April 4, 2022

Ya Ghorbati | Line Monty

By Laura Elkeslassy

In 1971, Line Monty released a heart-wrenching song called “Ma Guitare et Mon Pays” (My Guitar and My Country), composed by Algerian-Jewish pianist Maurice El Médioni. The song touches on the pain of exile and the nostalgia for homeland that El Médioni and Monty’s generation carried in the wake of the Algerian War. The recording opens with a mawwal, a vocal improvisation that begins with the words ya ghorbati fi buldan y nass: “O my exile in the land of others.”1

Those words crystallize the story of Algerian Jews in the 1950s and 1960s, a story that would have major ramifications for Jews across North Africa. During that time, thousands of Algerian Jews were forced to leave their country, an ancestral land where they had lived for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. This involuntary exodus emerged from the confluence of French colonial power, the creation of the State of Israel, and the rise of Arab nationalism.

When France conquered Algeria in 1830, French Jews had only recently become citizens with equal rights under the law—a change that ended centuries of legal discrimination. In the period following their emancipation, many French Jews identified themselves with the Enlightenment, the Haskalah, and the “mission civilisatrice universelle de la France.” At the same time, Jews living in Muslim countries were subject to the rule of the dhimma, a special designation for certain religious minorities that signified both protection and second-class legal status.

As colonizers (French Jews among them) began to flow into Algeria, they brought an Orientalist vision of the people whose land they began to occupy. A French Jewish doctor, traveling to Algeria in 1840, described North African Jews in these terms:

It is a disgusting race, unreliable and greedy . . . their fanaticism is extreme. They speak Arabic but pronounce it differently than the Moors, and they write it with Hebrew letters that are not even the same as ours. I went to multiple synagogues . . . French stables are cleaner than their temples . . .

Armed with beliefs like these, French Jews, who largely supported the colonial project, embarked on a “civilizing mission” to “regenerate” their brothers from across the Mediterranean.

To support these efforts, in 1860, seventeen French Jewish public figures, poets, and businessmen—including the politician Adolphe Crémieux—founded L’Alliance Israélite Universelle. L’Alliance, founded by mostly Ashkenazi Jews, aimed “to advance the Jews of North Africa and the Middle East through French education and culture”—as well as to emancipate Jews from oppressive and discriminatory laws, political disabilities, and persecution. With its motto, “Kol Israel Haverim,”2 L’Alliance emphasized a lofty concept of transnational Jewish solidarity.

I went to kindergarten in Paris at L’École Normale Israélite Orientale (ENIO), the academy that had once trained French-language teachers bound for Alliance schools in colonial Morocco and Algeria. And my aunt proudly taught French at L’Alliance. When I was young, she was the one who first taught me the rules of French grammar. Though Arabic was her mother tongue, I never heard her speak it.


In 1870, the ground in Algeria shifted. By that point, French Jews had been lobbying for decades to grant full citizenship to Algerian Jews. And that year, Minister of Justice Adolphe Crémieux signed a decree and naturalized the entire Jewish population of Algeria—despite the fact that, for years, many Algerian Jews had not wanted to become French citizens.3 The day Crémieux gave his speech, 35,000 Algerian Jews automatically joined the ranks of the local French population. Crémieux neglected to grant Muslims what he would have seen as the same honor; Algerian Muslims would not receive full citizenship until Algeria won its independence in 1962.

Across North Africa, L’Alliance followed the same principles underlying the Crémieux Decree, offering Jews education that Muslims could often not access, encouraging Jews to assimilate into French culture, and setting Jews apart from their neighbors—preparing the stage for what would come next.

Though many Jews participated in the fight for independence during the Algerian War, so many forces—French colonization, the Algerian nationalism that was shaped in response, antisemitism, and the creation of the State of Israel—had sown division between Algerian Jews and Muslims ninety years after the Crémieux Decree. In 1962, the same year Algerian Muslims won the right to vote, Jews had to leave the country en masse. The Front de Libération Nationale (FLN)4 offered them two options: la valise ou le cercueil, the suitcase or the coffin. Centuries of communal culture did not save Algerian Jews from the inevitable separation that took place that year. Line Monty would not be able to return, to sing the songs “Algiers, Algiers” and “Ma Guitare et Mon Pays” in the place that had inspired their words of longing and grief.

Instead, she stood on stages elsewhere, singing, “O my exile in the land of others.”

That community of Jews who left Algeria after independence left it forever. They joined a world of refugees marked by war, forever dreaming of home.

Having grown up in a French Moroccan Zionist family, I’ve thought often in recent years of the seismic rupture that occurred not only for Algerian Jews, but for Tunisian Jews, Moroccan Jews, and so many others, how it seems the fissures continue to widen. And when I reach back into my own history to understand the worlds that came before, I cannot help but think of all the Palestinians who cannot return home. It does not escape me that while the status of Jews across North Africa was becoming extremely fragile and often untenable, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were being displaced during the Nakba in 1948, initiating yet another cycle of exile.

For repair to occur, we must attempt to learn from our own displacements, alongside the exilic histories of others.

I believe the future in Israel|Palestine is Jewish and Arab. And I hope that it can be so in North Africa and throughout the Middle East. That each of us can one day experience home without feeling like a stranger in an ancestral land.

When Line Monty sings the words, it almost sounds like a prayer:

Ce chemin qui nous sépare,
tout à coup se raccourcit quand
le istikhbar de ma guitare vient me parler de L’Algérie.


The path that keeps us apart
All of a sudden shrinks
When the solo of my guitar speaks to me about Algeria.

Footnotes

  1. As Ira and I began developing our interpretation of “Ma Guitare,” it became clear that our version should take on a different name than the original, a name drawn from the opening Arabic words of a song sung largely in French, “Ya Ghorbati,” o my exile . . .
  2. This translates as: “All the people of Israel are friends,” or less literally, “All Jews must look out for one another.”
  3. The reason for this reluctance was likely tied, in part, to the measure of religious and legal autonomy Algerian Jews had experienced under Muslim rule. Adolphe Crémieux was aware of this reluctance. Referring to Algerian Jews in the speech that preceded his eponymous decree, he exclaimed: “Do not tell them to become French voluntarily; they will not abdicate the law of God!” See Blévis and Nadjari in the sources section.
  4. The Algerian nationalist movement that led the war against France and became the ruling party after independence.

Sources