Algerian Letters: The Jewellers of the Oummah

Ariella Aïsha Azoulay
(Brown University)

My work has long been to interrogate museums and archives and to delineate the role they play in the colonial project, as well as to interact with these sites as arenas of struggle and decolonisation. In my most recent book, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism [LINK NOT WORKING] (Verso, 2019), I study the role of museums and archives in the destruction of colonised people’s cultures, and I participate in the configuration of forms of restitution and repair.

Yet there were still destroyed worlds that I had to attend to, maybe the most intimate ones. When I was close to finishing Potential History, I felt the joy of completing ten years of exhaustive research but was also troubled by what I came to see during the writing process, something I allude to in the book’s preface (slightly revised here):

I would have loved to be part of an identity group. I wish I could be able to say that I belong to “my community.” But there is no community to which I truly belong. I own many objects and artefacts and some works of art. None of these, even those I inherited from my parents or received as gifts from family and friends, were handed to me as a recognition of my belonging. I have not a thing from Algeria, where my father and his ancestors were born and lived until the early 60s, or from Andalusia, from where my maternal family was expelled.

This paragraph, which referenced a whole history of colonial dispossession, re-education, shame, pain, hope, exile and desire, has led me to my next research project—questioning the extension of French citizenship to the Jews in Algeria, just a few decades after its colonisation, and studying the role of this citizenship in the destruction of their world. In 1870, Arab Jews and Berber Jews who lived in Algeria for centuries were separated from the rest of the indigenous population and proclaimed by their colonisers as French citizens. In exchange for this imposed citizenship, they had to give up their demands as colonised and renounce much of their pre-colonial way of life. The objects, customs, names, beliefs and languages to which they were attached, and in general their modes of living, became obstacles they had to discard, proving to their colonising ‘benefactors’ their worthiness for the identity they had not asked for. In a generation, they had to strip themselves of many things that could identify them as other than French. What did it mean to my ancestors to shed their material, corporal and cosmological existence? What does it mean to me as their descendant not to have access to the place where they lived for centuries, or not to be surrounded by their artefacts? What happened to their material and spiritual world and the rights, knowledge and beliefs inscribed in it? Could it really be vanished?

Studying the commonalities between the French colonising powers in North Africa and the Zionists in Palestine, this series of questions prompted my inquiry into the place of crafts in the physical and emotional world-loss of the Arab and Berber Jews, or more comprehensively of Muslim Jews from North Africa. Eventually, this inquiry led me to explore the role of crafts in imagining and rehearsing for world-repairing.

With the demise of French rule in Algeria in 1962, that citizenship doomed these Muslim Jews to a forced departure from their homeland and to a double disappearance—from North Africa and from the history of the French colonisation of Algeria. This double disappearance has far-reaching global consequences—it made the Jewish Muslim world almost unimaginable.

Through my own family life in Algeria and Palestine I study the process through which, in less than a century, an offspring of an indigenous Algerian Jew and a Palestinian Jew cannot simply say “I’m Algerian”, “I’m Palestinian”. More than just a personal reckoning, family history or implied return, this enquiry interrogates the structures of colonial dispossession, traces processes of world-loss and assumes the necessity to render this process reversible while asking what kind of repair—often also called ‘restitution’ or ‘decolonisation’—is possible. In this destroyed Muslim Jewish world in the Maghreb, the majority of jewellers were Jews, and in general, the majority of them were craftsmen, invested in building, maintaining and repairing the world they shared with their Muslim sisters and brothers. Reconstructing the place of the Jews as the jewellers of the oummah (nation), I trace their centuries-long presence in the Maghreb, invoke the unruliness of the jewels—including that of those incredible pieces which are held in French, German and British museums—and propose a potential history of Jewish Muslim conviviality.

While the Jews had to leave Algeria in 1962 and an imperially fabricated end was brought to this shared world, the jewels the Jews crafted stayed, many kept close to the heart and bodies of Muslim women. Copying the forms of these objects and embodying the gestures of their makers, another violent aspect of the ‘emancipation of the Jews’ is revealed—they were encouraged, if not forced, to abandon their skills as world builders. Thus, the violent taxonomy that turned different Jews into a unified historical subject—‘the Jews’—turned them into citizens and endowed that subject, ‘the Jews’, with an imperial nation-state in Palestine, and linked it to a certain body of objects—‘Judaica’. At the same time, museums also invested in wings of Muslim art, thus contributing their part to the shredding of centuries of a Jewish Muslim world.

Through a series of open letters I am writing to the living and the dead, to family members and elected kin including Franz Fanon, Hannah Arendt and Sylvia Wynter. I am asking what it could mean to invoke the presence of Muslim Jews through the jewels they crafted, and to consider the condition of being defined by one’s craft as a mode of inhabiting one’s place in the oummah.

Writing these letters, I also spend time looking for my grandmothers in the vast visual archive that the French produced out of the presence, labour and artefact of our Algerian ancestors. Colonisation meant an unrestricted right to decide not only what our ancestors were allowed or forbidden to do in their own country, now ruled by the French, but also who they were allowed to be or forbidden from continuing to be. Thus, colonisation was an imposition of identities, and with the advent of photography these identities became French resources to be exploited. The colonisers’ phantasies about who my ancestors were and what they could be were materialised in a new domain of profit and power.

Looking at these women, whose images are printed on postcards that circulated across the French empire, I resent the differences I notice between them and my grandmother Aïsha, of whom I have only a few photos. I keep looking at the images of the women on these postcards, contemporaneous with my grandmother, and cannot avoid asking with dismay: Where did my grandmothers disappear? What did my female ancestors tell each other at the turn of the 19th century, as they became an estranged ‘type’, seized from their own bodies and postures and printed on postcards held in the hands of their colonisers? Did they mourn their own disappearance and their subsumption into ‘a type’, being robbed of their many distinct features, which they could no longer be or inhabit?

Paradoxically, however, the mass production of these kinds of postcards—known as ‘scenes and types’—took place shortly after the colonisers turned Algerian Jews into French citizens. Turned into citizens, the colonisers seduced my ancestors to no longer be part of this inventory of ‘types’ and instead to embody the Frenchness imposed on them. At the same time, however, the invisibility that was expected from them when they were forced to pass as French was too insulting for the French settlers—“How do these Jews dare to be French?!” In the first decades after being proclaimed French citizens, they were accused of being all kinds of swindlers, impersonators, tricksters or forgers. The French settlers aimed to expose and display the ‘truth’ behind their Frenchness—they had always been nothing but Jews, indigenous and hardly distinguishable from their Arabs neighbours, thus unworthy of their French citizenship. My ancestors had to recognise themselves in the ‘Jewish’ type, in distinction from other types, and at the same time, to fashion and perceive themselves as French and ‘modern’, as distant as possible from this ‘Jewish’ type that they had to relegate to the past. In other words, citizenship was not only a set of rights but an identity they had to embody even while disturbingly celebrating their double disappearance as Algerians and as Jews.