A Semite

A Semite: A Memoir of Algeria

Denis Guénoun
Ann Smock
William Smock
Copyright Date: 2014
DOI: 10.7312/guen16402
Pages: 176
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  • Book Info
    A Semite
    Book Description:

    In this vivid memoir, Denis Guénoun excavates his family's past and progressively fills out a portrait of an imposing, enigmatic father. René Guénoun was a teacher and a pioneer, and his secret support for Algerian independence was just one of the many things he did not discuss with his teenaged son. To be Algerian, pro-independence, a French citizen, a Jew, and a Communist were not, to René's mind, dissonant allegiances. He believed Jews and Arabs were bound by an authentic fraternity and could only realize a free future together.

    René Guénoun called himself a Semite, a word that he felt united Jewish and Arab worlds and best reflected a shared origin. He also believed that Algerians had the same political rights as Frenchmen. Although his Jewish family was rooted in Algeria, he inherited French citizenship and revered the principles of the French Revolution. He taught science in a French lycée in Oran and belonged to the French Communist Party. His steadfast belief in liberty, equality, and fraternity led him into trouble, including prison and exile, yet his failures as an activist never shook his faith in a rational, generous future.

    René Guénoun was drafted to defend Vichy France's colonies in the Middle East during World War II. At the same time, Vichy barred him and his wife from teaching because they were Jewish. When the British conquered Syria, he was sent home to Oran, and in 1943, after the Allies captured Algeria, he joined the Free French Army and fought in Europe. After the war, both parents did their best to reconcile militant unionism and clandestine party activity with the demands of work and family. The Guénouns had little interest in Israel and considered themselves at home in Algeria; yet because he supported Algerian independence, René Guénoun outraged his French neighbors and was expelled from Algeria by the French paramilitary Organisation Armée Secrète. He spent his final years in Marseille. Gracefully weaving together youthful memories with research into his father's life and times, Denis Guénoun re-creates an Algerian past that proved lovely, intellectually provocative, and dangerous.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53724-7
    Subjects: Philosophy, Sociology, History, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xx)
    Judith Butler

    This book is clearly a memoir, but settling on the genre does very little to orient us toward what is to come. The title,A Semite, seems to identify one among several Semites. And yet, several questions emerge as the story begins: What is a “Semite”? And who is included within its terms? Who talks this way? And under what conditions is anyone called a “Semite” or describes oneself through this term? The word, of course, haunts from the start, since we know it most clearly through the history of anti-Semitism. “Anti-Semitism” is a confusing word for many reasons. It...

    (pp. xxi-xxvi)
  5. I. December 1, 1940
    • 1
      (pp. 3-14)

      On December 1, 1940, my father was in prison in Damascus, Syria. It was his birthday. He wrote to his mother. Twenty-eight years old, Mama. You like to recall how the midwife who brought me into the world one Sunday at noon read my character: this boy, she said, born on a Sunday at noon, he’s here to stroll the boulevards. Did she also picture your son in jail in Asia at twenty-eight, maybe for five years? What a fate, Mama.

      I found this letter in a little box, a crude, threadbare chest among some limp filing folders that my...

    • 2
      (pp. 15-22)

      A tall man. His face. (My father. This is about my father.) Athletic-looking, like his own father, but bigger. Slender at twenty, I see in the photos. But broad-shouldered, well-built. A big, strong guy with a scary temper. A stentorian voice—an orator, leader of children, of youths, of men. A noble, upright bearing.

      A brown complexion. The young face looks Arab to me in the pictures. Later his hair is graying, his skin is paler, his hairline higher. But as a young man he looks Arab, and very handsome. There are war photos—campaigns in the Orient, blinding sunlight....

    • 3
      (pp. 23-33)

      In October of 1929 he entered the Teachers College of Algiers-La Bouzaréah. He was seventeen. (In Marseille I find a few issues of a student journal, written by hand and imperfectly reproduced—five issues—and then some printed ones: three. No article by him or about him. Teenage jokes, poems, love stories, soccer news. The last issue mentions the editor-in-chief, E. Roblès.¹ I also come across some corrected homework assignments. Fairly good grades, between 80 and 85 percent, often lowered for bad spelling (two points off)—he must have gone to some pains to improve his spelling, because I don’t...

    • 4
      (pp. 34-50)

      When war was declared Syria and Lebanon had been French mandates for twenty years.¹ The High Command mustered a powerful force there—the Army of the Levant, one hundred thousand strong. The plan was to launch an attack from the South that would take Germany by surprise. The military record of our soldier reads, “Called up August 29, 1939, and attached to the Tenth Company of the Second Regiment of Zouaves. Boarded at Oran, September 24. Disembarked at Beirut October 1.” Another October 1.

