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When I lived in the Zionist colony in Palestine, Israel, I used to find myself frequently answering questions such as: “Why are you pretending to be a mizrachit (an oriental Jew)?” or “Why don’t you write about your own mizrachi identity?” I was asked these questions because my academic education and occupation as an independent curator deviated from what was assumed to be the normative profile of a mizrahi woman in Tel Aviv in the early 1990s.
The first question posed by ashkenazim (Central or Eastern European Jews) presumed that I was pretending to be something that I was not. They recognized me as “one of them” and could not understand why—or sometimes even felt a kind of betrayal in that—I claimed to belong to an inferior group: mizrahim. In their skeptical inquisitions, it was as if they had asked: “What’s the point?” Mizrahim posed a question that similarly accused me of concealing who I was, but in a different manner—they insinuated that I did not embrace my mizrahi identity in what they saw as its proper, if not singular, mode of expression. From my perspective, however, there was almost no difference between the two questions. Both associated this category, mizrachiyut, with an identity—as if the idea of having “an identity” is not itself the product of the colony and its regime—and used it to police me. They presumed they knew better than I did who I was and how I should think and behave.
I notice in retrospect, despite having refuted these accusations, that I was uncomfortable with the term mizrachi. My discomfort, however, was not based in the same assumptions of those who posed these questions to me. I refused to align myself with any of the fabricated identities that secularism, Zionism, settler colonialism, and the liberal marketplace offered. In retrospect I read in my answers an understanding that this entreat to “choose” was premised on imperialism’s incitement of children to turn their back on their ancestors and make “better choices” or to encourage them to endorse their ancestors’ “choices” and justify them regardless of the harm they perpetrate. This is inseparable from the logics governing racial capitalism’s eugenicist initiatives.
At the time, however, I certainly could not see the similarities between the assignment of the Israeli identity to Jews in Palestine (which extended to include those Jews from Arab or Muslim countries) and the process by which French identity was forced upon the Jews in Algeria. The mizrahim category was created by Euro-Zionist nomenclature and served a strategic discursive function in sanitizing the state narrative of the (ongoing) destruction and colonization of Palestine. More specifically, the production of the category “mizrahim” promoted the moniker of “Judeo-Christianity” as an unquestionable historical truth, and thereby implied that any trace of the Arab-Jewish or Muslim-Jewish world must be destroyed along with the sacrifice of Palestine. This had far-reaching implications for different Jews beyond the borders of the newly established state.
Only a decade ago, when I left the settler-colonial state built to destroy Palestine, was I able to fully withdraw from the identity assigned to me at birth—“an Israeli”– and the sub-identities it created (such as mizrahim). It was only then that I also fully grasped the role this category played in ending the diverse Jewish-Muslim world they were part of in North Africa, the orchestration of their instrumentalized mass migration, and the relegation of their different attachments to their cultures—languages, crafts, traditions, clothing, communal and family formations etc.—to “the past.” Both identity categories—Israeli and mizrachit—meant that my paternal family’s life in Algeria was theirs, not mine, not me.
The Israeli identity defined people’s way of belonging in a society manufactured by colonizers. It provided its subjects with a version of the past that they were socialized to recognize as their own. While nothing in the Zionist story became mine, the “Western” culture that Zionist ideology privileged did. When I was young, I worked hard to make that culture mine, studying art, literature, and philosophy. However, I never felt—nor was I allowed to feel—native to it. The invention of the category mizrahim was needed to conscript those Jews who migrated from the Maghreb—from the Arab-Berber-Jewish-Muslim world—and socialize them to identify with the greater fabricated entity: the Jewish people. This notion was invented in Europe in the late eighteenth century and was concretized by Napoleonic state apparatuses. It was then exported to the Maghreb with the French colonization of Algeria, which included a systematic campaign to replace local Jewish formations and traditions with those already standardized in France through the Israelite Central Consistory establishment. Algerian Jews, though, had already received their first lessons in the putative superiorityEuropean Jews in the Muslim countries where they lived for centuries.
Growing up in a settler-colonial state where lies are made facts, one can either ignore the incongruities and endorse the fabricated reality or opt to unlearn them. For me the theoretical articulation of an instinctive practice of unlearning came years later. Every day, from first grade to the end of elementary school, my teacher would enter the classroom, open the attendance register, and read out students’ names. Azoulay was among the first, following Abergil, Abuksis, and Abutboul—all designated mizrachi kids, descendants of North African families, deemed inferior in the colony.
