The AesthEt(h)ic of the Fragment
Memories of who we are now, who we were, who we wanted to become, are wrapped up in memories of where we are, where we were, and where we will be (would like to be)
Jones and Garde-Hansen 2012: 4
To explore the complexity of the performances of Jewish memories and identities in the context of contemporary migrations, the project focuses on the spatial dimension of personal and shared experiences. This perspective allows grasping, beyond the mere movement of migrants across space, the deep existential implications of leaving, encountering and inhabiting places for individuals and groups (Tuan 1977).
Methodologically, Europe’s (In)Visible Jewish Migrants turns to “mapping,” “the tool long favoured by geographers,” as it “offers a different way to achieve the goal of capturing complexity” (Bodenhamer 2015: 17).
I invited different professionals who work with exceptional sensitivity with “the visual” to work together on a research-creation project, to find an answer to the question I have long pondered: does the form of a map – whether creative, deep or thick – fit the knowledge – complex, diverse or contradictory – embedded in a life story?
This section offer a first overview of the outputs realised in the framework of such collaborations.
Tuan Y.F., Space and Place. The Perspective of Experience, University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota, 1977.
Bodenhamer D.J., “Narrating Space and Place”, in Bodenhamer D.J. et al. (eds), Deep Maps and Spatial Narratives, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2015, p.17.
On spatial humanities:
Bodenhamer D.J. et al. (eds), The Spatial Humanities. Gis and the Future of Humanities Scholarship, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2010.
On digital humanities: Presner T. et al., HyperCities. Thick Mapping in the Digital Humanities, Harvard University Press, Cambridge and London, 2014.
Ze haya be-leil Shabbat,
The eve of the Shabbat
In the late 1940s, the Jewish community of Libya was the smallest in the North African region. An estimated Jewish population of about 30,000 individuals lived in the Tripolitanian region, while Jews living in the Cyrenaica were about 6,000. The migration of about 30,400 Jews from Libya in a very short period – between 1949 and 1952 – represents a unique phenomenon since almost ninety percent of the Libyan Jewish community left for the state of Israel in the immediate aftermath of its establishment (May 1948).
The literature on this phenomenon of mass migration tends to concentrate on the major reasons which caused it, and more rarely explores the personal, intimate journey of its protagonists. Mrs Rina Messika Guetta was one of them.
The story presented in this map is based on the recollections by Mrs Rina Messika Guetta, as they emerged in conversation with Piera Rossetto. The interview is part of the Collection Mapping Living Memories, by the CDEC Foundation (Milan) (more on the collection here: https://edizionicafoscari.unive.it/en/edizioni4/riviste/annali-di-ca-foscari-serie-orientale/2014/1/across-europe-and-the-mediterranean-sea/).
Rina’s letter to her friend Nini is a creative elaboration by Martina Melilli, inspired by the lifestory of Mrs. Rina Messika Guetta, and illustrated by Michela Nanut. Text and drawings intertwine and shape a creative form of mapping, able to shed light on the more individual, micro perspective on this event of mass migration.
Art Direction and Texts: Martina Melilli
Graphic and Illustrations: Michela Nanut
Scientific Advice: Piera Rossetto
Ze haya be-leil Shabbat, The eve of the Shabbat was originally written in Italian and translated into English (by Ian Mansbridge), printed on paper (170 g/m2). The texts are available here:
Storyboard of Rachele Abravanel
with the kindly collaboration of Rachele’s daughter Manuela Buaron and the CDEC Foundation (Milan)
The genesis and development of the next two creative maps is explored in the contribution Mapping memories, charting empathy: framing acollaborative research-creation project, by Martina Melilli and Piera Rossetto in From the European South 8 (2021). http://europeansouth.postcolonialitalia.it/journal/2021-8/FES8_10.MelilliRossetto.pdf
The storyboard marks the beginning of the professional collaboration between Melilli and Rossetto in the framework of the project Europe’s (In)Visible Jewish Migrants. It displays Melilli’s exploration of the lifestory of Rachele Abravanel, who was forced to leave Tripoli in 1967 with her family and settled in Milan (Italy).
Rachele was one the about 6,000 Jews who remained in Libya after the mass migration of the majority of the country’s Jewish population between 1948 and 1952. Contrary to Rina Messika Guetta (whose story is creatively interpreted in the map above), Rachele did not leave Tripoli until the situation in the country became unbearable.
Rachele’s story is not particularly exceptional. Indeed, under many respects it is an “ordinary story.” However, beneath the “ordinary recollections” of a life spent within the family she was born in and the family she created as a young woman, run the roots and routes of an intense and long life trajectory. Through the prism of her life, we are invited to observe, from the microperspective of the individual destiny, many global events: the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the migration of many Sephardi Jews from the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean towards the West; the Italian colonisation of Libya; the Second World War and the anti-Jewish legislation; the establishement of the State of Israel and the mass migration of Libyan Jews which followed; the procalmation of the independent Kingdom of Libya and the economic boom brought about by the discovery and exploitation of oil in Libya, just to mention some.
