Spring 2008 | The Truth About the Fact | By Jordan Elgrably
The loquat tree in front of our house in Echo Park bore acridly sweet and juicy fruit, shaped like tiny hot-air balloons—fruit unlike any other. The flavor of a loquat is challenging to describe; sweet, yes, but there is also something slightly exotic, almost perfume-like about its white or yellow flesh. The rind of a loquat is a sunset orange and inside are three, four or five large brown seeds that taste bitter if you accidentally bite into one. To some people eating a loquat may seem more trouble than it’s worth, because you discard more than half the fruit’s volume; but I gleefully gorged myself on loquats throughout my youth. The tree in our yard bore fruit, it seemed, several times a year.
You rarely see loquats offered at market in the United States. In fact I don’t recall ever buying loquats anywhere until I found them at a Paris fruit stand on the rue Etienne Marcel decades later, surprised at their expensive price tag. For me these small orange-colored fruits were so familiar, so much of a part of my youth, I could not imagine that people were willing to pay more for them than for a pound of strawberries or even kiwis. The first time I bought a half-peck basket of loquats I experienced a strange swelling of pride in my breast; as I headed back to my Paris flat, I felt happy that I would be tasting loquats for the first time since I was an American kid who climbed the loquat tree, the only one among the five members of my household to relish its fruit; I also felt connected through the fruit to the land of my father’s father.
Loquats are a fruit common to North Africa. The loquat tree was my direct link to the geography and climate of my ancestors. Growing up in Echo Park, I never felt like a true American, probably because as a boy my father seemed a mysterious figure, my parents having divorced when I was two (I grew up with my mother and stepfather and my half-sister and brother). I knew that my father was French, but he was also something else, and I would not hear anything about Morocco that I can remember until the summer of my thirteenth year, which I spent living in my father’s house in West Hollywood. That is where I first heard the story of how the Elgrablys migrated from Morocco to France, and my father told me about coming to America.
I was thirteen years old before I realized that I was the son of an immigrant who was the son of an immigrant, and from that point on I never felt at home in Los Angeles. From the age of thirteen until I finally moved to Paris when I was 21, I wondered what I would have been like had my father’s father, Avram Elgrably, never left his hometown and his country, to venture abroad. Moroccan Arabic, or Darija, would be my mother tongue, and I would speak French with an Arab accent, just like many of the North Africans whom I later befriended as an expatriate American in Paris. America would seem like a faraway fantasyland I knew only from watching big-screen movies or reading novels translated into Arabic or French.
It is unlikely that I would have ever visited the United States. Even today, there are not many Moroccans who make Los Angeles their home; the emigration of Moroccans to the United States is but a trickle, because available visas are few and the price tag is high. Had I been born in Morocco, in the small town where Avram grew up, or in the city of his wife Hassiba, it is unlikely I would have ever gotten a visa to come to America. Instead I would have been far more likely to migrate north to France or Spain, or east to the Levant, perhaps to Tunisia, Egypt, Israel/Palestine, Lebanon or even Turkey or Greece. English would not be my first language but perhaps my third or fourth after Arabic and French or Spanish—if I spoke it at all. Had Avram never left Morocco and I were the son of my father born in Casablanca or the provinces, I would be, perhaps, a traditional Arab Jew: mystical, superstitious, praying often, fluent in biblical Hebrew, but cursing colorfully in Arabic. I would be gruffer, but also more naïve. I would be a blue-collar worker, like several of my Moroccan relatives who still live there today; or I would be a doctor, like the famed Dr. Elgrably of Marrakesh whom every Moroccan mentions whenever they hear my last name and know either Marrakesh or Casablanca, where the good doctor had patients. Or I would be fabulously wealthy, like a few of my merchant cousins; like them, I would have a handsome villa with several Muslim servant women running my household, and a large-screen television capturing satellite channels in Arabic, French, English, Hebrew and Spanish, connecting me to communities of other Moroccans in Europe, the Middle East, the United States and Canada.
