Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 12, 2008

The Deserted Village

Filed under: Africa,Film,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 7:02 pm

Where then, ah! where, shall poverty reside,
To ‘scape the pressure of contiguous pride?
If to some common’s fenceless limits strayed,
He drives his flock to pick the scanty blade,
Those fenceless fields the sons of wealth divide,
And even the bare-worn common is denied.
If to the city sped -what waits him there?
To see profusion that he must not share;
To see ten thousand baneful arts combined
To pamper luxury, and thin mankind;
To see those joys the sons of pleasure know
Extorted from his fellow creature’s woe.

From Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village

Mustapha serving Moshe a beer

This year’s African Disapora Film Festival featured two films that were related thematically. Both “A Night in Morocco: Where are you going Moshe?” and “Waalo Fendo: Where the Earth Freezes” take as their subject matter the abandonment of rural villages under duress. If Oliver Goldsmith’s 18th century Irish village was being emptied by the forces of capitalism in its infancy, these two movies describe a similar process being driven by the same system now in its senility.

Moroccan director Hassan Benjelloun describes how Jews were pressured by Zionists into emigrating to Israel in 1963, two years after the death of King Mohammed V left the country in an uncertain state. His film is set in the small village of Bejjad, where the Jews enjoy warm and cordial relations with their Muslim neighbors. The only threat to their well-being comes from an ascendant group of fundamentalists who are anxious to close down the only bar in town that is run by Mustapha, an easy-going Muslim who enjoys serving alcohol to his patrons while they enjoy musical performances by local talent, including Moshe, an elderly Jew who plays the oud and sings in his native language: Arabic.

After Mustapha is hauled before the local sharia, he defends himself by referring to a Moroccan law that allows the sale of alcohol to non-Muslims, which Bejjad has in ample number at least for the time being. However, as each busload of Jews departs for Israel, Mustapha’s anxiety increases. His only hope is to convince Moshe to remain in Bejjad, a feasible project given the oud player’s affection for his Muslim friends and neighbors.

While Moshe spends each night hanging out at Mustapha’s bar having a good time, the Bejjadi émigrés are not having such an easy time in Israel. They have trouble finding jobs since there is discrimination against Sephardic Jews. They also insist on preserving their Moroccan customs. In one of the movie’s many shrewdly observed comic moments, the Bejjadis are sitting around a bonfire late at night learning Israeli folk songs after having spent a day in a classroom learning Hebrew. After their Zionist group leader launches into “Hava Nagila”, a Zionist anthem, they stand up and begin to do native Moroccan dances and singing their own songs in Arabic.

Leaving aside the greatest tragedy of Zionism-what it inflicted on Palestinians-there is also the terrible damage it did to Sephardic Jews who had lived in peace with Muslims for hundreds of years, especially in North Africa. On the occasion of a performance by the great Moroccan Jewish singer Emil Zrihan, who was spirited off to Israel at the age of 12 just like the characters in Benjelloun’s movie, I wrote an article titled “Nights in Andalusia” that concluded with the following paragraphs from Eliyahu Ashtor’s “The Jews of Moslem Spain” (despite the Arabic sounding name, Ibn Khalfon was a Jew):

At last the host gestured to the poet to declaim his verse, and Ibn Khalfon recited a florid poem in which he proclaimed all the qualities of the new officeholder, his deeds in behalf of his coreligionists, the alms he gave to the poor, and the merits of his forefathers, who were nobles in Israel. Not all those present understood the beautiful biblical Hebrew, but all listened intently; not a sound was heard. When the poet had finished he bowed to the host, who drew forth from the folds of his coat a purse full of gold pieces and handed them to Ibn Khalfon. All his friends voiced cries of enthusiasm over the beauty of the poem and the generosity of the noble lord. A few arose from their places to stroll in the corners of the courtyard, where tall trees stood; others remained seated and engaged in spiritual but friendly conversation.

It was a warm and pleasant night, the skies were strewn with innumerable stars, and the moon shone with a brilliant light. From a distance could be heard a monotonous voice, yet pleasant to the ear: “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is the prophet of Allah. Life to those who pray to Him, life to those who serve Him.” Again and again the voice repeated its cry saturated with yearnings. This was the muezzin calling the Moslem to prayer, for this was the month of Ramadan, when the call to prayer is sounded before dawn. East and West had met under Andalusian skies.

Mohammed Soudani is a 59 year old Algerian who emigrated to Ticino, Switzerland in 1978, where he embarked on career as a television and film director. As an African immigrant, he was uniquely positioned to tell the story of two brothers-Demba and Yaro-who are forced to leave their impoverished farming village in Senegal and find work as street peddlers in Italy.

The film is structured as a series of reminiscences told as flashbacks by Demba about his older brother Yaro, who has been killed in a robbery of the kind that many street vendors have to confront. In order to send money back to their families, these men not only have to put up with such crimes but the fear of deportation as well. All of the scenes in Soudani’s movie take place on the streets where the vendors ply their trade, the hostels they live in, or on the subways that they take going to and fro. Their ability to sustain themselves in a hostile world, especially in an increasingly xenophobic Italy, is a testimony to their courage and dedication. They yearn to be productive back in Africa, but know that poverty has cut that possibility off for the foreseeable future.

I regret not having had the time to write about the 16th annual African Diaspora Film Festival earlier, but strongly urge you to consider attending one or another film between now and Sunday, the final day. The schedule is available at www.nyadff.org.


  1. Thanks for this!

    Readers may be interested in Ammiel Alcalay’s excellent anthology of translated literature from Jews originally from Arab countries, Greece, Turkey, and Iran: KEYS TO THE GARDEN: NEW ISRAELI WRITING (City Lights, 1996), and in the fine documentary FORGET BAGHDAD: JEWS AND ARABS – THE IRAQI CONNECTION, focusing on five Iraqi Jews, four of them living in Israel: Shimon Ballas, Moshe/Moussa Houri, Sami Michael, Samir Naqqash, and Ella Habiba Shohat. Ballas, Michael, and the late Naqqash are all important Israel writers—Naqqash insisted on continuing to publish in his native Jewish-Baghdadi Arabic dialect.

    Review of one untranslated Naqqash novel in NEW LEFT REVIEW:

    Ammiel Alcalay’s interview with him:

    “Tantal,” short story

    Comment by Jim Holstun — December 13, 2008 @ 12:39 am

  2. […] in exactly the same way, at least based on the plot line of “Where are you going, Moshe?”, a movie I reviewed on December 12th. Despite the fact that the movie was directed by an Arab, there was no attempt to cover up for […]

    Pingback by The Last Jews of Libya « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — July 1, 2009 @ 6:01 pm

  3. […] searing tale about a Cameroonian immigrant’s conflict with the cops in Germany, and “A Night in Morocco: Where are you going Moshe?”, a movie that challenges the official story that Sephardic Jews were happy to emigrate to […]

    Pingback by 2009 New York African Diaspora Film Festival « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — November 26, 2009 @ 5:31 pm

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