Modern Languages, postcolonial studies

Jewish-Muslim Interactions: Performing Cultures between North Africa and France

By Sami Everett & Rebekah Vince with contributions from Jonathan Glasser, Hadj Miliani, Vanessa Paloma-Elbaz, and Jamal Bahmad

In the context of rising antisemitism and Islamophobia, where Jewish-Muslim encounters in North Africa are often depicted in conflictual or nostalgic terms, Jewish-Muslim Interactions: Performing Cultures between North Africa and France charts an alternative trajectory by focusing on performance and creativity. The collection of essays explores how theatre, music, film, art, and stand-up comedy constitute and represent artistic cooperation between Jews and Muslims across the Mediterranean, from the early twentieth century to the present day. Our emphasis is on creative influence and interaction between performers from North Africa and diaspora communities in France. Consequently, many of the plays, songs, films, images, and comedy sketches analysed in the volume are multilingual, mixing not only with French (the former colonial language), but also with the rich diversity of indigenous Amazigh and Arabic languages. The time period encompasses France’s attempts to emancipate and assimilate Jews and Muslims in different ways under colonial rule, followed by decolonization that saw mass departures from North Africa, ongoing conflict in the Middle East, and the rise of the far right in France and beyond.  Yet these conflicts are in the background as performance takes centre stage here. From early Tunisian filmmaker Albert Samama to contemporary comedy duo Younes and Bambi, the reader is taken on an unexpected journey across North Africa and France, seen through the lens of artistic performance and dynamic interaction between Muslims and Jews, rather than in an antagonistic, traumatic, or sentimental frame.

Jewish-Muslim Interactions emerged out of a global network of scholars and artists engaged in cultural production and transdisciplinary research. We met first in 2018 at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), University of Cambridge, and then in 2019 at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France to discuss intercommunal solidarity, multilingualism, and neglected legacies in relation to performance on both sides of the Mediterranean. Arising from these discussions, the volume includes contributions by scholars working across and beyond the disciplinary boundaries of anthropology, ethnomusicology, history, sociology, and literature, engaging with postcolonial studies, memory studies, cultural studies, and transnational French studies.

The first section of Jewish-Muslim Interactions looks at accents, affiliations, and exchange, with an emphasis on aesthetics, familiarity, changing social roles, and cultural entrepreneurship. Readers discover how Jews and Muslims united around nationalistic music during the interwar years in North Africa and consider the potential of intercommunal solidarity in the art world of the 1940s to 1960s. The second section shifts to consider departure and lingering presence through spectres and taboos, in its exploration of absence, influence, and elision. Through analysis of cultural production ranging from patriotic Moroccan rap to contemporary street artist ‘Combo’, contributions in this section interrogate the concept of coexistence between Jews and Muslims, challenging both nostalgic and oppositional narratives in collective memory and contemporary politics. The volume concludes with an autobiographical afterword by author and translator Valérie Zenatti, who provides a personal reflection on memories and legacies of Jewish-Muslim interactions across the Mediterranean.

Thanks to funding from the European Commission (Vanessa Paloma-Elbaz, Cambridge) and the Advanced School (Jonathan Glasser, IEA 2019-2020), four of the book’s 16 essays are freely accessible online. The authors of these essays respond below to our question about the relationship between their essays and the title of the book, Jewish-Muslim Interaction: Performing Cultures between North Africa and France.

Concerning his essay ‘More than Friends? On Muslim-Jewish Intimacy in Algeria and Beyond’, Jonathan Glasser writes that, “In scholarly and popular conversations about the relationship between Muslims and Jews in the Maghrib and its diaspora, music seems to challenge discourses that would emphasize Muslim-Jewish conflict and Jews’ status as outsiders to the North African social fabric. Yet on closer inspection, Muslim-Jewish interactions around music, and the conversations about them, rarely escape the tropes of rivalry, marginality, and ambivalence that have long permeated discourse about the Muslim-Jewish interface in North Africa. Focusing on Algeria and its diaspora in France, I suggest that by paying attention to the implicit theories of relatedness embedded in these conversations, we can both account for the centripetal force of such tropes as well as imagine richer alternatives for understanding Muslim-Jewish interaction in North Africa and beyond.”

Reflecting on the trope of conviviality, in his essay ‘Marie Soussan: A Singular Trajectory’, co-written with Sami Everett, Hadj Miliani writes that, “the trajectory of the Algiers-born musician and actress Marie Soussan (1895-1977) is perhaps characteristic of artistic relations between Jews and Muslims during the first half of the 20thcentury. Soussan established herself as a singer of the high-culture Andalusi musical repertoire through public performances and recordings. What is exceptional, however, is that a Jewish woman should become so entirely embedded within an artistic ensemble predominantly made up of Muslim men. Moreover, as a pair, alongside the actor and playwright Rachid Ksentini, Soussan marked the beginning of an Algerian-language popular theatrical form.” 

Fast-forwarding in time, Vanessa Paloma-Elbaz considers the “performative aspects of Maghrebi Jewish-Muslim cultural interaction in cinematic representation over the last 10 years” in her essay, ‘Connecting the Disconnect: Music and its Agency in Moroccan Cinema’s Jewish-Muslim Interaction’. In her words, she “explores the use of music, as a quasi-embodied character in recent Moroccan cinema” crystallizing “the profound importance of musical interaction as the glue that brings diverse segments of the Muslim population together with their local and exiled Jewish compatriots.” Through analysing “the characters and their music as archetypes of the seeming ruptures between contemporary political realities and the idealised convivencia from the often evoked al-Andalus and recent Moroccan history,” she reveals how “the political and societal changes that have occurred in the last century highlight music’s central role in maintaining awareness of both historic and current cultural unity and its ubiquitous performances between and among Maghrebi Jews and Muslims in the Maghreb and Europe.”   

Finally, Jamal Bahmad writes that his contribution, entitled ‘Jerusalem Blues’, “dwells on the uses of affect and silence in Kamal Hachkar’s film Tinghir-Jérusalem: Les échos du Mellah [‘Tinghir-Jerusalem: Echoes from the Mellah’] (2012).” He explores how “the Franco-Moroccan director’s debut documentary revisits the memory of Amazigh Jews in the desert town of Tinghir and the Tinghirian community in Israel,” concluding that, “the film articulates the pain of exile and the treacherousness of memory through the affective charge of the interviewed subjects’ acts of remembrance, nostalgia, music, and the articulate silence of ordinary people in the face of the big forces of history.”

By exploring artistic representation and cooperation between North African Jews and Muslims in the 20th and 21st centuries, this collective volume offers an alternative perspective to a growing trend in media and scholarship that views these interactions primarily through conflict, instead foregrounding cultures of performance past and present.

Read freely available chapters from this book here.

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