At home, however, our name was dissociated from these names, often mentioned dismissively. Knowing as a child that we were not like “them,” involved also knowing that we, in fact, were—or that we may be perceived to be like them; a distance was recursively produced to maintain this negation. Nobody explained to me why we were unlike the other mizrahim, or why it mattered. I had to figure it out on my own. That in primary school I still believed that my father was French clearly indicated my parents’ investment in ensuring that our family would pass as something different than what our name—Azoulay, clearly a Maghrebi name—indicated. Now I assume that as children we understood that we ought not ruin this identity deception, despite never being explicitly asked to do so.
Understanding that the name Azoulay did not differ from these other names on my class roster spurred a process of unlearning certain lies about my father’s origins, but also my mother’s and the many others in which these were enmeshed. My mother took pride in being a third-generation native to her place of birth, but since 1948 (when she was seventeen years old), she could no longer call that place by its name. She had to internalize the Zionist command and relate to Palestine as a metonym for the Jewish enemy. She retroactively re-asserted herself as an Israeli, even though Israel was only invented in 1948.
When I was about twelve years old, my older sister suggested that we change our last name to a Hebrew one. This was a common practice, mandatory among people in official positions and voluntary among those who wanted to dissociate themselves from their lineage and assimilate into Israeliness. In Israel a Hebrew name means an Israeli one—one distinct from those that carry the mark of what Israel defines as “its” diaspora. This regime of name changing affected ashkenazim and mizrahim alike; as the state imposed itself as the center of “Jewish life,” it endowed its fabricated Jewish subject, “the Israeli,” with an epigraphic history and future. I was unable to discern this conflation between Hebrew and Israeli. However, through my sister’s request, I could no longer shield myself from the truth that my teacher uttered every day when she read our family name aloud: there was something wrong about our name and about us.
We were like “them,” those North Africans from whom we were supposed to distinguish ourselves. With a child’s intuition, I understood that I had to support my sister’s plan. Yet my parents rejected her suggestion, asserting: “One doesn’t change one’s name.” This was a lesson for me, one that turned our difference into a source of power and liberation. Who our family is surpassed what is inscribed in our name; our name is not reminiscent of bygone times. At that point I still didn’t understand what an identity meant, but I did understand that I was heir to an ancestral refusal of colonial nomenclature, evidenced by my parents’ determination to keep our name intact.
In response to our proposition, my mother continued to console us by stating that from her side we were fourth-generation natives to Palestine and from our father’s we were French. These “facts” were meant to squander the undeniable foreignness of our Algerian-born, French-identified father, a foreignness that exceeded what the name we carried signified. Our last name was never discussed again at home. As an adult I attempted to reconstruct that event, but my mother denied that my sister ever suggested changing our name.
When I was seventeen years old and preparing to study in France, I applied for a French passport. My eligibility for French nationality reasserted my father’s Frenchness. Though the stories about Algerians receiving French citizenship sounded absurd, I was delighted to utilize the lasting rewards of this historical conjuncture without asking too many questions. For me the French passport was not an identity but a benefit of which I could take advantage. I began intense correspondences with French government offices to complete the process, and had no interest in the content of these documents but only the passport they guaranteed. Otherwise, I would have already noticed then that the name of my paternal grandmother—Aïcha, a common name to both Jews and Muslims of the Arab world—was concealed from us.
I was unaware of the toll it took on my father and his family to become French in Algeria in the nineteenth century. My education never guided me to ask questions about their Frenchness nor to interrogate the role that the Israeli state played in locating his place of birth—Algeria—beyond our reach. I recently found a map of Africa I was asked to draw when I was in primary school. Today I’m astounded by the foreignness of the continent that we were asked to produce with colorful crayons when we—the Abergils, Abukasis, Abutbouls and Azoulays—were actually drawing the places from where our parents came. The fact that I cut a third of the Maghreb (Tunisia is not on my map), was not even noticed by my teacher who graded me with an A.
Part of being “Israeli” means relating to the places from where your parents came as mere biographical details, relevant only when filling certain boxes on official forms. At the time, I didn’t understand the conversion of Algerian Jews into French citizenship nor the role this conversion played in destroying thousands of years of Jewish life in North Africa. No one offered any detail or thread to follow. Many were gagged by inculcated ignorance, others by dissociation provoked by settler colonial apparatuses. I speak not only about my family and social entourage in Tel Aviv, but also the people I met at the university in Paris. It is astonishing that I studied with Pierre Bourdieu for two years and we never spoke about Algeria.