Work in Progress, by Martina Melilli, Rovereto (Italy) 13/07/2020
Storyboard Rachele Abravanel,
by Martina Melilli
(Forex® (PVC) 100×70 cm)
While the Storyboard is configurated as a form of visualization that embraces Rachele’s life with as much content as possible, giving to her memories as much space as possible, the second creative map Mindili (my handkerchief) looks radically different with just few visual elements. However, it is precisely the “scarcity” of elements that point to Melilli aim: designing her vision
“of Rachele’s map, her hypothetical treasure map depicting the most precious things in her memories. A map I imagine she would have kept in a handkerchief, one she always kept in her pocket or tied around her neck orhair. Both for protection and to ensure she could always find the right road” (Melilli and Rossetto 2021).
Mindili (my handkerchief)
Preparatory drawing and (below) embroidered Mindili (my handkerchief), by Martina Melilli
The threads of Rachele’s most precious map were wevead by the hands of Ms Souad, a woman who also crossed the Mediterranean. In this oeuvre we clearly see the intervention of the artist as Melilli concludes:
“And the cotton thread and Souad’s hands have the job of reuniting and retracing the broken threads of history, seeking to reconcile times, spaces and stories, both in ideal terms and in their intentions. Meanwhile, I shoulder all the responsibility for this action I have created, instigated and chosen” (Melilli and Rossetto 2021).
Rachele’s story passed from hand to hand and another visualization took form. In this case, I asked Verena Resch, graphic designer, to transform the Storyboard Rachele Abravanel by Martina Melilli into a digital product. Melilli’s storyboard, realised on a physical support, with printed pictures and post-it for comments and explanations, had a limited possiblity of circulation. Verena’s challenge was to take in her hands this hand-made creation and transform it into something able to cross physical borders.
The Digital Storyboard represents Resch’s interpretation of Melilli’s original visualization. Being used to work in the life science field, Resch main challenge was to deal with so much text. As she told me while discussing her experience with Rachele’s story, the most common reccomendation she gives to her clients in the life science field, is keeping text to the minimum. As she realised that the text, the story, is the heart of this project, she understood that this advice was not applicable to this case. Resch found technical solutions to enhance readability as well as to express the eventfullness and non-linenarity of Rachele’s story.
The Digital Storyboard represents, in the project’s framework, a way to engage with the digital turn in doing memory research (Garde-Hansen et al. 2009; Drozdzewski and Birdsall 2019) as well as with the exponential growth of digital projects in the context of the history of Jews from Arab and Muslim countries.
Mapping Roots, Charting Routes
Jewish Migrations from North Africa and
the Middle East to Milan (1940s-1970s)
The digital visualisation Mapping Roots, Charting Routes concerns the specific case of Jewish migrations from the Middle East and North Africa to Milan (Italy). It is based on 108 interviews conducted by the CDEC Foundation – Edoth Project (2011-2019) with Jews from Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Libya and Syria, who settled in the city between the 1940s and 1970s. The corpus includes 48 women and 60 men.
Click here for the digital visualization https://www.cdec.it/mappingroots/
Mapping Roots, Charting Routes can be navigated by setting different filters: gender, home community, identity documents, year of settlement in Milan, place and cause of departure. The general map highlights the settlement trip to Milan from the country of origin. By clicking on the individual trajectory, dashed lines display the intermediate trips and an individual portrait opens.
Along with the anonymized personal data of the traveller, the individual portrait includes the countries of origin of the family members, the identity documents they possessed, the languages spoken in the family circle along with the professional activity and the cause of departure. In a future development of the project, more information will be added in this section.
The map is accompanied by a series of graphs and charts which elaborate the information in an aggregated form: according to the home community, that is the country of origin. For instance, the graphs display the correlation between the personal identity claimed by the interviewee with the identity documents possessed by her/his family.
Through this sample of interviews, the digital visualisation Mapping Roots, Charting Routes attempts to depict the overall complexity of the migratory phenomenon while paying attention to the peculiarity of each journey. It is an attempt to hold the ‘whole’ and the ‘fragment’ in the effort to come closer to the sense people make—and made—of their journey as individuals but also as part of a larger collective.
In a way, this is what digital humanities are about: keeping the human experience at the core while experimenting with computer assisted technologies to elaborate, visualize and connect the data of and about that very human experience.
I wish to thank the CDEC Foundation and its wonderful staff for providing me with unvaluable archival materials and trustful support. I acknowledge Dr. Sara Radice for the User experience & interface design as well as Dr. Fabio Sturaro for the Software design & development.