Read an ExcerptVOICES OF THE DIASPORA
Jewish Women Writing in Contemporary Europe
NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS
Copyright © 2005
Thomas Nolden and Frances Malino
All right reserved.
Chapter One On the Edge of the World
Marlène Amar was born in 1949 in Colomb-Béchar, a place she calls "a small town lost deep in the Algerian Sahara." She says of her family: "My father was in business. His ancestors came from the Draa's mountains in Morocco. They were nomads and jewelers by profession. My mother belongs to the Jewish aristocracy. Her family was composed of princes, Maecenas, and other erudite people." During Algeria's war for independence, Amar and her family moved to Paris. She received her doctorate in French literature from the Université de Nanterre and, after working as a teacher, became a journalist. She now writes as a film critic for Le Nouvel Observateur. Her first novel, La femme sans tête (The Woman without a Head) appeared in 1993, followed by Des gens infréquantables (Bad Company) in 1996 and Princesse ma chienne (Princess My Dog) in 1998.
Amar reflects on her attitude toward writing: "When I write, I don't think of myself as a woman, or as a writer, or as Jewish. I am of course all of those simultaneously, and at the same time, before my sheet of paper, I am nothing. Or a kind of antediluvian creature who came from nowhere. Literature has nothing to do with militancy. One can only tell stories, even if these stories sometimes serve to rouse consciences. But to tell them, I believe one must be as free as possible, even in the way in which one defines or perceives oneself." She maintains that "Europe after the Holocaust is not so different from Europe before it. One still sees the same nationalistic rages, the anti-Semitism, an unchanged racism."
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Every day at siesta time, when under the scorching heat of the sun the little town of Kenadza was breathing its last, Madame Karsenty would settle down on the sofa in the living room where her son, Theophile, was dozing and rub his head. Having done the noontime dishes, Fortune, her daughter, would sit down at their feet facing them with a book open on her lap. Under the movement of the caresses, her brother's chest gradually began to sag, his arms would unfold and fall gently alongside his body, and as the muscles slackened in his face, it began to glow with an expression of pure bliss. Next to him, her fingers fussing with her hair, chin raised, and staring into space, Madame Karsenty was sighing, sounds lost in the silence of the surrounding desert. In the filtered light of the closed shutters she resembled a Madonna, with her haughty bearing, her fine smooth skin, her long and delicate nose, her sensuous lips that showed just a slight bitterness, and her wavy hairdo tied with a silk ribbon at the back of her neck. Entranced by the vision of the gradual softening features of the one, the frozen beauty of the other, and the silent intimacy that bound them, it took Fortune every effort to concentrate on reading.
She was only seven years old but already had an exceptional, almost worrisome fondness for observation. When noticing her presence, her mother pushed her aside with an imperceptible motion of her leg, and she would leave to look at other things. Everything was an object of interest to her: the people she came across, the dunes where she would go for walks, the animals that lived there, the print in a piece of fabric, the embroidery on a fez, the facade of a house. The smallest stone could capture her attention for hours and hours. Then she wouldn't notice time passing or the day coming to an end. It was not unusual for her father, after lowering the metal curtain of his hardware store and leaving for home, to find her crouching in the dark, absorbed in the scrutiny of a column of red ants, of snail shells delicately chiseled by the wind, or of a gypsum flower.
"Come into the light," he would tell her as he readjusted the skullcap on his head, "you're going to ruin your eyes." And she'd go home with him, skipping happily in his wake.
The infinite variety of faces, in particular, never ceased to astound her. Whether it was handsome or ugly, square or oval shaped, whether it had vitality, grace or not, whether it breathed goodness or deceit, intelligence, stupidity, or foolishness, to Fortune each face was worthy of interest. She never grew tired of noticing the shape of a nose, the line of a mouth, the roundness of a forehead, the gentleness or the brassy sparkle of a look, the charm or the betrayal of a smile, the determination or the weakness of a profile, the bluish pallor of the delicate opalescence of rings under someone's eyes that moved her so. Sometimes she would try to envision the complicated bone structure beneath the flesh, the configuration of a skull, the design of a jaw; she would try to grasp the secrets and torments behind the masks, to guess the past from the curves in the lines of a face, the stories and legends inscribed there. Still, it seemed to her that, no matter what she did, she would never manage to penetrate the astonishing, unfathomable, and boundless mystery of faces! One day many years later, when she had become a saleswoman in a ladies' clothing shop in the Paris Opera district, the boss had taken her to task: "Miss, please stop staring at the customers!" But since she was unable to keep herself from doing so, despite her efforts, she had been fired.
What exactly did this fixation, this obsession with observation, correspond to? Was it her particularly dreamy nature? Was it a thirst to know what surrounded her? Was it alienation of some sort that would let her see only that which she wanted to see, canceling all the rest, in a kind of settlement, a tacit agreement with life? Or was it rather those little kicks from her mother that, by excluding her insidiously from the family circle, had by the same token sent her careening from the world, as if on the rebound, thereby predisposing her to observe it rather than to take part in it?
Even her own face was a source of interest to her. Not a day went by that she wouldn't stand before the hallway mirror devoting herself to a careful scrutiny of her own reflection. Physically, Fortune was a strange little girl with a dreamy look and a curious face. She had a huge head that always leaned toward her shoulder as if it were too heavy to be carried upright, a scrawny body, enormous black eyes, the pointy nose of a weasel with a beauty mark on its bridge that everyone took for a bit of dust and would try to wipe off, a mouth so thin that it got lost at the corners in the fold of her too plump cheeks, and short plain brown hair.
Whom did she resemble? Not her father, who had a coarse profile and the compact stoutness of his ancestors, mountain people of the Draa. Not her brother, who was the image of his father. Not her mother, either, who came from the Tafilalet and whose beauty had no equal. One day her aunt Aziza had shown her photographs of some ancestors who at the end of the nineteenth century were jewelers in the Erfoud region, and in them she discovered a familiar look, in the satiny texture of the skin, in the shy smile they revealed, in their expression both open and proud, and in the gaze of astonishment that enlarged their eyes. They always posed as a group in the pictures. The men stood in a half circle, their look piercing. They wore jellabas, loose embroidered pants, and fezzes stitched in gold in the Arab fashion. In majestic beauty, the women were seated in front of them, some with babies in their arms. Their complexion was smooth, their dark eyes outlined in black, and their features were harmonious and classically elegant. They carried themselves ceremoniously. They were sumptuously attired in long striped or flowered dresses with many layers of underskirts. Their foreheads, wrapped in bands of fabric, were adorned with unusual horn-shaped headdresses or covered with silk scarves knotted at the back of the neck from which hung heavy silver chains. They wore many necklaces and earrings with precious stones.
Fortune had wanted to know more about them, but her aunt was unable to satisfy her curiosity. Through the years and through the trials and tribulations of their eternal wandering all traces of them had been lost. Most of them had lived in the Jewish quarters of the cities they had come through and, as other Jews before them, had been reduced to the status of dhimmis-the inferior place in which the Sephardim were held-which kept them enslaved. There they were abused, mistreated, and had become victims of extortion. If they had not fled, they had perished, assassinated by the kaids who, under the authority of the sultan of Morocco, governed the province of the valley of the river Ziz. That was all Aziza had been able to tell her. Afterward, her niece had often asked to see the photos again, each time delighting in the imperial nobility that could be seen in their eyes, despite the bitter fate and humiliations to which they had been subjected.
