Strangeness, Marvel and Representation


Djerba, photograph by Judah Passow, 1986

by Nomi Stone

On an island off the coast of Tunisia, on the periphery of the Jewish village of the Hara Kebira, three Jewish teenage girls in bathrobes and slippers pass through a gauzy curtain to visit Nisreen, a, the Muslim hairdresser. The girls treat the space almost like their homes, chatting casually, leaving to check the chicken on the stove, coming back and peering in to see if anyone interesting has stopped in.

The exchanges between Nisreen and the girls seem intimate. She asks how each of the girls’ six to eight siblings is doing, by name. When asked about the Jewish holidays, she lists the names of some of the festive occasions in which the girls visit to get their hair coiffed and their eyebrows plucked. Just before Purim, which commemorates the escape of the Jewish people from a massacre in ancient Persia, Nisreen whispers to me: “Oh I know this one! This is the holiday where they play in the streets and eat sweets with those awful firecrackers!” The Jewish girls, when asked how they feel about Nisreen, initially reply enthusiastically: “She’s been around here forever; she straightens hair better than anyone I know.” When I ask if they consider her a friend, they respond: “Of course not, she’s goyim [non-Jewish].” One girl responds: “I like her well enough, but I get the sense she’s two-faced. She pretends to like us, but actually doesn’t at all. None of them do deep down.”

“Will you stay here in the Hara Kebira? Do you plan to emigrate to Israel?” I ask. One replies: “No, my family doesn’t have any plan to leave. Here, we will always be foreign and strange [ghareeb]. Even though we have been here for thousands of years, this will never change. People don’t think we belong here. We don’t see ourselves as belonging here.” The approximately 1,000 Jews of the island of Djerba trace their origins back to the fall of the Babylonian Temple in 586 B.C., locating themselves as descendants from exiles of the “Promised Land.” In the community’s founding story, a stone from the fallen Temple’s door was brought over the sea to the island and placed in the foundation of a new synagogue. Although mourning the Temple has been woven into the fabric of Judaism itself, its manifestations are acute in Djerba’s community. A wheat porridge (Basisa, a symbol of the Temple’s foundation) is stirred with its lost key once a year, acting out a longing to recreate the edifice. Older men wear black stripes on their trousers on ritual occasions to mourn the temple. A bride places a candle for mourning for Jerusalem at her bedside. Moreover, the Zohar, the mystical book with its prescription for the end of exile and the arrival of the Messiah occupies a central and unique place in Djerban Jewish rituals and festivals. By their own assertion, Djerban Jews have resided in North Africa for two millennia; however, the community simultaneously asserts its strangeness in the region.

I lived in the Hara Kebira during 2003-2004, returning for field visits in 2005 and 2006. In what form, I wondered, should I write about the blend of nostalgia, intimate strangeness, and alienation the community described and enacted in ritual? Indeed, how to write about “strangeness,” when the trilateral root in Arabic implies not only dislocation but also the marvel and the uncanny? I wanted to find registers to represent the theological and mystical, the mythical parables, and the texture of so many voices: the curiosity and opprobrium of the teenage girls; the gentle teacher with his measured judgments; the anxious and lonely wife; the Muslim hairdresser; the fabled girl the Djerban Jews call The Stranger who arrived on the island on a raft of birch, first spurned and then sainted by the community. The result was a book of poems, Stranger’s Notebook (TriQuarterly Books, Northwestern University Press, 2008). It has come to pass that these two ways of thinking and writing demand everything from each other: my academic anthropological work gives my poems intellectual rigor, while my poems give my academic work conceptual clarity. A few of the poems, below.


The stones are tunnels
of light. The city touches
your funny bone with
a mallet of light, the feeling
of emerging from
a tunnel into a bright room.

They call this city
the navel of
the world. Once the cord
was snipped,
it bucked out of God’s arms.

The Girls

They drop a mandarin and a banana in your bag
waiting for you at the door of the schoolhouse.
The girls are sixteen and not yet married. They giggle
their questions. “Whose daughter
are you?” “Why aren’t you married yet?” They
know some words in your language; now and then
they say them. When you say words in theirs,
they peer at you and laugh and let you fumble until
you extract the right one, shining like
a bone they left for you many centuries ago in the sand.

From Her Notes

An upright thimble
in each girl’s heart. Careful now,
or lose your best friend.

The schoolteacher of
history cuts his orange.
Neat surgery.

Your neighbor asks you
what it is you want to learn.
What is it you lack?

She says only our
people own the truest

Holy days start just
When you first see the moon’s
stab. It’s the seeing.

Why I Came

Under amber, the nearly lost
city: I dream myself
here, to enter how I imagine
we had once lived, until our cities
were paved over, stones
from our graves laid
in the new city’s walls.

I came because, here,
amber flooded and
cooled over the homes, over
hands blessing candles inside.
And breath from the lost
cities kept moving in living

The Sabbath

During the Sabbath, you are in other time. You carry nothing
but your continuing

breath. Enter here, where
time is not

time, inside an alignment of the heavenly
and earthly worlds. The same happens when two bodies

join: the worlds rowing under each
skin climb into a zygote. Birth. And then no-time again

when the ram’s horn
possesses your walled village. The men

blow the horn on each day of rest—

when you hear it, you stop
your breath and wish.

Listen. Your breath

And those stars
behind the stars you recognize,

they stay.

A Map [From “Portraits of Women Who Left, the Negev, Israel]

At the end of the 19th beginning of the 20th century on the island, a rabbi sage was consulted and said: If a Jew hears a Muslim utter a blessing upon smelling fragrant herbs, he should second the blessing by uttering “Amen!” Because they both believe and both want to praise.

In another theological quandary, the sage advised that when a Jew blessed kosher meat, he could add, without contradiction or interruption of his blessing, “Allahu Akbar” to make the meat equally fit for Muslim consumption,

Yaffit and I sit on the balcony. Green. Thorns.
Roosters pecking under clotheslines.
We open her wedding trousseau so she can try on her heavy anklets, the red silken brocade.
She has not opened it for twenty years, so I must try them on too.
We sit together, the dress rustling between.

We are a five-minute cab ride from the land which is being returned.
Do not speak
your politics, because they trust you for the first time. They grieve
the loss
Of the land, because without the land, the Messiah will stumble,
His map will blow away.
Wind will carry it. They will not be good enough.

Piece originally published at Anthropologies | Creative Commons License

About the Author:

Nomi Stone is a PhD Candidate in Cultural Anthropology at Columbia University with a Masters in Middle East Studies from Oxford. She is currently researching combat simulations/ training exercises in mock Middle Eastern villages erected by the US military across America, focusing on both the military imaginations of these spaces and the lifeworlds of the Iraqi role-players who work within them. Her first book of poetry, Stranger’s Notebook (Northwestern University Press, TriQuarterly Books) was published in 2008. A Chicago Public Radio interview on the book can be accessed here. More of her poems can be found here.