English was my father’s third language. His first was French, learned in school and in the streets in the city of Lyon where he was born; Arabic was spoken at home, so it was also his first language, which unlike French he never learned to read and write. His mother Hassiba and father Avram were salt of the earth, illiterate for the most part, though Avram could read the Torah in Hebrew and prayed in Hebrew and Arabic, like almost all Middle Eastern Jews. During the Second World War, when the Elgrablys fled from Paris where they had been living, south to Marseilles and by boat to Morocco, my father learned English from the soldiers, the American GIs. He became their tour guide around the city for the next five years. The same year that Michael Curtiz was directing Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in the mythic movie about war-time Casablanca, shooting the casbah on studios back lots in Hollywood, my father was eleven years old and sharing a two-room walk-up flat in a Casablanca slum with his mother and sisters and brothers. Later, when I was a teenager getting to know my father, he scoffed at Casablanca the movie, insisting it was Hollywood hogwash—nothing like the real place, on which he felt himself an authority.
The ancient walls surrounding the town of Taroudant are a warm and dusty ochre, and the town itself is quite small, easily visited in a day’s wandering. Along its maze of streets and alleyways you find loquat, orange and banana trees, date palms, hibiscus, bougainvillea and jasmine; the town has many fountains and lush courtyards within its walls. In Avram’s youth Taroudant was still largely inhabited by the Amazigh (Berbers) or "free people"—the natives of North Africa—and Jews, while in more recent times other Moroccan Muslims of Arabic tribal descent and foreigners have populated the town. In Avram’s day Taroudant was a distant village between the sea and the mountains, thought of as an Amazigh enclave and “the grandmother of Marrakesh”—a quainter, more traditional version of that southern mecca of mystics, gnawa musicians and traders. My grandfather was both Amazigh and Jewish; the Amazigh side explained in part my blue-green eyes and lighter skin; other Moroccans and their children tended to be darker than me.
My grandfather was born around the turn of the last century. As a youth he would leave Taroudant and travel by mule or mule-drawn cart up and down the mountains to Marrakesh, a distance equivalent to the trip from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, but two days away; he and his brother were young merchants, buying and selling jewelry, precious metals, clothing and artifacts along the caravan route. Once he had saved enough money, Avram left Taroudant for good and migrated several hundred miles north, to the big city, Casablanca. This was while the First World War was raging and the French occupied the country. After the war there was a great need for cheap labor in France as it began to rebuild itself following years of destruction and privations. Avram got his papers in order; in 1919 he migrated north by boat and train to the city of Lyon, France’s second largest after Paris, and a major industrial hub. He left behind his young wife Hassiba and their three children; a few years later he would bring them to Lyon, where my grandmother would bear another ten children over the next fifteen years, including my father Jacques Isaac and his twin brother Elie. Several would die of disease and only nine were still alive in 1945.
In the only photo I have ever seen of my grandfather, he is strong-faced man standing about five feet seven, in a working-class suit and a tarbush, the flat-topped hat similar to a fez. He could be an Arab, a Turk, an Armenian; he looked like any one of a dozen ethnic groups from the region. He had fierceness about him in that old photograph; and at the same time, a domesticity, something familiar and traditional. His eyes seemed dark and he had a bushy mustache as did all men in those days; his hands seemed worn from manual labor. The expression on his face was neither a smile nor a frown; and it was the only hint of his spirit I would ever know, because I never met Avram; German soldiers in Paris killed him in 1942, many years before my birth in Los Angeles.
Everyone is looking for a place in the world that feels right, a place where the heart finds the measure of love, work, family, the tribe and where you embrace your own spirit. Most of us, though, live between worlds; we often find ourselves standing at the threshold between this place and the next, between this self and the next, between this life and the next. We are all, somehow, spiritual or geographical border crossers, whether of political necessity, economic expediency or sheer human will. Either we have lost our home and are looking for a new one, or we have a compelling desire for change, for self-challenge.
I have no doubt that this place in the world we’re seeking begins in the heart. As the exiled Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, wrote in a poem entitled “The Passport”: “The hearts of people are their nationality/Take away my passport.” But then we have to ask, what is the heart, really? Why are its inner workings so mysterious to us?
I would begin to answer this by looking at the life of one of the artists fleeing Hitler’s regime—Stefan Zweig, an Austrian Jew who prior to World War II was one of the most renowned authors in the world. Zweig and his wife Lotte took up exile in Brazil and there he finished his last work, a masterful memoir entitled Die Welt von Gestern—The World of Yesterday. Shortly after completing these writings, in 1942—unable to live with the brutality of the day—Stefan and Lotte Zweig took their own lives. In The World of Yesterday Zweig wrote, “Before 1914 the earth had belonged to all. People went where they wished and stayed as long as they pleased. There were no permits, no visas, and it always gives me pleasure to astonish the young by telling them that before 1914 I traveled from Europe to India and to America without passport and without ever having seen one.”
Zweig was a loving traveler but he was far from homeless; a cosmopolitan intellectual, he made his home in Vienna but also had many ties to life in Paris, London and New York. Yet in the preface to The World of Yesterday he writes something with which most of us, I think, will disagree. “The homeless man becomes free in a new sense; and only he who has lost all ties need have no arrière-pensées.”
Can it be that some of us, who experience exile, or emigration, will have no second thoughts about the past, will feel “free in a new sense”? When I read Zweig’s lines knowing he chose suicide, I felt the pain of a man trapped between two worlds; unable to recover the past he loved, Zweig couldn’t bear to live in the present. Although he wrote that this state of homelessness, of losing all ties enabled people to have no second thoughts, I wonder if it wasn’t in fact those very second thoughts, his own arrière-pensées that killed him.
Another writer, who chose self-exile from the United States, because he felt he might be killed or find it necessary to kill someone in self-defense—or out of rage—was the African-American, James Baldwin. In 1948, at the age of 24, with $40 in his pocket, Baldwin went to Paris. He would spend many of the ensuing 40 years of his life living in France. When I met him there some years ago, I asked Baldwin if he loved America, despite the obvious internal and external conflicts he experienced. “I think that it is a spiritual disaster to pretend that one doesn’t love one’s country,” he told me. “You may disapprove of it, you may be forced to leave it, you may live your whole life as a battle, yet I don’t think you can escape it.”
The expatriate Czech author, Milan Kundera, spoke to these questions one afternoon in his Paris flat when he and I were talking about exile. “It is very interesting,“ he said, “to see just how rooted we are in the first half of our lives. We are fatally rooted in the first half of life, even if life’s second half is filled with intense and moving experiences.”
I asked Kundera if he longed to go home, despite the fact that France had been so very good to him. “You must choose,” he said. “Either you live looking over your shoulder, there where you are not, in your former country, with your old friends, or you make the effort to profit from the catastrophe, starting over at zero, beginning a new life right where you are. Without hesitation I choose the second solution...One emigration,” he added, “suffices for a lifetime.”
As the story of the loquat tree unfolds it reveals to me that my own story of self-exile and emigration begins with my grandfather, Avram. Had he never come down from the southern Moroccan mountain town of Taroudant and journeyed to Casablanca, early in the 20th century, to find work and a wife, I would not exist; I would not be a native Angeleno. Had my father not fallen in love with American culture as an adolescent, I would not be who I am. And likely had I not grown up in Echo Park and Silver Lake, I never would have known the loquat tree, as it is unfamiliar to many Americans.
If my story starts with Avram, then let me further explain that upon moving to Casablanca in 1916, he met and married Hassiba Amar, a rabbi’s daughter. With a third child on the way—my aunt Marcelle—this stocky young man, who was coffee-colored and strong of heart, left for France. In 1919, when he was 21 years old, he went to work for the venerable pharmaceutical firm Rhône-Poulenc, located in the Lyonnais working class quarter of Saint Fons, where many North Africans lived.
My father, Jacques Isaac Elgrably, was born in Lyon in 1931. He was seven years old when Avram and Hassiba, intent on improving their fortunes further, moved the large Elgrably clan to Paris, buying an apartment in the working-class quarter of the 11th arrondissement, on the Avenue Ledru Rollin. My father was nine when the Germans marched into Paris, parading triumphantly down the Champs-Elysées. He remembers trembling with fear at these men in tanks and on horseback, men marching with rifles; there was something monstrous in the eagle insignia of the Werhmacht soldiers, and the double esses of the Nazi officers goose-stepping across the cobblestones, only a few feet away.
Not long after the Occupation began, Avram commanded Hassiba to take the younger children and return to Lyon, where she was to make sure their eldest children Rachel, Raymond and Marcelle were going to be all right, and then travel back to Morocco, where everyone would surely be safe from the war. Hassiba begged Avram to come too, but he was stubborn; he refused to abandon their modest flat and all their furniture and other belongings; he would stay on and join them later. Avram was still strong and determined; he professed no fear of anyone.
Before the Elgrablys could leave under Hassiba’s wing, the Nazis in tandem with the French Milice or special police, issued i.d. cards to all the Jews of Paris. So Hassiba Elgrably had her new i.d. card stamped Juive, Juden with a Star of David on it. She was, however, a large, dark-skinned woman with a kind of cherubic Moroccan face; like Avram she passed for an Arab or a Turk. The day Avram took her to the Gare de Lyon to catch the train, their band of excitable little kids trailing behind them, my father remembers being afraid he would never see his father again. Hassiba wept in her husband’s arms, which could hardly contain her girth, but he assured her everything would be all right. Soon enough, he promised, he would appear in Casablanca to find her.
By 1941 life for Jews and other undesirables in France had become uncertain and frightening. Hassiba knew, and most of her children were old enough to understand, just how dangerous this journey back to Lyon was going to be. She scolded them to keep quiet—“skthu! skthu!”—and warned that whenever Germans boarded the train, they were to mind their business and pretend to be playing.
Hassiba Amar Elgrably was stopped by SS officers in Dijon, where they demanded she produce her papers—“Papieren!” My father remembers how she feigned ignorance of the new laws and regulations and spoke in broken French, her Moroccan Arabic accent heavy as she told a lie to save lives: “We live in Morocco, I went to Paris to bury my mother, I didn’t know I needed any special papers.” She kept her i.d. card stamped Juive, Juden hidden in her shoe. Neither my father nor his brothers Robert, Jacob, Elie, David nor his sisters Alice and Esther uttered a word. My father remembers they were all “white as sheets,” which isn’t easy to imagine when you think of brown-skinned Moroccan boys and girls.
Hassiba’s appearance, her Arab accent and her dark children stumped these fear-instilling Nazi officers. They had no idea they were dealing with Sephardic Jews. Because Hassiba and my father and the other kids were mistaken for Arabs, then, they made it to Lyon, went on to Marseille, found a boat that took them to Tangier, and caught a train from there to Casa. Today I feel blessed to be alive, because I know that if those clever Nazis had been such übermenschen, Hassiba and her kids would have been taken off that train in Dijon and eventually sent to a camp to die. I feel not enmity but empathy and kinship with Arabs and Berbers and others; I feel that this obvious case of mistaken ethnic identity saved almost the entire Elgrably family from certain death. I feel not a great deal of difference between Arabs and Jews, and I know just how fragile life is.
In July 1942 the Nazis decided to round up all the Jews in the 11th arrondissement and pack them off to the Vel d’Hiver, a stadium outside Paris. Most of the 5,000 people rounded up that day were later murdered in concentration camps in Poland and Germany. Avram happened to be away from their flat on the Avenue Ledru Rollin, however, and when he returned in the evening, he stopped at his usual café for a drink. This café happened to be right across the street from the Nazi line cordoning off the neighborhood. The bartender, a Frenchman who was his friend, whispered to Avram, “Don’t go home. They’ve come for everyone. They’ve taken all the Jews away.” Avram was frightened but enraged. He stormed outside and stared defiantly at the German soldiers as they marched past. He went back inside the café and drank some more. As family legend has it, he survived somehow for months, living a shadow life, perhaps passing himself off as an Arab, an Axis ally. But he finally came to a bad end. As the story goes, one afternoon a handful of SS came into the café to drink and Avram attacked two of them with his bare fists; the Germans did not shoot him but beat him near to death, then dragged him off. All we know is that Avram Elgrably was buried somewhere in or near Paris, in a mass grave. The details of his demise remain a mystery.
