April 4, 2022

L’Orientale | Line Monty

By Laura Elkeslassy

Line Monty was born in Algiers in 1926 as “Éliane Serfati”—a striking last name that, in the Maghreb, means “French,” and in France, stereotypically refers to a Maghrebi Jew. Monty was born into a family in love with both French and traditional Algerian music; she trained her ear on Edith Piaf, Umm Kulthum, and Mohammed Abdel Wahab. 

When she was still a young woman, Monty began performing in cabarets, and before long, she was singing in music halls across the world: Algeria, the Americas, Europe, the Middle East. While she was performing in Egypt, the legendary musician Farid El Atrache invited her to sing one of his songs, and famously, Egyptian audiences would remember her as the French woman who sings Arabic so well. Her skill with musical styles ranging from Chaabi to Francarabe, rumbas to French cabaret—combined with her warm timbre and talent for ornamentation—made her one of the great divas of her time. 

In the 1950s, José de Suza (whose given name was Youssef Hagege) composed a song for Monty that would become one of her first hits: “L’Orientale” (The Oriental). While the title points to the East, this is a song that speaks, above all, to the West. 

On m’appelle l’Orientale, Monty used to sing, au regard fatal.

On m’appelle l’Orientale, la sentimentale.

The song’s lyrics lay out the singer’s identity—whether chosen or assigned—as an “Oriental,” a woman, an artist. They seem to endorse classic Orientalist stereotypes: dangerous sensuality, provincialism, the absence of rationality. “Black hair, femme fatale,” Monty sang,  “I am sentimental.” 

But as the song continues, it opens up, revealing contradictory layers underneath,  speaking of a pride in the singer’s origines, and of the “double identification” of colonized people. Of how those living in the so-called “East” reckon with a fractured consciousness—at once Western and Eastern—and the ways in which these two identities mix with one another, often in conflict, searching in vain to find a place within a constructed, and ultimately fictive binary.

In our reinterpretation of “L’Orientale,” Ira and I took some freedom with the lyrics. We wanted to render the tension palpable, to deconstruct the binary—and the moral hierarchy that comes with it—to show the push and pull between stereotype and reclamation. And perhaps to find some way to reconcile all this, to craft a new identity in which the singer can be at home. 

Une identité qui parle par elle-même.