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Sarah Abrevaya Stein, Saharan Jews and the fate of French Algeria

Sami Everett
Saharan Jews  and the Fate  of French Algeria
Abrevaya Stein Sarah, Saharan Jews and the Fate of French Algeria, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2015, 272 p., ISBN : 9780226123745.
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  • 1 Plumes is the name of an earlier monograph by Sarah Abrevaya Stein about transnational commercial i (...)

1The local is the global; the personal is the political. This simple maxim crudely encapsulates the intellectual approach taken over a prolific decade of writing about Mediterranean Jewries by the Professor of History and Maurice Amado Chair in sephardic studies, at the University of California, Sarah Abrevaya Stein. Her project renders transnational and local nuance to Jewish diasporic lives and puts that polyphony into conversation with the processes of classifying, segregating, and differentiating people, that have gone hand in hand with the cementing of capitalism and the ebb and flow of imperialism in the modern era. Stein’s scholarship displays both a fine quill plume1, and an impressive linguistic and geographic purview, evidencing sources drawn – beyond often imperially clad English and French texts – from non-dominant Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic (and Judeo-Berber) archives: personal, rabbinical, and administrative. As an historian with an eye for the untold tales belied in marginalia, annexes, and footnotes, it is often as much the story itself that matters in her prose (its orality and its translation into different types of text), as how the plot might help us to understand the interactions of a particular region during a determined era.

2The series of micro histories that comprise professor Stein’s Saharan Jews and the fate of French Algeria (from now on Saharan Jews) – often telescoped into the ethnographic snapshots, using ANOM material2 and personal memoir, that open each chapter – traces eighty years of French colonial legal ambiguity (1882-1962) towards the civil status of Jewish people from the Mzab valley, in the southern territories of Algeria constituted by Al Ateuf, Bou Noura, Beni-Isguen, Melika and the capital Ghardaïa.

  • 3 From 1882 until 1902 when the area were administratively invested as “Southern Territories”. This s (...)
  • 4 In the Mzab, the Statut Mosaic was, to a greater or lesser extent, applied to all Jews as a sui gen (...)
  • 5 Which, much like the word Indigène, is colonially connoted in terms of a civilisational scale that (...)

3When France waged war on the area that would become Algeria in 1830 its southern territories (including the Mzab valley) were not initially annexed and it was only militarily, in 1882, that the southern area would loosely be incorporated into l’Algérie française.3 This would enable France to side step the question of automatic, retroactive French citizenship for Jewish people born in the southern territory, which applied in the north from 1870 under the Décret Crémieux.4 Such an artificial separation of North and South, Juif and Israëlite,5 is a “wrinkle in time” (p. 10) from which it is possible to glean the attitudes, practices, and interests contained in the construction of an ahistorical North African Semitic being. The present study therefore, from the periphery of the French state, the peripheries of French legal citizenship and, in reality, the periphery of French physical reach, offers a highly textured alternative canvas for the observation of twentieth century political history.

4The story demonstrates the orientalist mindset of French colonial institutions such as the army and the administration that would produce Saharan Jewry as a category which would be set aside, historically, and in terms of (French) civilization, from their northern coreligionists. In so doing Stein subtly points out the communality of Mzabi Ibadite, Malekite, and Jewish groups’ existential realities, having lived together in and around Ghardaïa well before French colonial interference. Moreover, the author considers the instability of the Mzabi Jewish position, constructed by the ruling French administration as, at times, innately indigenous, while at others, entirely foreign to the region (in relation to other local, autochthonous groups in the Mzab). The author therefore highlights the pull of the colonial superstructure – which would produce categories – without minimizing the push of local peoples’ agency.

  • 6 Briggs Lloyd Cabot and Guède Norina Lami, No more for ever: A Saharan Jewish town, Cambridge, The P (...)

5Stein tracks these contemporaneous processes through the anthropology of the Mzab and its contribution to the production of knowledge about the Jews of Ghardaïa. Using a wide range of tools, the author unpacks the hugely influential “No more for ever”6 by Norina Lami Guède (who, Stein concludes, conducted the lion’s share of the fieldwork for the text) and Lloyd Cabot Briggs. The latter author is depicted, through a set of closely read biographic sources (correspondence, previous work, and biographical details), as being somewhat self-interested and intellectually uncritical – his obsessive classificatory approach to the Mzabi Jewish physical body and its health, in the immediate post-holocaust period, is a particularly execrable example of this. From Stein’s account it appears that the purchase “No more for ever” has acquired academically lies in Briggs’ political manoeuvring between US and French designs on southern Algeria in the late colonial period. Those political trappings are laid out in chapter two, which unravels the early legal admixture between Ottoman, French, and local law that shaped citizenship across occupied southern Algeria serving thereafter as the ambiguous boundaries of French subjecthood. Fascinatingly, Saharan Jews shows that such “More Judaico” (p. 139) would prove to be just as difficult to reconcile in the postcolonial French metropolitan context in which Mzabi Jews continued to suffer the whims of colonial legal flexibility.

  • 7 Stora Benjamin, Les trois exils juifs d’Algérie, Paris, Stock, 2006.
  • 8 A Wilaya an official, legislated, and administratively annexed part of French Algeria.