My aunt Marcelle, who had been born in Casablanca in 1920, six months after her father went to work for Rhône-Poulenc, was in love with a French mailman of the Christian faith. When war broke out in 1939, she was living with him in Lyon and they had a child, a baby girl named Nicole (my cousin), in 1941. Several of Marcelle’s neighbors knew she was Jewish but kept their mouths shut. Then Klaus Barbie “the Butcher” took control of Lyon and began a fierce campaign, with the Milice, to flush out the remaining French Jews. Rewards for information about Jews were dangled before the hungry, ration-addled populace. Finally, in 1943, one of Marcelle’s neighbors fingered her for Barbie’s informants. She was a poor, lonely old woman who received the paltry sum of 2,000 old francs—the equivalent of about forty dollars. They came for Marcelle unexpectedly and led her away while her common-law husband was out delivering the mail. Family friends, meanwhile, were caring for her baby Nicole in the countryside. Nicole survived—I met her on my first visit to Paris when I was 20—but her mother, my aunt Marcelle, was gassed in Auschwitz in September 1943. I’ve seen her name and the date on the Nazi list of Jewish victims, published in a book several years ago.
The war and the attempted destruction of the Jews drove a wedge into the Elgrably family. It’s hard to explain how and why this happened, but each member began to live only for him or herself; the Elgrably sisters and brothers did not continue the old way of living near extended family, but became more and more fragmented, and isolated. This occurred only gradually. In 1947 and 1948, there was still a sense of belonging, of closeness to each other and to the Jewish people; my father Jacques and his brothers Jacob, Elie and Raymond went off to Palestine to fight for the independent state of Israel. One day my father was hitchhiking somewhere in the desert, and a truck full of young soldiers stopped for him. They were Polish and German Jews about his own age. Between themselves they spoke Yiddish and called my father a shvartze—a “nigger.” They thought, being an Arab Jew, he was uneducated, yet my father spoke not only French and Arabic, but some English, German and Yiddish. He surprised them when he got angry and said, in German, “How you can talk like that, when we’re all one people? Haven’t we seen enough hatred already?” He cursed at them, calling them yekkes.
After Israel declared its independence, my father left; he went back to France, and a few years later, he became an émigré yet again, landing in San Francisco—one of the first Sephardic Jews to settle in the Bay Area. He met and fell in love with my mother, Leah, the granddaughter of Lithuanian Jews who had immigrated to America before the turn of the century. Leah was a student in her last year at San Francisco State; she was soon to start her career as a schoolteacher back in L.A. When my mother brought Jacques home to meet her parents, her mother—who knew nothing about the larger Jewish experience, who didn’t realize that Jews also came from the Middle East and from Africa and Asia—looked at my father and said little, her eyes darting in judgment. Afterwards, she turned to her daughter and demanded to know why Leah was getting herself involved with a shvartze. To this day it is disheartening to me to allow that ethnic and racial prejudice exists in every quarter, but then, many people don’t see that our physical reality is largely an illusion, and that in spiritual terms we are all one. You know, it’s that idea that Walt Whitman expressed so eloquently when he wrote, “I am large: I contain multitudes.”
My father was an émigré, and he remained a man between worlds; a Jew, yes, but being from North Africa he wasn’t quite accepted by most American Jews; his darker features prevented that. Nor did he feel completely at ease among Arabs, though he could speak with many of them. Where was his true place, where might he find his heart?
Jacques Elgrably became an American citizen in 1974, the year I finished high school and started college. But I grew up with the schism of being both Ashkenazi and Sephardic, the son of Eastern European and North African emigrants. I, too, grew up between worlds. It wasn’t enough for me to be American, native to a country where nearly everyone tries to reinvent themselves. Something made me distrust life in Los Angeles, and impelled me to go abroad. I was in my early twenties when I emigrated to France. In a way I wanted to retrace my father’s experience. I eventually wound up in Morocco and Spain, looking for shards of the past. Shortly after establishing residency in Paris, meanwhile, I became a French citizen—this was my right as my father had been born in France and per the requirements had completed his military service. So my father emigrated and became an “American”; and I emigrated and became “French.”
