djerba, which is part of Tunisia. At first considered
an accident, it was subsequently revealed to be a terrorist act. This
event--along with synagogue desecrations in Europe attributed to Arab or
North African immigrants--have given ammunition to Zionist commentators who
view anti-Semitism in essentialist terms. They are trying to reduce Islamic
peoples to eternal foes of the Jews, just as Daniel Goldhagen did for the

A careful reading of press coverage reveals a different reality. In the
April 15th NY Times, Donald G. McNeil Jr. reports that the Jewish district
in Djerba, called a 'hara', was never a ghetto:

>>Tunisia's Jews have never been walled in. Police cars have been
constantly present for years, but are there to protect this island's tiny
Jewish enclaves.

Tunisia, a center of Jewish life since the Roman Empire, was a refuge for
those fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, Greek persecution and Sicilian raids
on Libya. 

"We're the shop window," said Rene Trabelsi, a tour operator whose father
is president of the Ghriba Synagogue. "We prove to the world that there's
religious freedom and tolerance in Tunisia. We're the favorite minority,
like a girl in a family of seven boys."<<

We also learn from McNeil that Jewish life in Tunisia absorbed Islamic

"Boys do not expect a bar mitzvah, party because religious law does not
call for it, the rabbi said. Young men wear blue jeans and skullcaps, but
older men often wear baggy-bottomed Turkish shorts, slippers and a sort of
mashed red fez called a kabous."

Describing the relationship of his community to Tunisian society, the rabbi
of the Djerba synagogue said the community felt "integrated, not assimilated."

One of the greatest tragedies of the Zionist project was the destruction of
this historic amity between two peoples with so much in common. In an
important article titled " Arabs and Jews Can Live in Peace" that appeared
in Socialist Worker, John Rose wrote:

>>Last month I was in Egypt, where I had the good fortune to spend a
morning with the truly remarkable Youssef Darwish, a 91 year old Jewish
Communist veteran of the post-war workers' struggles that formed the
backcloth to Nasser's coup in 1952. 

Youssef, all faculties intact and chomping away at cigars, waxed lyrical on
many issues, not least the rich texture of Jewish life in Egypt in the
early part of the 20th century. It's standard in these sort of discussions
to debate the prominent role Jews played in the Communist movement
throughout the Arab world. And of course we did. 

But what struck me more was something else. It was the long historical
Jewish attachment to and involvement in Egypt--one of its greatest medieval
synagogues still stands--and the way this blossomed in the early 20th
century, with now forgotten cultural expressions in painting, books and
later film. 

As Youssef says, the banner of independence was being raised, and the idea
of achieving equality among the different social groups was vigorously
pursued. Later Zionism sucked nearly all the Jews out of Egypt and told
them they were coming "home". 

It told the same nonsense to Jews from all over the Arab world, and helped
them to forget their long history as it recruited them to build the Iron
Wall against their new Palestinian Arab neighbours. Recovering that history
someday soon will be an important part of showing just how Arabs and Jews
can live together in peace.<<


Not only were Jews sucked out of Egypt, they were also sucked out of
Tunisia. Only about 2,000 Jews remain there, down from more than 100,000 in
1948 -- and about 1,100 of them live in Djerba. They were ripped out of a
society that valued them and placed into one that now suffers permanent
warfare while visiting atrocities on the Palestinians.

I had already begun thinking about these questions, but after attending
back-to-back concerts in New York City featuring the Lebanese Marcel
Khalife and the Moroccan Jew Emil Zrihan I was convinced to examine the
ties between Arabs and Sephardic Jews more closely. The World Music
Institute, one of New York's most important cultural institutions, produced
both concerts. (http://www.worldmusicinstitute.org)

Khalife (http://www.marcelkhalife.com) opened his April 27th Saturday
evening performance with an instrumental from his new album titled
"Concerto Al Andalus." All proceeds go to support humanitarian aid to the
Palestinian people. "Al Andalus" is also called Andalusia. It was the most
prosperous and culturally advanced province in Spain, when it was under
Islamic rule. He preceded his instrumental with remarks to the effect that
this was when we were at our best. 

By the same token, Andalusia is an important symbol for Zrihan as well.
(Zrihan was sucked out of Morocco at the age of nine into Israel.) The
program notes for his Sunday, April 28th concert state: 

"For more than a thousand years the musical style of the Arabs and Jews
have flourished and intermingled in the western Mediterranean region of
southern Spain and North Africa. For nearly seven centuries at the Muslim
courts of Cordoba, Sevilla and Granada in southern Spain the arts of
poetry, music and architecture flourished. the music known as "al 'Ala
l-Andalusia" was born in this environment and can be traced to the early
9th century A.D. with the arrival of the Persian musician Ziryab at the
court of 'Abd er-Rahman II in Cordoba. At his courts and those of
subsequent Sultans throughout Andalusia music played an increasingly
important role; Arab, Jewish and Christian musicians and poets were
employed and played together."

