Erez Bitton and the North African Poetic Awakening

April 10, 2017 | Matti Friedman
About the author: Matti Friedman is the author of a memoir about the Israeli war in Lebanon, Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story of a Forgotten War (2016). His latest book is Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel (2019).

After the Yom Kippur war, the blind poet Erez Bitton began writing poetry that explicitly reflected his experiences as an Algerian-born Jew living in Israel. His work, produced at a time when Mizraḥim (Jews from Muslim lands) still faced much prejudice, opened the door for a generation of Mizraḥi poets and artists. Matti Friedman writes:

Until then, Hebrew poems and songs were about the inner lives of the new Israelis who were part of the civilization of the West, or about the beauty of Israel’s hills and valleys. They weren’t about the tenements of Ashkelon, [inhabited largely by Mizraḥi immigrants], or about where the people in those tenements had lived before. Bitton still isn’t exactly sure what the 1973 war had to do with the change in his writing, but he started mixing Arabic with his Hebrew. He used the names for the spices of his childhood home in Oran, Algeria, like lebzar, and the names of musical instruments, like the drums called tamtam and the stringed rababa. . . .

In the early 1980s, [Bitton] began writing about his desire for an Israel that could see itself as a Mediterranean society. . . . [H]e was invited regularly to speak in places like Spain and France. In the 1990s, the years of the peace process, he established fragile links with Muslim writers in North Africa. Most of these connections ended when the peace talks did. In recent years, as Europeans have turned against Israel in earnest, invitations to speak at conferences about the Mediterranean vision have dried up. If he were an Israeli who hated Israel he would be invited more, he told me, but he isn’t.

Read more on Jewish Review of Books: