Pa­ter­nity, para­dox and the se­man­tics of Semitics



Columbia Univesity Press, £24

Al­ge­rian-bornDenisGué­noun is a man of mul­ti­ple iden­ti­ties — Sor­bonne pro­fes­sor, es­say­ist, poet, philoso­pher, ac­tor, theatre direc­tor. His work ex­plores Euro­pean po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy, ethics and lan­guage. A Semite, newly trans­lated from the French by Ann and Wil­liam Smock, is both a sub­tle in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the tax­on­omy of iden­tity and a vivid por­trait of his im­pos­ing and enig­matic fa­ther, René.

A Semite is Gué­noun’s at­tempt to re­con­struct his fa­ther’s his­tory in a con­text that is both per­sonal and his­tor­i­cal.

His fa­ther, René Gué­noun, was a man who em­braced the con­tra­dic­tions of be­ing French and Jewish in Al­ge­ria, and for whom the term “Semite” was freighted with con­tra­dic­tion and am­bi­gu­ity. It means “ei­ther Jew or Arab with­out dis­tinc­tion, what Jews and Arabs share, what they are to­gether.” As Ju­dith But­ler says, in her fine in­tro­duc­tion, it comes to mean, “a form of re­sis­tance, al­liance, and po­lit­i­cal hope,” in the face of the con­se­quences of the di­vi­sive French law of 1870 that de­creed the in­dige­nous Al­ge­rian Jews to be French cit­i­zens while their Arab neigh­bours were not.

René Gué­noun was a man of para­dox — drafted by the Vichy French Army in theSe­condWorldWar­tode­fendFrance’s colonies in the Mid­dle East, he was imprisoned for sub­or­di­na­tion, even as he sought to quell an in­sur­rec­tion in his own ranks.

Mean­while, back home in Oran, his wife was pre­vented from teach­ing by Vichy be­cause she was a Jew. Even so, af­ter the war, he re­mained a pas­sion­ate be­liever in the val­ues of the Revo­lu­tion and never lost his faith in the Repub­li­can ideals of lib­erty, equal­ity and fra­ter­nity. He brought up his sons to be im­mersed in French cul­ture and lit­er­a­ture, speak­ing only French at home, “which he had trans­mit­ted to us with­out a trace of Ara­bic as our most in­ti­mate legacy”, all along re­main­ing both a stead­fast and un­wa­ver­ingly com­mit­ted mem­ber of the French Com­mu­nist Party and an ad­vo­cate for Al­ge­rian in­de­pen­dence.

He was not a Zion­ist, and felt that Al­ge­ria was his home — his fam­ily had lived there “since time im­memo­rial” — but he dreamed of France. His dream came true when he was forced to leave Al­ge­ria in 1962 af­ter the French para­mil­i­tary Or­gan­i­sa­tion Ar­mée Se­crète bombed the fam­ily home. The fam­ily even­tu­ally set­tled in Mar­seilles, where both Gué­noun’s par­ents re­mained un­til they died.

His exile, dreamed of for so many years, is in­deli­bly marked by a quiet kind of lone­li­ness and dis­ap­point­ment. “My fa­ther’s last years were not joy­ous,” ob­serves De­nis Gué­noun. “The cen­tury had shat­tered his life — Al­ge­ria far away, Com­mu­nism dis­fig­ured, Manou Camille [Gué­noun’s pa­ter­nal grand­mother] los­ing her bear­ings.”

No l onger a “S e mite”, he i s un­moored. As a “French Jew” he dis­cov­ers that he shares no kin­ship with ei­ther his fel­low French­men or his fel­low Jews.

Gué­noun pieces to­gether his fa­ther’s his­tory from let­ters and doc­u­ments, “dig­ging and turn­ing over the earth of words to make you a grave,” blend­ing frag­ments of his fa­ther’s story with his own mem­o­ries of his youth in Oran, where he lived un­til he was 16. He never pre­sumes to know what his fa­ther thought or felt, and the text is marked by his re­peated in­sis­tence on the un­cer­tainty of the facts, on the gaps and el­lipses, the “torn scraps” of mem­ory. He has wrought a pow­er­ful and mov­ing tes­ti­mony of fil­ial love that is also a sug­ges­tive his­tory about this pe­riod of Al­ge­rian and French his­tory and the com­plex and some­times con­tra­dic­tory role of Jews in it.

Natasha Lehrer is a writer based in France

The Great Sy­n­a­gogue in Oran was con­verted into a mosque in 1975

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