Back to Asni: Reflections on Mediterranean Identity
Is it at all possible to discuss the concept of Mediterranean identity without falling into the trap of futile cliches and heavy romanticism? What is it that in many ways seems to make the silhouette of this unpopulated mass of water as tangible as that of any patch of solid land in the world? Why does its very name evoke associations of sensuality, pleasure, even indulgence, even though God, the Goddess and all the gods know that over the ages it has witnessed more than its share of toil and suffering?
For me these questions presented themselves anew when, at the end of May 1994, a women's conference on cooperation in the Mediterranean region convened in Marrakesh, hosted by the European Community and King Hassan of Morocco. Some two hundred women participated from all the countries of the Mediterranean Sea, excluding Syria and Libya and with the addition of Jordan and Mauritania, which strictly speaking do not reach the sea. On the agenda was cooperation between women in the spheres of parliamentarism, economy, non-governmental organizations (NGO's), culture and communications.
The core group of the conference was composed of parliamentarians from all the countries, including one Israeli minister, Shulamit Aloni, and five Knesset members from Labor, Meretz and Hadash. The Palestinian delegation was headed by Ambassador Leila Shahid and PNC member Mayada Abbasi. I was fortunate enough to be added to the Israeli delegation at the last moment as representative of Reshet, the Israeli women's peace net.
Our two active and sizeable delegations, the Israeli and the Palestinian, also embodied the long-time cooperation of women from the two peoples. This had gone on continuously in spite of acts of violence by individuals and organizations from both sides and notwithstanding the protracted mutual lack of recognition of our political establishments, including the law prohibiting meetings of Israelis with PLO members.
Now, in the era of our peace process, other political problems in the region seemed to cry out more desperately: how can one forget the Algerian woman who told us of the pain suffered by the women of her country when the very world they had won in blood and toil during the years of the Revolution was threatened by fundamentalist terrorism (it was rumored that by her very presence at the conference, especially with Israelis present, she was endangering her life); or the words of the daughter of the President of Bosnia on the suffering of women in her country as victims of ethnic cleansing and unrestrained sexual brutality; or the echoes of the strife between Greeks and Turks? Far as we felt from a satisfactory solution to our conflict, after the Oslo and Cairo Agreements we could see some light at the end of the tunnel. In a way, we had a message of hope to share with others.

We had arrived in Marrakesh via Paris (half a day of European sunshine and affluence) and the Casablanca airport, worthy in its design of the most magnificent Thousand and One Night folk tales. At the foot of the central Atlas Mountains, Marrakesh is a tasteful combination of old and new, of ancient and modern, thus perfect as a sort of time-and-space machine, for which I was to use it. Though I had never actually visited it, my journey to Marrakesh turned out to be a trip back to a place where I had been before in a certain sense.
The first of our three afternoons was free. We, a group of five Israeli women, were fascinated by the charms of the so uk and got seriously entangled in its labyrinth of silver, wool, silk and leather. Then we asked our friendly guides and security personnel to show us the old Jewish quarter, the mellah. Jews no longer inhabit its narrow alleys, most having left the country or moved to more comfortable parts of the town. Fatima's hand, the Hamsa, is imprinted in bright colors on the walls. Spice shops also exhibit dry chameleons and hedgehogs; thinking of the famous lines of Shakespeare's witches, one wonders whether they are used for magic or simply eaten.
A young boy guided us to the synagogue where we were shown around by an old Muslim keeper. The building and furnishings enjoyed good maintenance and we were told that the place was in frequent use. Then on in the burning sun to the Jewish cemetery. The old man pointed proudly to an elaborate structure of woodwork and stucco in which one of the leaders of the community had found eternal rest.
For myself, however, I was fascinated by two other tombstones. One covered the earthly remains of Rabbi Yehuda Aturki, deceased in the late 1950s, who had been blessed with a revelation of the prophet Elijah. The other bore the name of Rabbi Pinhas Khalifa Ha-Cohen (the Priest) Azug, great-grandson of Rabbi David Ben Baruch. I recalled having seen Rabbi David's name on one of the two alms boxes on the synagogue wall - the other bore the name of Rabbi Amram Ben Diwan, one of the most renowned holy men of Moroccan Jewry. But then Rabbi Pinhas was a long-standing acquaintance of mine. I did not quite believe it when I saw that the year of his death was 1952.
In this very same year Avraham Lugasi, formerly of the townlet of Asni and now a resident of Kiryat Gat, immigrated from Morocco to Israel. Lugasi is the master of all the narrators - storytellers - that I have been privileged to meet and hear throughout my career as a folklorist. In my very first year of teaching at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1971-72), I also taught once a week at the Ben-Gurion University of Beersheva. It was there that I was fortunate enough to have as one of my students David Lugasi, and when I assigned the students as field work the recording of narratives from the oral tradition, he presented the following two stories from his father Avraham.