Fortune knew nothing about the land of her ancestors, nor even about Algeria, her own country. She had never left the boundaries of the Kenadza district where she was born. Two years earlier her father had taken her to the zoo of Colomb-Béchar, seventeen kilometers away, to see the fennecs-small long-tailed and sharp-nosed foxlike animals-the hyenas, and the last lions of the Atlas Mountains. That was it. She knew nothing about the rest of the universe. She didn't even have an inkling life existed beyond the dunes. She had always had the gratifying feeling of being precisely where she was supposed to be. And yet nothing ever happened in this town lost in the middle of the desert. Except for an occasional accident in the coal mines or a cloud of grasshoppers that would destroy everything in its path, no event at all would occur to change the course of things. Beneath the white heat of the sun the streets were almost always deserted. The ochre houses, which barely eroded in the sandstorms, formed the shelter for muffled little lives that made no noise. Minds seemed submerged in never-ending indolence. The hours passed at such a crawl that one might have thought time had forgotten this unlikely spot on the map of the world. But this slow-paced existence, the faint breath of this somnolent society, the deep silence that reigned over everything suited Fortune very well. Childhood's minuscule moments of elation were enough for her. Eternity and the prevailing opposition to change were commingled for her. She expected nothing more than that the days would follow each other in the same way they had before, languid as always, with the same lapping human sounds and the same rituals. So every afternoon after school, when the air would become protectively cool, she went back to her old habits and would go off through the town abandoning herself to her inspections. She didn't have any specific goal. Here she'd find Tuaregs, their faces colored blue from their long indigo scarves, bargaining with Bénichou, the tailor, for a few remnants of fabric. There, crouching on the ground, children were playing jacks under the detached eye of a couple of old men sitting in the doorway of their house, intent on eating sunflower seeds. Elsewhere still, on the terrace of the Café Loti, the anisette drinkers had taken up their post to stare at the well-balanced behinds of the laundresses returning from the wadi or at the wrapped silhouettes of the Muslim women coming out of the Turkish baths. Farther along, the clergy from the surrounding hovels were going through the streets praying, their heavy eyelids opening and closing at the rhythm of their chanting like sails billowing in the wind.
Fortune was still enveloped in the haze of childhood, where everything is amorphous, in which objects, other people, and feelings are the constant in a blur of consciousness developing. She did not suspect that all these scenes, these faces, these colors, these different impressions would inspire the paintings she was to create later on. But she already had a vague sense that these observations and these persistent strolls on the edge of the world were bringing her supreme pleasure.
The immutable unfolding of the hours gave Kenadza the appearance of a wax theater. Every morning, the sun would rise over an immovable setting, over unchanged actors who seemed to be interpreting the same role as the day before, going to the same places, meeting the same people, sitting on the same chairs, making the same gestures, pronouncing the same words with the same invariable expression of ashen vacuity in their eyes. The eternal repeated beginning of this suspended spectacle suited Fortune's lethargic nature. She liked nothing better than this daily rendezvous with a familiar world that never moved.
Still, some evenings a celebration would take place and shake up the fine order of this endlessly peaceful performance. A wedding, a bar mitzvah, or the birth of a boy-always welcomed as a gift from heaven, in contrast to that of a girl-everything became a pretext to come together. From the predinner drink hour on, the air was laden with unaccustomed animation. People would dress up and find each other all along the main street. The news of the day was exchanged, grandmothers' remedies against a scorpion sting or a high fever were swapped, and the recent visit of the ministerial representative was discussed. Then they would come together at someone's house around long tables bedecked with casseroles of dafina-a stew of vegetables and meat-salad bowls full of white mushrooms, dishes of couscous, chicken, baby lamb, and little meatballs. The appetites were stimulated with glasses full of anisette, old records were taken out, and the evening went on in an incessant commotion of children's cries, ululations, and oriental chants. While the women were busy serving and clearing, the men would stuff themselves, empty bottles of whiskey and date liquor like water, make jokes, sing at the top of their lungs, hesitantly follow some dance step-alone or in pairs-to old music, and then, unsteady on their feet, they would leave to get some fresh air in town.
Fortune didn't like the emptiness their eyes reflected at those moments, the irises that would become lost in the whiteness of their gaze, the overly relaxed bodies, the incoherent phrases, and the tempestuous laughter that would shake them at times and make them look like madmen. That is when she would go and sit in the dunes on the other side of the wadi. And beneath the bright moon and the stars frozen in the sky, in the sweetness of the night and the silence, disturbed only by the flight of a group of wild ibises in the distance, the barking of a dog, or the burst of the drunken voices, the most radiant part of herself reveled in the celestial beauty of the desert, as in a dream.
Chapter Two Exotic Birds
Reina Roffé was born in Buenos Aires in 1951 and immigrated to Spain in 1988, where she has been living in Madrid. At age seventeen, she wrote her first novel, for which she received the Pondal Rios Prize for best young author. Among her novels are La rompiente (1987), Monte de Venus (Mount Venus, 1976), and El Cielo Dividido (The Divided Heaven, 1996). Her collection of poems Silogismo en falso (Syllogism in Error, 1982) and many of her stories have been translated into English. She is the recipient of many literary prizes and honors.
Excerpted from VOICES OF THE DIASPORA
Copyright © 2005 by Thomas Nolden and Frances Malino. Excerpted by permission.
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