In 1940-1941, as part of the American journalist Varian Fry’s rescue of anti-Nazi European intellectuals, artist Marcel Duchamp fled to New York, with a brief stopover in Morocco. This visit is the focus of a new novel by Serge Bramly, a Frenchman of Tunisian Jewish origin. The title of “Orchidée fixe” cites a virtually untranslatable pun by Duchamp referring to orchids and obsessions.
A hothouse atmosphere is certainly conveyed in Bramly’s tale, which is narrated by Nina Zafrani, an Israeli in her late 20s who has just finished a stint of military service. Describing herself as a plump “semitic avatar of the young Ava Gardner,” Nina is drawn to Tobie Vidal, a University of Colorado art historian who visits her family on Rehov Mazeh in Tel Aviv to record her grandfather’s recollections of Duchamp. Decades before, the Zafrani family hosted Duchamp at their family bar/card parlor in Aïn Sebaâ, an arrondissement of eastern Casablanca. The fiftyish Duchamp had long neglected art, favoring chess instead. When the Zafranis take Duchamp to a local bordello, he follows a female nude ascending a staircase and begins sketching again. Some drawings were left with Nina’s forebears as signs of Duchamp’s gratitude. Seventy years later, the family auctions them at Sotheby’s, and Nina shacks up with Vidal in Colorado.
This happily-ever-after story glows with ebullient wit. Among the in-jokes: Duchamp carried into wartime exile a suitcase containing miniature copies of his past artworks, such as the notorious 1917 “readymade” porcelain urinal, signed “R. Mutt” and entitled “Fountain.” His baffled hosts misidentify the item as a plumbing fixture for dollhouses and assume that Duchamp must be a traveling toy salesman. Bramly gives a tourist’s eye-view of Tel Aviv; Vidal stays at the Dan Hotel, and Nina researches Duchamp’s work at the Beit Ariela Public Library and the Tel Aviv Museum’s Helena Rubinstein Art Library. His take on North Africa is more emotionally resonant. In 1961, Nina’s family had fled Moroccan anti-Semitism to Paris, only to move on again to Tel Aviv in 1982, after the Goldenberg restaurant attack, a tragedy ascribed by some to the Abu Nidal Organization. Bramly’s own mishpocheh left Tunis after the 1961 Bizerte Crisis, when the country’s Jews were caught in the midst of fighting between French and Tunisian troops. An intuitive understanding of the refugee perspective gives life to Bramly’s novel, haunted by the wry Beckettian zombie Duchamp.
On Monday, Michael David Lukas shared a list of his top 10 favorite Jews of all time. His blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog series. For more information on the series, please visit:
In my last post I mentioned the loneliness and alienation I felt during the first few months of the year I spent in Tunis. While my list of top ten favorite Jews of all time cheered me up, it wasn’t until I met Nomi Stone that I truly got out of my funk. Nomi is a poet and a scholar who was in Tunisia on a Fulbright. Her project was to research and write a book of poems about the Jews of Djerba (a desert island off the southern coast of Tunisia), which is exactly what she did. The fruits of her year in Tunisia, “Stranger’s Notebook,” was published by TriQuarterly Press in 2008 and it is just amazing.
Michael David Lukas’s first book, “The Oracle of Stamboul,” is now available. His blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog series. For more information on the series, please visit:
I’ve been thinking a lot these past few months about the year I spent in Tunisia. It was 2003, I had just graduated college and was living on the outskirts of Tunis. Officially, I was there as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar and was supposed to be studying Arabic while bridging the gap of understanding between the United States and the Arab World. It was, by all accounts, a good year. I did my best to bridge the gap between the United States and the Arab World, I read a trunk full of classic literature, and towards the end of the year I started writing what would later become my first novel, “The Oracle of Stamboul.” Those first few months, however, were full of loneliness and alienation. I missed my family and my friends, I missed my girlfriend, I missed being in college, and I missed those small American comforts (peanut butter, dryers, wood floors) which seemed not to exist in Tunisia. I had a few Tunisian friends at the Internet cafe around the corner, and my Eastern European roommates — Ozzie and Petr — were good guys, though I had difficulty connecting with them at first. One reason for this was that I got up early for Arabic class and they stayed up late partying, drinking cheap Tunisian beer, and playing hair metal at the highest volume Petr’s tinny laptop speakers could bear.