In our family life in Israel, “Algeria” was a piece of information that designated the birthplace of my father and what rendered us mizrahim in the eyes of others. My mother preferred to avoid its mention and my father behaved as if his birthplace had nothing to do with him. Though it may seem that my rejection of the Israeli identity mirrors my father’s break with his Algerian identity, let me briefly mark two points of difference. First, Algerian identity was expropriated from Algerian Jews by a colonial project, while my Israeli identity was bestowed upon me by a colonial enterprise. Second, unlike my father, I do not behave as if my birthplace has nothing to do with me—I commit myself to struggle for the abolition of the settlers’ regime, which continues to destroy Palestinian existence and livelihood.
Contrary to my parents’ attempts to distance themselves from the category mizrahim, from an early age I claimed it—partially to resist their disavowal, but also because it liberated me from trying to believe things that didn’t make sense in the colony. Even as I spoke about myself as a mizrahi, I did not feel part of a collective identity.
My father never spoke about Algeria as a place. Though he shared some childhood memories from there, Algeria was never part of the story. I still don’t fully understand why my siblings and I never asked him questions about his birthplace. Before he turned sixty-five, I asked him to tell me some stories that I included in a photo album about his life. When I recently returned to read it, I realized how many things I heard him say without actually hearing. If I had not been deprived of the proper context to hear and understand what he was telling me, I would have asked questions. While he didn’t try to turn Algeria into a place we could cherish dearly, or experience with a sense of second-degree attachment and belonging, perhaps we failed to make the space for that to happen; or maybe we were we raised to fail.
After my father passed away, I was determined to find any traces he may have brought with him from Algeria, even if he acted as though—or I assumed that—there were none. I started to write letters to him, my paternal ancestors, and many others. I found many treasures, beads that I string together still. Perhaps these beads that I found could shine only after his death, since during his life they were overshadowed by his admiration for France, for the colonizers. He certainly knew how to transmit this admiration as it inspired my dream—his dream?—to study in Paris.
My father spoke very little but told many stories. If I had any questions, I would ask my mother. When I applied for the French passport, she repeated a story about how my father managed to mark “France” as his place of birth in his Israeli papers. He arrived in Israel in 1949 as a volunteer and had a return ticket for the end of that year. When he decided to stay, he had to fill out some papers to enjoy the newly Zionist-crafted Law of Return of 1950, extended to “the Jews” worldwide and encouraging them to literally take the place of Palestinians who were still being expelled and denied return. When he was asked by the clerk for his place of birth, he replied with great confidence: “Oran, France.” For years I pictured that scene at the Ministry of the Interior vividly in my mind as if I had been there myself: my father leans towards the reception window, facing him is the tired face of a bored clerk. My energetic, amused father utters a single word, “bonjour,” with the hope that, as it often did, his French greeting would open doors for him. The clerk is not amused and asks him matter-of-factly for his place of birth. When he hears the answer, “Oran,” he pauses momentarily and asks with obvious disinterest: “Where is that?” My father repeats the name of the city and even doubles it: “Oran, Oran,” as if to say to the clerk, “don’t you know about Oran?!”—reifying his cosmopolitan Frenchness in his capacity to teach this state deputy a lesson.
I can imagine the hint of a smile that emerged on his face when he looked into the clerk’s eyes. Now I hear what I was incapable of hearing earlier—a tone of pride in his city underscored my father’s voice. Oran is a familiar name, known by any Frenchman whose esteem for his city far exceeds that the clerk possessed. My father glances left and right, reassuring himself that no one witnesses his act of geographical fraud. Then, with great satisfaction, he finishes: “In France, obviously.”
When I still lived in the settlers’ colony and was asked about my family’s origins, I often told this story. It filled me with pride—not that my father was French or from France, but that he managed to cheat the Israeli state apparatuses, the very ones I learned to hate from him. My father was lucky to meet an ignorant clerk. It took me several more years to understand that my father was not cheating but suffering from the colonial syndrome as explained by Frantz Fanon—the interiorization of the colonizers’ geo-mental fraud as his reality.
