On 28 october 1919, Elissa Rhais, a 27 year old Algerian woman born in the small town of Blida, disembarked from a ship at the French port of Marseilles with her son, René, daughter, Monique, and a nephew, Raoul, on her way to Paris.
Less than six months after her arrival this hitherto unknown Arab woman was the toast of the French capital, famous in the highest intellectual and literary circles in the land. La Revue des Deux Mondes, a prestigious literary magazine, had just published her novel, “Le café chantant” following a decision by Plon, one of France’s most highly regarded publishers, to snap up her first book, “Saada the Moroccan woman”.
All the reviews were enthusiastic. It seemed French critics were almost at a loss to describe the talent of this newly discovered Algerian woman writer. To produce novels with such evocative power she must be “the authentic daughter of those Arab story tellers who strung together the pearls and the jewels of the “Thousand and one Nights”, said one. “I don’t think”, wrote a literary critic in the austere “Journal des Débats”, that there is presently in the whole of France another author who masters so well the power of creation and of bringing us to believe the fictions she imagines are reality”.
For 20 years, from 1920 to 1939, Elissa Rhais was the undisputed queen of French oriental literature. She was widely regarded as the female equivalent of Pierre Loti, the famous French oriental novelist who died in 1923.
And of course she had a huge advantage over Pierre Loti, she actually was an Arab. Elissa Rhais was a prolific writer, following publication of “Saada”, which had 30 reprints, she wrote “The Jews”, “The Pasha’s Daughter”, “The Daughter of the Douar”, “The Andalouz”, “The Rifaine”, and many more. Her short stories were given pride of place on the front page of some of France’s leading newspapers and magazines. Her soirées attracted guests such as the famous writers Colette and Paul Morand, actress Sarah Bernhardt, and the Algerian writer Jean Amrouche.
In addition to her writing Elissa Rhais gave numerous interviews on the condition of women in the Arab world and, as a result, received dozens of letters of women requesting advice or assistance, some of them scribbled on dirty scraps of paper and mailed from some remote North African village.
In 1926 Elissa Rhais was commissioned by the French government to conduct a study into the lifestyle and conditions of the Moroccan women. She received a grant of six thousand francs -- a considerable amount of money at that time -- to travel to Morocco with her 27 year old nephew, Raoul,to undertake the research.
During the debates organised for the “special guest of the French government” in Rabat, Fes and other Moroccan cities, Elissa Rhais answered the questions put by her Moroccan “sisters” with wit, telling them “not to refuse any of the promises of the West but at the same time to remain faithful to the religion and the traditions of your ancestors. Reject the oppression, but don’t be lured by the mirages of a freedom that often leads European women to behave in an immoral way”, she advised.
In 1932, just 13 years after arriving in Paris as a complete unknown, Elissa Rhais had an adaptation of one of her novels playing at a theatre on the Champs-Elysées in Paris, while another one “Kerkeb, the Berber Dancer”, was in production at the Opera. As a feminist, a writer, and as a personality of “Le Tout Paris” she was at the pinnacle of her career .
Yet only a few years later, in 1939, Elissa Rhais had slipped silently out of the limelight and into obscurity. Few were privy to the details which led to the fall of Elissa Rhais, though even fewer had been privy to the reality behind her astonishing rise to fame.
The real story of Elissa Rhais
Her real name was not Elissa Rhais but Leila Bou Mendil. Born in 1882, in the small Algerian town of Blida to an Arab father and a Jewish mother, Leila was raised above the small shop in which her father made a living. At 17, Leila was married, against her will, to a wealthy shopkeeper, a man twice older than her.
Leila, although she could not refuse the marriage or her new husband his conjugal rights, left him in no doubt of her feelings of abhorrance towards him. After months of trying, without success, to woo her affections, her husband cursed her and banished her to the harem, where she would live with his other wives and the women servants of the household.
For 15 long years, from 1899 until 1914, when her husband’s death liberated her, Leila did not leave the confines of the harem, save for short weekly visits to the public bath (hammam). Leila was not popular with most of the other women in the harem.
Almost totally deprived of any form of intellectual stimulation, only the intensity of her anger and grief saved her from the abyss of mental collapse. Fortunately for her sanity, not all the women of the harem were hostile to Leila. The oldest wife, Aisha, did not treat the girl as an ennemy. Aisha, who had travelled in Egypt, parts of Arabia and Morocco, would sit together with Leila and recount stories, sometimes true, sometimes of her own invention, to pass the long hours of inactivity.
Aisha kept Leila amused with tales of gun-runners, Arab princes and women freedom fighters of the Rif. Aisha acted out the parts of the characters in her stories, playing at the same time the queen, the vizir, the belly dancer, the executioner and the victim. Aisha claimed to have hidden behind a curtain to witness the trial of Lalla Zulikha, the pasha’s daughter, who fell in love with a Jewish officer and was subsequently sentenced to death by the men of her tribe. She recounted stories of “Saada the Moroccan woman” who to save her family from destitution was forced to become a prostitute. And she would sing songs she had heard in an Arab cafe, years ago, in another world, in another life.
After Aisha’s death in 1909, Leila was alone again, she became enormously fat and suffered dreadful depression until the evening when the sounds of crying and lamenting from the women of the harem told her her husband had died and that she was, at last, free. The only positive thing to show for her long years of encarceration, a son, called Qassem by her husband’s family, and René by his mother.
Leila returned to her home town of Blida. Her father had died the previous year and her mother died soon after her return, in 1917. At last, she was a free woman with a house and some money. Leila, who had never been to school, signed the legal documents with an “X”.
After a difficult period of readjustment, she slowly readapted to a normal life, loosing weight and re-entering local society. It was at about that time that she decided to employ the services of a secretary. A distant relative, Raoul Tabet, the son of her mother’s cousin, on the Jewish side of the family, was recruited for the job.
Raoul Tabet, a ghost writer or an author?
The son of a poor widow, living in the suburbs of Algiers, Raoul had been a brilliant high school student, but his aspiration of attaining a degree in French litterature were dashed by his impoverished circumstances. The offer of a job as a private secretary to his distant aunt, who planned to move to France, was something of a minor miracle for Raoul. Obviously, he would have to interrupt his studies to take up the job, but, he felt, maybe there would be an opportunity to resume them in Paris. It was almost too good to be true.
Raoul was 18 when he moved to Blida to work with his aunt Leila. It was an easy life, his aunt had some money and liked to entertain guests. Her home attracted the local intelligentsia, both Jewish and Moslem, although Raoul himself did not know quite what to make of this plump aunt, who was sometimes vulgar and ugly, and at other times, charming and attractive. Dressed in an ornately embroidered kaftan, reclining on a white leather sofa, her big dark eyes widened by a touch of khol, she spoke Arabic with her visitors in a warm and sensual voice.
The young man was both fascinated and horrified by her. On the eve of his twentieth birthday, celebrated with a large party, Raoul and his aunt became lovers. He was 20, she was 37. The following morning, to dissipate the melancholic mood that overcame him, Leila told him a story. It was the same story she had heard years before in the harem of the man who had stolen her youth, of Saada, the beautiful Moroccan woman who had sold herself to save her family.
Raoul was captivated, the tale of Saada awakened in him a fascination for oriental literature. He began reading the works of the classic orientalist French writers such as Chateaubriand, Flaubert, Loti, and the brothers Tharaud. He also began to visit the old Arab quarter of the town, where he made a friend of the old doorkeeper of the most famous hammam, or bath house,a man who knew so many secrets. With the story of Saada, Leila had opened up the door of a new world to Raoul -- the Arab world.
One evening, the young Jewish man began writing the story of Saada, the Moroccan woman, intermingling the details as told by Leila, with other elements taken from stories recounted during his long conversations with the doorkeeper of the hammam and his reading of the orientalists.
When he plucked up the courage to read the first chapter to his aunt, she was amazed by his talent. It was as if she was hearing again, after 15 years, the voice of her friend Aisha. As Leila advised Raoul about the characters in his book, the young man began to wonder if Saada had been a real woman known to his aunt. Responding to her young lover’s questions, gradually, Leila revealed her secret, detailing her unhappiness during the years she had spent prisoner in a harem. The two developed a real closeness and, hardly had Raoul finished the book telling the story of Saada, than the story of another of Aisha’s characters had inspired “Le Café Chantant”.
Leila was elated, her instinct told her Raoul had found exactly the right blend of oriental mystery and sensuality to describe the characters. The more she listened to the young man reading his manuscripts, the more she was convinced that she had written them. Raoul, she came to believe, had only been the hand which traced letters onto a page, the scribe who put down words selected by her.
But what is even more amazing is the fact that she convinced Raoul to sign the books with the pen name Elissa Rhais,and to pretend she had written them. “You are a Jew and a young man, you have no future”, she told him. “But if people believe I am the author we shall be rich together”.
So began one of the largest literary confidence tricks of modern times. For 20 years Raoul Tabet spent his nights writing books and shorts stories that delighted his readers. For two decades he stood discreetly beside his aunt/mistress (who finally adopted him), as she took all the glory for his talent.
The ultimate confession
It was not until 1939, when the French decided to award Elissa Rhais the Legion d’Honneur for her services to literature, the truth became known. Official investigators looking, as a matter of routine into Elissa Rhais’ past, discovered that the famous writer was a total illiterate who, on the occasion of her mother’s death, had signed the council register with an “X”. Summoned, with her son Raoul, by an adviser to the Ministry of Education, Elissa Rhais, who thought that she was about to be decorated, could barely absorb all that was said. She was only aware of the devastating news that her publisher and the French government now knew she had been party to a “swindle”. They knew that all the books to which she had put her name had actually been written by Raoul. She collapsed and spent the last months of her life in a coma, dying in 1940.
A full blown scandal was only averted by the outbreak of World War II, which occupied the attentions of government and public alike. After Leila’s death, the scandal was stifled. The four or five persons who knew about it decided it was better not to admit that the whole of France’s intellectual elite had been hood-winked, admiring for years the “feminine touch” of Elissa’s talent. And during those years of war, France badly needed her North African soldiers, a scandal involving one of the country’s leading and most influential Algerians would have been quite inopportune.
All remaining stocks of Elissa Rhais’ books were pulped, and everybody, apparently, forgot about her. Today, it is almost impossible to find a single photograph of the woman Parisienne literary society once feted as the jewel in its oriental crown.
Raoul, who shortly after Elissa’s death attemped suicide, eventually married and started a new life, working as a clerk in a government ministry. He only rarely mentioned the name of Elissa Rhais. He kept a few of her books in his library and sometimes said that he had shared a house with the woman and had written books with her. It was something he appeared to regard as unimportant and his wife and sons did not pursue the matter.
In 1967 as an old man of 70, Raoul sent a cable to his son Paul, who was working in Morocco, asking him to return home urgently. Over the next four weeks the old man detailed the full story of his relationship with Leila. He showed him an old suitcase containing all the manuscripts and correspondence he had signed Elissa Rhaisand told his son how he had allowed Leila to take the glory which should have been his.
“When I asked him why he had not spoken out he told me he was afraid”, said Paul. “Dont forget he was very young and convinced that he had committed a big swindle, reaching beyond the literary world. He also felt a debt of gratitude to Leila, who frequently told him he would never have written the books if it hadn’t been for her. Maybe he knew it would kill her if he revealed the truth. As it happened the whole thing blew up in their faces anyway”, Raoul’s son recalls.
Less than two years after revealing his long kept secret, Raoul Tabet succeeded in killing himself in 1968.
Like his father before him, Paul decided not to say anything about the real Elissa Rhais. For 12 years he kept the family secret until one evening, driving the then director of the French Cultural Centre in Rome, writer Bernard Henry Levy, to the airport, he began to tell him about his father. Bernard-Henry Lévy was so enthralled, he deliberately missed his plane, choosing to spend the whole evening in the bar at the airport with Paul Tabet, in order to hear the end of the story.
In the middle of the night, Paul Tabet was awakened by a French publisher who offered him a contract to write the story of Leila and Raoul. The book, Elissa Rhais, was published in 1982 (Editions Bernard Grasset, Paris), and a little over 10 years later, director Jacques Otmezguine adapted it for French television, giving the incredible story of Leila and Raoul a new lease of life.
“The whole story”, explains Paul Tabet, “is about the transmission of a secret. It took Leila years and years before she was able to tell Raoul the real story of her life in the harem. It then took a further quarter of a century, after her death, for my father to tell the story of his life. And it took me 12 years before I could discuss it”.
Nobody has taken the trouble to re-publish the works of Elissa Rhais, which are not available except to those prepared to go to the French National Library. The excerpts which appear in Paul Tabet’s book are very dated, including, as they do, long and rambling descriptions of the Arab world of yesteryear.
At the end of his dramatic confession, Raoul told his son Paul, he believed one of the worst aspects of the hoax was that he had never enjoyed the books: “I never did really like my works, except maybe the first two, “Saada”, and “Le Café Chantant”. But the others, even the “Pasha’s Daughter” and “The Jews”, I am not proud of them”.
The bitter irony of this confession of Raoul’s, is that of the many books and stories he produced over the years, it was those first two, the only ones he professed to have liked, which owed the most to Leila, her experiences and influence -- fuelling even further the conundrum -- who was Elissa Rhais?
(The Middle East magazine, March 1994)
Droits de Reproduction strictement réservés © Chris Kutschera 2012
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