I now had two passports. But I had had the luxury of choice—my exile was self-imposed, the exile, perhaps, of many who have yet to find the nationality of their hearts.
Here I was, then, many years later, still living between worlds. I wanted to find my place. Was I American, really, or French? Was I Ashkenazi or Sephardic? Was I more African or European because my grandfather Avram had been an African, a man from Taroudant in the south of Morocco, where it’s difficult to say who is this or that, Arab, Berber, African, or Jew? Maybe the Tunisian Jewish writer, Albert Memmi, was closest to the truth about me when he wrote in his novel, The Pillar of Salt, he felt he was “an African in a world dominated by Europe.”
I immigrated back to Los Angeles after fifteen years of wandering, of crossing many borders in the world. Strangely, it wasn’t till I settled down in L.A. again that I discovered that Jews once called themselves Ivrim, an Aramaic word first used by Avram. The word ivri rhymes with poetry, means Hebrew, but it also means border crosser or literally “he who crosses to the other side.” I realized then, clearly and passionately, that my people lived in most of the countries of the world—that Jews were and have almost always been “multicultural” and indeed “multiethnic.” And because Avram was a border crosser and founder of the first of the three large monotheisms—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—perhaps most people in the Middle East, Europe and the Americas have inherited this border-crossing, boundary-challenging condition, whether or not they act on it.
Indeed, when so many of us are picking up and going elsewhere, when the émigré experience isn’t only the domain of Jews and Gypsies but of most peoples in the world; when we are constantly negotiating between the longings of our minds, our hearts and our spirits, aren’t we are all, somehow, people without boundaries? Or, at least, people trying to transcend the kinds of boundaries that impress upon us emotional and spiritual limitations?
When I look back at the experience of exile and emigration I inherited from Avram and Jacques Elgrably, and from my mother’s side of the family (people who had to escape the pogroms and who came through Ellis Island), I think of how we are, all of us, looking for freedom and love, and sometimes we find it necessary or desirable to flee, to escape. In exile we look for comfort and safety, for a place where we won’t always stand out as the Other. Yet we must admit that this very state of movement, of emigration, separates us from the rootedness of those are not Other, who think they belong where they are. This causes me to wonder if identity can really be a matter of place alone. If you happen to be a border crosser, if your heart is your nationality, you may not have a land-based identity; if you’re an émigré, you will have to embrace a new state, a new place, with no guarantee of finding your heart there.
This condition of exiles and émigrés, of Jews and Gypsies and everyone who is between worlds, between the mind and the heart, swimming between body and spirit, between here and there, is at once ancient and postmodern; and this creates a context for intercultural, interethnic, interspiritual entente the likes of which we have never had before. This “new age” in which fixed identity has become outmoded, in which many of us have become hybrids of this and that; have become indeed multiple, affords a beautiful opportunity for each and every one of us to transcend all borders, to defy all boundaries, to cross every bridge and embrace the people on the other side. Because everyone is looking for a place in the world that feels right, a place where the heart finds the measure of love, and work, and family, and the tribe; a place where you embrace your own spirit and you know that we’re all one.
When you’re feeling caught between worlds, when your heart is heavy with ambivalence, it is good to remember that, as James Baldwin once said, “Your people are all people.”
Home remains for me an elusive dream, a place determined by the mysterious longings of my heart, the nature of my friendships, the proximity of family and the evolving state of my own creative work. It is striking to me that the loquat tree in Arabic is called “askadinya” which, literally translated, means “the best of all worlds.” Perhaps my early memories of growing up in Echo Park, sitting in the loquat tree while I gorged myself on its exotic fruit, point to the beginning of my desire to discover the meaning of home—the place where you experience the best of all worlds.