When I still lived at my parent’s home, I asked my mother about it. Offended and defensive of our family patrimony, my mother replied: “Why are you always digging?! Your father is French. Algeria was part of France and the Jews were the first to receive French citizenship.” It was her turn to take pride—this time in the fact that the Jews were the first. My mother’s emphasis was on the truth-value of my father’s identity. The violence that created those realities didn’t infringe on her conception of the truth. If this was the truth, then she couldn’t be lying, even when she said that she was Israeli, a truth that was incommensurable with her pride in being a third-generation native of Palestine. The truth, as far as she was concerned, was in proving that no lies were told. In an imperially constructed world, truth is required to justify settler’s identities, to anchor them in reality.
My father, by contrast, showed no interest in truth. He didn’t feel compelled to prove that he was French. He would just plug-in his single earphone at bedtime and sail on short waves to French-speaking worlds of which we were not a part. For him, being French was a pure and harmless pleasure: good wine, baguettes, camembert, and charcuterie. Even the Algerian pastry that he adored tasted French in his mouth. “After you bury me,” he used to say, “play jazz and eat French food on my tomb.” Had it been possible, I think he would have just as eagerly enjoyed becoming an American—they had, after all, landed on the moon, invented jazz music, and created life in XXL size. He always felt stuck in the wrong place. Nothing in Israel inspired him enough to be embraced as part of his identity. Truth had nothing to do with his identity, which was shaped by what he believed made life worth living: good music and good food. He was never bothered by whether his identity was truly French. In his encounters with officials, as he faced those who inquired about his identities, papers, or taxes, he was incredibly creative. He reinvented himself repeatedly, taking advantage of their ignorance, narrow-mindedness, and underlying motives that he did not respect. Regardless of whether he intentionally sought out this twilight zone or entered it by chance, he derived pleasure from being “there,” in a territory that was underdefined enough for his stories to take over.
When I was in my early teens, my older sister brought me a pamphlet from a small leftist political party. I still possess a haptic memory of that slim booklet, its soft cover, the staples that held it together, the simple typesetting in black print, blocks of text with no photos. Through this booklet, I first came upon the words, “occupation” and “land confiscation.” At first they seemed unrelated to the little I knew about the place where I grew up or the deeds of the people there. I remember several other words that exposed the proximate violence that I could not imagine surrounded me: expulsion, expropriation, theft, disenfranchisement, and refugee camps.
These words felt foreign in my mother tongue, and with a certain intonation I sought to preserve their protuberance, to resist their naturalization in my palate, to refuse letting them camouflage among others. When I first encountered these words, I felt that they were too big for me to use; but I also felt a duty to pronounce them, especially at home. I learned quickly that my mother would take offense at them; they threatened the validity of a state she was enlisted to justify automatically and disrupted her unwavering commitment to its mission. Reciting these words was my means of redressing the lies she maintained about this place.
There was something rotten about all talk of being native to the land, “being sabra,” or being the third or fourth generation. That my father was an immigrant did not undermine the privileged sense of being chosen to be a sabra that my mother passed on. My father was never interested in this cult of sabra—this made a sound case for undermining my mother’s mission to make us good citizens of the state. His foreignness and the distance he cultivated between himself and Israelis—that same distance that embarrassed me as a child—transformed into a resource for me to drive a wedge between myself and the industry of Zionist lies that were presented as facts.
For a long time, I saw my father’s French identification as a lie because he was born in Algeria. I’m astonished by the number of years it took me to realize the double-blind spots in my logic. I saw his aspiration to Frenchness as an expression of his natural desire for upward mobility and Western inclusion. I disregarded the history of colonial violence waged upon my paternal family in Algeria and its effects on my father. He was indeed French, since in 1870 his ancestors were forced to become French and he was born to believe that he was a Frenchman. He was born into colonial amnesia. By insisting that he was not truly French, I surrendered to the colonial gaze that determined who among the colonized (or later immigrants) was worthy of being recognized as French. He didn’t aspire to this nationality, it was forced upon him. This is the core of the tragedy. What I had disregarded was not only about him, but about myself. I was impacted by two colonial projects: a descendant of those colonized in Algeria, and a daughter of colonizers in Palestine.
Realizing that we were like “those” mizrahim in my class meant acquiring a new disposition to connect the dots and fill in the blanks. I came to retroactively understand the meaning of certain sayings and attitudes expressed toward me that I had disavowed for a long time. I realized this at approximately the same time that I started to understand that Palestine was not elsewhere but in the same place as Israel—the fact that Zionists struggle to destroy it does not change this ontological status. In that moment, my mother’s “truth” was stripped bare before me. I grew increasingly fond of my father’s relationship toward his identity.
