Under Andalusian Skies


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 Germans.


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 culture:


"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.