Zrihan performs in virtually the same style that existed 1000 years ago in
Tunisia, Morocco and most of Spain. He mixes elements of the Jewish
cantorial tradition with Arab-Andalusian song that evening, with backing
from musicians in the same ecumenical spirit. The violinist was a Moroccan
Jew, the pianist a Lebanese Christian, the oud player and percussionist
Lebanese Muslims. He impressed the audience with his mastery of the
'mawwal', a virtuosic and highly ornamented improvisational style that can
be found throughout the Arab and Islamic world. The Egyptian Om Kalthoum
was considered the greatest practitioner of this style during her lifetime.

The term Sephardic is derived from the Ladino word "Sepharad", which meant
Spain. Ladino was the language of the Jews who lived in the vast Muslim
empire that included most of Spain, North Africa, the Arab world and Turkey
just as Yiddish was the language associated with the Ashkenazi or European
Jews. Ladino is still spoken today in certain enclaves, while it remains
the liturgical language for virtually all Sephardim.

Despite Zionist attempts to paint Muslim and Jew as eternal enemies, there
is an important trend *within* Jewish scholarship that depicts Muslim Spain
and North Africa as a Golden Age for Jews from 950 to 1150 AD. Three names
stand out: Heinrich Graetz, a nineteenth century trailblazer from Germany;
a contemporary Princeton scholar named S.D. Goitein; and Eliyahu Ashtor, an
Israeli and also a contemporary.

Goitein is the author of a two-thousand-page study titled "Mediterranean
Society" that is based on so-called 'genizah' (storeroom) archives
retrieved from a synagogue in medieval Cairo. Observant Jews were
prohibited from destroying documents with God's name on them, so they ended
up in such archives. They include personal correspondence, commercial
contracts, tax records, etc.

For the casual reader, Goitein's "Jews and Arabs: Their Contacts Through
the Ages" makes more sense even though it is out of print. In a chapter
dealing with Jewish culture under Islam, Goitein writes:

"The basic fact about Jewish-Arabic thought is that Greek science and Greek
methods of thinking made their entrance into Jewish life mainly through the
gates of Arab-Muslim literature. With the Arabic-writing Jewish doctors,
mathematicians, astronomers and philosophers of the ninth and tenth
centuries, science, in the Greek sense of the word, for the first time
became known and practiced among the bulk of the Jewish community. All
genuine Jewish reasoning before that time consisted either of simple,
practical observations and conclusions, or of mythological conceptions, no
matter how profound."

Liberated from the heavy hand of orthodoxy, the Jewish denizens of Spain
could now rise to the highest levels of the professions and the arts. The
concluding paragraphs of V.1 of Eliyahu Ashtor's "The Jews of Moslem Spain"
evoke the warm and supportive environment Jews found themselves in. It is
part of a lengthy account of a reading by famed Jewish poet Ibn Khalfon. It
is important also to consider that Jewish poetry was strongly influenced by
the Arab style. Ashtor writes:

>>At last the host gestured to the poet to declaim his verse, and Ibn
Khalfon recited a florid poem in which he proclaimed all the qualities of
the new officeholder, his deeds in behalf of his coreligionists, the alms
he gave to the poor, and the merits of his forefathers, who were nobles in
Israel. Not all those present understood the beautiful biblical Hebrew, but
all listened intently; not a sound was heard. When the poet had finished he
bowed to the host, who drew forth from the folds of his coat a purse full
of gold pieces and handed them to Ibn Khalfon. All his friends voiced cries
of enthusiasm over the beauty of the poem and the generosity of the noble
lord. A few arose from their places to stroll in the corners of the
courtyard, where tall trees stood; others remained seated and engaged in
spiritual but friendly conversation.

It was a warm and pleasant night, the skies were strewn with innumerable
stars, and the moon shone with a brilliant light. From a distance could be
heard a monotonous voice, yet pleasant to the ear: "There is no God but
Allah, and Mohammed is the prophet of Allah. Life to those who pray to Him,
life to those who serve Him." Again and again the voice repeated its cry
saturated with yearnings. This was the muezzin calling the Moslem to
prayer, for this was the month of Ramadan, when the call to prayer is
sounded before dawn. East and West had met under Andalusian skies.<<

Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org

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