Georges Moustaki died ten years ago on May 23, 2013, at age 79. He was born Giuseppe Mustacchi in Alexandria, Egypt, to Jewish Greek parents who owned the Cité du Livre bookshop. His parents spoke several languages, including French, Arabic, and Italian. He had two sisters, and the Moustaki children spoke Italian at home, Arabic on the street, and French at school.
Moustaki describes his childhood in Alexandria as happy, but at age 17, he visited France and he fell in love with it, so he stayed. He quickly became known to the most notable French singers of the time, particularly Georges Brassens. Moustaki adopted the name Georges in honor of his mentor and because he introduced himself as Joe and French people assumed that Joe was an abbreviation for Georges.
Georges Moustaki wrote hundreds of songs, many for artists other than himself, including for Serge Reggiani for whom he wrote the song Le Métèque (the foreigner), but Reggiani didn’t feel that the song was for him, and he encouraged Moustaki to sing it himself. Le Métèque became Moustaki’s signature song and later was adopted by many as an anthem against racism.
Moustaki didn’t often talk about his Jewishness, but he didn’t hide it either. In the song Alexandrie (Alexandria), in which he talks about his nostalgic memories of Alexandria, the French singer refers to himself as Arab Greek Jewish Italian. He was an atheist, but he chose to be buried following Jewish traditions.
Moustaki, who learned Hebrew, visited Israel several times, gave concerts in Israel, and collaborated with Israeli artists, including Moshé Mizrahi, an Israeli film director who, like Moustaki, was born in Alexandria. He had a cousin, Yossi Moustaki, a singer as well, who lived in Beer Sheeva. Several of Georges Moustaki’s songs were translated to Hebrew, including Ma Liberté (my freedom) that was sung in Hebrew by Hava Alberstein and Le Métèque that was sung in Hebrew by Yossi Banaï. Moustaki also sang a duo Il Est Trop Tard (it is too late) in Hebrew with Orlika.
But although Moustaki loved Israel, he considered himself a citizen of the world, or at least of the Middle East, and he had no political allegiance to Israel. In 1970, he fell madly in love with a Moroccan woman who was an anti-Israel activist, Nadia Bradley. Even after she was involved in a terrorist attempt on Israeli soil and arrested by Israeli authorities, he continued to try to see her, and he organized a concert at her Israeli jail so that he could see her again. Soon after, he dedicated a love song to her, Je Ne Sais Pas Où Tu Commences (I don’t know where you begin). This episode of Moustaki’s life is not well known outside Israel.
Late in life, Moustaki spoke more often about his Jewish heritage. One of Moustaki’s most recent songs is Les Mères Juives (the Jewish mothers) which he sang both in French and in Hebrew. About his Judaism, he said in an interview, “One cannot claim to be wise without adhering to one’s Jewishness.”
In 2005, Moustaki released the song Le Soldat (the soldier), where he took an anti-war stance about the Israel-Arab conflict. The song is written from the perspective of someone he knew and who went to Israel at age 15 to fight for the new state, and who later became disillusioned by what he experienced. Moustaki ended the song by saying, “We were told that we were going to make the desert bloom but I’m afraid that we were lied to”.
But to see Moustaki through the lens of his questionable positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be a mistake. He was neither a political scientist nor a historian. He was a poet who felt events through his heart, and he was a hopeless pacifist who didn’t understand borders, nationalism, or the need for wars.
About Israel, he said, “I have always had great admiration for this country, even before its proclamation of independence. I was 14 years old then, and I remember my excitement when in 1948, the state of Israel was born while I was living in Egypt, a country nearby. I went there [Israel] for the first time in 1963. It was a wonderful encounter with the country, its people, and its language that I immediately set out to learn. I went there by boat with my [Peugeot] 403, like most people did at the time. This allowed me to travel and discover a magnificent country. Israel is not an inconsequential country for me, and it touches me greatly.”
Moustaki also reaffirmed his Jewishness in the context of the Middle East when he said, “The growing importance of events in the Middle East, and the clash of civilizations that we are currently experiencing, made me want to affirm myself today as a Jew. A marginal Jew, but a Jew all the same.”
He also defended the song “the soldier” by saying, “It is a true story. The soldier is a childhood friend whom I see regularly in his kibbutz in Israel. He had indeed chosen to live in Israel to grow flowers there and suddenly found himself in uniform. That didn’t discourage him though. He is and remains a man of duty. But his destiny there is not at all what he had dreamed of. It is also a song of compassion for all those soldiers who would have imagined and hoped for something other than this condition of soldier that circumstances imposed on them.”
In 2000, Moustaki co-authored a book Fils Du Brouillard (son of the fog) with his long-time friend Siegfried Meir. Even though Moustaki had known Meir for most of his career, Meir didn’t share with Moustaki some of his past until late in life. Meir was a Holocaust survivor, and the book is the story of Meir and his family through the Holocaust.
But Moustaki was above all a poet and a dreamer. He dreamed of a world with no borders, no war, no hatred, and no hunger, and where love mattered above all else. If his mission in life was to charm us with his songs, he succeeded, and the fact that his songs often reflect Jewish and Middle Eastern sentiments only adds to their appeal. He leaves us with hundreds of beautiful songs that are worth hearing again and again.