The first tale is of a miracle which occurred about forty years earlier. The Rabbi was accustomed to visit the villages and townlets near the Atlas Mountains to collect donations from the Jews for the poor and the Yeshiva students. He would make the trip to each village every four years, staying at the house of one of the distinguished Jews. One village would inform the neighboring villagers of the visit, so that a number of people would serve as a delegation to welcome the Rabbi. This would continue until his return to Marrakesh.
In Asni the name of the Rabbi's host was Yaish. His spacious house was always open to the poor. Everyone was welcome. Years passed and the head of the family died. His sons divided up the property he had left. Some of the sons left the village while others remained but they became impoverished.
When the time came for the Rabbi's visit, the villagers prepared for him to stay not with the usual now poor family, but with a distinguished family who could look after him well. The former family did not oppose this, knowing that as they now had nothing, their economic position didn't enable them to receive the holy visitor properly.
The reception committee informed the Rabbi that he would be hosted by a different family. But the Rabbi refused and demanded to stay in the same house. The delegation tried to convince him that the material situation of the family had completely deteriorated since the death of the father. It was to no avail and the Rabbi insisted on staying in the same place. In the end they were forced to explain that even the new head of the family, the son of the deceased, had agreed to the honorable Rabbi staying with the other family because it would be beneath the Rabbi's dignity to stay with him. The Rabbi responded that with God's help, everything would work out.
On arriving in the village, the Rabbi went to the usual house, to find that they had everything they needed, just as in the days of the late head of the house. He informed the delegation of their error, with the new head of the family listening. The latter recounted what had occurred the day before the visit of the respected Rabbi.
"Yesterday at night time", he said, "an Arab came to Asni bringing with him the best of everything. He entered my house and said that everything he had with him was now mine. Amazed, I asked him to explain further: I had never seen this Arab in my life so why should he give me all that he had brought with him? The Arab started to explain that his late father had done business with my father." "When he died and left me all his property, I knew that part of it belonged to your father. However, I didn't intend to return it. The day before yesterday I had a dream in which my father appeared and shouted at me: 'How can you behave this way, living from assets which don't belong to you? Beware, if you continue on this way, you will be punished.'
Next day my mother told me that in the village of Asni eighty kilometers from here, there is a Jew who traded with my late father. I couldn't calm down and took two sheep, dates, currants, butter, honey etc. and decided to go and find your village. After riding for thirty-six hours I found it. I am grateful to Allah that I arrived safely and paid my debt, thus honoring my father's behest."
Among the Jews of the village the story spread, and some of them, being merchants, brought it to other neighboring villages as well. It even reached the big cities of Morocco. Naturally this miracle was attributed to our worthy Rabbi Pinhas. The second miracle occurred during the same visit by Rabbi Pinhas Cohen to the same village. After morning prayers on the day following his arrival, the Rabbi asked for fresh cows' milk. His host and also his neighbors told him that they didn't have cows and it would be necessary to travel to the next village to get milk. The Rabbi asked why this was so when he could see with his own eyes that a Gentile woman nearby had a cow, which would provide the milk.
However, the host replied that this cow was dangerous. Nobody could get near her, never mind milk her. The Rabbi responded that by the holy Torah all will be well." Moreover, so that the miracle of the milk will be augmented, your small son will milk the cow."
When the boy went and asked the Gentile for the chance to milk the cow, she began to laugh, remarking that he knows the cow doesn't let anyone approach her. He at once told her of the miracles wrought by the Rabbi and that from now on he himself would milk the cow, and the animal's behavior would change.
He went up to the cow fearlessly, milked her and gave the milk to the Rabbi. All those present including the Gentile woman saw the great miracle performed by the pious Rabbi and acknowledged his greatness. From that day on, she began to relate better to the Jews and made a yearly donation to the Rabbi.
These two stories provide only slight indications of the extraordinarily rich repertoire of narratives of various genres in which Lugasi excelled. I have recorded some hundreds of texts from this treasury, some of which were published with scholarly annotations. He has appeared before hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students and teachers both in person and through video-tapes. In spite of his appearances in the press and on the radio, I have not succeeded in making his stories as well-known and popular as they deserve.

Most of Lugasi's narratives recall not the pious atmosphere of worshipping holy men, but rather the exotic plots of a Thousand and One Nights. There are cursed bridegrooms in the shape of snakes and maidens enchanted into becoming birds. The women in these tales are active and enterprising, with an ability to solve all riddles and pose insoluble ones. There are magicians who can fool everyone except the clever young son, with whom the magician's daughter is in love. "In the whole world there is nothing like this", Lugasi would say when he wanted to emphasize the beauty of one of his heroines or the splendor of an expensive object belonging to one of his heroes. These residents of his wondrous and distant kingdom were conjured by Lugasi into the confines of a modest immigrant's house in Kiryat Gat.
In the first years of our working together I used to dream at night of the stories which he had recited during the day. I became a stowaway passenger on journeys through the ocean of his stories. They featured cities like Seville and Granada, introduced into his tales by the mysterious paths that stories take, perhaps by Jewish exiles from Spain or French merchants crossing the sea southwards. These places which I was not to see until years later, became scenes for my dreams of anguish as well as of pleasure. Little did I then know that slowly I may have been collecting building blocks for the future construction of my Mediterranean identity.
Post-modern analysis might call this de-territorialization. My soul, hungry for identity, welcomed the fictitious intruders. Born in Helsinki on the shores of the Baltic Sea, which freezes over in winter, I thirsted for warm streams to match my primordial temperature, never really afar with my beloved Nordic climate. Being an immigrant to multi-cultural Israel from Finland was exotic, but it involved belonging to no one cultural collective identity, neither Polish nor Russian nor Sephardi nor Iraqi nor Moroccan nor Arab.
Pure fascination with the novelty was soon tempered by adaptation to the controlling mechanisms of academic study. Rather than dreaming, I started writing scholarly articles. Maybe herein lies the secret of my postponing the work with Lugasi's texts, although others, perhaps less deserving, have been completed. I, whose identity had been the object of invasion, became the subject who narrated and gave meaning to the heroes and heroines of folk tales. Since then, my methodology has grown into a dialogue with folk literature and its creators. The peace dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians has taught me much, but that is another story.

On the first evening of the conference, my table at the gala dinner included a woman from Gabes, in Tunisia, a city whose Jewish women's folk culture has lately been the subject of dialogic research which I am doing along with a Jewish woman from Jerusalem born there. Another woman at the table was a feminist, anti-fundamentalist Palestinian poet from Jordan. When I answered her question as to where I was born, she said, "Why did you have to come and throw us out when you were born in such a beautiful and rich country?" I did not feel that the technical answer, that "I only arrived in 1957, long after you had been thrown out", bore any relevance to the discussion. For the moment, she lives in Amman, I in Jerusalem - we have to acknowledge the pain and the dispossession and start from there.
To my right sat a delightful Moroccan woman who saw it as her responsibility to explain to her guests the origin of the tunes played and sung incessantly throughout the three hours of the dinner by an all male ensemble. "This is Berber, this is Arab, this is Andalusian, this is French and this is Jewish." Through her I began to understand the perspective of Jewish culture as one which has fertilized in the rich melange of Moroccan civilization together with African, European and Mediterranean cultures. I sensed Morocco as straddling from Africa, from which it had been partly disconnected by the Sahara, toward the southern coast of that very sea in whose honor we were feasting in such a magnificent meal of Tagine and Couscous and other delicacies.

