|The Jewish cemetery at Bourgel in Tunis|
|Cheikh El Afrite's grave at Bourgel|
|Cassette digging for Habiba Messika|
|Stack of broken 78s with Narraci sleeve peeking out|
After a little less than two weeks in Tunis (not nearly enough time), I left feeling nostalgic for a place I never really knew. Strolling down Rue Al-Djazair, adjacent to the medina, brings one face-to-face with the once flagship record store of Joseph Narraci, as well as one of the former cinema districts of the silent and then talkie era. Cutting over to Rue Charles De Gaulle, transports you to the small empire of Bembaron, Jewish brothers and impresarios, who began their work by importing harmoniums and ended by creating a powerhouse label which captured the some of the city’s most impressive voices. The TGM (Tunis-La Goulette-Marsa) train is a journey back in time. As it traces the edge of the lake, children pry open the doors to get that fresh, salted wind in their face, only to be pulled back by the scruff of their necks by a responsible adult – much the same, I imagine, as it was sixty years ago. Descending at the La Goulette – Casino stop hurls you straight into Tunis’ music-hall capital, where Jews, Sicilians, Maltese, Greeks, and Muslims jostled for a seat at one of the various music venues around town. At the Casino, one might have caught a show by Messika and Hassan Banane, Cheikh El Afrite or Dalila Taliana. As I dined at one of the seaside restaurants - with some of the freshest fish I have ever tasted - I daydreamed of Raoul Journo, perhaps with Kakino De Paz, crooning about exil in El Ouach ouel Ghorba.
Nostalgia is a double-edged sword though, as it requires absence to make it its most powerful. During my first day in the archives, a young graduate student took an interest in me and we began a conversation. She asked me what I worked on and I told her I was studying the early years of the North African recording industry. She said I must study the Jewish musicians then if I was really serious about the topic. Encouraged, I told her that that was indeed my focus and in fact, I was Jewish. She went blank. You can’t say that here, she said. Not everyone was as open as she was, she claimed. Similarly, while Bachir Rsaissi’s Rsaissi label draws instant recognition among those in the know, the uttering of his Jewish counterparts – Narraci and Bembaron - is met with confusion and the polite protest that those names, in fact, are not Tunisian. Acher Mizrahi, a favorite of Habib Bourghiba long after independence, also sounds impossibly foreign to some.
|El Kahlaoui Tounsi 45 in a dust-filled brocante|