r e c o m m e n d e d  r e a d i n g  

k a r e n  a l k a l a y - g u t

Moshe Benarroch was born in Tetuan, Morocco, in 1959. He moved to Israel as an adolescent. Moshe Benarroch lives in Jerusalem and writes in Hebrew, English, and Spanish. His twelve books (nine are in Hebrew, three in English and one in Spanish) show the influence of such varied writers as Charles Bukowski, Alan Ginsberg, Edmond Jabès, Vicente Huidobro, and Pablo Neruda. Seeing him as an integral part of Hebrew Literature, Natan Zach has written, “Moshe Benarroch is one the best Israeli poets writing today”; while Xulio Valcarcel in Spain perceives him as a Moroccan poet: “Moshe Benarroch transforms permanent exile, the impossibility to adapt and the eternal escape, into his vital poetics.” These and other paradoxes in Benarroch’s writing make talking to him an exploration of the secrets of the basic nature of poetry.

The interview was conducted by e-mail.-Ed.

ALKALAY-GUT: Why did you start writing in English?

BENARROCH: I am happy to start by answering this question. I always hope someone will ask it in an interview and you are the first.

I don’t have a very clear answer. The fact is that I wrote my first poem in a language foreign to me, when I was fifteen years old. For four years, I kept writing poems in English. The first poems I published were translations in Hebrew of poems I had written in English. Then I switched to writing in Hebrew, and then I came back.

My mother tongue is Spanish, so this language should have been the most obvious choice. But I never learned Spanish formally. Is that an excuse? I don’t know. I went to a school in Morocco where the teaching language was French, the Alliance Français. Spanish wasn’t even a second language, or a third. As a matter of fact, we learned English, Hebrew and Arabic, but not Spanish. This is a strange fact, since this was the mother tongue of all the pupils and most of the teachers. When I started writing, I had been in Israel for three years, so I could have started writing in Hebrew. My Hebrew was pretty good already. I spoke quite well soon after we came, thanks to Mr. Cohen, my Hebrew teacher in Morocco. Mr. Cohen gave us lessons in Modern Hebrew; he had been in Israel and knew Modern Hebrew very well. We also had classes where we studied Biblical Hebrew.

Then, there was French, and in spite of the fact that this was the language I knew better than others, I don’t think it was a real option. I don’t know why, but it is still the most foreign of the languages I speak.

At the time I was listening, as I do today, to singer-songwriters. I listened to Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Gordon Lightfoot, and their words were very important to me, so I started writing poems that were essentially lyrics. Mostly, these were love songs — unanswered love, adolescent love.

According to an Edgar Cayce study of astrology, in another incarnation I had lived once in Texas. This makes sense, too; maybe that’s where my English comes from. In 1990, a friend from Japan told me that every singer I liked had to do with Austin: they were either born there or lived  there a long time.

For all I know, I am explaining too much, because this is still a mystery to me.

ALKALAY-GUT: Does English help you to feel connected, or separated, or both?

BENARROCH: I started writing in 1975; my first book appeared in 1994; and during that time I tried all the publishers in Israel with my poetry and prose. Nothing. All this, in spite of the fact that my writing appeared regularly in the best magazines in the country, and even in some newspapers. In 1994, I published THE IMMIGRANT’S LAMENT (recently published in English by WPC), and I had the illusion of success at last. But very soon I understood that this book had become a curiosity of how “the Moroccans wail all the time.” A small publisher in Israel published it. Then I tried the big ones again with my novels and poems. Nothing. In 1997, I published a book of prose, which included five novellas. It was the work of five years, and my expectations were very high. This book proved to be my worst seller; it went completely unnoticed, and I was desperate.

I understood I had to do something. What that something was I didn’t know at all, but I felt something had to be done. At the time I thought of switching languages again, emigrating to France and writing in French. I didn’t think of using Spanish at the time. And then I discovered the poetry world of the Internet.

I decided to translate some of my poems from Hebrew to English. I translated fourteen poems and sent them to Internet sites. I sent the same poems to between twenty and forty e-zines and (some) printed magazines. Some poems in the past had been accepted, but I’d been use to lots of rejection; I had an idea that I was in a war — I was a guerilla campaigning against the big army of the editors. To my surprise, my poems were, very suddenly, everywhere. All the sites accepted them — one was on ten sites (that was “The Bread and the Dream,” a poem I was never able to publish in Israel). I started translating more. I even had the guts to translate the “Self Portrait of the Poet in Family Mirror,” a ten-page poem. I then met Klaus Gerken, editor of Ygdrasil, and he published it. Indeed, he encouraged me to translate more poems, including my other long poem, “The Immigrant’s Lament.” The response was huge: I was receiving e-mails from readers, other e-zines were asking for more poems. In the meantime, here in Israel it was more of the same, and much more of the same. Soon, I remembered —that once I wrote in English. Instead of writing in Hebrew, then translating into English, I wrote poems in English. In fact, I have written only two poems in Hebrew since March 1998. My poetry has been written in Spanish and English (I still write all the prose in Hebrew).

So, we go back to your question. I feel that English has opened a door to the world, to the outside world. I found readers. I don’t feel like an outsider in English, although it is a language I have never lived in. It takes me some time to get used to speaking fluently — I need to be two, three days in London or New York, and then I am completely fluent. English is for me the written word; I read in English a lot — I listen to music sung in English; I answer many emails in English every day. I think that English is part of me, I believe I write in a sort of international English. It’s a new language, a sort of Esperanto, closer to the American idiom than the British one; still I don’t write either English or American. (The French write in their books; “traduit de l’Américain” when they publish an American book, — not one from England. I think they have a point).

English today opens doors to the whole world. Many people from other parts of the globe have read my poems in English. Thirteen have been translated into Urdu, and have been published by Dunyazad in Pakistan.

I think in English, for example now when I am writing this. I dream in English. But I also think in other languages, and dream in them, too.

ALKALAY-GUT: So there is no emotional attachment to English? It is just a more effective means of communication?

BENARROCH: I wouldn’t say that there is no emotional attachment to writing in English. It’s different than writing in Spanish, but maybe not that different than writing in Hebrew. There is one mother tongue, and it is physically placed in a different place in our brains than other tongues we learn. English is not my mother tongue, but probably some of the most important poems and novels I read are written in English. I wouldn’t be me without “Howl” and “Kaddish” by Ginsberg, or without Bukowski, or without Burroughs’s NAKED LUNCH, without Whitman, Dickinson, Kurt Vonnegut, Brautigan and many others. It is emotional, but in a different way.

English is a more effective way of communication. I am not sure it’s the same for every poet in the world. It has brought me hundreds, maybe thousands of readers, people who cared enough to send me e-mails and buy my books. I am forever thankful for that. I was invited to a poetry festival for the first time in the U.S.

ALKALAY-GUT: Do you think that your success in English is due to the backwardness of Israeli literature and literary criticism?

BENARROCH: My non-success in Israel is due to the fact that I was born in Morocco, have a very Moroccan-Jewish name, and am not ashamed to say it and place myself where I like. You cannot be an important writer or poet if you are from Morocco. You can be some kind of clown playing by the rules, which means writing what I call Kouskous poetry, a kind of ethnic literature that shows how the Sephardim are primitive and the occidental culture is the peak of humanity. Even then you will not be able to be as important as Amos Oz, as an example, but you will be able to get your place in that niche. Because since my early childhood I have never been able to shut my mouth, because I say what I think, I don’t think I will ever fit into that niche.

About literary criticism in Israel: it is an extinct form, or almost. There is no literary criticism in Israel today. The situation today is that the big publishers and Steimatzky [major Israeli bookseller] decide which books are good books, and which aren’t. Their only criteria are how much they sell and which kind of books they want to promote. The media just follow what they impose on us as the next best seller. Many of these books are not bad books, and the Israeli reader is not a bad reader, but the choice he is offered is limited these days by commercial parameters.

The situation of poetry is even worse — it is almost extinguished. Very few poetry books are seen in bookstores, and they sell very badly.

ALKALAY-GUT: Do you think that you are part of the English-speaking culture, or is it just a linguistic choice you have made?