It was not by chance that the great Orientalist Shlomo Dov Goitein coined the phrase "Mediterranean Society" as the heading for his mighty research project which was based on Jewish texts in Hebrew, Arabic and other languages (there are even a few texts in Yiddish), found in the Geniza (storeroom) of the ancient Cairo synagogue. Most of these texts are not song, prayer or philosophy but everyday texts reflecting life in the past as dynamic events interacting between social, legal, economic and family subjects.
Long after the Romans lost for ever the right to call the Mediterranean mare nostrum, our sea, this wonderful sea continued to serve as the sea of the Jews whose places of residence encircled it on every side. This was so since the wanderings which the same Romans forced upon them nearly 2,000 years ago and increasingly so after their expulsion from the prosperous co-existence mainly with the Muslims in Spain more than 500 years ago. The expulsion of the Jews from Spain was one of the outstanding indications of the struggle conducted from the northern side of the Mediterranean against the expansion of the culture to the south of it.

I eagerly told my neighbor Ms. Eskalli about my discovery at the Jewish cemetery the same day, and about Lugasi. "Would you like to go to Asni?" "What do you mean 'like'?" I replied. "It has literally been my dream for many years". Ms. Eskalli confessed that she was a high official in the Ministry of Tourism and could arrange a car and a guide.
Next day, with the permission of the head of our delegation two of us left the deliberations for a few hours and departed with security men and a specialist-guide for the spectacular Atlas Mountains. The vast geography of the country was inscribed in hundreds of kilometers of road signs pointing to Agadir on the West Coast. But we were looking for the smaller sign to Asni. We got there for the Souk Samedi for it was Saturday. I remembered Lugasi's description of the weekly market to which people brought their merchandise from near and afar. I was intrigued by the question of whether in the past the market was held on Saturday and if so, how did the Jews fit in. Now, there are no Jews in Asni.

On our last afternoon (of three) in Marrakesh, we were taken to Gama'at E-Fna, the Place of Nothingness. A local guide fluent in some six languages told us of a tradition that the place was once the site of executions. It is part of Morocco's lovable softness, complexity, richness and humor ¬which I had also found in Lugasi's narratives - that the name Place of Nothingness is given to a place which every day at sunset becomes the scene of Everythingness. Before a crowd mainly of local people along with some tourists, every genre, mode and form of folk creativity is presented, including folk theatre with children and adult actors, snake charmers, singers and orchestras. Then there are the storytellers, who stop in the middle of a tale to collect their fees, giving an idea of the genesis of the tale form used in the Thousand and One Nights: the audience is manipulated to stay on through postponing the gratification which comes with the end of the tale.

The conference appears to have been more successful than we could have expected. Networks of cooperation were initiated, material exchanged, addresses listed, projects planned. In sessions on culture, the great civilizations of the past - Greek, Italian, Israelite, Arab, Spanish, Turkish and others, along with their particular feminine cults, were commemorated. We tried to envisage a Mediterranean built not on hierarchy but on grassroots cooperation. (The conference declaration is to be found on p. 109 of the Journal).
The same complex relations between the South and the North of the Mediterranean now occupy a central position in the discussion, in which the European Community stretches out its hand warmly and generously to the women of the Mediterranean, offering support and involvement in our affairs. We for our part demanded assistance to joint projects in the Mediterranean region, without the Community forcing upon us a "Eurocratic" presence.
Israeli women were welcomed as equals in the Mediterranean community.
For the first time in 2,000 years, as we Israelis often say. Our presence personified both the great possibilities now opening up since the Oslo Agreement and the feeling of alienation still latent in Israel's relations with the Arab world. A Palestinian friend and colleague from outside the country expressed her surprise that we Israelis are indeed sliding into the Arab world. "I am still somewhat against it, but probably in a few months I will feel differently." In-sha-Allah.
Is the Mediterranean region currently a cultural and political framework of real significance for us? Does my personal experience of association with the Mediterranean tales of a Moroccan story-teller indicate something deeper than academic romanticism, perhaps on the lines of the folk-tales of the Grimm brothers, but two hundred years late? After the Marrakesh Conference, one senses that there may after all be a positive answer to these questions. At all events they deserve consideration.
I recall lines from a poem I wrote long ago called "The Mediterranean",

The waves of the Atlantic
in the depths of the Mediterranean
have forgotten
their oceanic origin. <