Moshe Benarroch was born in Tetuan, Morocco, in
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
©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
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:
YOU WALK ON THE LAND UNTIL ONE DAY THE LAND WALKS ON YOU (2000). Poetry. Xlibris (o.p.)
HORSES AND OTHER DOUBTS (2000). Poetry.
TAKE ME TO THE SEA (2001). Poetry.
THE IMMIGRANT’S LAMENT (2002). Poetry.
Books in Spanish:
Esquina En Tetuan (2000). Poetry.
Coleccion Esquio, España