Episode 59: Zohra El Fassia (Transcript)

Episode 59: Zohra El Fassia

[Theme music plays]

Nahanni Rous: Hi, it’s Nahanni Rous. Welcome to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history, and Jewish culture meet. JWA’s Encyclopedia of Jewish Women contains more than 2,000 entries that explore Jewish women’s lives and contributions, from Biblical times to the present. It’s the most extensive digital resource on Jewish women in the world. For the past four years, JWA has been working with a team of writers and scholars from around the world to expand and update the Encyclopedia. The new edition, renamed The Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women, will include new perspectives on previously underrepresented topics, including Jews of color, LGBTQ Jews, Jews from the global south. The new version will be unveiled in late June. In the coming weeks here on Can We Talk?, we'll be bringing you a glimpse of some of the stories that are being added to the digital record at the Jewish Women’s Archive... starting with the Moroccan Israeli singer Zohra El Fassia. Her story is told here by writer and ethnomusicologist Tamar Sella.

[Theme music fades]

Tamar Sella: Zohra El Fassia was actually born Zohra Hamou to a Jewish family, likely around the year, 1905 in the city of Sefrou, which is in the Fez region in Morocco and Fez of course, is the city that would eventually give her her regional stage name facetiae, which means the woman from Fez. She was born to, uh, her mother, Naomi and father, Eliyahu. And we don't know much about El Fassia’s early life, but we do know that her father was a butcher by trade and a Hassan or a Cantor in his off time. So we can guess that she would have been hearing and maybe singing even a liturgical music from, from a pretty young age. We also know that she likely went to school for a little bit as a young girl. Zohra was wed at a very, very young age to a man from Fez named Avraham Saadon. And she had her first daughter, missaid likely when she was around 13 years old. And she had two more children, Sam and Annette.  And at the same time, she also began to kind of scope out the music scene in Fez, uh, going to hear touring musicians, uh, who would hear her sing and encourage her to sing more, which she began to do at private celebrations and weddings and even small venues. We know that likely around the age of eighteen, she actually got divorced. And eventually made her way to Casablanca. So her kids, her first three kids mostly grew up with their father and his new wife and their family. And in Casa Blanca, she starts a new relationship with one Mr. Tapiero. Um, though they don't get married, they do have three daughters together. Manette Solange and Suzanne who sadly died as a baby. In Casablanca she becomes a star essentially. Um, and she becomes a really integral part of this burgeoning recording industry across North Africa of the mid 20th century, she becomes particularly respected as a singer of the genre malhoun, which are these long form urban poems set to music about kind of intense topics like romance, love, death, politics, and history. 

[Music plays]

And she has a very, very powerful and guttural voice. And just an extremely, extremely powerful stage presence. So she records dozens of records for international labels and just becomes an extremely popular singer of the time. And according to some people, even the most beloved female Moroccan singer of the time. And she also famously performs in the palace in Rabat, of the king, Muhammad the Fifth. And in this, she's actually part of a cohort of Jewish musicians across North Africa. This is kind of an interesting look into Jewish participation in social life. At the time when there are a lot of transformations happening, um, both around what was going on with Palestinian displacement and the foundation of Israel in 1948, and then anti-colonialism and Arab nationalism.And then independence from the French protectorate in Morocco in 1956. So with all of that, in 1962, um, Zohra like many and eventually most Moroccan Jews, uh, leaves Morocco, and she immigrated to Israel. 

[Music fades]

And she arrives to Ashkelon, which is a coastal city in the South of Israel with her third partner, Moshe Cohen. And they live together in a public housing apartment. Um, something that, you know, we might equate to kind of public housing projects in the United States. And she essentially experiences what many immigrants and particularly immigrants from the Arab and Muslim world, uh, who get kind of grouped together in this new social category of Mizrachi Jews, or Eastern Jews, she experiences this kind of cultural erasure. Uh, so you know, Arab music, whether it's Palestinian or Jewish, doesn't get played really on radio stations or recorded by, you know, the mainstream labels at the time. But she of course continues to be the kind of amazing artist that she is. And she performs as much as she can within the Moroccan community and even though she doesn't get the same acclaim that she had in Morocco, her story does begin to circulate and make an impact, especially on young Mizrahi artists.  And in 1975 Algerian-born poet Erez Biton publishes a poem about El Fassia based on a visit that he paid to her apartment while he was working as a social worker.

