Jewish-Arab identity
Cleo Cohen's "May God be with you"

Her grandparents are Jews – born in Tunisia and Algeria. Director Cleo Cohen has now broken the silence about this with a very personal debut. By Nadine Wojcik

Cleo Cohen carefully combs her hair with a wide comb and looks into the camera. Defined curls turn into a huge fuzzy head, frizzy and wild. A young woman in search of identity: is she Jewish? Or Arab? "Some in my family speak Arabic, but they don't like Arabs. We are Jews, but we don't go to the synagogue," admits the 28-year-old.

"May God be with you" screened during the International Competition at the Leipzig International Festival for Documentary and Animated Film (DOK Leipzig) at the end of October 2021 and won the Interfaith Jury Prize.

For her first long documentary, the French director embarks on a very personal journey: She meets her grandparents again and again, confronts them with their past – searching for answers to her own third-generation brokenness: "I have always felt torn between my Jewish surname and my 'Arab face'."

Director Cleo Cohen with her grandmother Denise. (photo: Cleo Cohen/Dok Leipzig 2021/May God be with you).
Treading on eggshells: director Cleo Cohen goes on a quest to find her own identity. For Cleo Cohen, a young French woman, historical shifts in society and politics have produced an identity crisis. Is she Arab? Jewish? With the help of her grandparents, all of whom emigrated from the Maghreb to France as Jews, she struggles for clarification. Her questioning is playful, but firm. Cleo awakens memories, confronts, ponders in the bathtub

Her Jewish grandparents on both her father's and mother's sides were born in North Africa, in Tunisia and Algeria. There they grew up as part of society – as a sometimes more, sometimes less tolerated minority. With the founding of Israel in 1948, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Six-Day War in 1967, this co-existence changed abruptly: neighbours became enemies. Since then, the Jewish community in Tunisia has shrunk from around 100,000 Jews to about 1,500, and in Algeria there are virtually no Jews left – previously 140,000 Jews lived there.

Jewish, North African identities

 

"Will you show me your Tunisian passport?" asks Cleo Cohen of her grandmother Denise, who was born in the North African country. "At least from a distance." Denise monosyllabically and vehemently refuses. Cohen's frustration is plain to hear. Jews from formerly "French North Africa" were able to flee to France on French passports with the independence of the Maghreb states in the 1950s and 1960s. Cleo's grandparents don't talk about their origins, yet it always comes up whenever one of the grandmothers raves about cooking a delicious couscous.

Jewish refugee camp in Marseille in 1962. After Algerian independence, many Jews fled to France (photo: Paul Almasyak-Images/picture alliance)
Jewish refugee camp in Marseille in 1962: following the independence of the Maghreb states in the 1950s and 1960s, many Jews fled to France, where they received passports and were allowed to live. The grandparents of documentary filmmaker Cleo Cohen come from Tunisia and Algeria. They don't talk about their origins, yet it always comes up whenever one of the grandmothers raves about cooking a delicious couscous

None of her grandparents have returned since then – and the granddaughter keeps hitting a brick wall whenever she broaches the subject. About home. About childhood. About the wedding day that began with the wedding ceremony in the morning and ended with them leaving the country in the evening. "I always felt her nostalgia, or a kind of sadness, but at the same time I didn't know where it came from," Cohen says. "And I think it's especially difficult for Jews to be nostalgic, because they're supposed to be happy to be in France, even if they feel very alone in the life they've created here."

Cohen's film approaches the grandmothers and grandfathers observationally – as if the camera were tentatively approaching shy people. In still images, she portrays everyday situations such as sewing or gardening. In one scene, Grandma Denise is blow-drying her granddaughter's hair, tugging at it, smoothing it with a round brush. "Now it looks nice," she says finally with satisfaction, while Cleo looks sceptically at her blow-dried hair. A recurring symbol: straightening the black, North African curls, not standing out, fitting in. She always dyed her hair blonde, Denise tells her granddaughter. And straightened it so often that she no longer has curls. This sentence, says Cleo, reveals so much about her family history.

The third generation returns to Tunisia

Another important person is Grandpa Richard. Due to Parkinson's disease, he lives in a nursing home and can hardly speak or move. Cleo visits him again and again and reads her written thoughts to him. Before his exile to France, he was firmly rooted in the Algerian community, fighting for Algeria's independence.

In one of her monologues, which she writes down and reads out to him, Cleo describes an argument she had in the family about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Again and again, the 28-year-old gets into trouble when she appeals to people to understand the other side. "You would have defended me, wouldn't you Richard?" she asks the mute grandfather, whose speechlessness is another impressive symbol of the film. After a short while, he slowly reaches out to her, Cleo comes out from behind the camera, embraces him.

El-Ghriba Synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba. It is the oldest surviving synagogue in North Africa (photo: picture-aaliance /AP Photo /M. Elshamy)
El-Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba, the oldest surviving synagogue in North Africa: Jews were a part of society in North Africa – a sometimes more, sometimes less tolerated minority. With the founding of Israel in 1948, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Six-Day War in 1967, this co-existence changed abruptly: neighbours became enemies. Since then, the Jewish community in Tunisia has shrunk from around 100,000 Jews to about 1,500, and in Algeria there are virtually no Jews left – previously 140,000 Jews lived there

In the second part of the film, Cleo is the first of her family to travel to Tunisia since the exodus – her grandmother Denise always with her on her mobile phone. "Did you close the doors and windows?" "Take care!" The grandmother guides her through the streets, describing – although she hasn't been there for more than 50 years – homes and familiar places. Finally, she teaches her granddaughter Arabic, improves her pronunciation. And Cleo is supposed to bring her a special scent that drives away evil spirits. Just to smell it again!

Referencing the Middle East conflict

While Cleo is stubborn in pursuit, Denise in particular changes visibly during the filming. Thanks to her granddaughter's interest, she too seems to have turned from nostalgia into a rather joyful memory. One day she would like to go to Tunisia with her granddaughter, she says. Touched, she accepts her mother's birth certificate, which Cleo tracked down in Tunisia, marvelling at the earlier Arabic names that were unknown to her. "Through my trip, we can share something in common. It was really good for our relationship – we became even closer."

Of course, she says, her film is not just a family story, but a political film. "I know now that I can be both Arab and Jewish. If everyone understood that, we could solve a lot of problems."

Nadine Wojcik

© Deutsche Welle / Qantara.de 2022

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