A Moroccan Jew with Arabo-Berber Roots

The Jewish Moroccan writer Edmond Amran El Maleh died last year at the age of 93. The Moroccan National Library in Rabat is now dedicating a major exhibition to this anti-colonial freedom fighter and patriot. Regina Keil-Sagawe reports

Edmond Amran El Maleh (photo: private copyright)
"A thief of stories and a protector of words": Edmond Amran El Maleh (30 March 1917 – 15 November 2010)

​​His death was a shock to the nation, striking with all the force of a phantom pain. Edmond Amran El Maleh, born into an old Jewish commercial and rabbinical family in Essaouira on 30 March 1917, was given all the trappings of a real state funeral on 16 November. From the northern city gate of Bab Doukkala, the funeral cortège wound its way through the city to Essaouira's old Jewish cemetery.

The coffin of the former communist and freedom fighter was draped in the red flag of Morocco and carried by the royal advisor (André Azoulay), the royal historiographer (Hassan Aourid), the director of the National Library (Driss Khrouz) and several Moroccan artists (Hassan Bourkia, André El Baz).

He had specifically requested to be buried there among "all these graves which, exposed to the rank growth, the wind, and the ravages of the ocean, silently enclose the Hebrew inscriptions and mysterious symbols." And indeed it is surprising to see the emblem of the Punic goddess on the weather-beaten columns, an indication that Jews have lived in Morocco since the days of Nebuchadnezzar, when they escaped Babylonian captivity on Phœnician merchant ships.

Against one-dimensional identities

El Maleh's headstone merely adds to the linguistic confusion. He insisted on having four scripts: Arabic, Berber, Hebrew and French. It was a reflection of his attitude to life and his sense of belonging, an attitude that rejects any insistence that identities have to be one-dimensional, an attitude that shines through in his autobiography Lettres à moi-même (2010), a literary game of hide-and-seek that reflects the time he spent in his self-imposed Parisian exile (1965–2000).

In 1965, El Maleh applied for a job as a philosophy teacher at the sacrosanct Collège Sainte-Barbe in Paris. During the interview, he was confronted with the leading statement: "I hope you did not take any action against France."

In his response, he neglected to say that he left Morocco after King Hassan II's bloody suppression of the uprising in Casablanca on 23 March 1965 with the remark "agitator and nationalist" on his file. Nor did he mention the fact that he had fought against the French colonial regime as head of the politburo of the illegal Moroccan Communist Party between 1945 and 1959. It seemed clear enough – "Moroccan Jews don't get involved in politics."

Uncomfortable humanist and unconventional thinker

In recognition of the fact that he – like Morocco's legendary left-wing opposition activist Abraham Serfaty (1926–2010), who died only three days after El Maleh – did not stick to this golden rule of survival, he was presented with the National Order of Merit by the King in 2004. El Maleh, the thorny humanist and lateral thinker, critic of Zionism and supporter of the Palestinians, is highly respected in the new Morocco for the fact that he, a French assimilated Jew, never denied his Arab-Berber roots.

Cover: publisher
"A literary game of hide-and-seek": El Maleh's autobiography Lettres à moi-même </i>

​​On the contrary, his literary oeuvre, which he only began writing at the age of 63 and for which he won the Gran Prix du Maroc in 1996, focuses exclusively on Morocco.

Take, for example, Parcours immobile (1980), which deals with the Communist experiment, from whose excrescences he distanced himself in hindsight with irony; or Aïlen ou la nuit du récit (1983), which deals with the suffering of the common people, corruption in the new power elite and the saturated state of former revolutionaries in independent Morocco; or Mille ans, un jour (1986), which deals with the absurd exodus of Moroccan Jews, who fled in their hundreds of thousands to Israel, to the promised land that would become a nightmare for many of them.

While in Le retour d'Abou el Haki (1990), a journey through Arab cultural history via Fez and Marrakesh and on to India and Andalusia.

Outsider of Franco-Moroccan literature

In their search for a lost era, all these novels evoke a multi-layered, multi-faceted, multi-voiced Morocco, with hints of Kafka, Canetti, Proust and – repeatedly – Walter Benjamin.

El Maleh's magnificent, exuberant love of storytelling never clouded his sharp, all-appraising eye for the present. The scenes and sites of all these stories are the places of his childhood – Essaouira, Safi and Azilah – and the customs and traditions, words and scents, legends and anecdotes of Moroccan Jewry. The author, who sees himself as a thief of stories and a protector of words, unexpectedly weaves words and phrases from Jewish-Arabic, Berber, English, and Spanish into his work.

According to the Spanish writer and intellectual Juan Goytisolo, a great admirer of El Maleh, the Moroccan dialect is like a tattoo on the skin of the French used by this author, this Nestor, this great outsider on the fringes of Franco-Moroccan literary scene, an author who remains to be discovered outside Morocco.

Loyalty to Morocco's plural identity

source: Bibliothèque Nationale du Royaume du Maroc
Promoting dialogue between religions and cultures: Poster for the El Maleh exhibition at the National Library in Rabat

​​El Maleh himself was a great discoverer, as a dedicated art critic and supporter of Moroccan art. At a time when art criticism in Morocco was still in its infancy, he was writing about pioneers like Ahmed Charkaoui and discovering talented artists like Khalil El Ghrib. It is not really surprising, therefore, that art events that took place in December 2010, just a few weeks after El Maleh passed away – and not least the Second International Biennale in Marrakesh – all mutated into acts of homage to El Maleh.

Their founder, Abderrazak Benchaâbane, expressed what many Moroccans were thinking when he emphasised that El Maleh had left behind him a valuable spiritual legacy: loyalty to his roots and to Morocco's pluralist identity as well as values such as tolerance and respect for those who are different. "I hope my generation and those that follow will be able to bear his torch."

El Maleh bequeathed his material estate, art collections and book treasures to the National Library in Rabat, which is also the seat of the Fondation Edmond Amran El Maleh, set up in 2004 to – how could it be otherwise? – promote dialogue between religions and cultures. From 23 March it is presenting his legacy in an exhibition accompanied by an homage. It is a kind of posthumous birthday present; "Hadj Edmond", as many Moroccans affectionately call him, would have turned 94 on 30 March 2011.

Regina Keil-Sagawe

© Qantara.de 2011

Transdlated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

Qantara.de editor: Lewis Gropp


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