Research & Creative Activity

Indiana University

Office of Research and the University Graduate School
Volume XVII, Number 1, April 1994

Remembrance of Places Past

Despite what Thomas Wolfe once wrote, you can go home again. Just ask Indiana University associate professor of anthropology and collective memory expert Joelle Bahloul. In the late 1970s, Bahloul, a Sephardic Jew who immigrated with her family to France at the age of ten, returned to conduct fieldwork in her native Algeria. When she neared her birthplace of Setif, she decided to revisit her early childhood home. From the 1930s until their emigration in 1962, members of Bahloul's family had shared dwellings at Dar-Refayil (the Arabic name for a Jewish man who formerly owned the house) with a group of Muslim families.

As a child, Bahloul often listened to her relatives' fond recollections of Dar-Refayil, a two-story Andalusian-style construction with thirty rooms arranged around a cobbled open-air courtyard. Though cramped and lacking in material possessions, it was described as the epitome of domestic harmony, rich with interpersonal ties--like "a boat crossing troubled seas without losing its balance." Yet she was hardly prepared for the dramatic scene that would unfold on the day of her visit.

Bahloul's eyes sparkle as she begins to tell the story. When she neared Dar- Refayil, a woman abandoned housekeeping chores and asked her who she had come to see. "I just picked a name at random, and as it turned out, the woman whose name I chose was still living in the same room in the same house."

When Bahloul identified herself as the granddaughter of a former occupant of the building, the response among the women was immediate and effusive. "All of a sudden," she says, "they started to chant, to kiss my hands, to ululate and recite Koranic verses. Then they led me on a tour of the house that resembled a journey through the past." In each room, the women described moments they had shared with her relatives, and asked questions about what had become of them. For Bahloul, the impact of the experience at Dar-Refayil was undeniable. "It was at that moment that I realized the power of collective memory."

Like many social anthropologists, her interest in the field resonates with a deep personal commitment to understanding her own identity. "I wanted to know more about cultures and people because I thought it might help me better understand my personal history and the migrations my family has made," says Bahloul, whose scholarly pursuits have taken her to France, Israel, and ultimately, the United States. From this initial seed of personal interest has blossomed research ranging from ethnography of Western Europe and North Africa to the social anthropology of kinship and gender.

For scholars like Bahloul, social memory can be the lifeblood of research, helping to reconstruct the histories of past societies, and migrant groups in particular, that have left few artifacts or documentation in their wake. Oral histories allow individuals to retain a link to their past and transmit those memories to future generations. As such, they foster the preservation of entire cultures.

As Bahloul writes, "The Jewish narratives [of Dar-Refayil] reveal the processes whereby an immigrant group stores and reproduces its culture through the memory of its previous life. In this case, the past is a house; it has an architectural structure." Architecture, then, becomes a metaphorical construct that symbolically challenges the reality of deracination and detachment from the native land.

Although studying a migrant population's relation to space might seem paradoxical, Bahloul says that such a relationship can actually be quite dramatic. "When there is no entrenchment in territory, it allows for a lot of symbolic processes in the construction of a particular space, whether it be a home or a native territory." It's actually fairly common, she says. "Very few populations have remained in the same territory for generations and generations."

For Bahloul's family, uprooted during the Algerian war, the only symbolic connection to their North African past is the family memory of their former household. Through memory, writes Bahloul, this once-significant social structure is retained and linked symbolically with the Algerian experience. "Most of the former Jewish residents of Dar-Refayil have never returned to Sˇtif to visit the house. Rather, memory constitutes their symbolic return to their former home and native country."

Bahloul credits membership in scholarly groups as the catalyst for much of her research, particularly in French social thought, in which very close collaboration exists between cultural anthropologists, historians, and members of other social scientific disciplines. "In these fields, the boundaries are not clearly defined. We have many mutual interests."

It was during such a meeting of social scientists focusing on Jewish memory that Bahloul became inspired to use her personal and family culture in the study of social memory. Although she was exposed to oral histories during her childhood, she anticipated neither their potency in constructing the identity of her subjects nor the tremendous momentum they would provide for her research. She says she was literally carried by her informants' accounts. And very little prompting was needed: "All I had to do was tell them I wanted to hear."

Now, after the publication of her book, The Architecture of Memory, Bahloul is presently extending her research on social memory with two projects linked to her religious heritage: an analysis of matrimonial strategies among Sephardic Jews and an exploration of old Jewish quarters in major European cities.

This personal connection to her research has often proved bittersweet. She considers her study of a 1979 pilgrimage of Sephardic Jews to Constantine, Algeria, one of the most challenging assignments of her life, requiring her to set aside her emotions in the interest of objectivity. "When you see seventy people enter a cemetery crying all the tears of their body, it's hard to keep your tape running and maintain a distance of scholarship," she says.

Since arriving at IU in 1986, Bahloul has become increasingly aware of the relevance of social memory in American culture. "Just because the American national ideology is much younger than the European one doesn't lessen the relation between space and collective memory," she says.

In the spring of 1992, she initiated a course for both undergraduates and graduates entitled, "Culture and Memory," which incorporated both American and European experience. "It was an ideal teaching situation, involving mutual intellectual exchanges which benefitted both me and my students." Included in the course reader was an article about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. "I realized how active the transmission of this memory was to twenty-year-old American students who weren't even alive at that time."

Despite her considerable scholarly accomplishments, Bahloul still appears amazed at the ease with which she secured a faculty position in the United States and is impressed by the broad appeal of her research involving collective memory. Her first Bloomington lecture on the topic of matrimonial strategies among Sephardic immigrants in France attracted a crowd of more than a hundred people. "Here I was in the middle of America," she says, "talking to people about illiterate old women. The fact that these women and their experiences were recognized by an American academic institution seemed remarkable to me."

Although some skeptics claim that the topic of social memory is "trendy," Bahloul is convinced it will endure. "Every day on the news, we are exposed to the plight of the homeless, of refugees, who try desperately to cling to some social structure to define themselves and hold onto their heritage. The very concepts of home, of social ties, are integral elements of the human experience."

--Allison Block