BENARROCH: I guess I am sitting on a fence everywhere. Am I part of the Hebrew-speaking writers’ community? Maybe this community does not think so, since the Hebrew writers association did not accept me as a member. There still exists the Zionist approach, as though you have to detach yourself from anything coming from your Diaspora, and write only in Hebrew. When I tell Israeli poets that I write in other languages, they either don’t hear, or they tell me that I went back to the Galut (Diaspora). I believe I am part of an international community writing in English as a second language, as the international language that English has become. I don’t feel that I am part of American or British poetry. As for the Spanish, they call me a Sephardi poet, which also means I am some sort of ghost coming from the past. In Spain the Sephardi adjective is positive, in Israel it is negative.

Tamazgha, my lost country


Tamazgha, land of the free people,

Kahena El Dahyan, my queen mother

jew and woman

who fought the arab invasion

in the eighth century

My Amazigh name, Arous, Benarrous, Benarroch

lost in centuries of wars


in my country

where christians, jews and pagans

lived and believed by each other



Rise my Amazigh people

from the ruins of Rome

the intolerance of Islam

the decay of Europe


Rise my Amazigh people

and teach tolerance to this world

where the forgotten are the right

where the lost stone

leads the light


Rise Kahena, Queen of jews and Amazighs

Raise for your memory

this new world in this new millennium

demands justice for all that is called past.

Amazigh means Berbers, who are the majority of people in Morocco and in the Maghreb. They are more than 50% of Moroccan population (some say 70%); yet their language is forbidden. The name of the Maghreb in Tamazigh (the Amazigh language) is Tamazgha, which means the land of the free people. Before the Arab conquest of Morocco, there was complete tolerance of any cult in the country. Many Amazigh tribes converted to Judaism and Christianity (St. Augustine was an Amazigh), and probably all the Jews from Morocco and Spain are of Amazigh descent.

Kahena was the legendary Amazigh queen. She was a Jew, and she stood off the Arabs for years. They had to bring all their soldiers from Byzantium to defeat her.

Talk about Eurocentricism and tolerance, feminism: you’ve got it all here. But this is a real thing: in Algeria, the Arabs are destroying the Amazigh people. Much of what is going on there nobody understands; some Amazighs in Algeria are still pagan and not circumcised, especially in the remote zones of Kabilie. You can read more about this fascinating topic on-line. [See Related Sites, below.]

ALKALAY-GUT: But you dream about other languages and places, don’t you? Could you explain this? And then, does the strangeness of the English language help you identify with the remoteness of this nation?

BENARROCH: There are quite a few questions here.

I do dream in languages no one speaks, and no one ever spoke. I wrote a poem about a dead poet: they find his body was made of words, of poems in all known languages; then they find this poem in an unknown language no one understands; but everyone who hears it, cries. I have no idea how the Amazigh language sounds. This is a most interesting thing because, while searching for Moroccan names, I found that more than 2/3 of them are Amazigh names — including my name, which originally was Benarous or Benaros; the meaning is “sour.” So when I found about the Amazigh (better known as the Berbers, although this is not their name, but the way they are called —it means “barbarian”), I felt I found the missing link of Sephardic Jewish history. I don’t count myself as a specialist of Amazigh culture, although I can see where the Spain of the three religions comes from: it’s from the Amazigh people. They had this tradition in them already!

Back to languages: I find that many Jews in Morocco have family names in a language they have forgotten. This is amazing.

But more than that, it is that some Jews from the Atlas and other remote areas in Morocco spoke the Amazigh language; and maybe some old Moroccans in Israel still do. They were called Schleuchs, but Scleuch (Tachlehit) is a version of Amazigh, the closest one to Hebrew.

Are the Amazigh a remote people? Is their tradition foreign to me? How could that be? I met them everyday in Morocco; they are everywhere. It is said that, some years ago, it was an offense to call an Amazigh an Arab. But after 1956 and Moroccan independence, there began a complete Arab oppression (at the same time it began in Egypt under Nasser. This is told in a book by Leila Ahmet, A BORDER PASSAGE, in which she speaks about the making of an Arab, or how the Egyptians were convinced to think as Arabs), and people stopped speaking about being Amazigh.

The Internet is bringing all these injustices to the ground. The Amazighs are the natives of the Maghreb. All the Jews in Morocco are descendants of Amazigh tribes, and since these were the same Jews that emigrated into Spain since the 8th century, all the Jews from Spain are Amazigh, too.

