MEMOIR: An encounter in the Casbah
One of the most popular movies during the late 1930s was "Casbah," which starred Hedy Lamarr and Charles Boyer. The film was about a notorious thief, Pepe Le Moko, who escapes from France with a fortune in jewels and finds refuge in the mazelike and inpenetrable Casbah, the "native quarter" in the city of Algiers. The movie introduced most Americans for the first time to the Casbah's picturesque alleys and souks and created an exotic image of life in France's North African colonies.
In the spring of 1957, I found myself walking in the footsteps of Pepe Le Moko through the narrow streets and alleys of the Casbah. I was the only American in a group of about a dozen European journalists transported by the French army to Algeria to report on the war against the FLN, an Arab guerrilla force that was fighting for independence from France. We were in the Casbah observing an operation to search for rebel caches of weapons.
I arrived in Algeria as a participant in the NATO Journalist Program. Under the program, an individual NATO country annually plays host to journalists from all the other NATO countries. (I do not know whether the program still exists.) The program was designed for the visiting journalists to report on important military and industrial facilities in the host nation.
France was the host nation in 1957, and I was the U.S. representative. I was selected because I was then Business Week's Washington correspondent covering the defense and industrial mobilization beat. The term "industrial mobilization" had a special meaning at that time because the cold war with the Soviet Union was at its peak. The U.S. was spending billions of dollars to build and maintain idle arms production lines that could quickly be activated in case the cold war turned into a shooting war.
I confess that my selection that year did not reflect any special professional prominence on my part. I was picked largely because a friend of mine, who was a State Dept. budget officer, discovered that the department had funds allocated to finance the NATO program.
The program's existence was virtually unknown to members of the press, so there were few if any applicants. At my friend's suggestion, I applied. I never knew whether I had any competition for the assignment. But my professional credentials were appropriate, and I was picked to go to France for a month, all expenses paid by the State Dept., to tour that country's key military bases and factories that manufactured armaments. This was press junketing at its best!
So what was I suddenly doing in the Casbah in Algiers? In 1954, the Algerian Arabs began a battle for independence. The fighting had become so violent that, shortly before our group's arrival in France, a division of French troops committed to NATO and stationed in Germany was deployed to Algeria to fight the rebels.
France was severely criticized by other NATO members for the move. France justified the deployment by arguing that its battle against the Algerian nationalists was an element in the cold war against the Soviet Union. It charged that the Soviets were supporting the FLN guerrilla army.
With my group touring French military facilities at home, the nation's Foreign Ministry decided to fly us from Marseilles to Algeria as part of a campaign to convince its NATO allies that the war against the FLN was indeed a battle against Soviet allies. We were not asked whether we wanted to go. But we went willingly, even though few if any of us regarded the French claim as credible.
We trudged slowly through the Casbah streets, protected by a detachment of French paratroopers. Staring angrily at us, the Arab inhabitants in the streets moved quickly out of our way. From windows on both sides of the narrow streets, other locals cursed and threw rubbish at us.
A short, stocky man dressed in civilian clothing marched in front of us, guiding our group through the maze of the Casbah. One of the journalists pointed to our guide and, in French (which I do not understand), asked the paratrooper captain who the civilian was.
In the flow of the captain's French response, I caught the word "Israelite." That was one word of French I did understand, knowing it to be a synonym for the more common word "Juif." We had just passed a synagogue a few blocks earlier. The synagogue was deserted and surrounded by barbed wire. I recalled that our guide had halted briefly there, staring at it sadly as if the structure had a special meaning for him.
Knowing that our guide was a Jew, I assumed that he was Sephardic and spoke Ladino, the local Jewish language based on medieval Spanish and sprinkled with Hebrew words. When our group halted briefly, I approached the guide and in my best high school Spanish, said to him: "Yo estoy Judeo Americano" (I am an American Jew).
The man became quite emotional. He embraced me, kissed me on my cheeks, and pulled a Hebrew prayer book out of his pocket. He then began speaking rapidly in Ladino, mistakenly thinking that I was fluent in the language. I could only respond: "No comprende." He then began speaking to me in French. And sadly I had to tell him again that I did not understand him.
Fortunately, I had become friendly with Holland's representative in our group, Jan van der Plume, a reporter for a Dutch Catholic, labor-oriented newspaper. Like so many Dutch people I have known, van der Plume was fluent in several languages. I asked him to be my English-language interpreter.
The civilian guide told us that his surname was Ben-Hamou. As I recall, his first name was David. He had been born and raised in the Casbah. Virtually all of Algeria's Jews had fled the country, he said. They had been well treated by the French colonial rulers and were not active in the nationalist movement. They were thus harassed by the Arab Muslim population, and most of them had migrated to France or Israel.
Ben-Hamou had decided to remain, although he did not explain why. He was employed by the French police as a secret agent, an extremely dangerous occupation considering the circumstances.
At one time, Algeria had at least 100,000 Jews. The bulk of them were Sephardim whose ancestors had fled from the Spanish Inquisition during the 15th Century. The others were descendants of Jews who had lived in Algeria before the Arab Muslim conquest of North Africa in the 7th and 8th Centuries, and had assimilated into the Sephardic culture.
Ben-Hamou was surely one of the last Jews in Algeria. I often wonder where he was when Algeria finally achieved independence from France in 1962.