Nostalgia, Memory, Place: Margaux Fitoussi on the Hara of Tunis

May 12, 2017
CMES presentation poster

In summer 2016, Margaux Fitoussi, an MTS candidate at Harvard Divinity School, curated a multimedia exhibition in Tunis about the Hara, the city’s historic Jewish neighborhood, centered around a collection of photographs from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In November at CMES, she assembled a smaller version of the exhibition, premiered EL HARA, a short documentary film about the Hara co-directed with her friend Mo Scarpelli and featuring an interview with the celebrated writer Albert Memmi, and gave a talk about the original exhibition in Tunis and viewers’ reactions to it.

CMES presentation posterIn January 2016 you were part of the first group of Harvard students to go on the CMES Winter Term trip to Tunisia. Is that when you got the idea for this project, or is it something you had been thinking about already?

Right before I arrived in Tunisia, I met with Bernard Allali, a Tunisian Jew who moved to France at the age of 13. Over the course of forty years, Bernard has amassed a remarkable collection of photographs, postcards, newspaper clippings, pottery, artwork, envelopes, and letters related to Tunisian Jewry. It’s impossible to navigate his small apartment without knocking into an artifact that pays homage to Tunisia. This was the genesis of the project that would become the exhibition. After the J-term trip, I knew I wanted to return in the summer and I began brainstorming ideas with Sihem Lamine, the administrative manager of the CMES Tunis office. She suggested that I curate an exhibition about Jewish life in Tunis based on Bernard’s collection. I took her idea and ran with it.

How and when did you learn that the collection of old photographs from the Hara existed?

I learned about Bernard’s collection of photographs, stereographs, and postcards of the Hara from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century after several conversations last spring. Initially, he was more interested in helping me with an exhibition about La Goulette—the coastal, more cosmopolitan neighborhood where many Jews moved to when they left the Hara. Ultimately, however, I was more interested in curating an exhibition about the Hara and persuaded Bernard to share his collection with me.

The Hara represented in these photographs no longer exists, because the neighborhood underwent a long process of rehabilitation, demolition, and reconstruction beginning in the early 1930s during the French colonial period and continuing after Tunisian independence in 1956. Tunisians of my generation have only vague and fragmentary notions of this neighborhood, where a thriving Jewish community had lived since the thirteenth century. Abdessettar Amamou, the Director of the Dar Ben Achour Library, was enthusiastic about the project precisely because so few images of this neighborhood are currently in circulation. He told me there was a black hole in his memory when it came to this place and its history. He was sure there would be interest in the exhibition’s topic and in these photos. It was important to me to hold the event in what was once the Hara and in an environment where current residents of the neighborhood would feel welcome. We were both intrigued by what would happen when people were face-to-face with these images.

Photo exhibition at Dar Ben Achour Library in Tunis
Installation view of the exhibition at the Dar Ben Achour Library in Tunis


In what academic discipline do you think this project most comfortably sits? Do you intend for the work not to fit neatly into the traditional confines of any one discipline?

The exhibition is historically grounded, but not chrono­logically organized. Rather, it was arranged around a constellation of themes that speak to different aspects of Jewish life in the Hara. It visually traces the architectural and lifestyle changes of the Jewish neighborhood and community from the eighteenth through the nineteenth century. The forty images I selected highlighted the quotidian. I am interested in how the lives of everyday people are shaped by the political, social, and economic systems of the time. At the same time, there were also anthropological elements to this project. Basing myself in the Medina—the old city where the Hara was located—I collaborated with municipal and Tunisian state employees, photographers, architects, graphic artists, and filmmakers to curate the exhibit. It was through these colleagues (many of whom became friends) that I learned how the Tunisian Jewish community—past and present—is viewed today.

More generally, I am interested in the way images are discursively embedded within a history of production, circulation, and consumption. How do changing political and social discourses over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries influence our interpretations of these images? I wanted to deconstruct the notion that historical images and objects can hold the secrets to our past. These images are not held in amber. Rather, they are a site of potentiality and provocation. The spectator is free to interpret the images and objects in ways that were never attached to them at the time of their creation.