I think that this idea brought me a broader view of my history. I had read, long ago, that for many years, many Jews lived from commerce between Arabs and Amazighs, because they would not buy and sell to each other. Since the 17th century the monarch has been Arab, while most of the citizens of Morocco are not.

I couldn’t think of writing this poem in any other language than English. Why? I need a few years to really understand that. But, socially speaking, I don’t think anyone in Israel would understand what I am talking about. This comes after many years of trying to understand the Maghreb, and the relation between Jews and Muslims in this country. Here in Israel I have this feeling that I still have to explain that Jews from Arab countries are real Jews, and that they have a history, a culture, and not only exotic food, to offer.

My friend Ruth Knafo Setton, a writer born in Morocco and living in the U.S., told me that she sent one of her stories to a magazine and received a letter from the editor telling her that she was a good writer, but that she should write about “real Jews.” The idea was that “real” Jews are only the Jews from Europe. It is like this everywhere in the world, but, strangely, it also exits in Israel, where the Sephardic Jews were a majority ten years ago, and are still more than 40% of the population. (The change happened because a million Jews came from Russia.) This concept is shared both by Sephardim and Ashkenazim in Israel.

When I say that all the Moroccan Jews are Amazigh, and when I say that I am Sephardi, or a Moroccan, or a Jew, and Israeli, etc., I am not talking about identity. I don’t say: this is my identity. I don’t like the word “identity”; in the languages I know, it comes from the root “identical.” An erroneous concept of history begins, because no one person is like any other person. We should be talking about something else. In Hebrew I would say “Shayakhut,” or “pertenencia” in Spanish; I should find a more precise word in English than “belonging,” “being part of a group.” You can be part of many groups, just as you can have more than one nationality. Multiculturalism should mean people who have more than one culture. I feel that — having been born in the northernmost city of Africa, the last before Europe starts, being a Jew, speaking four languages, and having my history — I belong to one hundred cultures. I fit into all of them; and at the same time, I don’t fit in any of them, because, too often, people try to pigeonhole me, or define me. This happens in Israel, surely; but less often in big cities, in cities with people from many countries — New York, Paris, London, or Barcelona, where I am just one more of those rare people coming from everywhere and from nowhere.

Let me add something about this interview, something I told you outside of our e-mails: it is that I am indeed happy to get your questions, because these are the questions that matter to me. Each time I am interviewed by an Israeli, in many ways I am not answering his or her questions. In my mind, I am telling myself “NO! not again!” I mean, not again this bullshit; not again, “When did you learn about European culture?” or, “Do you feel oppressed?” and questions like that.  So, thanks for your blessed questions.


©2003 Karen Alkalay-Gut


Moshe Benarroch’s poems appeared in Archipelago, Vol. 1, No. 2

Karen Alkalay-Gut was born in London at the end of the Blitz, raised in Rochester, New York, and has lived in Israel for over thirty years, where she teaches English Literature at Tel Aviv University and chairs the Israel Association of Writers in English. Some of her twenty books of poetry are available on her website,  but her biography of Adelaide Crapsey is sadly out of print. Her daily  on-line diary of life in Tel Aviv can be found here.

Related sites:

Moshe Benarroch


Steimatzky Booksellers

Amazigh on-Line

Monde Berbere

Books in Hebrew:

THE IMMIGRANT’S LAMENT (1994). Poetry. Yaron Golan

THE NEXT BOOK (1997). Prose. Yaron Golan

THE POETRY OF THE END OF THE WORLD (1999). Poetry. Yaron Golan

KEYS TO TETUAN, A NOVEL (1999). Bimat Kedem Lesifrut

THE BREAD AND THE DREAM (2000). Poetry. Yaron Golan

THE LITTLE MAN WHO EATS SEEds (2000). Prose. Yaron Golan

THE INK’S WEIGHT (2001). Poetry. Yaron Golan

A PARISIAN MONTH (2002). Novel. Astrolog

LUCENA (2002). Novel. Astrolog

Books in English:


HORSES AND OTHER DOUBTS (2000). Poetry. Iuniverse

TAKE ME TO THE SEA (2001). Poetry. Iuniverse

THE IMMIGRANT’S LAMENT (2002). Poetry. WPC Press

Books in Spanish:

Esquina En Tetuan (2000). Poetry. Coleccion Esquio, España



 next page

contents download subscribe archive