Interview: Moroccan-born Israeli poet Mois Benarroch
On being different and writing a different poem
July 15, 2010
Moving from Morocco to Israel at the age of 13 was like moving from one planet to another. Israel was not only a different country, it was a different culture and these were completely different Jews and it was a completely different Judaism. It was September 1972 and within a year and a half of my arrival there was a war, the Yom Kippur war, and my little brother died; all this happened before the end of 1973. These traumas are the source of my writing, and perhaps the reason I started to write. I missed out completely on adolescence and was also very isolated from the Israeli community.
Can you tell me about your childhood in Morocco, your parents, your education?
We went to a Jewish school, called El Ittihad Maroc. That was the official name of the school but everybody called it La Alianza, in Spanish; it was the first school opened by the Alliance Israelite Universelle in 1862 and became the first of an international Jewish network of schools called the Alliance Française that spread all through the Muslim world and beyond. The level of education was very high and we were prepared for the French baccalauréat. We were also taught many languages and had classes in English, Hebrew and Arabic. Curiously, we were not taught Spanish, although this was the mother tongue of all the pupils and most teachers. So, when the bell rang everybody switched to Spanish. I find this miraculous. Back in class it was forbidden to say a word in Spanish.
My childhood was very Jewish and I still lived in a city that respected the fact that Jews did not work on the Sabbath [Saturday]; business was built around it since many Jews had businesses in my home town Tetouan. The school, as I said, was also a Jewish school. Although there were also some Christians and Muslims, the immediate surroundings were also very Jewish.
We were a family of four children; I was the second, after my sister. I remember very well that we were always on the point of emigrating. The feeling was that we were not staying in Morocco. There was talk of emigrating to Spain, to Venezuela, to Canada. And of course, Israel where we finally settled in 1972, when I was 13.
Have your views about Israel changed in the time you have been living there?
My views about Israel have changed a lot. Despite so many years here I think I see Israel from the outside, I live on the outside. Of course I didn’t have a complete concept or point of view when I was 13. I thought I was coming to a spiritual and religious country where Jews loved each other. This was the naive point of view of a Jewish boy. What other work do you do besides writing poetry?
Nowadays I am a full-time writer and translator. I have just published a new novel in Spain, Amor y Exilios. I translate novels. I was a clerk-accountant for 12 years in the past with a steady salary. I also worked for a few years in hotels before that. And I studied natural medicine and pratised for time years as a part time job. I liked the idea but I don’t think I was such a good therapist.
How did you become a writer?
I started writing poetry when I was 15, because of feeling isolated and unable to connect with my surroundings. The first poems were love poems to a girl I couldn’t talk to. That seems pretty normal. Isn’t it?
Since then I have never stopped writing. I may be imagining it but I am pretty sure that after writing my first poem I knew deep inside that I was going to be a writer, and for some reason I also knew that it would take a long time for my writing to be accepted. But since then I have never stopped writing and have even done so obsessively at some periods of my life, writing 18 hours a days. It was like if I stopped writing I would die. Maybe it still is. I didn’t stop. I tried a few times but it didn’t work.
Which poets, or other artists, have influenced your work?
There are many. I think that two of the most influential writers are Charles Bukowski and Edmond Jabes, which may look like a complete contradiction. But the main art form that has influenced me beside writing is that of the singer-songwriter. I actually started writing my first poems after listening to the likes of Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Jackson Browne. I even tried to compose music to my poems for some time. I also like movies, and I think that has influenced my novels. Some critics have pointed out that I use cinematic techniques
I have been influenced by many authors in many languages. Let’s start with Hebrew: Natan Zach, David Avidan, Erez Bitton, Zelda, Yona Wallach, Moshe Sartel and many others. From the French, besides Jabes, Cocteau, Breton, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Blaise Cendrars and many others have influenced me. From the Spanish, mostly the Latin American poets like Neruda, Huidobro, Nicanor Parra and Gonzalo Rojas, all from Chile; then Borges, as poet and prose writer. The beatniks in general: Ginsberg, Burroughs, then Brautigan, Whitman, Ignatow. And as I said, Bukowski. I am probably forgetting many of them.
Your poems chosen for PIW focus on themes of belonging (e.g. ‘I went up to the Land of Israel’, ‘Suitcase’) and outsiderness (e.g. ‘Antipoetry’ and ‘Beans with Tabasco Sauce for Breakfast’). Can you comment on these motifs within your own poetry?
This is definitely the recurring theme in my writings. It spreads all over, from being an outsider as a Jew, or as a writer (and Edmond Jabes would say that every writer is a Jew) to feeling like a different kind of Jew and not really part of the mainstream of Judaism: that is being a Sephardic Jew. Maybe that’s what poetry is about: being outside, being different and writing a different poem.
Your work will be published on PIW alongside Esther Raab’s writings. Although Raab is considered to be the first female and Hebrew/native poet of (pre-state) Israel, she can also be viewed as somewhat of an outsider. What are your thoughts about this and about her writing? (Are all poets perhaps ‘outsiders’?)
