In our occasional series of book presentations in cooperation with the Librairie des Colonnes, TALIM hosted Ralph Toledano, author of the novel Un Prince à Casablanca.
For Toledano, who grew up in Casablanca but whose family has roots in Tangier (and obviously, further back, in Toledo), this is a first effort in writing a novel. He's a respected Paris and Jerusalem-based art historian, specializing in Italian art, and has written non-fiction works on Jewish Morocco.
Though he paints a picture of the life of Jews in Morocco around the time of the abortive 1971 coup against King Hassan II, Toledano took an approach diametrically opposed to his usual intensive research for his monographs on Italian artists. This is not a historical novel, though it evokes an era.
In an interview in Canadian Jewish News, Toledano says (informal translation)
I didn't open a single book to write this novel. That said, ever since I was young I've devoured dozens of books on Moroccan history and the history of Morocco's Jews. But the principal raw material to write this novel was purely personal memory. As a child, I would constantly ask my family questions, and their answers are still imprinted in my brain.
A distinguished French historian friend told Toledano that he was a "living archive."
The author says that he had just graduated from secondary school when the coup took place, and that several family friends were among the 100 victims. For the Jewish community, the news is a rude awakening, a sign that their lives may never be the same.
For "palace Jews," as Toledano describes his principal character Semtob and his entourage, would the protective (to the dwindling Moroccan Jewish community) monarchy survive? The 1971 coup attempt was followed by another the following year. Was this the end of the (relative) good days?
Dr. Michael Laskier, scholar of Jewish Morocco, wrote in Middle Eastern Studies (October 1990)
For the Jews, popularly identified with the Palace, this was a difficult period. The president of the Conseil des Communautés, David Amar, hurriedly left the country, along with the Secretary General of the Casablanca community and several other notables.
Toledano was introduced by Yaëlle Azagury, a transplanted Tangeroise in New York. Dr. Azagury, who formerly taught at Columbia University, is an author in her own right, and publishes a blog for her eclectic writing on art, literature, and culture. Her deep reading of the novel provided for a lively discussion.
For the Moroccan Jews of the upper class, with one foot in the Judeo-Arab world and the other in Europe, a premium is set on the stability that the monarchy represents. All places change, so the nostalgia for bygone eras and places of memory will always be with us. Along with the sense of end-of-era is the fear of the unknown to come. Gone are the days when Moroccan Jews could count on the foreign consuls for "protégé" status. It's either the king, or possibly having to join their co-religionists who have already emigrated.
With authors of the stature of Ralph Toledano, and with a thoughtful panelist like Yaëlle Azagury, we had a capacity audience at the Legation. A nice way to ease out of summer.
Good news to come: Ralph Toledano has just finished writing his second novel, set in Tangier in 1977, year of Sadat's trip to Israel, leading to the Israel-Egypt Camp David Accords.