‘A Semite: A Memoir of Algeria’ reviewed by Marcus Barnett

A Semite: A Memoir of Algeria

Foreword by Judith Butler, Columbia University Press, New York, 2014. 176pp., $40.00 / £27.50 hb
ISBN 9780231164023

Reviewed by Marcus Barnett

About the reviewer

Marcus Barnett is a writer based in Manchester. Having studied at the University of Manchester and …


In contemporary discourse from West to East, the Arab and Jewish populations of the ‘Arab World’ are seldom discussed in any manner other than their mutual enmity. That there may be a common interest or a shared future between these two apparently contradictory peoples appears abstract and far-fetched. Musa Budeiri’s volume on the Palestine Communist Party (2010) sheds light on one neglected political trajectory, whilst Ethan B. Katz’s The Burdens of Brotherhood: Jews and Muslims from North Africa to France (2015) emphasises Arab-Jewish shared cultural encounter and coexistence. Despite these two recent texts, a distinct lack of work in the English language tackles this question. This makes one treasure A Semite: A Memoir of Algeria all the more. Written by Denis Guénoun, a noted playwright and lecturer at the Sorbonne, it is at once a touching elegy to a much-admired father and an engrossing study of a subject’s taxonomy. René Guénoun, the central figure of the book, is Communist, Jewish, Algerian and French, refusing to recognise any dissonance such multiple allegiances may carry.

The haziness of these multivariate definitions reflects the colourful ambiguity of the history of the Jews in Algeria. Traditionally a secure but legally restricted minority under Islamic rule, the Crémieux decree of 1870 formally emancipated the Jews, declaring them French citizens to whom French rights applied. Though intending to shape a certain cultural and national loyalty towards a certain section of native Algerians, an uncomplicated absorption into the colonial community failed due to the colonisers themselves, having imported from France a virulent anti-Semitism. Suspiciously viewed by both coloniser and colonised, the majority of Algerian Jews cautiously rested on the lower echelons of pied noir society, with a 1931 social survey recording that employed Algerian Jews were mostly day labourers or artisans, with few white collar professions represented (Stora 2001, 8).

Unfolding with a frenetic back-and-forth of letters between the author’s grandmother and grandfather during the First World War, one is presented with these contradictions immediately. Kamra, the author’s grandmother, is an Arab woman if judged by her skin, her idioms, ‘her yoo-yoos at joyful moments’; the daughter of a turban-clad theologian, she is also a schoolteacher, a ‘village pioneer’ in the educational branch of imperial subjugation (4-10). Despite her ‘Arab’ temperament, her amorous thoughts to her distant husband are returned gratefully with passages from Zola. Due to Grandfather Guénoun’s violent idiocy, their reunion following his demobilisation is far from blissful; a cluttered divorce battle finishes the prelude of the book, introducing the protagonist René. Brought up in Oran, the ‘capital of boredom besieged by beauty’ in Camus’ The Plague (Camus 2002, 6), René inherits his mother’s love of French literature as well as the burgeoning world of French film. Whilst attending teacher training college, he encounters radical thought, and is ‘seized by the Universal’ (24). The ‘secular cosmos’ of socialist philosophy enriches his particular understandings of poverty, religion and colonialism, offering new philosophical expanse and political possibility (24). Whilst enjoying his young life, enveloping himself in the vibrancy of dancehalls, dating, and grilled sardines by the beach, René also joins the Algerian Communist Party (PCA).

In a period awash with enthusiasm and boundless potential, René participates in the mass rallies that herald the election of the Popular Front government. A picture of him with clenched fist raised adorns the cover of the book. ‘He is looking up towards the camera’, the author states, ‘as if he were looking right at me today and saying: “we were the world’s youth”’ (27). Perhaps hours after this photograph is taken, left-wing Europeans attempt to de-arrest an Arab protester. René is marginally involved in the fracas, and arrested. Outright refusing to admit guilt, his earnest trust in the incorruptibility of French law is rewarded with a suspended prison sentence. As war begins, he is drafted into the Zouaves, a colonial regiment stationed in Syria, and further runs into trouble for giving a speech to his fellow soldiers. Detained, labelled a ‘revolutionary propagandist’ and a ‘foreign agent’, he is jailed in Damascus for five years (37). Anti-Jewish legislation encroaches on the Guénouns as he and his wife are barred from teaching; ironically, the spite authorities show in repeatedly refusing his transfer to a French jail certainly saves his life, given the fate of Jewish Communists in Nazi incarceration.

Racing through the Fuhrer’s death and the author’s birth, A Semite arrives at the next section, which elaborates further upon the Guénoun family in ‘fifties Oran. The PCA is banned in 1956 for organising armed sections and fermenting mutiny in the French forces. Clandestine work for the underground Party continues, and a culture of secrecy and public disinterest reigns in the Guénoun household. Adolescent Denis is scolded for borrowing Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber’s Lieutenant in Algeria from the library, warned by his father to ignore works that may arouse suspicion (the twelve volumes of Brecht he lends instead mean nothing to the oblivious librarian). After months of escalating conflict and fearful tension, a bomb explodes outside the Guénoun household. Initially calm, René saunters to the window to pour scorn on the crowd amassing beneath him. They are Hitler’s brethren, their downfall is forthcoming, and the Algerians are going to tear them apart. Having ‘vomit[ed] the ten plagues of Egypt’ onto the hateful mob, the action of the book’s protagonist effectively ends, with the remaining fifteen pages dedicated to René Guénoun’s French retirement (120-5). Unable to comprehend de-Stalinisation, he quietly fails to renew his Party membership, dying in 1977.  