6Chapter four pushes back more clearly with respect to received wisdom about the region. Here the author underscores and demonstrates the implication of the State through military conscription and health, as sites of tension in the desire of many Jewish men and women resident in Ghardaïa to obtain French citizenship. Chapters five and six continue to debunk a classical reading of Algerian historical nodal points along European lines, positing instead individual interactions with constructed difference through legal change and economic endeavour in relation to the changing fortunes of the region as well intergenerational revolutionary political ideals (for example Arab and Jewish nationalism after the creation of Israel in 1947). Stein argues that the timeline for the acquisition of French citizenship by Jews in the North as a vector for their relationship with the colonial state was not so brutally interrupted by Vichy-imposed anti-Jewish legislation (convincingly argued elsewhere by Stora7 in particular) for Jews from the southern territories. Indeed the Mzab area would only become a Wilaya8 in 1959.

  • 9 Schreier Joshua, Arabs of the Jewish faith: The civilizing mission in colonial Algeria. New York, R (...)
  • 10 Natalya Vince, Our fighting sisters, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2015.
  • 11 Clancy-Smith Julia, Mediterraneans. North Africa and Europe in an age of migration, c. 1800-1900, B (...)
  • 12 Boum Aomar, Memories of absence how Muslims remember Jews in Morocco, Stanford, Stanford University (...)

7The book’s fit with current literature on Algerian Jewry and Algerian history is manifold. In keeping with recent work, it does not take for granted the strictures of colonial thinking around citizenship: i.e. that Jews simply “became French” upon application of the Décret Crémieux, thus Stein’s monograph expands on the reflections of Joshua Schreier9. Nor is the use of the notion Saharan Jews in the present text restricted solely to the colonial period, as if there were a fissure in time thereafter. In this sense, and in as much as it does not focus on men carrying guns but is about human agency, this book can be seen as a compendium to Vince’s ode to female activism in the reconstruction of Algeria10. Moreover, in its transnationally positioned ethnographic overtones and its regional historical outlook, the monograph builds on the thinking of Clancy-Smith,11 while sitting comfortably alongside the empirical work of Boum on Morocco12.

8Saharan Jews is unique, most notably perhaps in its triangulation of sources, interdisciplinary flexibility, and the personal implication that took the writer all the way to the archives of Ghardaïa (an entirely untapped treasure). While Stein chose to use sticky colonial nomenclature (though not without critical reflection) in reference to the categories of Algerian subjecthood, territory, and civil status, it is her awareness of the influence that these terms continue to have today across the globe that makes Saharan Jews such a sensitive and historically even text. There is perhaps no better time than the present ̶ when Ghardaïa is threatened by civil strife, manipulated by what many see as a colonially-inspired state entity ̶ that Stein’s corrective of Brigg’s and Guède’s “No more forever”, itself a phrase taken from a highly significant juncture in American Indian capitulation to conquerors from outside, might be read in the spirit of reconciliation by a wide ranging Algerian and French audience…

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Notes

1 Plumes is the name of an earlier monograph by Sarah Abrevaya Stein about transnational commercial interaction: Stein, Sarah A. Plumes: Ostrich feathers, Jews, and a lost world of global commerce, Yale, Yale University Press, 2010.

2 The ANOM are the Archives nationales d’Outre Mer (see: http://www.archivesnationales.culture.gouv.fr/anom/fr/) found in Aix-en-Provence, France.

3 From 1882 until 1902 when the area were administratively invested as “Southern Territories”. This situation changed in 1925 when the area was fully incorporated into French Algeria, though without resolving the legal status of Saharan Jews.

4 In the Mzab, the Statut Mosaic was, to a greater or lesser extent, applied to all Jews as a sui generis status akin to the – Muslim –Statut Indigène.

5 Which, much like the word Indigène, is colonially connoted in terms of a civilisational scale that was applied to autochthonous subjects during the French colonial period.

6 Briggs Lloyd Cabot and Guède Norina Lami, No more for ever: A Saharan Jewish town, Cambridge, The Peabody Trust Museum, 1964.

7 Stora Benjamin, Les trois exils juifs d’Algérie, Paris, Stock, 2006.

8 A Wilaya an official, legislated, and administratively annexed part of French Algeria.

9 Schreier Joshua, Arabs of the Jewish faith: The civilizing mission in colonial Algeria. New York, Rutgers University Press, 2010.

10 Natalya Vince, Our fighting sisters, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2015.

11 Clancy-Smith Julia, Mediterraneans. North Africa and Europe in an age of migration, c. 1800-1900, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2012.

12 Boum Aomar, Memories of absence how Muslims remember Jews in Morocco, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2013.

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Sami Everett, « Sarah Abrevaya Stein, Saharan Jews and the fate of French Algeria », Lectures [En ligne], Les comptes rendus, 2015, mis en ligne le 20 octobre 2015, consulté le 22 octobre 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lectures/19183

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Sami Everett

Sami Everett est « Junior research fellow » à la Woolf Institute, Cambridge, il est également post doctorant à l’EPHE à Paris. Ses écrits portent sur le rapport au Maghreb des Juifs du Maghreb en diaspora, à travers les générations et dans son intersection avec les relations judéo musulmanes.

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