Despite the distinct nature of these two “discoveries” I held my mother responsible for both. Perhaps this was because she had denied my discoveries and continued to reiterate her—the state’s—“truth.” My father preferred the French Club of Netanya, the French embassy’s parties for the 14th Juillet (the Bastille Day), and the tricolor over the blue-and-white Israeli flag. He did not attempt to rid himself of his heavy French accent. He didn’t like Israeli popular music. He took pride in his rich acquaintance with world music that he showed customers in his small electronic and music store. He hated Israeli food rituals like cracking sunflower seeds or grilling meat outdoors. He scolded customers who dragged their feet when entering his store (which he considered to be his castle). He never conceived of going out to wash his car in anything but a collared shirt and gabardine pants. My father’s inclination toward the French colonizers’ identity seemed to harm no one; he did not attempt to control or conscript others’ subjectivities. His Frenchness was merely a matter of personal preference. It took me years to understand that his personal matters were mine too. He disrupted my attachments to my ancestors and brought me to the world as a malleable substance in the jaws of the settlers in Palestine.
Would I have been able to distance myself from the identity assigned to me at birth if I hadn’t inherited my father’s distance from it? Would I have been able to hear the hollowness of my mother tongue? Would I have been irritated by its syntax built to extract my complicity and force me as a child to affirm its plunder-made-truth deals? My mother-tongue is that of the colonizers. It encourages a certain polemics so long as they are recited among Israeli-Jews and uphold the imperial temporality of a fait accompli—the existence of the state can neither be questioned nor reversed. Luckily enough, however, the tongue my mother used was made up of disjointed slogans spoken in the streets and didn’t stem directly from the ideological springs of Zionism. If it had, it may have been more difficult to withdraw from Zionist ideologies. My mother barely completed eight years of school and neither she nor her parents were schooled by Zionist ideologues. Her mother, my maternal grandmother Selena, was not born in Palestine and moved there by mere coincidence. She spoke Hebrew poorly and always remained “a foreigner.” But this did not impact my mother’s obedience to the state nor her will to maintain the image of herself as a real sabra. After the state was created, this was her capital.
Not yet knowing how to unlearn my mother tongue, I was irritated whenever I encountered various truth agents of the state: schoolteachers, youth movement counselors, politicians, and neighbors. They all lied—not always in what they said, but in the Zionist grammar and temporality they used to describe what was done to Jews in Europe as a way of justifying what they were doing in Palestine. “National home.” “Ours.” “We were persecuted.” “All Arabs are murderers.” “All they want is to drown us in the sea.” “It’s their fault.” “They fled.” “They have no problem killing one another.” “We fight for the life of every one of our soldiers.” Even just trying to argue with or refute these lies, let alone refusing to reproduce them with my mother tongue, made my palate ache. I still knew very little about the destruction of Palestine and nothing about the destruction of Jewish Muslim world and the ahistorical construction of Arabs and Muslims as enemies of the Jewish people. My rage was mixed with a sense of insult. My mother tongue had misled me; my mouth rebelled.
During that time, I was prescribed an orthopedic posture corrector designed to straighten my back. This contraption, which was supposed to fix and correct my ancestral deformation, condemned me to silence: a silent mouth and a silent body. Under the aegis of this silence, the “we” that I was born to be a part of became “them.” Years passed before I understood that the traces of my father’s otherness—always there and always present—had also been impressed upon me. This gave me the ability to choose not to recognize myself in the “us”—Israeli Jews—and to see it as “them.” Thus, I still questioned the nature of a “we” of which I could be part.
The journey I embarked on outside the realm of “we” divested me of language. The orthopedic instrument tightened its grip around me and I discovered that I knew how to be silent. Silence had resourceful potential. The metal poles, the leather straps, and the plastic pelvic mold rattled and clicked proudly, sounding new, clean, technical syllables. These were the building blocks I could use to exit the settler language that was fabricated to be my native one.
To speak as she did, my mother had to repress her own mother tongue, Ladino. I loved the sound of it when she spoke with her mother, even though I was excluded from their conversations. When my grandmother passed away, I understood that my mother guarded this language zealously as her private reserve, hidden beneath what appeared to be a quintessentially Israeli life. She didn’t share it with anyone. Years went by before I realized that what I had identified as my mother’s sense of belonging was her way of responding to a command, a need to express allegiance to the national flag.
