InsepArab: Hélène Cixous’ take on Jewish & Arab identities
Posted by worriedlebanese on 20/03/2010
Odd word, isn’t it? “InsepArab“. Hélène Cixous is actually quite fond of such neologisms. Most of the words she coins have a very literary quality to them (I quite like another one she had coined earlier in her career: “Oublire” which borrows from “Oublier”, to forget, and “lire”, to read, and has a proactive quality to it). With “insepArab” she brings out from the adjective “inseparable”, the noun “Arab”, and then removes the last two letters hinting at the complexity of her relation to Arab(s)/Arabic, but not “Arabness” or “arabité”, that is specifically left out of the picture.
Arab and Jewish identities as mutually exclusive
Hélène Cixous has spoken on more occasions than one about her identity, and most notably in her autobiographical essay/novel “Reveries of the wild woman”. But I will stick here to an interview that she made on the BBC two weeks ago (and that is available on an “Arts & Ideas” podcast), insofar as it doesn’t contradict her earlier stands.
“I didn’t want to be an Arab, I knew I was Jewish” and she explains that the “history of Jews was heavy enough” and that she didn’t want to escape its burden and responsibility”. This is probably the strangest argument in the interview. Hélène Cixous claims that becoming Arab or identifying as an Arab would prevent her from carrying on the burden and the responsibility of her jewish identity. The notion of “burden” and “responsibility” of an identity is already quite difficult to fathom, but the supposed effects of an Arab identification by a Jew are indecipherable.
And then Cixous procedes with the type of argument that give culturalism a bad name. She speaks of the pragmatism that she got from her German mother and talks about the “culture gap” between her Arab classmates and the others (including herself) and illustrates it by saying that “they had never slept in beds”. She also speaks of their “family culture that was so far from modern culture”. Her argument would have been completely different had she spoken of western culture, but instead of space, she prefers time, presenting Algerian Arab culture as archaic, a sentiment that is reinforced when she speaks of the “prominent positions within arabic tribes” of her Arab classmates’ fathers.
Westernisation would have been a much suited and fruitful approach because one could see its effects on Algeria’s native population: some sectors of the Muslim population that voluntarily integrated into Algerian-French society, and the Jewish population that was quite vigourously westernised since the 1870s (through the systematic transformation and replacement of their native institutions by Jewish institutions coming from France).
What is also quite strange is that Hélène Cixous has no problem identifying her mother as German (and giving her supposedly “germanic traits”), while she refuses to do the same thing with her father who is denied both Arabic and French identities). When she speaks of him choosing her two language instructors, one for Arabic and one for Hebrew, she attributes this to his socialist leaning, and not to the fact that Arabic was the language of his ancestors for centuries (and the most important cultural language of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews) and that of the vast majority of the population in Algeria. So while Jewish and Arab identities are mutually exclusive, Jewish and German identities are not.
Weighing oppressions and odd equations
“I wanted that the Jews and the Arabs who were equally oppressed to join”, Cixous says. When asked if it was true that at that time (after 1945) and at that place (Algeria) “Jews and Arabs were equally oppressed” she answered that “it was true” because “there was a double racism, one against the Arabs and one against the Jews” and then spoke about the differences between Arab and Jews under Vichy and Nazism. She concluded this argument by saying that she “knew about history”, about “the conditions of the different oppressions” and “thought that the oppressed should become allies”. It is quite obvious that she is struggling with her argument, she starts by equating “oppression” and “racism”, then shifts in time to a specific period (which was off topic) to shift the balance between the two oppressions, and after that historical argument slips back to an ahistorical approach (devoid of any contextual element).