How a Jew shot to posthumous fame in Tunisia

Henri Tibi as a busker in the streets of Besançon (Youtube still, used in accordance with Claue 27a of the copyright law)

He lived in an obscure suburb of the French town of Besançon, spending his meager busker’s earnings on food for his pet cats and dogs. Since he died in 2013, no one has combed through the shambles he left behind  – thousands of cassette tapes, photos and scraps of writing – until a young Tunisian journalist, Yassine Redissi, decided to make a film about Henri Tibi in 2016. It took him seven years.

Since the release of ‘Je reviendrai là-bas (I’m coming home), Henri Tibi has shot to posthumous fame. Young Tunisians are playing his music and humming the songs he wrote. An exhibition of his photos has been held in Paris, and a website memorializing him has been set up by a group of his Jewish friends. Even the town of Besançon is about to name the square where the unwashed Demis Roussos lookalike spent decades begging, next to a large sign ( ‘Let he who is free of sin cast the first coin!’ ).

As a young Tunisian Jew, Tibi showed early promise. He was a champion ping pong player, swimmer and prolific photographer, but soon made his name as a chansonnier entertaining his Jewish friends in the summer resort of La Goulette, making up witty lyrics to other people’s songs. He never became a professional performer, he never married, and left for France along with the last wave of Jews after 1967. In Paris he became a poverty-stricken outsider, alone but for the stray cats he adopted.

When a report was made about Tibi’s eviction and shown on TV, the famous animal lover Brigitte Bardot pleaded:’someone please help this man!’ Help came from a generous resident of Besançon, who allowed Tibi and cats to move into a house they owned.

Thus Tibi found himself in a nondescript and Judenrein French town, a world away from the sunshine and the beaches of Tunisia.

The film is a paen to the ‘coexistence’ unique to La Goulette, in contrast to its large neighbor, the city of Tunis. In La Goulette, Jews rubbed shoulders with Muslims, Italians and Maltese while all sipped their cocktails in the Café Vert, gambled at the casino or spent languid days on the beach. Tibi celebrated that coexistence and his love for Tunisia. His songs play well with a new generation of Tunisians, who since the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011, have been rediscovering the pluralism and tolerance of an earlier era.

The Jews, Maltese and Sicilians are long gone. The man who first put Henri Tibi on the map was the Tunisian writer Mustapha Chelbi in his 2002 book ‘Ya Hasra La Goulette’. Chelbi narrates ‘I’m coming home’. But as with other nostalgic films –  the films of the Berber Kamal Hachkar, made with the support of the Moroccan government, for instance – local antisemitism is played down and the exodus of the Tunisian Jews tied to the burning of Torah scrolls in the post-Six Day war anti-Jewish riots.

Chelbi claims that only three families left for Israel after the foundation of the Jewish state, and a negligible number after the Bizerte crisis of 1961. In fact just 26,000 Jews remained in 1967 out of 100,000. The community had been whittled down by instability, marginalization, discrimination, violence and the threat of violence. Only 1,000 Jews live in Tunisia today, mostly on the island of Djerba.

The film celebrates Tibi as a Tunisian, when he was actually a very Jewish Tunisian, who used to pray for help to the 19th century tsaddik Rabbi Hai Taieb Lo Met. Now that Tibi has became a national symbol, how many will relate to the Biblical references in his lyrics, or the large sign he displayed while busking in Besançon’s main street: ‘to each his own crossing of the desert”?

Be that as it may, the film’s director, Yassine Redissi, ought to be congratulated for his self-financed labour of love. Now that Tunisia is in the grip of a dictatorial (and probably anti-Jewish) president, it is comforting to know that a tribute to a Jew is playing to packed houses in the country’s cinemas.

About the Author
Lyn Julius is a journalist and co-founder of Harif, an association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa in the UK. She is the author of 'Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilisation in the Arab world vanished overnight.' (Vallentine Mitchell)
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