As if on a mission, she sought to indoctrinate us into the covenant of the sabra—a pact that required one abandon all diasporic attachments. She, however, did not discard all traces of the diasporic existence she inherited from her mother. When I was nine years old, her mother passed away. The music of the Ladino language disappeared from our lives, save for the few expressions of love my mother used with us (“bendices manos,” meaning “blessed hands,” which she used whenever I immersed myself in craft; or “alma buena,” meaning “good soul,” which she used cynically when we were mean to each other). We were unable to respond to her unconcealed longing for it, nor contextualize her loss within a history of disruption that began in the fifteenth century with the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain.
With the establishment of the state of Israel came the sacrifice of language to manufacture a colonizers’ version of Hebrew that was imposed as our mother tongue. Our ancestors’ languages had to be killed for our parents to converse with us in a language that was foreign to them, one they could use in an instrumental way. When I was able to understand the demise of Ladino, I understood that it was not French that my father had deprived us of, but Arabic—the language that my ancestors spoke in Algeria. I missed the opportunity to ask him when it was that he stopped replying to his parents in Arabic and asserted French as his mother tongue.
Though my father and I spoke only in Hebrew, there was another language I learned from him: that of stories. He had a talent for fictionalizing the world, unimpeded by his functional syntax and relatively impoverished Hebrew vocabulary. Whenever he rose from his armchair and left home, even just to go a few meters away, he’d stumble upon an incredible event that occurred, if not in the real world, then at least in his stories. It was as if he could not let reality disappoint him. As unsound as his stories sometimes were, however, they always had some basis in reality.
As a child, I tried to resemble my father, not the storyteller, but the one who fell silent between stories. I had to overcome my tremendous urge to speak. His silence left me awestruck. I saw in it a sign of nobility and pride. Distress, pain, sadness, and longing were softer when experienced in silence. I trusted the silence.
I have a vague memory of someone once commenting on my father’s poor Hebrew. In retrospect, I realize that this was the moment that I began to behave as if a countdown had started, and I had an obligation to catch up. I wanted to read all the books that could help me counter this shame. In our home there were only a few books, most of them French detective novels (Série noire). I was still a young teenager and had my own library card, but I was only allowed to borrow three books a week. I made a point of borrowing books with opening sentences I couldn’t understand. I read them without really reading. I wanted the words I did not know to become my own. I enjoyed the fact that my sisters took pride in my reading. I enjoyed the way those books kept me company, gradually drawing closer to me or drawing me closer to them. I liked their feel, their presence on my pillow, the sense of security they imparted. Much later I came to understand that it was easier for me to read a book after it had spent some time in my company. This has since become a habit. I still purchase books knowing that it will take some time before I read them.
My mother tongue was contaminated. It clamped the pained mouth shut. It dulled the pain—including that of my mother—with words. Rather than listening to the pain and speaking with it, my mother tongue exacerbated it by speaking in its place. Hebrew is contaminated. The Hebrew mother tongue is contaminated. It was abused to provide Israel a mother tongue. Hebrew was made into a settlers’ language.
Individuals don’t speak their mother tongue. Rather, they engage with others who share it, use it, and abuse it. As long as I lived in the settlers’ colony, my attempts to extricate myself from my mother tongue would fail. I wanted to bite into it, watch its defeat after all that it had instigated. Yet I love its Hebrew components. I love the language. I love the mother. For the past several years I stopped writing in Hebrew so that I could one day use it again with a Judeo-Arabic grammar; so that I could recount what had happened forward and backward; so that I could reawaken what had been neglected so that it might become the heart, spine, and chariot with which history could be unmoored from borders and patrols; so that a potential history in non-imperial geographies and temporalities of repair could be conversed in Hebrew.
My father tongue was a gesture—a gesture of impersonation, otherness, foreignness, multiplicity, practicality. It was also the gesture of someone who was colonized, evicted from his ancestors’ world, and unable to find a path away from substitute worlds shaped by colonizers. This gesture of foreignness repeated itself in every language my father could chat: the different languages spoken by the customers with whom he interacted in his store. He took pleasure in his ability to register words in foreign languages and behave as if he spoke them: Amharic, Russian, Spanish, and even Yiddish. Did he ever speak in Arabic in his store without us knowing it? There was no father tongue I could initially make mine except the gesture. However, I gradually transposed his visceral expression into a written language, before using it as a spoken one. My father’s fables were so powerful that even when it was clear that his life was not as colorful as his depictions, they continued to perform a certain magic. It was a magic that endowed me with the power to emigrate from the captivity of my mother tongue by one day proclaiming: “I’m a Palestinian Jew.”