With the Party of his youth gone, René has no compass, and abandons politics for games of bridge. That the Communism he devoted his life to was, for millions, the embodiment of death that he so detested (to the point of avoiding funerals and avoiding all discussion of it) was impossible to comprehend. For him and many others of his generation, the Party was everything. A unique social strata which expected of its participants a near-messianic determination and single-mindedness, Communism was overwhelmingly a commitment which inspired selflessness and courage, of unflagging moral optimism against overwhelming odds. According to René, the proscribed PCA

embodied justice and truth. In other places it was still alive … [the Party lived] wherever clear-sighted, just people chose to assert themselves. Everywhere. (70)

When questioning the unthinking loyalty and the shock of reality, one must understand Communism less as a meticulous world view than as a choice of action, an avenue of mostly defensive struggle in a time of barbarism. It was this understanding that attracted warm souls like René Guénoun, the unquestioning aspects of the era perceived as necessary in maintaining discipline in a worldwide class war. This obedience clearly led even boundless humanists through dubious routes, such as allegedly shouting ‘Vive Petain!’ to stoke a Gaullist troop rebellion during the Armistice (43). Whilst the author does not ignore his father’s conduct, he arrives at unconvincing, vague conclusions. A less attached reader may link the Comintern’s anti-war stance to René’s actions, with the Party faithful René intervening politically to enact ‘the line’. But, as the most vociferous proponents of progress against reaction, it was necessary to pursue any line in order to deliver the final goal: René’s vision, of

fraternity without limits, without a single exception, for all the boys and girls in the universe. The world shared by all, cleansed of religions, of oppressed and oppressor nations. A Republic of the world. The Russians had started the job … People’s Councils at every level … No more frontiers. Everyone is invited to the great May Day, the banquet of our common future (22).

One may doubt that such unerring faith in a cause may reoccur, the notion of commitment marred by the legacy of political systems unworthy of the sacrifices of those inspired to overthrow other similarly rotten political systems. However, a belief of René’s which provides a continued relevance is his understanding of himself.

In terms of his own background, René spurns Judaism, caring only for the brotherhood of the Just. An abrupt, class-struggle attitude permeates his stance on Zionism, berating his mother for donating money to Israel, the theocratic neo-colony exploiting ‘the little people’ to serve ‘the sordid interests of Jewish clerics’ (104). However, beneath assimilatory attitudes, René becomes a Jew in an oppositional sense. Like the poet Dannie Abse, he is made a Jew more by Auschwitz than by Moses (Abse 2014, 76); after initially refusing to circumcise his first son on principle, the promulgation of anti-Jewish measures overcame his stubborn Republicanism. This Jewishness is guided not by any nationalist or ethno-political affirmation but with a consciousness of difference, of siding with all ‘little people’. His notion of being a ‘Semite’, clearly shaped partially by the realities of colonialism, provokes a feeling of dissimilarity to the dominant population subjugating both Arabs and Jews. The stance is mirrored in Frantz Fanon’s denunciation of anti-Semitism that ‘I cannot disassociate myself from the future that is proposed for my brother’ (Fanon 1967, 89) if anyone is oppressed, one is not truly free. Furthermore, in its claim to an earlier fraternity prior to imperialism’s divide-and-rule, René’s idea of ‘Semites’ offers a past parity and a future optimism, a humanist resource to abet the abolition of all iniquities between Arabs and Jews. Despite any residual affection he may have for the land of Malherbe and Jean Gabin, the Algerians have a right to Algeria and he will help them win.

Despite this, there is a grim, unanswered aspect in A Semite: René’s non-reluctant admission that, despite his dedication to the Algerian cause, he cannot envisage a future for the Guénouns in a free Algeria. During a time of widespread anti-colonial struggle, a time of huge possibilities for human progress, René maintains that the Guénouns will move to France. Is this capitulation, an ageing man satisfying his youthful Francophone desires and swapping the instability of nation-building for a French retirement? Or is this damage limitation, an anxious urge, fostered by the centuries-old precariousness of Jewish people in all lands, that the volatility created by the upheaval he objectively favours may create serious difficulties for Jews?

In 1958, the year the French army’s systematic usage of torture on Algerians was revealed, Albert Camus wrote that the real question ‘is not how to die separately but rather how to live together’ (Jacobson 1976, 148). A Semite, a proposal of universal fraternity gifted onto Denis Guénoun from his father, offers a long-overdue intervention in this direction, a space in which we can mourn the loss of an Arab-Jewish common attachment that made Arabs like Ali Abdel Halik die fighting the fascists in Spain, or Jews like Henri Alleg endure excruciating torture for the Algerian struggle. Time cruelly marches on, and little of René Guénoun remains, but a document of his existence can perpetuate a hope that our current political impasse shall be temporary. In a young century with new uncertainties, A Semite is an evocative work imparting to the reader that Jews and Arabs can and should, to induce the recent slogan, refuse to be enemies with each other. This wondrously written portrait of a cry is a resource of hope in our own envisaging of beautiful tomorrows, ‘the banquet of our common future’. 

6 November 2015


  • Abse, Dannie 2014 Ask the Moon London: Random House.
  • Budeiri, Musa 2010 The Palestine Communist Party, 1919-1948: Arab and Jew in the Struggle for Internationalism Chicago and New York: Haymarket Books.
  • Camus, Albert 2002 The Plague London: Penguin Group.
  • Fanon, Frantz 1967 Black Skin, White Masks London: Pluto Press.
  • Jacobson, Norman 1978 Pride and Solace: The Functions and Limits of Political Theory Berkeley: California University Press.
  • Katz, Ethan B. 2015 The Burdens of Brotherhood: Jews and Muslims from North Africa to France Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
  • Stora, Benjamin 2001 Algeria, 1830-2000: A Short History Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

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