Margaux Fitoussi, Bernard Allali, and Marouan Zbidi
Margaux Fitoussi, Bernard Allali, and Marouan Zbidi preparing the exhibition in Tunis


What to you is the most important product of this project: the film, the photography exhibition, or the presentations you gave at CMES and in Tunis? Can these elements function independently, or do they need to be read as a whole?

These three different modes enabled me to engage with this history on a number of different levels, which was generative for me intellectually and creatively. While the film, photography exhibition, and presentations are best when experienced together, they most certainly can function on their own. The film is reaching audiences that wouldn’t normally seek out this sort of story. At our screening at the Atlanta Film Festival, I had several people tell me that they were unaware that there was such a “thing” as a Tunisian Jew much less that Jews had been an important presence in Tunisia for centuries. In the United States, there’s a real lacuna in popular knowledge about Jews coming from North Africa and the Middle East.

For me, the most important product of this project was the opening night in Tunis, where we also screened a rough cut of the film and held a panel discussion. Over 250 people came. I had expected that many of the attendees would be of an older generation: the same people that would talk to me about their Jewish classmates, Jewish neighbors, or the fact that their fathers would play Habiba Msika, a famous Jewish singer, on the record player before bed every night. However, I was really excited to see a large number of people my age and younger.

Albert Memmi refers to the Hara as a ghetto in his semi-autobiographical novel The Pillar of Salt, and so I opened the discussion by asking the panel participants: “Writers and scholars have referred to the Hara as a ghetto: is this an adequate term to describe this neighborhood?” This question evoked an intense and fascinating conversation about the ways ethno-religious borders were delineated within the Medina and what constituted Jewish and Muslim space. Habib Kazdaghli, the Dean of the University of Manouba and a professor of Jewish history, argued that the Hara was not Venice or Warsaw. The term “ghetto” was too closely aligned with that of European Jewry and could not be applied to the Tunisian context. His comment received a roar of approval from the panelists and the audience.

In place of the conversation I expected to have about how colonialism reordered social relations between Jews and Muslims, perhaps reflecting my own biases, a discussion about doorways and intermarriage emerged. Were the doors of the Hara closed at night to protect the Jews from external threats, to punish them, or as a symbol of respect, one that made it easier for the Jews to practice Shabbat? Even the Rabbi of La Goulette, Daniel Cohen, chimed in to argue that marriage and children are notable and sometimes overlooked aspects of communitarianism. With no cars or public transport, how were they expected to meet other Jews, get married, and have children?

I found what was left out of the conversation to be revealing. The elephant in the room was the state of Israel and how it had affected Judeo–Muslim relations. It’s almost impossible to speak about the departure of Tunisian Jews without addressing the fact that half of them went to Israel. Yet, nobody brought this up during our discussion, in what seemed to be a tacit understanding to keep the conversation focused on Tunisia.

The impetus for this project was to spark an engaging conversation about a complicated subject, and in that we were successful.

Exhibition opening in Tunis
Opening of the exhibition in Tunis


Did your own family history inform your understanding of the larger history of the Jewish community in Tunisia?

Very much so. Understanding why my family migrated from Tunisia to France and Israel in the decade following Tunisian independence is very much tied to the history of the Jewish community in Tunisia during the twentieth century. The migration of the Jewish community in Tunisia is yoked to the country’s experiences with colonialism, nationalism, and the broader Arab world’s relationship to Israel. In the preface to Memmi’s The Pillar of Salt, Albert Camus notes “the impossibility of a Jewish Tunisian of French culture to be anything precise.” I felt like I could really identify with that statement.

Knowledge of the broader history of the Jewish community in Tunisia enabled me to ask my family members more pointed questions. Why did they choose to migrate to France? What was it like during World War II when the Nazis occupied Tunis and sent my great-grandparents to work camps? I showed them photographs from the exhibition and these images jogged memories I had never heard them talk about before. These archival images carried elements of a personal scrapbook. For instance, my grandpa pointed to a photograph of the Hafsia synagogue and started telling me about the Yom Kippur services he used to attend there. He was really shocked when I showed him a film clip of the same synagogue completely deserted and told him it was currently being transformed into a cafe. I am really interested in the construction of memory—the uncanny confluence of our inner and outer world. Our memories are under constant revision. I saw this in real time observing my grandpa react to this information, which I imagine didn’t come as much of a surprise but visibly upset him.

