A Mediterranean and a Jew

A Mediterranean and a Jew
Jack Arbib
At Tel Aviv airport it took me a while to accept that my flight had been cancelled, just like that. My Alitalia plane to Rome wasn’t there, but my friend Jack Arbib was. A couple of hours later my name was transferred to an El Al flight and Jack and I sat for a coffee and continued a conversation we had started at the Voci del Mediterraneo Poetry Festival in Catania in March 2004.

Jack Arbib describes himself as an “ingénieur sans frontières” who peddles his merchandise in the ports of call of the Levant, trying to understand the idioms of the Mediterranean. He was born in Tripoli and now lives in Jaffa but he is often on the move. In the first part of this interview, we talk about the Jews and the Maltese in Libya, the Mediterranean Sea as “the common denominator of all people living on its shores,” the blood bath of a mattanza, and translating poetry.

You were born and brought up in North Africa. Can you tell us about the Jewish community in Tripoli and your relationship with the other communities.
The Jewish community in Libya was a microcosm reflecting components and themes of a larger galaxy. So, within a relatively sparse population, there were those living in the old Jewish quarter (the Hara), Arab in garb and language, and those who had emancipated to European customs and language and lived in modern European houses in the new city. And in this very group you would find Italian, English, French, Greek, Ladino and even Maltese speakers (all these as mother tongues) and also Sephardim from Turkey and Sephardim from Spain and Gibraltar. Add to these some unexplained Ashkenazi presence and the existence of troglodyte Jews, living in the Garian caves and you get an idea of what a cultural and ethnic mosaic that was.

And then the other communities: the Italian population, where you would find the archetypal fascist side by side with the antifascist who had tried to escape attention in the colony away from the mainland, the Englishmen fighting the ghibli [Libyan name for the wind Sirocco, a warm and dry desert wind] with gin tonics, the U.S. military, the Maltese fishermen, the Armenian tanners, the Greek tavernas, the omnipresent Indian emporiums, the scions of ancient Turkish princely families, the rising Senussite ruling class, the Tuareghs, the black labourers from Fezzan, the Slavs, the German brewer.

A cosmopolitan milieu that would have made Durrell happy.

The Jewish writer Aline P’nina Tayar who was born in Malta and spent her early years as a girl there talks about how both the Maltese and the Jews “cross-cross the Mediterranean generally.”(1) Her “forebears lived in a tiny Jewish community [in Malta] that had ties all around the Mediterranean basin, to Italy, France, Libya and Egypt [...].” Would you describe yourself as “a Mediterranean Jew”?
Definitely, a Mediterranean and a Jew. Ms.Tayar defines this human condition so precisely and affectingly, that I would not attempt to add more.

What does the Mediterranean mean to you? Is it just a geographical entity? Is it possible to talk about culture in the Mediterranean without slipping into stereotypes?
The Mediterranean Sea is the common denominator of all people living on its shores. It is our essential pictorial and emotional background, bearer of fear and hope, receptacle of our polluting waste and of mega-gallons of blood shed in endless conflicts.

It meant Sea People from afar landing unexpectedly on terrified populations, but it also meant Phoenician, Spanish or Venetian ships unloading hoards of marvellous goods on the piers. Today it is the cradle and the tomb of desperate migrations on makeshift boats and rafts. I realize that I’m not answering your question and slipping into easy stereotypes…

From my childhood, I have a strong visual recollection, which might serve as a metaphor: my family had a financial interest in the tuna fisheries. As a homage, we had been invited to attend a “mattanza” in the gulf of Syrt. That meant getting up in the middle of the night and boarding boats to be at the site by daylight.

When we got there we saw the fishermen boats arranged in a square pattern around the net. The men started hauling the net accompanied by a primordial litany that in its crescendo mesmerized all of us. When the nets began to surface, we saw the silvery bodies of the tuna fish squirting and agonizing. All of a sudden there were terrible cries: sharks were seen among the tuna, they could cut the net, the tuna could escape and the catch would be lost!

At this point some men, encouraged by their fellows, jumped into the net brandishing knives to kill the sharks. The bodies of the sharks and the men were undistinguishable, the water got coloured by blood of man and beast…

I felt sick and threw up…The chant was at its peak…

Many of your classmates and friends in Tripoli were Maltese. How did you get on with them? Were they a tightly knit community or were they open to the various cultures and religions they came into contact with?
The Maltese were a tightly knit community, so were the Jews for that matter.

Before moving to the Italian High School, I attended the St. George’s British School, established after the war, for children of British subjects. Apart from a small group of Jewish children, and a few Indians, all the students (and teachers) were Maltese.