      During the first ten months of the war, there and everywhere, nothing happened. His life then...

    • 5
      (pp. 51-66)

      (There are three more years to cover before I get there. My father’s life went on for another thirty-five years. But isn’t the point I’m heading for the one that counts, the one that has to be understood?)

      His stay in Oran would last fifteen months and end with a new departure which he, of course, did not foresee. He worked to earn his living and feed his family. My soon-to-be mother started teaching in an institution founded by Jews for children expelled from public schools—the Bergson Academy. Apprentice tailor was not the right job for him: the proof...

  6. II. June 22, 1961
    • 6
      (pp. 69-83)

      On June 22, 1961—I was fifteen, summer was just beginning—around 10:30 at night, I think, he rose like a madman from the bed where he and Mama were lying. I was lying there too that evening, between them, I’ll explain why. He ran toward the window of his study which overlooked the street. He opened it and released one long cry. The night sky over Oran was clear.

      The Algerian Communist Party had been outlawed in 1956. The Party, it was called in grownup language at our house: a single clipped, affectionate word. I was a child in...

    • 7
      (pp. 84-97)

      It’s about a cry. I’m trying to make it audible, the sound, the break. A long nocturnal bellow, emitted by a man, in a city, one June evening, out the window into the street. I don’t know whether I can. I approach it, surround it. I take it up as a challenge to convey something of the stage on which the brief event I’m working toward took place—the window, the room where the window was, the house, the street.

      We lived at 11A rue Daumas, a little byway in the Saint Michel neighborhood on the heights of Oran, near...

    • 8
      (pp. 98-110)

      I spent my adolescence in fear. Not a habitual fear, familiar and ever-present, but one that eats its way into you slowly, one bite at a time. To be more precise: I grew up in fear’s classroom, passed my early youth in a taxing, methodical, and highly effectual apprenticeship to fear. I gradually absorbed its first principles and its structure, its system spread through my growing body. Step by step I imbibed its axioms, the rules of its growth, its implacable pressure to expand. It was gently inculcated in me by my family circle, our little defensive unit, Mama, who...

    • 9
      (pp. 111-119)

      One day, around June 20, a stranger showed up at our door. I was alone. He asked for my father. Pleasant face, lightweight shirt, friendly smile. Rather broad-shouldered, blond, maybe graying just a little. I told him to come back later. All the same he shot a quick glance inside the house. When they got back my parents looked worried. Everything worried them. Some bombs had exploded in Oran. Not many, but still. Our life at home backed away as far as possible from the front door. Even my bedroom was too near, and they had moved my bed into...

    • 10
      (pp. 120-126)

      In the seconds that follow the explosion he gets up. He sits on the edge of the bed sticking his feet into his slippers, a sort of rattle coming from his throat, intermittent and very low. At the same instant Mama is making symmetrical movements on the other side of the bed. She puts on her summer slippers (we called them mules). He says nothing, but one senses, she senses, madness growing in this silence. Mama says: There, it’s over. She names, she designates what has just happened; but in order to indicate what is still going on, life—which...

  7. III. November 6, 1989
    • 11
      (pp. 129-137)

      On June 2, 1977, at the end of the afternoon, I had just sat down to dinner on the Place Gutenberg in Strasbourg, on the terrace of a restaurant we called theStadtwappe. Which means: the municipal coat of arms. As it happens, I wasn’t planning to dine, but to spend some time with people who were there for a meal. I was having a little operation on my lip the next morning, with general anesthesia. I had refused to check in to the clinic that afternoon, which they had asked me to do in order to make sure I...

    • 12
      (pp. 138-140)

      The term of the lease for the little plot where Papa was buried was five years. We would have preferred longer, but Saint-Pierre had no morethirty-yearleases available. The cemetery in populous Marseille is overflowing. We had been offered a stone cavity in a sort of rabbit hutch—sober, white and respectable, futuristic, where the graves are piled on shelves running the length of long hallways—a tall edifice dominating the necropolis with its hundreds of identical rectangular eyes. It was called the Cathedral of Silence. We had all resisted this idea without having to discuss it. We preferred...

    • 13
      (pp. 141-150)

      It was November 6, 1989. Yves had alerted me, I’d set aside the date. I came from Reims, where I was working then. I don’t remember the preceding hours. I don’t know anymore where I slept, how I made the trip. I don’t know if I was afraid, if I had bad dreams. I do remember that quiet early morning. We went up to the cemetery. Yves was there, I remember Mireille too. But Mireille says my memory is wrong, that she didn’t come, that Béatrice had accompanied me. I forget. I write my memory of this day in 1996,...