Memory, Motherhood and a Culture Preserved
Memory and mourning, mothers and motherhood, the quest to discover individual identity and preserve cultural identity: French scholar Nancy Arenberg has traced these themes in the work of a little-recognized group of writers, women rooted in Tunisia, who are Jewish and who write in French.
As Tunisians who speak both French and Arabic, these authors have multi-faceted identities. Typically they resided in the European quarter in Tunis and came from middle class or upper middle class families. Often their families had strong ties to France — traveling back and forth and sending their children to school in France — and many moved to France in the 1960s at the time of the liberation of Tunisia.
Arenberg analyzed Nine Moati’s first novel, Mon enfant, ma mere, in a recent issue of Dalhousie French Studies. Moati, who grew up in Tunis and is a television journalist in France, published her first novel mid-life in 1974. In her writing, Tunisia exists as an idyllic place, a haven of warmth, sun and beaches, and always, Arenberg said, “the heady fragrance of jasmine.”
Like many women writers of the Maghreb — the region of North Africa along the Mediterranean — Moati is concerned with the mother-daughter relationship. In her autobiographic novel, she takes an imaginary quest back to connect with her roots and her mother. In the novel, her mother is dying, and Moati attempts to both hold onto the memory of her mother while discovering her own identity.
“Moati’s focus on her struggle to preserve remnants of her mother’s memory sheds new light on the question of women’s identity in contemporary Tunisia, which is considered from the unique perspective of a writer from the Jewish community in a predominantly Arab culture,” Arenberg observed.
As her mother lies dying, Moati remembers her mother’s voice and records the stories of the Jewish tradition passed down from her grandmother. Her grandmother was a storyteller who had lived in the hara, the Jewish quarter in Tunis. She had had warm relations with her neighbors and had been a guest at Arab weddings and festivities.
“The elder Moati’s ability to retain and vividly capture all the events of the Jewish hara is of particular importance because her stories crossed over cultural boundaries,” Arenberg wrote.
With the birth of her own daughter in the final chapter of the novel, Moati begins accepting her mother’s death. Taking her baby in her arms, “she mimics the maternal gestures of her own mother.” She assumes the role of matriarch, replacing her own mother as the storyteller for her daughter. The women of Moati’s family will not be forgotten while the daughter keeps alive the stories of her mother and grandmothers and thus preserves Jewish cultural traditions.
“Above all,” Arenberg said, “the discovery of the author’s own identity in becoming a mother points to the importance of establishing a strong female identity for modern Maghrebian women.”
Arenberg is an associate professor of French in the department of foreign languages. In addition to Moati, she has studied the work of other Maghrebian writers, including Emma Belhaj Yahia, Collette Fellous and Assia Djebar, the most famous Algerian woman writing in French. In two articles about Djebar’s early novels, Arenberg examined themes of the mother figure and female solidarity. n