My Grandfather’s Love Songs
A visit with Georges Moustaki, whose ballads are an epitaph for the French-speaking Jews of the Middle East
I recognized his voice the moment I heard it. Calm, slightly accented, indolent but melodious, ever so baritone, and though nearly 30 years older than it was on the tracks I knew so well, it was undeniably the voice of Georges Moustaki. I grew up listening to the Jewish-Egyptian French-speaking songwriter with my Alexandrian grandfather, who died during my senior year of high school. It was for that reason that when Moustaki called my room in Paris I could picture him on the other end of the line—graying hair tousled by the wind, linen trousers, a sardonic but charming grin. At once it felt like I was talking to someone I had known all my life and as though I was listening to an old familiar recording.
Several days earlier I had begged the French editor of my book—also a well-connected editor at Le Nouvel Observateur—to help me contact him. Although she hesitantly agreed, she also confessed that she did not know the right people and that it didn’t seem hopeful. Forty-eight hours later, she sent a note to inform me that after a great deal of work she had finally been able to come through for me. So, there I was, at 11 at night, gracelessly strumming an antique guitar, when Moustaki called. “Look,” he said. “I’m tired right now, but why don’t you come by next Tuesday at 5?”
Today Georges Moustaki is one the last living French folk songwriters of the 1950s to 1970s, known as chansonniers; these musicians were often classically trained and wrote highly literary and poetic lyrics. His story also epitomizes the journeys and trajectories of a very large population of Mediterranean Jews who found themselves in Alexandria, the cosmopolitan port city that offered trading opportunities, economic prosperity, and perhaps most important, the European culture the former colony still maintained. Moustaki and his family, like mine, and like many other Mediterranean Jewish families, spoke French. In the late 19th century a group of influential Parisian Jews came together and founded the Alliance Israélite Universelle, whose mission was to educate and advance Jews in the Middle East by exposing them to the French language and French culture. There was, however, a second and perhaps unanticipated effect on Jews like Moustaki: Even though they did not have French passports or French ancestry, they felt a nagging and inexplicable pull toward France.
In many ways Moustaki was the realization of the Alliance’s goals and of cultured, Middle Eastern Jewish ambition. He came to France and wrote songs for Édith Piaf and quickly gained success as a French singer and songwriter. At first he may have admired Jacques Brel and Georges Brassens—whose first name he took as his own—but he was soon able to join their ranks. He could fill a café by showing up only 15 minutes beforehand; he packed stadiums and traveled extensively. At no point in his career did Moustaki lack a group of fans who were not only dedicated to him and to his songs, but who were also young. Only in 2009 did he have to stop playing concerts, and that was because of his health.
However, despite living in France, speaking and writing primarily in French, and feeling a profound love of France and of French culture, Moustaki still felt like an outsider. His muddled family origins, and his alienation from actual Egyptian culture as a result of a francophone environment, made him and other Alexandrians anti-cosmopolitans in the deepest sense; the varied nationalities of these Mediterranean Jews didn’t make them citizens of everywhere, but rather, citizens of nowhere. Moustaki says this himself in one of his songs: Je ne suis pas d’ailleurs, je ne suis pas d’ici. “I am not from elsewhere, I am not from here.”
The unusual sensation of being from nowhere is what made Moustaki stand out among the French songwriters of the ’60s and ’70s. In what is perhaps his most famous song, “Le Métèque,” he amalgamates all his various personas—the Mediterranean Gypsy, the wandering Jew, the Greek shepherd, the vagabond—and romanticizes them. Moustaki took what seems in other songs to be a painful part of his identity and turned it into a charming personality trait. With this song Moustaki became the voice of French-speaking Middle Eastern Jews.
I arrived early to his apartment on Île Saint-Louis and wandered outside for a quarter of an hour. I tried to come up with conversation topics beyond the initial and bromidic what an honor to meet you, or I can’t believe I’m finally here. I wanted to have something substantial to say, I wanted to impress him, or in short, I wanted him to remember me. But what could I possibly say? I couldn’t talk about how things used to be in Alexandria, because I had never even been to Egypt. I couldn’t tell him a joke in Arabic the way my father or grandfather might have been able to. All I could think of was to ask if he had bought his bicycle at my great-grandfather’s store, which was the biggest in Alexandria.
When I finally entered his apartment, his housekeeper told me he was very tired. He was hooked up to an extensive breathing apparatus—as I am sure were many other Gitanes-smoking French musicians of his generation. Although he was sitting slouched over on his couch, which faced a large wall of windows through which you could see the Parisian skyline, I could tell that when standing he was a tall, even imposing person. His hair was white, but still as long as on his album covers, his eyes were the same grayish tint of my grandfathers’. His apartment was a real atelier—a studio, with countless guitars suspended on the walls, ouds and balalaikas leaning against pillars, stacks of scorebooks, and a black grand piano in the corner of the room near the window. The corridors were lined with works of art and also some of Moustaki’s own paintings. “I have a show of my work in the summer,” he said, on catching my eye canvassing the walls, as I took a seat with my back to the window.
Sitting before me was Georges Moustaki, the greatest Alexandrian, greater for Alexandrians even than Alexander himself. I was, quite simply, starstruck. “Would you like a coffee?” he asked me. My immediate reaction was to tell him I didn’t drink coffee. But instead I paused. “You do, after all, want to have a coffee with me, don’t you?” he repeated. Of course I did.
A farming town hid a Jewish-born teacher during the Holocaust. I went to dig up what it had buried.