When my father died, I began calling myself by his mother’s name—Aïsha—which he had concealed from me. Despite knowing our tradition’s ordination to do so, he didn’t give me her name at birth and later suggested I instead give my daughter the French name of his mother, a name nowhere even written in her papers. Once I inhabited the name Aïsha, I also said, in my ancestors’ language: “I’m an Algerian Jew.” Only by depriving me of these two attachments could the settlers’ state apparatuses assign me the identity they manufactured and use it to reproduce their regime.
Since my father died, I’ve been piecing together the fragments of a world where this ancestors’ tongue was more than a gesture. This requires actualizing a potential history that rejects the colonial project that shaped him—the colonization of Algeria by the French and the destruction of the world of Arab-Berber-Jews-Muslims—and the one that shaped me—the colonization and destruction of Palestine. When thought of as two distinct histories, the outcome of the first colonization becomes irreversible by the second and vice versa. This disjunctive logic implies that I should accept as a fait accompli what he—or his ancestors—were unable to successfully resist or reverse. I don’t.
My father tongue includes the gesture of silence, quietly present like a scar. It took me a long time to understand that my father’s departure from Algeria after WWII was not a matter of choice—neither was his decision to conceal that he was an Arab-Jew upon meeting my mother and deciding to remain in the Zionist colony. In an imperial world, the notion of choice obscures what is often a predetermined tabulation of imperially crafted alternatives to conceal imperial crimes. Why would my father have wanted to return to Algeria, where he was sent to a concentration camp by his beloved French colonizers (for whom he later fought), only to find that there he was neither French nor Algerian? Why would he have wanted to be an immigrant from North Africa in Israel in the late 1940s where Arabs were demonized as the enemy? Which sabra woman would have possibly wanted, shortly after the Arabs were expelled from Palestine, to marry an immigrant from North Africa, especially if she herself could successfully camouflage her Sephardic origin behind blond hair and green eyes? When referred to as Algerian, my father felt taunted; when referred to as French, he felt complimented. He avoided the company of other immigrants from North Africa and was careful not to be identified with them. He was a foreigner in Israeli society and avoided the paths to assimilation it offered. This experience of foreignness was a solitary one.
My mother sometimes played a tape that was recorded in 1972 over the course of a family road trip to Ashdod. I was nine years old. My father was driving. My mother sat beside him. My youngest sister and I sat in the backseat with our maternal grandmother. I held the microphone. Unlike other tapes that my family had allowed to vanish over time, this one was preserved because it contained the voice of my maternal grandmother on the day before she had a stroke and died. When I listened to it, I could only guess that the woman with the heavy accent—was it Bulgarian? Ladino?—was my grandmother. It was not how I remembered her. Her china-white face and black hair were preserved voiceless in my memory in the way voices are erased from photo albums. Other voices from that tape also sounded unfamiliar. I listened as the little girl in the car—me— implored the others repetitively: “Talk to me.” When I listened back, I was struck by how I could distill the trials of my entire life into those three words: “Talk to me.” The little girl whose voice rang out on the tape, giggling and protesting, reminded me that my intellectual interest in the drama of language and silence—which relates to questions of ownership, expropriation, belonging, responsiveness, apprenticeship, pronunciation, foreignness, loneliness, anxiety, disenfranchisement, betrayal, silencing, effacement, compatibility, and immigration—was preceded by an act written in the body. Since listening, I have slipped the cassette into the tape player several more times but have not dared to hit the PLAY button again.
The gesture of silence hid in my body like a genetic code before I attempted to emigrate from my mother tongue. Many years passed before I realized that even my mother, whose speech embodied collective Israeli identity, emigrated from it most of the time she was in our living room. There, as long as I did not provoke her, she forgot about it and her duties toward it. With her husband, my father, she could, for fleeting moments, permit herself to embrace her own estrangement from Israelis, to participate in my father’s evening aperitif ceremony, to indulge in her own sewing, to dream about her family’s mansion in Sofia, and to long for her mother whose foreignness never embarrassed her.
When I asked my mother questions about the Palestinian washerwoman who had worked in my mother’s parents’ house in Rishon LeZion (who must have taught my mother the impressive number of Arabic words she knew), or when I wondered what she thought when the Palestinian laborers who worked in my grandfather’s orange grove did not show up for work, I encountered the one-dimensional figure of a sabra. The voice of the nation sprung from her throat and replaced the woman who raised us most days of the year. Speaking in a nationalistic voice, she sought to squander my inquisitions, setting me back on path and recalibrating my vision to a vantage point from which I, too, was expected to ignore the crimes that had transpired.
