Jewish literature has a rich supply of stories from the ghettos of Eastern Europe, by such authors as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Aharon Appelfeld and Sholom Aleichem. But we have much less about the Jewish experience in North Africa, where Jews lived for centuries shoulder to shoulder with Arab Moslems and Christians. The story of Jews in North Africa was altogether different from the experience of Jews in Europe -- better in some ways, worse in others.
"Days of Honey" is a charming, sometimes poignant evocation of the now vanished world of Jewish village life in Tunisia. Most of the Jews of Tunisia, along with the Jews of Algeria and Morocco, have now left, some for France, Canada and the United States, and most for Israel, where they have encountered an entirely new experience.
In the years prior to World War II, life in the coastal village of Nabeul was peaceful, poor and relatively happy, according to this reminiscence. Their lives uncomplicated by most modern conveniences, Jews and Arabs lived in relative harmony. Nabeul was a typical traditional society, in which religion played a fundamental role, mores were strict, husbands and fathers were all-powerful, wives were dutiful and families generally large.
The narrator of the book, Rafael Uzan, was a happy-go-lucky young man who loved life on the Mediterranean -- swimming and fishing in the sea, playing pranks on other townspeople, drinking coffee and wine in the cafe's. Marriages were arranged, although the lucky bride might have a voice in the matter of who her husband might be. Married or not, men and women, as befits a traditional society, did not mix. From our perspective, it sounds stultifying. But knowing one's place in the world and universe had its comforts. If people were poor, according to this account, they still were relatively happy.
This world, however, was destroyed in the short span of six months, when German troops invaded northern Africa, including Tunisia. French colonial rule, which had kept a lid on Arab nationalism and safeguarded the rights of Jewish Tunisians (perhaps even favoring them over their Arab counterparts), was destroyed for all intents and purposes. The Nazis conscripted Jews to do the hard labor and menial work. French authority was supplanted by the SS.
Most shocking for Uzan, however, was discovering that Arabs who had been his neighbors, friends and playmates for a lifetime were anti-Semitic. The reasons were inexplicable to him, as they are to almost every Jew who has come face to face with religious bigotry. As the Germans marched Uzan off to be disciplined after finding him hidden in his parents' house, the Arabs of Nabeul turned out to jeer and laugh at him. More than any other incident, that event appears to have ended Uzan's idyllic reverie.
Even after the war, when French rule was restored for a time, life was not the same. The Jews in Palestine were fighting the Arabs. The Jews and Arabs of Nabeul, though hundreds of miles from the battle, were deeply engaged in it psychologically. Uzan returned to the marketplace that gave him so much pleasure in his youth only to find Arabs baiting him. He resolved to leave Tunisia for Israel at the earliest opportunity.
He knew his carefree days were over, never to be recaptured, and he understood why. "Until the Germans had felt compelled to introduce our town to their notion of order, all had been running smoothly, including relations between Arabs and Jews," he says. "There had still been answers to questions then, and a Jew did not have to rack his small brain to explain how the world worked. Everybody had his place, his duties and to whom he was accountable: to his father, the Almighty, the rabbis and to the French authorities." Life in Israel, he makes clear in an all-too-brief account of that experience, was an entirely different matter.
If "Days of Honey" has a flaw it is in its structure, an outgrowth of the way it was produced. Although told as autobiography -- the story of Rafael Uzan's boyhood -- the book is written by Irene Awret, who met Uzan in 1949. Although Awret, who now lives in Falls Church, has supplied the narrative with rich detail, it has a somewhat choppy quality as she moves from incident to incident, trying to paint a picture from a string of anecdotes. We can never be sure, however, that the voice we hear is Uzan's and not Awret's and can only wonder how much richer the story might have been if Uzan, an artist now in the Galilee town of Safed, had told his story himself.