Prejudice, bigotry, if not downright hostility, were part of the parcel, so I personally had some unpleasant experiences. On the other hand, I have fond memories of the Principal, who I know by no other name than Sir, and of some festive events at the Malta House.

As a footnote, I must mention the beneficial distortion of the prism of memory: on an occasional encounter between “survivors” we all wax elegies to the old days, so clearly some bond had been forged.

I remember you telling me once that the Maltese were more likely to marry Italians rather than Greeks, Jews or Arabs. Why is that? Do you remember any Maltese families in particular?
I think that had to do with religion, mainly the Catholic Church. Maltese and Italians shared the Catholic faith, but were poles apart from the Greek Orthodox or the Armenians. Intermarriages with Muslims or Jews were unthinkable.

Besides my experience in elementary school, I later had Maltese friends attending the Italian school, and they came from well-to-do families, like the Debonos, the Mallias, the Aquilinas, the Carabots….

You have another Maltese connection. Your maternal grandfather, Nissim Nahum, was born in Malta on 16 September 1860. A more recent copy of his certificate dated 1 January, 1968, was signed by Mr.Tayar, Secretary of the Jewish Community of Malta. Does your family talk about this connection?
I did not have the fortune of knowing my grandfather. He passed away long before my birth. Mother used to recall “nonno Nissim” from time to time. I understand he was some character. I have a picture of him and he looks imposing and authoritative. I know he spoke (and swore in) Maltese. My mother also spoke fluent Maltese, but that did not rub on me.

As far as I remember from the stories, he was in the shipping trade, owned vessels (one was called The Two Brothers).

Like many other Europeans, you left Libya and moved to Italy. Why Italy?
Italian was the language we spoke at home. My parents too had been educated in Italian schools, although they used Arabic (and the Judeo-Arab dialect) for conversations that excluded us children. I attended the Italian high school in Tripoli and then it was just natural that I would enrol in an Italian University, in my case the Politecnico di Milano. I departed from Libya in 1958 on my own volition. On the contrary, my family had to leave Libya in 1967 under duress, and my mother never recovered from the loss of her motherland.
A Mediterranean and a Jew
In December 2001, Il Rosso Catalogo della Parola Tramonto, a limited edition of a book with eight poems in Hebrew by Ronny Someck translated into Italian by Lina Angioletti and yourself, and five watercolours and aquatint by Fausta Squatriti, was published by in Naples by Il Laboratorio di Nola. I know that at present you are working on translations into Italian of Ronny Someck’s new book of poetry, which has a stronger social dimension than its predecessors. What attracts you to his poetry? What kind of challenges do these translations pose?
That was a beautiful and I would say ecumenical experience. This project
is the brainchild of multi-talented Fausta (herself a poet, writer and plastic artist).

Lina brought in her vast translating experience, and two wonderful individuals, Tonino Sgambati and Vittorio Avella printed and published the book. One has to spend only a short time with these two to be infected by their genial and exuberant folly. Just imagine that we have been working for almost two years on a book of poems by the late Mohammed Ghanayem and what is holding us now is their perfectionist quest for a hand-made paper that should have the right hue of that particular sulphur yellow of the Etna’s lava…

Oh, but I almost missed the question about Ronny Someck. I have the privilege of having him as a friend, so my role as translator is just part of the picture.

I find Ronny’s Hebrew very modern and stimulating (that is why his books are loved by young people) and at the same time very challenging to a translator. Ronny is also committed to a number of social causes – recently we did some readings for inmates in jails – and his latest book has a more focused social perspective. The title is “The milk underground.”

It often takes a (perhaps hidden) poet to translate poetry? Do you yourself write poetry?
No, you won’t find a crypto-poet here. I love written words and am elated when I rarely succeed in finding the right one. Translation is a gratifying experience, particularly when it applies to poetry.

I think that Freud said that wherever he got, he found that poets had been there before. So let it be with me: whatever I would want to say has already been written before, and much better, and I am perfectly happy to usher it in another culture and share it with other people unimpeded by a language barrier.
(1)Rachael Kohn, “Spiritual Journeys,” An Interview with Aline P'nina Tayar and Michael McGirr,” (8/10/00 Radio National, Australia) http://www.abc.net.au/rn/relig/spirit/stories/s196987.htm. See also Gillian Bartolo, “A Jewish Family in Malta,” An interview with Aline P’nina Tayar,” http://www.geocities.com/agmalta/aline_pnina_tayar.htm

Read also Part 2 of this interview: “Bread and Peace in Jaffa” Adrian Grima

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