Erez Bitton’s second collection of Hebrew poems, The Book of Mint, appeared in Israel last summer, three years after Moroccan Afternoon. Bitton is an unusual man by any standard. He was born in Oran, Algeria, in 1942 and immigrated to Israel shortly after the establishment of the state in 1948. His parents had come to Oran from an oasis village in the Draa valley of southern Morocco, and their youth and his was imbued with the culture and nostalgia of Moroccan Jewish life, its tastes and smells, and the bite of their Judeo-Arabic dialect.
After transit camps in Marseilles and Israel, the family settled in Lod. A few years later, playing in an abandoned field, Erez picked up an unexploded hand grenade: It went off in his face and robbed him of his eyesight and his left arm.
At the age of 12, Bitton entered the School for the Blind in Jerusalem. After his secondary studies there, he matriculated to the Hebrew University and eventually completed a degree in social work. For the next seven years he worked in Ashkelon, a development town inhabited almost entirely by North African immigrants. Then he moved to Tel Aviv to do an M.A. in psychology at Bar Han University. Now he lives in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv, and works for the Social Services in Or Yehuda, a small town of mostly poor Oriental Jews near Lod.
Last summer I interviewed Bitton at home and at work. What he had to say about his poetry, his own life, and the conditions of Oriental Jews in Israel vividly describes and explains much about a social reality in Israel that remains quite unknown outside of the country. What follows are some excerpts from our conversations.
Bitton: “Seven or eight years ago, when I began to ask where I’m from, I don’t exactly know why I did it. I’d been a social worker for some years in Ashkelon. Working there among Moroccans had given me an opportunity to speak Arabic. When I left there after eight years to come to Tel Aviv, my new confrontation with that city constituted a serious clash with a new culture. In Ashkelon, a development town with a largely Moroccan population, I didn’t come into much contact with the other culture. When I migrated from Ashkelon to Tel Aviv, it was like I migrated to Israel. In northern Tel Aviv, the entire culture is European. That encounter was somewhat traumatic for me. It was, I guess, a problem I’d never spoken about — the feeling of inferiority, the 1950s image of Morocco sakin — ‘cutthroat Moroccans.’ Luckily I have the tools of poetry to really express those feelings. Sometimes I’d purposely put in words in Arabic, to strengthen my poem so they’d know, so that it would grate upon the ear. To receive some legitimation of where I come from, so that it won’t be only bad, but good. That the fact that I speak Arabic is good, even in poetry. What’s better than poetry? I give to Moroccan-ness a sort of positive punch.”
“I began to look at the Arabic language from outside, as an observer. It’s a language that’s very aggressive — its sharpness, lack of vowels. I have thoughts of writing a poem with integral lines, half in Hebrew, half in Arabic. For me, to put Arabic into a poem is spontaneous and integral. My poem about Dizengoff Street expresses the degree of artificiality that I feel in my identity as an Israeli and as a speaker of Hebrew. I don’t feel completely authentic, even though since the age of 7 — it’s 30 years already — I speak, think and feel in Hebrew. Still, sometimes, I have a feeling of foreignness, especially when I’m with people who represent ‘the Israeli’ in the clearest form, for example on Dizengoff Street, the height of Ashkenazi Israeliness. There I sometimes feel estranged, different from the point of view of my sensitivity. It’s difficult to explain how it happens. Thus, in the poem, I ask ‘What is authenticity?’ The question of authenticity always disturbs me. Is it what’s now entirely Ashkenazi, completely Israeli, Hebrew, all those sabra values, or something else, something prior, like my parents in Lod, the Arabic language, an Arab name, like my previous name, a previous way of dressing?”
“It’s less a protest than an expression of pain from my inner, personal difficulty to come to terms with the two worlds. It’s not so much an accusation, but more an expression of my foreignness_There are some poems in which I do somewhat accuse the Ashkenazis — for example, when they took my father to clean cesspools. When he arrived here, he’d never done any physical work, and suddenly he was taken to clean toilets, to do very dirty work. That pains me — the type of work and the fact that there wasn’t enough work. I remember his face when he worked on the railroad, lifting tracks. He’d never done anything like that in his life. I also felt something even worse: that he felt that to be an Ashkenazi was better than to be a Moroccan. Because he met up with Ashkenazim who were bosses everywhere. They knew Hebrew and Yiddish. Indeed, he used to tell us half-jokingly that it was worthwhile to learn Yiddish because it would help us to get along in society here.”