My mother marked me as a rebel the day I began inquiring about Palestine. She no longer spoke to me as a mother would a daughter. My act of heresy opened a wide and painful abyss between us. Only after my mother’s death did I realize that when I approached her through altercations, seeing her exclusively as an embodiment of the sabra persona, I inadvertently endowed this persona with more power than it actually had over her. I might have undermined its power had I allowed my mother’s own sense of estrangement to crack through. That sense of estrangement, I still believe, protected her from the pain of losing her childhood landscape—the characters, customs, forms of dress, and flavors of life of her beloved city, Rishon LeZion—where, up until the foundation of the state, Arabs and Jews intermingled. From the moment she turned seventeen and Palestine was ruined, a hollow language of independence sought to make this destruction irreversible and replace the pain and loss. I refuse to believe that Palestinian Jews, who were not yet committed Zionists, felt no pain or loss when this language took over.
Had I asked her about this sense of estrangement, her sabra self probably would have denied its existence; out of fear, she would have remained silent about what she could not share, as if I were a traitor who would turn her words into testimony of what had to be concealed.
Her sense of estrangement exemplifies the loss some Jews experienced when Palestine, the land of which my mother proudly declared herself to be a native, was suddenly ruined, and its familiar Arab inhabitants evacuated and replaced by others who were imposed as kin. I refuse to believe that my mother did not recognize the catastrophe that occurred, even while she was lured to adopt the hegemonic story that justified it and forced to deny its meaning.
Had I not delineated the contours of her estrangement, I would not have been able to unlearn my mother tongue and turn to my ancestors’ tongue to utter a potential history of Palestine premised on the unconditional return of Palestinians including all their descendants. I can hear my mother telling me in Ladino that she misses the washerwoman’s “ojos negros” (black eyes), musical accent, and the special sound she produced when she rolled her name on her tongue as a child—“Zehava.” She may have paused for a second and added, “I also miss the feel of her hand when she caressed my golden curls and gathered me up in her arms.” From that point on, the conversation would start flowing and she would regain vitality. She would lighten as she became a person no longer required to engage in the trying effort of covering up the deeds of the Zionists who betrayed her, too, when they destroyed Palestine—the place where her paternal grandmother immigrated in the late nineteenth century, not as a Zionist.
When one is surrounded by a roaring silence, the words “talk to me” express a longing for the act of speech. When one is surrounded by the rustle of speech, the words “talk to me” implore that one do away with existing discourse. Speech uttered by those whose voices have been assimilated into the voice of the nation, speech that does not address a conversant, is no speech at all. “Talk to me” demands both an act of speech and an act of silence.
Indeed, the plea “talk to me” was a plea to be spoken to. The plea was a demand for time, a request not to be abandoned while I attempted to close the gap between words and body. The plea did not attempt to efface what was impressed upon the body, but only to expose the body to the air, centimeter by centimeter, through direct speech, speech directed at me, toward the body, reinstating it by means of the tongue so that word and body could be reconnected. Signs impressed upon the body cannot be removed, though often they are devoid of specific content. They abet processes of negotiation within language.
But one can refuse the meanings offered by signs and say, “no thank you,” continuing to search for others, even if it takes a very long time. “No thank you, I am not interested in writing about mizrachi identity.” If I were, I would have never been able to unlearn enough to say that I’m an Algerian Jew. “No thank you, I am not interested in forgetting that I am a mizrachi woman or in neglecting your racism toward others and me.” If I were, I would have never been able to unlearn enough to say that I am a Palestinian Jew.
Author’s Note: A text I wrote in 2003 could, in a certain way, be considered an early draft of this one (included in Hazut Mizrahit, Eds. Yigal Nizri and Tal Ben Zvi). A decade ago, after my parents died, I rewrote this early text. Now, almost a decade after I left the Zionist colony, I wanted to engage once again with the question of what it would mean to reverse the imperial termination of the Jewish-Muslim world after eight years of not writing in Hebrew. I realized that my work on the world of my ancestors generates a disruption that doesn’t allow the process of rewriting, but rather, that of writing anew—of writing a different text.
Ariella Azoulay is an author, art curator, filmmaker, and theorist of photography and visual culture. She is Professor of Modern Culture and Media in the Department of Comparative Literature at Brown University. Her latest book is Potential History—Unlearning Imperialism (Verso, 2019).
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