How do you compare nostalgia among current and former Jewish residents of the Hara to that of non-Jewish Tunisians for “the Hara” as a real or idealized time and place?

There’s no easy answer to that question. Most Tunisians don’t think twice about the Jews (except in relation to Israel/Palestine). But for those who do, they do not mourn the Hara as a place. During the exhibition, nostalgia for the Hara, and Tunisia’s Jewish past writ large, especially amongst those of my generation, seemed an obvious way to speak about the problems of the contemporary moment through the prism of the past. The figure of the Jew has become a way for those who do not identify with the values or orientations of the present to recuperate a Tunisia that appears more heterogeneous. I’ll give you two brief examples of the different forms nostalgia takes:

My friend Moche, 27, recently found hundreds of photographs of Tunisian Jews taken in the 1950s and 1960s. At the time these photos were captured, one in five people living in Tunis were Jewish and there were 110,000 Jews scattered across the country. As we leafed through photographs of weddings, family dinners, Purim parties, and selfies in the barbershop, he murmured repeatedly: “Look at them, there were so many of them.” His nostalgia is palpable. For Moche, the present is disappointing. He does not pretend that it is possible to rebuild the life in these photographs. He acknowledges that as a collective community, the Jewish population in Tunisia is nearing its end. Yet, this past remains a site of potentiality, one that opens mental maps for thinking differently about the relationship between past, present, and future.

Memmi, 96, is quite critical of his experiences in Tunisia post-independence, but his nostalgia for his natal country is humorous and often tinged with irony. It’s a nostalgia that savors the details, but with no intention of return. He described Tunisia as a country in blue, a sparkling blue. Our conversation was peppered with these details of nostalgia: those words he only remembers in Tunisian Arabic, his affinity for a fish couscous and his dislike for the French beef-steak and fries, the warm Mediterranean Sea, which he described as his lemonade, in contrast with the glacial and uninspiring Atlantic Ocean.

Was the CMES office in Tunis a useful resource as you put this project together?

Absolutely! Even before I really started working on this project, Professor Granara took me one Sunday morning to find my father’s apartment near the Central Market—an experience I’ll never forget. He also lent me several novels by North African Jewish writers that influenced my thinking about the exhibition and the film.

Sihem’s help was invaluable and invigorating. She helped me brainstorm and conceptualize the exhibition: finding a location, selecting the photos, writing my introduction and the texts that accompanied the photographs, and much more. Sihem’s artist eye really brought the project together. For instance, Sihem suggested that we hang several of the exhibition postcards from the ceiling in the entryway and that we write messages on the postcards in French, English, and Arabic. It was a really beautiful addition to the exhibition. Nour Barmada, my Arabic teacher in Tunis and in Cambridge, also helped me to select the photographs and to correct the texts in Arabic. I feel very grateful to all three of them for their support over the course of the project.

Do you hope to publish an article based on this work?

After the talk I gave at CMES, I was invited by the editors of the Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World to submit an entry about the Hara of Tunis. I am also working on a couple of popular pieces about the neighborhood that we will submit in conjunction with the film’s online release.

Will you do more with the visual elements of the project? Will you exhibit the photographs and/or the film anywhere else?

The exhibition returned to Tunisia in the spring and was shown at the University of Manouba as part of a conference entitled “Minority Communities between Memory and Forgetting: Recent Research on the Jews of Tunisia and North Africa.”

My short film, EL HARA, opened at the Atlanta Film Festival and is currently on the film festival circuit. EL HARA reflects upon the subtleties and complexities of living under colonial rule through the work of Albert Memmi—his writings and an interview with him in 2016. This film project seeks to deepen the conversation about the long legacy of French colonialism in North Africa as well as to complicate the Eurocentric opposition of Arab and Jew. Above all, it is a meditation on memory, place, and loss. We intend to release the film online this summer.

What are your plans after graduating from HDS? Will you continue to do work on/in Tunisia?

I’ll be starting a PhD program in anthropology at Columbia University in the fall and have proposed to carry out my field­work in Tunis. I hope to study the shift in politics and political consciousness as reflected in visual culture in post-revolutionary Tunisia. I also plan to continue filmmaking.