I read Raab a long time ago and frankly she did not make much of an impression on me. I don’t think she is really an outsider; her books were in stores back in the 1980s. Maybe I was not impressed because I don’t like landscape poems. I also do not like early Israeli poetry before Zach, Avidan and Amichai. I think that in most cases the poets were trying to find a language, a Hebrew that they could hardly handle. That surely includes Bialik and Alterman. I consider Avidan to be the first great poet of the Modern Hebrew language, and the first sabra to write poetry. I am not saying Raab is not a good poet, but her influence was minimal. But this leads me to an interesting observation made by Professor Shlomo Elbaz, who noticed how many women poets there are in Israel. And although the boys play the big ego game, we have Lea Goldberg, great and important poets like Zelda, Yona Wallach, Amira Hess, Hedva Harkavi and countless other women poets in the first league of Israeli poetry. I don’t see that many in Spanish or French or British poetry; the USA fares better, but even a world leader in poetry like Chile has one Mistral compared with dozens of male major poets. I think this would be a good subject for a PhD. Compared to most countries I know the situation is unique.
As for outsiders: in Israel 20,000 poetry books are sold yearly. This means that poetry is the outsider. Not the poets. I don’t see myself as more of an outsider and I have had my share of recognition; 20,000 books is like one prose bestseller and many novels sell even more. So, a poet who has published a few books and has a hundred readers can consider himself recognized. More so if a dozen articles have been written about him. As a novelist I am marginalized, but that’s another story. And a long one.
What are your thoughts about the Josephus book, the history book written by Josephus in 70 AD? You recently wrote about a new Hebrew translation in the Haaretz newspaper.
I reread the book and wrote about it with the feeling that it was in fact completely irrelevant to our political reality of today. This must seem obvious to any European, but the problem is that in Israel there is a gap in political time; in every discussion someone tries to compare today’s political situation with something that happened 2000 or 3000 years ago in Judea or in this part of the world.
You are bilingual in Spanish and Hebrew, and very proficient in English. Do you feel some things are easier to write about in Hebrew and other things in Spanish? In other words, how does your multilingualism manifest itself in your life as a poet and in daily life?
I have written poetry in three languages and that’s not something I would recommend to anyone. It was a poetic need. It came out of the poems. I started writing poetry in English when I was 15, and did it for four years. Then I switched to Hebrew, for the next 20 years. Then I moved to Spanish because there were things that could not be written in Hebrew. Language not only describes or represents reality, it also creates it. And Modern Hebrew is a language that has created a totally different Jewish Moroccan from the one I know; there are many ways to describe the Moroccan in Modern Hebrew and almost all of them are negative. And I could not change the whole of the Hebrew language, or cope with it. So the need for Spanish was a linguistic need and also a social need. A line like “I am an exiled Moroccan poet” (from one of my poems) could not be written in Hebrew. It took me eight years to translate it, and even now I am attacked for writing something so obvious. A Moroccan in Israel has to thank Zionism for saving him from a terrible life and fate, so the question of being an exile outside the understanding of Israeli society. I should thank everyone every day for having been saved and converted to the new Zionist-Judaism, and to ultra new Judaeo-Christianity, which is the same thing.
So my poetry is definitely different or I am even a different poet when I write in different language. Spanish is my mother tongue and my historic tongue, since this language has been spoken by family over the last thousand years, Hebrew is the language of my oppression, and for the fight against this oppression; it’s a father tongue, a male phallic chauvinistic tongue, but it is also the sacred tongue, the tongue of the temple, somewhere deep inside. English is a kind of neutral tongue, and also the tongue of the empire, it’s all over and I often use it when the other two conflict with each other or for more philosophical poems.
In my everyday life I live in Hebrew, with some French too because my wife is French, and we have many French friends, although I speak Spanish with my mother, and with some of my family too. And in Israel there is always some English in everyday life, since there are many tourists in the city, as well as many American and English immigrants who don’t bother to learn Hebrew, because they don’t have to.
How do you reflect on your linguistic identity and how do you perceive your cultural identity?
I see myself as some kind of disappearing species. I see myself as a Karaite in the 18th or 19th century, like a member of a sect; the Karaites were the mainstream of Judaism in the 12th century and now there are may be 1000 of them left. Since the 16th century Ashkenazíc Judaism has dominated the Jewish world. Israel was an anomaly during the 1980s when there was a majority of Sephardic Jews, but now they are maybe 40% (since the big Russian emigration) and most are trying to be like the image of the new Jew that was imposed on them by Zionism. I think that the Sephardic Jew is disappearing from the world. Ruth Knafo-Setton sent a few stories to a Jewish magazine in the US and they told her that her stories were nice but that she should write about “real Jews”. Moroccan Jews are not “real” Jews; they are some kind of folklore. Since most of my novels are about Moroccan Jews, I guess they are not “real” Israeli or Jewish novels. The Moroccan Jew has become fiction in the Jewish consciousness.
How do you envisage the future of your children in terms of culture? Do you feel they fit into society in Israel?
I don’t really know. Israel is a country in a state of change. It’s very dynamic and it is hard to say where it will be in a year. I have tried to pass on part of my history and heritage to my children, although this is not very simple, since school texts contradict all that I say to them. I am only one against a big system, and it’s a battle I cannot win. Maybe I can lose it with some dignity and save something from my past that will go on in future generations. As it is, my descendants will probably think that I came to Israel from a cave in Africa. That’s more or less the concept of the Sephardic Jew.