The latest issue of TLS is always worth a look. In this one (7 December 2007), John Fletcher has a review that I especially liked. Short and pregnant. The book, Les Trois Exils; Juifs d'Algerie, is by Benjamin Stora, considered by some the leading historian of French Algeria and the Algerian War. His subject here the Jews of Algeria, who in a matter of decades suffered what Stora describes as "three exiles" from a land that for centuries had been their home.
The "Cremieux decree" was the first. In 1870 while granting Jews French citizenship, it paradoxically set them apart from their Muslim neighbors. Then during WWII the Vichy government's anti-Semitic laws excluded Jews from any role in Algerian public life. And when that war was over and Algerian independence declared, the Jews--though rooted in the culture of the Magreb--fled to exile in Europe with other French citizens. According to Stora, they feared being reduced to the ancient status of dhimmis (a non-Muslim subject of a state governed in accordance with sharia law).
Stora recalls his family's poignant leave taking of their Algerian home in this matter-of-fact fashion: "Father locked the door and slipped the key in his pocket; we picked up our suitcases and left, just as if we were going on holiday. But we knew perfectly well that it was over, that we would not be coming back"
Reminding me of another much older Jewish exodus and an unusual encounter I had in 1962 on the overnight from Madrid to Algeciras. As our train began to pull out of the station, my wife and I were sitting in our 1st-class compartment congratulating each other on having it all to ourselves. Suddenly the outside door was thrown open and two suitcases and a backpack came flying in followed by a smiling good-looking young man in gleaming white slacks. He was waving a tennis racket. Dragging him in before he fell back on the platform, I slammed the door.
"Awfully sorry," he apologized. "Hope you don't mind."
His English sounded like Oxford. Actually, as we later learned, it was Cambridge. He had just graduated in civil engineering and was going home to Gibraltar. His name was Benjamin.
"Benjamin Azulay," he introduced himself.
He had the bluest eyes I'd ever seen.
"Yes. How did you know?"
"A guess. Just a guess."
Over a shared bottle of Rioja, manchego, olives, the three of us talked, joked, and watched the sun go down. His dream was to go to Israel and build roads. Why not? That sounded okay to us. I asked how come his family ended up on the Rock. He told us that the Azulays in the 15th century had a house they loved in Toledo but, refusing to convert, they were kicked out of Spain by los reyes catolicos.
Benjamin smiled--a golden boy's smile. "My father still has the keys to our old house. Large iron ones. And when he dies, I'll get them. The house itself, of course, no longer exists."
All that existed for him were the keys and the stories. The heavy baggage of deracinated people.Strange how in Europe the presentness of the past is everywhere. Since then I've often thought of Benjamin and hoped that he actually made it to Israel, that he did build his roads. From time to time I've also wondered, as I did when I learned of the death of Edward Said in New York not many years ago, if Palestinians still have their keys too.
Sunday, December 2, 2007
Happened to revisit Take the Money and Run last night on TCM and it was a mixed bag. Loads of laughs, but I came away feeling "Is that all?" First the good stuff. The faces, of course. Allen has a great eye for casting. The actors he chooses to tell the tale of the incompetent Virgil Starkwell from youthful nerd to would-be Napoleon of crime look the part, starting with himself--the little nebbish with glasses that everybody wants to stomp on. And then there's the angelic innocence of Janet Margolin's Louise who shares some of the lovely glow of Chaplin's Goddard (though little of her feistiness). The faces and haircuts of the cops, the prison warden, the bank tellers, and the hoods, are perfect and seem to come straight out of the Eisenhower/Nixon years. Not to mention the stentorian voice of the narrator Jackson Beck (who sounds like an old March of Time Newsreel but was actually for many years from radioland's Superman) which provides the glue that, more or less, holds the glittery pieces and one-liners together. Unfortunately, there isn't much of a story.