[Reading of a poem with an English voiceover]

Singer at Muhammad the Fifth’s court in Rabat, Morocco

They say when she sang,

soldiers fought with knives

to clear a path through the crowd

to touch the hem of her skirt

to kiss the tips of her toes

and leave her a piece of silver as a sign of thanks.

Zohra El Fassia

Now you can find her in Ashkelon

in the poor quarter of Atikot Gimel

by the welfare office—

the smell of leftover sardine tins on a wobbly three-legged table,

the stunning royal carpets 

stained on the Jewish Agency cot—

She lingers for hours in a bathrobe

In front of the mirror

with cheap makeup.

And when she says:

"Mohammad the Fifth, Apple of our Eyes"

You don't really get it at first.

Zohra El Fassia's voice is hoarse

Her heart is clear

her eyes are full of love.

Zohra El Fassia

And in the wake of that poem, which kind of captures and dramatizes the transformation in her life, it generates what I kind of think of as this undercurrent of independent Mizrachi artists coming to visit her in her apartment to learn more about her story and receive inspiration from her. 

[Music plays: Instrumental from Neta Elkayam’s Abiadi album: "Oh Flower"]

Zohra El Fassia passes away in November of 1994 and she has a big funeral and shiva in Ashkelon, which is attended by many family members and artists and, um, uh, supposedly even a representative of the King of Morocco at the time. And her incredible story and music and just her powerful kind of energy, uh, of course continue to live on. So, in 2016 artists Neta Elkayam and Amit Chai Cohen create a multimedia tribute for her called Abiadi, which tells her story and renders some of her songs. And one of my personal favorites is "Sadi Rit al Barakh," which is "I Saw My Fortune Yesterday." 

Music plays: Neta Elkayam: "I Saw My Fortune Yesterday"]

Neta Elkayam kind of sings a duet with a recording of El Fassia’s voice. 

[Music plays]

And these images of Zohra looking at herself in the mirror, which come from a description of Erez Biton’s poem, um, are juxtaposed. And, you know, it kind of gives this opportunity to reflect on her life and what it continues to mean for us today. A really, really important part of what they're doing is to emphasize essentially the hurt and the trauma in her story and the loss that we all continue to face today by not having listened, not having given the opportunities to Zohra El Fassia in the sixties and seventies and, and many others like her. So I think even today, looking at artists who are kind of dealing with her work so beautifully and paying such a tribute to her, you know, we have to emphasize the social history that it's a part of, even as we continue to celebrate her and honor her music and her story.

[Music plays: 1950s recording of "Myli Sadr Hnine"]

You know what she was able to do as a mom, as a young woman, as a young immigrant woman, as a, you know, minoritized woman. The sheer amount of power and force and conviction and independence that you see and hear through her work. It's unbelievable. It's unbelievable.

[Music plays: 1950s recording of "Myli Sadr Hnine"]

Nahanni Rous: Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. You’re listening to Zohra El Fassia singing "Myli Sadr Hnine," which she recorded on vinyl in the 1950s. You also heard her 1950s recording of "Ayli Ayli Hbibi Diali." Special thanks to Gharamophone, Chris Silver’s digital archive of North African Jewish music. You heard a recording of Erez Biton reading his poem "Zohra El Fassia’s Song," with Ammiel Alcalay’s English translation read by Elana Golombic. In this episode you also heard a short clip of Oh Flower, and a live performance of "Sadi Rit El Barakh" from "Abiadi," Neta Elkayam and Amit Hai Cohen’s tribute to Zohra El Fassia. Special thanks to writer and ethnomusicologist Tamar Sella for sharing Zohra el Fassia’s story with Can We Talk?, and with JWA’s updated Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. The new edition goes live at the end of June. Join us on June 27th and 28th for a celebratory global day of learning, with sessions based on the Encyclopedia’s new content. Stay tuned for more information! We had help on this episode from Carol Szall. Our team also includes Judith Rosenbaum and Becky Long. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. I’m your host, Nahanni Rous. Until next time!

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 59: Zohra El Fassia (Transcript)." (Viewed on October 7, 2022) <https://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-59-zohra-el-fassia/transcript>.


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