Bitton describes his schooling with a detached anger: “I completely identified with my teachers and what they taught. Only much later did I begin to ask why I was taught Mendele the Bookseller, about a small Jewish town in Eastern Europe. I thought there was nothing to learn from Morocco, that whatever came from there was bad, primitive, useless, and that whatever came from the Ashkenazim is good, progress, beautiful. In school, the students were almost entirely Orientals, the teachers Ashkenazim, the institution Ashkenazi, its food completely Ashkenazi. I didn’t like it. It hadn’t any taste, it wasn’t spicy. It was a profound cultural difference: They didn’t think of giving us anything that reminded us of home. Also the fact that I didn’t speak Arabic at school at all: it was like two completely different worlds. When I came home, I spoke Arabic and ate Moroccan food. I thought everything from home was bad, primitive. But inside myself I loved the things of home.”
“Erez is the name I received here in Israel. They gave it to me in the Institute. My name in Arabic is Zaish. It grates upon the ear. I accepted that as part of the absolute criteria, of everything they did being good, and of everything that came before being bad. My sister Freyha changed her name to Pnina.”
Bitton had much to say about his sense of Hebrew and Arabic. He feels a degree of artificiality in his identity as an Israeli and a speaker of Hebrew, though he has spoken, thought and felt in that language for most of his life: “I feel a sort of foreignness towards Hebrew, as if it were a new set of clothes…. It’s functional; I don’t die for it, it’s what I’ve got…. I like to speak Arabic, but it’s like a place that you don’t see for a long time, then you come back to it and suddenly see it, a place that you liked. I’ve never heard any language in which people curse so much as in Moroccan Arabic. Arabic gives me a way of expressing outer and inner feelings, against others and against myself. It’s direct and powerful: in my poems I say in Arabic ‘May God curse your father!’ or ‘I’m from the Maghrib!’”
“Hebrew, especially in the style of the Ashkenazi, has a tendency towards politeness, smoothness, pleasantness, quietness. I try to write in simple, direct, spoken language to make it stronger, truer, like conversation, to talk with lots of people at once. Of course, poetry is more concentrated, stronger, more emotional, excited, hurting.”
Bitton sometimes recites his poems publicly and enjoys it, especially in the Hatikva slum of Tel Aviv where most of the people are of Oriental origin and not entirely integrated into Israeli culture. “They react very positively, first of all to the sound of the words” (which he recites with the Sephardic rather than the standard Ashkenazi Hebrew pronunciation). Sometimes he is accompanied by drum or recorder, and this encourages him to enter into the depths of the poem. One long and beautiful poem, “A Moroccan Wedding,” has been put to music by an outstanding musician of Moroccan origin, Shlomo Barr.
Bitton’s suppressed anger is tempered by a guarded optimism concerning what he calls “signs of a new cultural awakening in Israel, a modern integration of Oriental elements — emotions, moods, the Mediterranean — with Ashkenazi Israeli culture.” “It’s a culture,” he says, “that’s anti-American, that wants to return to Oriental roots and emotions.”
There is in Bitton and his poetry something of Blake’s sense of a return to oil and wine. Leave him the last word: “At first I didn’t like being referred to as a ‘Moroccan poet,’ because I thought that they didn’t consider me as a poet but as someone who writes about Moroccans…. Afterward I thought to myself, ‘No, it’s even respectful, and indeed I express not only myself but others, too.’ Anyway, now the critics are favorable and I care about that. I worry, of course, what they’ll say when I begin to publish poems about love and loneliness. But everyone has to struggle against categories that others put him into.”
On the Earthquake of Agadir
On that evening
The skies were blue, the horizon golden,
The ground silent with the quiet of an ambush,
And those who remember say
That the air smelled sweet.
It was on the Tuesday evening.
How does it come about
Oh mother, mother
That honourable, reasonable people
Awaken all at once, screaming and groping in the dark?
How does it come about
Oh mother, mother
That a whole city
Screaming and groping in the dark?
—from Moroccan Afternoon
The Love of Children in White Tunics
See how your native village in me stirs,
See how the smells assault me.
Ah, the pungency of thyme in the first cave,
Ah, the crust of bread from a clay oven on No. 11 Allenby St.
An evening comes upon me now from another me,
A children’s game with pips of dates,
The love of children in white tunics,
The love of children in a very old language:
Yil’an abuk, may God curse your father.
Ana huwwa dirbeht, it’s me who’s won,
You strike my sister
I’ll strike your sister,
You strike me,
I’ll strike you.
—from The Book of Mint