When I think of Zohra Elfassia’s “Abiadi Ana,” I think of my paternal grandmother, Lea Elkeslassy. I vividly remember her singing the song at my cousins’ hennas (Moroccan weddings) when I was a young girl. During the henna ceremony, guests would gather around her, and as she marked the hands of the bride and groom with traditional henna ink, she would riff on the lyrics of “Abiadi Ana” to bless the new couple.
But “Abiadi Ana” didn’t belong to my grandmother alone. I like to call it the grandmothers’ song because so many Jewish Moroccan women of my grandmother’s generation used to sing it at hennas. When Zohra sang the song’s lyrics, she conjured a rich history of Judeo-Arab women’s rituals. Beyond that musical resonance, Zohra’s story itself embodies the stories of so many Moroccan Jews who made aliyah to Israel in the 1950s and 1960s, including the story of my maternal grandmother.
In 1905, Zohra Hamou was born in Sefrou, and moved as a young child to nearby Fez—the city that would inspire her stage name, Zohra Elfassia (which translates to Zohra from Fez). My mother’s mother, Estrilla Oliel (née Harroch), was born in Sefrou in 1917, twelve years after Zohra, and moved to Fez at an early age too. Both Estrilla and Zohra made aliyah to Israel in the early 1960s, living in two-bedroom government-issued apartments. Both saw their lives change dramatically.
Jews immigrating to Israel from Arab lands were trapped on a path of downward social mobility. Moroccans were placed in development cities like Ashdod and Ashkelon; when my mom arrived in Ashdod, she used to tell me, she and the other kids would play on the sand dunes. They didn’t realize they were part of a state policy to erase the traces of local Palestinian populations, and to create buffers against “Arab towns.” Paradoxically, these immigrants were also Arabs—uprooted in order to uproot.
In Morocco, Zohra Elfassia had been a great diva, a favorite at King Mohammed V’s court, and celebrated among Jewish and Muslim communities alike. But when she reached the Holy Land, she found she was not at all welcome on the Israeli music scene. The Arabic arts she specialized in, from Malhun (popular melodic poetry) to Gharnati (Andalusian song), were anathema to the world of Israeli public broadcasting at the time. Zohra was in a different position than male singers (paytanim) in her community, who were also subject to discrimination, but could continue leading services in the synagogue as cantors (hazzanim). Due to the rabbinic prohibition of women singing in public settings, the same was not true for Zohra; she simply could not find a space to perform publicly—in her own community, or in Israeli society at large. Zohra herself was a deep lover of Zion, and I suspect—based on her musical ode to Ben-Gurion—that she understood the creation of the State of Israel as messianic. But the reality she experienced was a different one.
Shaming of the tongue—that’s what happened to Zohra, and to other Mizrahim1 in Israel. Keep your language at home please! We don’t want to hear it! So our grandparents kept speaking Arabic, but only behind closed doors. And even that private language began to fade as their children came home speaking in Hebrew, as their schoolteachers had ordered them to. I remember how my mother would speak in Hebrew or French to my grandma in her old age, and how my grandma would respond in Arabic.
What a loss that Arabic, the native language of both my parents, was not passed on to me—for the sake of “nation-building.” That I, to this day, need hours to decipher lyrics in a language that was spoken in my family for at least four centuries. What a loss.
I grew up in Paris, where I was taught languages are not to be mixed, where social status derives from proper use of the French language, and where Semitic languages are praised for their ancient poetry but certainly not for their present contribution to culture. In my French education, as in my mother’s Israeli schooling, Arabic was not welcome; it still isn’t. France, after all, benefits from “l’exception culturelle française,” a self-bestowed honor that consecrates French culture as the expression of a particular national genius.
Because of all this, whether in Israel or in France, we kept our language and our songs at home. Still, through our ritual life, music, and food, we stayed connected to our roots. At my cousins’ weddings in 1990s Paris, my grandma Lea—who still lived in Marrakesh at the time—would sit down at the height of the celebration, paint hands, and begin to sing her own version of “Abiadi Ana.” Traditionally, whoever sings the song makes up fresh lyrics on the spot, improvising a celebration of bride, groom, and audience.
I don’t remember the exact words my grandmother sang. But I always think of her when Zohra sings the opening mawwal2 in her version of “Abiadi Ana,” commanding all the attention in the room, always the MC:
The company has run wild
They asked for more singing from the singer
Our friendship has grown stronger
May God give them satisfaction.
Once she offers these words of celebration, the song can really begin.
When I got married in 2015, I looked desperately for someone to perform “Abiadi Ana.” No one in my family was able to sing it live anymore. My grandma had passed away; my maternal aunt—who used to perform amazing renditions of the song—had passed too. I could barely find a decent recording on the internet. So while I’ll never forget my fantastic henna ceremony, nobody sang “Abiadi Ana” at my wedding.
A year later, though, when my sister got married, I had started singing with the New York Andalus Ensemble, where I met Avi Chetrit—a Moroccan drummer from Israel who still speaks Judeo-Arabic. When I mentioned “Abiadi Ana,” Avi knew just the song I meant, and taught me to sing it. So at my sister’s henna, I—the French grandkid, the Lassy kid—surprised my whole family by performing “Abiadi Ana.” How, my elderly relatives wondered, dabbing at their eyes, did I even manage to pronounce the words right?
Though the connection to these lyrics, and their cultural history, is fading for many of my generation, I feel empowered when I sense our past reemerging in the present.
A year after my sister’s wedding, when I heard about Neta Elkayam’s show Abiadi—a performance dedicated to Zohra Elfassia—I thought my heart would burst.
Thanks to Neta and many others, Zohra is now returning to the surface.
- Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.
- A traditional vocal improvisation.
- Bitton, Erez. “Zohra El Fassia.” In You Who Cross My Path: Selected Poems by Erez Bitton. Translated by Tsipi Keller. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2015. The original Hebrew version of the poem can be found here.
- Silver, Chris. “Zohra El Fassia — Kif Youassi [Sides 1–2] — Polyphon, 1938.” Gharamophone, October 29, 2021.
- Silver, Chris. “Zohra El Fassia — Mayli Sadr Hnine — Pathé, c. 1956.” Gharamophone, June 25, 2018.
- “Ya Nas, Ya Nas — Zohra El Fassia Digitized.” Jewish Maghrib Jukebox.