The Man Who Worked to Preserve Tunisian Judeo-Arabic Literature

Sept. 11 2020

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 ParisRobinson 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.

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Read more at The Librarians

More about: Arts & Culture, Jewish language, Mizrahi Jewry, Tunisia

Europe-Israel Relations Have Been Transformed

On Monday, Israel and the EU held their first “association council” meeting since 2012, resuming what was once an annual event, equivalent to the meetings Brussels conducts with many other countries. Although the summit didn’t produce any major agreements or diplomatic breakthroughs, writes Shany Mor, it is a sign of a dramatic change that has occurred over the past decade. The very fact that the discussion focused on energy, counterterrorism, military technology, and the situation in Ukraine—rather than on the Israel-Palestinian conflict—is evidence of this change:

Israel is no longer the isolated and boycotted outpost in the Middle East that it was for most of its history. It has peace treaties with six Arab states now, four of which were signed since the last association council meeting. There are direct flights from Tel Aviv to major cities in the region and a burgeoning trade between Israel and Gulf monarchies, including those without official relations.

It is a player in the regional alliance systems of both the Gulf and the eastern Mediterranean, just as it has also become a net energy exporter due to the discovery of large gas deposits of its shoreline. None of this was the case at the last council meeting in 2012. [Moreover], Israel has cultivated deep ties with a number of new member states in the EU from Central and Eastern Europe, whose presence in Brussels bridges cultural ideological gaps that were once much wider.

Beyond the diplomatic shifts, however, is an even larger change that has happened in European-Israeli relations. The tiny Israel defined by its conflict with the Arabs that Europeans once knew is no more. When the first Cooperation Agreement [between Israel and the EU’s precursor] was signed in 1975, Israel, with its three million people, was smaller than all the European member states save Luxembourg. Sometime in the next two years, the Israeli population will cross the 10 million mark, making it significantly larger than Ireland, Denmark, Finland, and Austria (among others), and roughly equal in population to Greece, Portugal, and Sweden.

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Read more at Jerusalem Post

More about: Abraham Accords, Europe and Israel, European Union, Israeli gas