Of Tefillin, Textiles, and Tech?

Samuel Sami Everett explores the multiple dimensions of distance that shape his relationship to the Parisian neighborhood of le Sentier, the location of his study of multireligious ethno-commercial exchanges in his CSSH article, “Une Ambiance Diaspora: Continuity and Change in Parisian Maghrebi Imaginaries.”

Of Tefillin1, Textiles, and Tech?

To go “behind the scenes” of ethnographic writing—the very vocation of which is to present and then reach beyond that which is visible on the surface—is an invitation to “go behind the scenes of the scenes.” This means getting more personal than usual and bringing certain out-takes back in. Let us, then, address the question of studying a “field” that is closely related to one’s own life over the long term. First, things clearly change; people move and move on, and circumstances shift. The deep acknowledgement of this is one of the trickier tasks of anthropology. We are asked to at once capture something but admit that it is already gone, to show a reality and shine a light on how we have co-constructed it. In other words, we must juggle the multiple temporalities of narration in order to render “the here and now”; to give a snapshot into “the everyday” while maintaining the critical distance of scholars who need time (and space, perhaps) to extract themselves from the experiential. The classic responses to these praxical obstacles relate to “distance” or lack thereof (see Fabian 1983) and personal proximity in matters relating to both the orientalization of self and Other (see Abu-Lughod 1986). 

My attachment to the Parisian neighborhood of le Sentier extends back to my childhood. My involvement in business there began almost two decades ago, and my intellectual interest in textiles, tech, and “ethno-trade” in le Sentier was the initial impetus for the doctoral work that I commenced a decade ago. Le Sentier, to me and to many others born after its textiles heyday, speaks to family stories. For me, these stories revolve around Zeitoun (whose French passport name is Olivier), the Tune (Tunisian Jewish) fabric trader who helped my grandparents in their store before I was born. They also speak to my later rediscovery of le Sentier, when I moved to central Paris as an adult, and my hot-cold reception of La vérité si je mens, the first of a now-infamous series of films about North African Jewish textiles traders in le Sentier (Gilou 1997). It is a hilarious portrait of Sephardic culture in France, but it also conventionalizes that culture through a series of Manichaean clichés and characterizations to which I was subjected as a child. Remembering M-Switch, the le Sentier tech company where I conducted my study of multi-religious workplace conviviality has taken on further personal prescience since the birth of my daughter and my movement from the commercial sphere, in which I was formerly rooted, into academia, Ph.D. in hand. However, my recent years, first in London and now in Cambridge, have reintroduced distance into my relationship with le Sentier.

Distance is multi-dimensional. I have become removed in significant ways from my interlocutors at M-Switch. Telecommunications engineer and rabbi James’s dissociation from me after my study represents, I think, a broader dynamic of contemporary suspicion in some Parisian Jewish communities of les sociologues (meaning all scholars) who, it is sometimes said, over-state Jewish wellbeing in contemporary European society. I have also now lost touch with Guy, M-Switch’s Commercial Director, even though we discovered that we share a family branch from Oran. Laila, with whom I spent almost an entire summer, like many other young francophone Muslims, moved to the Gulf in the hope of connecting Islamic ethics and business. I have not seen her since 2015. 

Ambiance Diaspora—the title of my essaythen, stems from those three distances, afterlives that are explicitly absent from yet implicitly present in the essay: suspicion, religious reification, and family or familial history and its transmission. The question of distance, therefore, is not solely one of geography or temporality in terms of “fieldwork”; it can also be about generational shifts in perspective.

I initially thought of calling my essay “Of Tefillin, Textiles, and Tech.” This, I thought, would guarantee recognizability, but that same immediate “recognizability” was part of my issue with La vérité si je mens; I wanted to get away from certain over-simplifications. What, I asked myself, was the wider focus of this work, beyond explaining a seldom-discussed history? 

Through the story of M-Switch I tried to represent contemporary intergenerational feelings of both proximity to and distance from the Maghreb among Maghrebi Jews and Muslims in France, as well as their connection to institutional, and slightly superficial, notions of vivre ensemble (living together) that had been so strongly encouraged in Paris since 2015. I tell a Parisian story of which tefillin and Jewish observances of North African and particularly Algerian rites are a part, and to which their historical re-inscription is hugely important, but unlike tefillin the notion of ambiance used at M-Switch enabled me to evoke the Maghreb in the plural. 

In terms of perspective, ambiance also homes in on the specificity and the salvage nature of contemporary research on North African Jewish identification in Paris. This approach is a generational continuation of Jonathan Boyarin’s anthropological work on Yiddish Landsmanschaft (landmarks), with a shift in focus to end-of-generation North African Jewish social institutions (2011). (M-Switch is the commercial representation of this.) Boyarin’s comparative reference point for Paris is Stanton Street in New York City, but instead of looking across cities, I explore the imbrication of trading structures and practices from le Sentier’s textile period, commencing in the 1960s, to the tech revolution there in the late 1980s, for which M-Switch serves as an exemplar. In other words, I compare across a generational commercial shift, from textiles to hi/new-tech. Yet doing so leaves me with a genealogical conundrum: how to translate a Parisian context into English while, by corollary, drawing on a predominantly Anglophone scholarship, albeit a critical one. This is a question that I will be addressing in my current project on Maghribi Jewishness.

Abu-Lughod, Lila. 1986. Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society. Oakland: University of California Press

Boyarin, Jonathan. 2011. Mornings at the Stanton Street Shul: A Summer on the Lower East Side. New York: Fordham University Press.

Fabian, Johannes. 1983. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. New York: Columbia University Press.

Gilou, Thomas, director. 1997. La vérité si je mens. Produced by Vertigo and Les Productions, France.

  1. Tefillin are phylacteries used for prayer in the mornings. They contain parchment with Torah verses inscribed on them. James would often lay tefillin at M-Switch with others.