Wherever Jews’ wanderings took them, they began writing their spoken language in Hebrew characters, and often developed their own Jewish languages—of which Yiddish is the best known. Thus Saadiah Gaon and Moses Maimonides composed their great philosophical works in Judeo-Arabic not so different from the standard language, but the Jews of Tunisia spoke a distinctive dialect containing smatterings of Hebrew, French, and Italian. Chen Malul describes this tongue’s literary history, and its greatest advocate:
Judeo-Arabic literature in Tunisia . . . began in 1862, when a partnership was formed among three Jewish writers: Mordekhai Tapia, Bishi Chemama, and Eliyahu Elmaleh. Their first book printed in Tunis was called Qanun al-dawla al-tunisiyya (“The Constitution of the Tunisian State”). A year later, books containing folk literature began to be published. At first, they were copied by hand under the supervision of the author, storyteller, and tavern-owner, Hai Sarfati, and later at the publishing house of Uzan and Castro. In 1878, Abraham Tayyib founded the first newspaper in the country, called al-Amala al-tunisiyya (“Tunisia Province”).
Much of what we know about this literature we owe to the work of Daniel Hagège [1892-1976]. Next to the French Eusèbe Vassel, Hagège is the greatest documenter of this rich literature, which consists of hundreds of original stories and translations. He was also one of the last authors to publish his works in [the language], a 1939 [bibliography]. Some of Hagège’s many books have vanished completely, with the only remaining traces being a few details mentioned in this text.
Thanks to [Hagège’s work], we know that Judeo-Arabic literature, . . . was influenced by different elements: firstly, by Arabic literature, [secondly by] translations of literary classics from Europe, primarily from France. These included such works as The Mysteries of Paris, Robinson Crusoe, and adaptations of One Thousand and One Nights.
Interestingly, Eugène Sue’s bestselling The Mysteries of Paris (1843) was translated into Hebrew in 1858—and thus introduced a great number of East European Jews to secular fiction. Hagège ceased writing in Judeo-Arabic in the 1940s, by which time the language was already fading into oblivion.