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Letter to Sylvia Wynter

In an open letter to theorist Sylvia Wynter on Wynter's text "1492: A New World View," Ariella Aïsha Azoulay  retrieves memories of her Jewish family's Arabness: "I refuse to become a memory-less Jew, whose life was mutated and reformatted to begin only with the creation of the nation-state."

Ariella Aïsha Azoulay 7 July 2020

Postcard, School of Embroidery, Algiers (1905).

Below is an excerpt from Ariella Aïsha Azoulay's "Letter to Sylvia Wynter," published in full in the The Funambulist (issue 30).

* * * * *

Dear Sylvia Wynter,

I love teaching your texts. They inspire me and stir the mind of my students. Your essay “1492: A New World View” helped me understand that the entire world as manufactured out of the events of 1492 is in a dire need of repair, a project that cannot be confined to calls for reparations.

Thinking with you about the world wrought by 1491, I am troubled by the use of the term “Judeo-Christian,” and this is why I am sending you this note. Unlike other terms, whose origins you carefully question and whose meanings you transform, “Judeo-Christian” stands untroubled in your writing, as if there is a confirmed reality behind it. Judeo-Christian—where? When? In whose interest? Against whom? In service of what kind of world? Often, I wish the texts of authors I like to be flawless. But simply changing, excising, or explaining away the vexed term is not enough. A work is required to show how it was manufactured. I finally found the courage to do this in a letter addressed to you. The term “Judeo-Christian,” as I hope you will understand, is in itself a distortion of the work of repair.

Why a letter? Your 1492 text sent me off on a journey, and I feel I owe you a postcard from my travels. I struggled with the writing of this letter, maybe because at the same time I began writing to you, I was also writing a letter to my father who passed away seven years ago. In my letter to my father, I try to reconstruct my failure to grasp the meaning of one brief sentence he told me during a longer interview I conducted for his 65th birthday. He mentioned, in passing, that he was in a concentration camp in Algeria. I had no memory of having heard this, though a few years later, I read it in the booklet that I prepared from the interview. It is as if what he was telling me didn’t register in my conscious mind.

Years later, when my friend, the anthropologist Susan Slymovics, asked to interview my father—knowing his age and guessing he might have been in a camp—that I truly heard for the first time that my father was in a concentration camp. We never talked about it, though he told me and I heard, he told me and I wrote it down. I know that my failure to hear him the first time he told me is not really mine alone. I could not conceive of concentration camps in Algeria, since as you write, “Man’s memories” of World War II were mainly European. Thus, many of the diverse groups that were targeted by the Nazis, the Fascists, and all other imperial powers were omitted from history and their suffering disavowed, to make room for the exceptional suffering and extermination of Europeans of Jewish origin.

In the Zionist state where I grew up—Israel—there was no room for my father’s memories of persecution during World War II as an Arab-Jew whose French citizenship was revoked, nor for the vulnerability of Jews in Algeria after the creation of the State of Israel, which was constructed as a Europeanized stronghold against the Arab world. In Israel, where my father migrated in 1949, he was able to take advantage of the World War II imperial bargain, as his French citizenship—given to Algerian Jews in 1870—meant he could pass for a European Jew (that is, a white Jew), and assimilate, at the cost of forgetting his Arabness. In my letter to him, I’m still reconstructing all he had to omit to sustain the self-deception of being French, despite being continually betrayed by the dark color of his skin, his French accent in Hebrew which Arab-Jews readily recognized as a North African one, and his Arab accent when speaking French.

Your discussion, dear Sylvia, of the substance of memories “we” share, those memories of a white bourgeois mode of being as the way of being human, hovers above both my letter to you and to him. After I started to write to you, I soon realized that a postcard was too small for what I wanted to say. But I still want to share the image I had in mind for your postcard. It is a photochrome image of twelve Algerian girls around the age of six or seven, posing for a photograph in a Delacroix-inflected harem-like setting—some idly standing, others at work—at what is an embroidery school for Arab girls, founded by a French woman a decade after the French conquered Algeria.

Any of these Arab-looking girls, whose picture was taken in 1905, could have been my ancestor. The photographs I have of my grandmother in Algeria, taken a few decades later, show her already as a French-looking woman, a Jewish Arab who has learned the lesson of Frenchness this school was established to impart. Where did my great-great grandmother, who was a native Algerian and could have been one of these girls, disappear to?

With the conquest, the traditional craft of embroidery, which had been transmitted intergenerationally, was standardized into a European curriculum emphasizing mechanized movements, “orientalist” patterns, and the French language. The young girls in this photochrome were in training to become a labor force producing for European markets. Look at the synchronized movement of their right hands. No doubt, they were asked by the photographer (or their teacher-patron) to act as if they were in the midst of embroidering. This semi-mechanized gesture is not how their ancestors used the needle, outside of the market logic of French educational institutions. Note how everything is standardized: were there no left-handed girls among them? Was this “flaw” also eradicated, along with previous modes of embroidering? Does the standardization of their work connect to the disappearance of my great-great grandmother?

This lesson of Frenchness, standardization, eradication has a name in French: laïcité. The term “secularism” doesn’t quite capture the stripping bare the worldliness, or being-in-the-world, of a person, which laïcité requires. Part of solving the “Jewish question” in Europe required the refashioning Jews as secular Europeans (who could still be “Jews” at home) before they could go in public. With the French conquest of Algeria, the Jews were singled out from the Arabs and were made into a “problem,” forced to get rid of what identified them as indigenous, so that a few decades later the colonial regime could reward them for their efforts with the gift of French citizenship. Thinking of this “Judeo-Christian” bargain in relation to the state process of laicité helped me. As my interlocutor, you helped me to identify the “Christian” component in the secular Jew.

Your uninterrogated use of the term—Judeo-Christian—assumes a readership that recognizes itself in it. If you could have anticipated a reaction like mine while you wrote, I am inclined to think that you would have asked more questions about it. It’s true, some of your Jewish readers, and maybe also some Christians, may find this category reassuring, a confirmation that the post-WWII bargain, the one which promised Jews whiteness and welcomed them into the Christian-secular world, and offered Christians a way out of their guilt, is respected. I’m Jewish, but I am not one of these readers, and I’m not alone.

As I worked to retrieve memories of my family’s Arabness, I joined you in your endeavor to expose Man’s memories as simply one mode of being human, a white, middle-class commitment to perpetuate, as you call it, “unimaginable evil.” The Judeo-Christian, I begin to understand as I write to you, is one of the latest iterations of the imperial practice of assimilation, one that was materialized on a state-scale with the Christian-European interest in the state of Israel. I was born in this state, Israel, and I grew up to refuse to be ruled by the multiple bargains of its creation. I refused to become a memory-less Jew, whose life was mutated and reformatted to begin only with the creation of the nation-state.


I hope this will be a beginning of a conversation and others will join us.


Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, May 2020

Ariella Aïsha Azoulay teaches political thought and visual culture at Brown University, and her most recent book is Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism.