Nicole Barchilon Frank: It’s A Small World After All… Shouldn’t We Act Like It?

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

“It’s a small world after all.” That was my favorite song when I was little and I guess, in many ways, it still is. As I rush around getting ready for Pesach (Passover) and also for a trip to Spain and Morocco WAHOOOOOOOOOO! I’m a little bit more crazy than usual. And, I am trying to ride the WAVE of this time, rather than get smashed by it.

My name, Barchilon, comes from my paternal grandmother’s Moroccan name Perla Barchilon. My paternal Moroccan grand-father’s name was Jaime Cohen. When my father came to this country after WWII he didn’t want the name Cohen. It was way too Jewish and so he took his mother’s name Barchilon. Barchilon is a Jewish name too, it comes from the city of Barcelona, most likely. When my grandmother Perla’s ancestors were expelled from Spain in 1492 (the year the Jews were forced to flee Spain, convert or be killed), like many immigrants, the name of place left became the new name. The name Barchilon may also come from the Hebrew bar shelanu, or some form of those words which mean “son of ours.”

This journey I am going on with our son Ethan is through his school, the Northcoast Preparatory Academy. When I heard about this trip I told him, YOU ARE GOING! Then he asked me to come along. What’s money anyway? Who needs it? So, despite the cost and the challenges, I decided to come along. My mother and my step-father graciously offered to help and since this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me with my sixteen year old, I am on board. My husband also felt that it was of great benefit and supported the choice.

Part of why this trip appealed to me for our son Ethan, is that he and the other students going are acting and performing in a play in Barcelona. This play, The Sheep and The Whale, was written by Moroccan playwright Ahmed Gazhali. The play is about crossing the Straight of Gibraltar and about illegal immigration, the hunger for a better life, murder, violence, poverty, and the longing for home and country that lives in the heart of many immigrants. It is based on a true story:

“June 8th, 1992, at 2 a.m. a small wooden boat transporting 20 Moroccan illegal immigrants sank in the Strait of Gibraltar. A Russian freighter, that happened to be passing through the Strait as the drama was unfolding, managed to save one person and to pull out several bodies from the sea. In order to return the survivor and the bodies to the Moroccan authorities, the freighter was obliged to pay right-of-entry fees to the Port of Tangier. Negotiations dragged on until dawn…This event occurred a few days before Aïd Elkebir, The Festival of Sacrifice.”

~From the Moroccan newspaper, L’Opinion, 11th of June, 1992

Well, my father illegally crossed the Straight of Gibraltar as a young man on a fishing boat under a tarp of fish. He was with one other young man, they were both fleeing Nazi-occupied Morocco to join up with the Free French Forces who had a large fleet ship in the port of Gibraltar. My father made it to that ship and joined the Free French Forces. He emigrated to this country after the war and that’s how I got here, although I was born in Paris. My father will turn 90 in Paris, while my 16-year-old son plays an Islamic Moroccan immigrant in a show in Barcelona. How could I not have my son be part of this story about crossing the Straight illegally and going to Marrakesh and Barcelona?

My father’s family lived in Morocco for over 500 years. It is only in his generation that they left Morocco. Before they left Morocco, they were in Spain, and before that they lived in the Holy Land of Ancient Israel and Palestine. I have one Uncle still living in Morocco, my Uncle Maurice Cohen, whom everyone calls Bébé (which means baby, since he was the youngest). My Uncle Bébé is now 86. He was a Moroccan tennis star when he was younger. Another small world connection, Ethan loves tennis and is currently number two on the “ladder” at his school. We will see my uncle when we go to Marrakesh; he lives in the mountains about two hours from there.

It feels absolutely monumental to me that I am getting to have this experience, earth-movingly huge. I am crossing the globe, this small planet with my son, flesh of my flesh of my father’s flesh, of his parents flesh, etc… back to our homes from not so long ago and from VERY long ago. Our family stories cycle in many many ways. This particular circling is one of choice and joy and yet, I can’t help but be thinking about all the folks forced to flee their homes seeking a better life or respite from war, famine, and oppression.

My own life has been one of abundance and love, with plenty of hurt and mess too, but not because of oppressive governments, war, religious intolerance or grueling poverty. The story of my people is one we tell every year in the present tense, never in the past. As long as there are people oppressed and endangered, the story of fleeing oppression is not over. My son accompanies me on this journey, where he plays an illegal immigrant, a man torn in two by his need to connect with his people, his family and his home in Morocco and also a man who loved a woman and hoped for a different life. The character named Hassan is forced to confront his story on the freighter amidst great turmoil. He’s been living a life of lies with his Parisian wife and the story unfolds on stage and in real life, every day.

So, as many of you sit down for your Seders or celebrate spring in all the various ways we do in this country, I hope you will remember that the story is not over. Our re-telling and remembering must be followed up with ACTIONS to make this whole small world a place of peace, justice, kindness and goodness. A place where the flavors, colors and tastes of home are not forfeited as the price for the possibility of living with dignity and hope.

Isn’t it time, really time, now to see everyone on this planet as members of our own family and to embrace them, not shun them, for their differences, languages, practices, gifts or wounds? It’s a small world after all.

Nicole will be winging her way to Barcelona and Marrakesh as you read these words, she will try to pen some thoughts while in the lands of her ancestors, and she sends you wishes for sumptuous feasts around your tables, with room for guests unknown and perhaps who don’t have home, but who might find it at your table if you invite them in.