The Arty Semite

Ami Bouganim’s Flavorful Tales From Fès

By Benjamin Ivry

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Born in Essaouira, Morocco, Ami Bouganim moved as a child with his family to Casablanca. There, he grew up on a street named after two Moroccan Jewish victims of the Nazis, Félix and Max Guedj, before relocating to Israel as a teenager.

His first book, from Paris’s Les éditions Jean-Claude Lattès, was 1981’s acclaimed “Tales from the Mellah,” stories which recount the end of the Jewish community in the Mellah, or Moroccan Jewish ghetto, of Mogador.

Bouganim has since produced a 2007 essay on Walter Benjamin from Les Éditions Albin Michel; a 2009 literary guide, “Tel-Aviv: City Without Respite,” from Les éditions Autrement; and for Les éditions du Nadir, under the auspices of the Alliance israélite universelle, some short guides to Hermann Cohen, Leo Strauss, Aharon David Gordon, and other Jewish thinkers. Now Bouganim returns to the Mellah, this time of Fès, with a story collection from Les Éditions Albin Michel, “Asher the Soothsayer: and other tales from Fès.”

“Asher the Soothsayer” is a wry, flavorful delight, clearly inspired by Isaac Babel’s village narratives. It’s published under the auspices of the Fonds Social Juif Unifié, a kind of francophone UJA, in a collection directed by the French author and radio producer Victor Malka, also of Moroccan Jewish origin. The title neatly puns on the French term for fairy tales, “contes de fées,” referring here instead to “contes de Fès.”

The narrator of “Asher the Soothsayer” claims the book’s stories come from David Bénaïm, a choleric Moroccan Jewish man now living in a southern suburb of Netanya. Speaking Judeo-Moroccan, Bénaïm informs the narrator, thirsty for stories about the Mellah, that actors were more abundant in the ghetto than authors: “We had 2000 years’ [of acting] experience, what with preachers, professional mourners, combatants, and exorcists.”

He finally produces a collection of tales, however, such as “Élie who Refused to Die,” a story about an irksome centenarian who, despite the humble squalor in which he lives, has grandiose pretensions. The head of a local burial society tries to placate Élie, who demands to be taken to Ouezzane, a pilgrimage site for Moroccan Jews who visit the tomb of Rabbi Amran Ben Diwan on the occasion of his hiloula, or birth/death anniversary.

In this, as in its other stories, “Asher the Soothsayer” entertains as it edifies.

Watch Ami Bouganim lecture in Paris in 2004 about his studies with the great Nechama Leibowitz and her contentious brother Yeshayahu here.

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