To Understand and Equate, Passionately

A Tunisian-French Writer’s Journey to Her African Birthplace

Sidi Bou Said: Behind this traditional Tunisian facade might linger intense Yiddishkeit.
tony hisgett
Sidi Bou Said: Behind this traditional Tunisian facade might linger intense Yiddishkeit.

By Benjamin Ivry

Published December 10, 2011, issue of December 16, 2011.
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It says something about the fraught history of North African Jewry that one of its most vivid authors of today was inspired to write a reminiscence of her youth not by dipping a Proustian madeleine into her tea, but by almost being crushed by a train. Colette Fellous, who was born in Tunis in 1950 and left that country as a teenager, has been likened by Jerusalem-based, Tunis-born sociologist Claude Sitbon to Albert Memmi as a “great writer” for her rich, tapestry-like references to the Jewish émigré experience.

In a 2008 issue of Revue de Littérature Comparée, Samia Kassab-Charfi, a professor at the University of Tunis, explains how Fellous uses descriptions of domestic architecture to symbolize the “vertiginous” experience of “migration and displacement.” Beyond the impersonal information in tourist guidebooks that traditional Tunisian architecture features white houses with blue doors, Fellous reminds the reader of the intense family lives, redolent with Yiddishkeit in her own case, that went on behind these doors.

Fellous’s books are enriched by a panoply of influences, from surrealist André Breton’s illustrated novel “Nadja” to works by French philosopher and memoirist Roland Barthes, who taught Fellous at France’s École Pratique des Hautes Études. Both migration and displacement were prominent influences in Fellous’s acclaimed 2001 book for Les Editions Gallimard, “Avenue de France,” named after one of the main thoroughfares of the city of Tunis, where Fellous spent the first 17 years of her life and where Fellous Frères, her family’s tobacco manufacturing company, was situated. Fellous’s 2010 book “For Dalida,” published by Les Éditions Flammarion, notes that, perhaps paradoxically, many North African Jewish émigrés to France, such as the author’s own mother, identified with the Egyptian singer Dalida (1933–1987), born Iolanda Cristina Gigliotti in Cairo to an Italian Catholic family. Dalida’s charming seductiveness, troubled life and tragic early death impassioned her Jewish fans as much as her compassionate, large-hearted songs did.

In Fellous’s comparably lyrical writings, a sometimes tragic focus on home and family is twinned with an equally intense love of travel. As a longtime presenter for Radio France, Fellous has produced and hosted a number of weekly programs, including “Traveling Notebook” (“Carnet Nomade”). Her latest book from Les Editions Gallimard, “Un Amour de Frère” — the phrase can mean “brotherly love,” but also “a lovely brother” — commemorates her brother Georgy, whose death at age 27 was due to complications from juvenile diabetes. The volume has a variety of images, including family photos not just of Fellous’s own relatives, but also from the collection of the late French-Jewish photographer Willy Ronis, a friend.

The near-fatal albeit inspirational moment occurred not long ago, when Fellous revisited Sidi Bou Said, a town in northern Tunisia, and her sandal caught on a track at a railway crossing just when an express from Tunis was approaching.


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