Rabat - As tends to happen with the passage of time, much of Moroccan history is being forgotten as time goes on. Specifically, the portion of history in which Muslims and Jews coexisted somewhat peacefully, albeit divided, in the same city.
Rabat – As tends to happen with the passage of time, much of Moroccan history is being forgotten as time goes on. Specifically, the portion of history in which Muslims and Jews coexisted somewhat peacefully, albeit divided, in the same city.
New York Times journalist Michael Frank recently traveled to Fez and Marrakesh with Youness Abeddour, a guide and documentarian versed in the history of the mellah or Jewish quarter, in the hopes of investigating the remaining traces of Jewish life in Morocco. What he found is both haunting and alarming; thought provoking and a call for action.
Frank found that the signs of the once thriving Jewish population of over 240,000 people, now comprised of 3,000 nationwide and under 100 in Fez, were everywhere and almost nowhere to be found at the same time. Some, such as the buildings and tangible items in the mellah, were more obvious than others. The latter were found in the music and stories of the quarter, and even in an abandoned synagogue behind an ancient padlock opened with an “enormous key.”
Obvious or not, the traces of Jewish life are still present in Morocco– but only time will tell if they will be here for long.
The first significant division between Muslims and Jews came in 1438, when the Sultan moved the Jews living in Fez to a walled neighborhood near his palace after an extreme attack against them.
Before this time, Jews lived relatively peacefully in the city, labeled as “dhimmi,” which translates to “protected persons.” Despite the tolerant Arab spirit, living conditions among the two were not equal by any means. Jews enjoyed religious freedom and were almost always allowed to live in the city, but were also required to pay an extra poll tax to do so.
After the establishment of this first mellah, they began popping up all over Morocco, including the cities of Marrakesh, Rabat, and Salé. The isolation of the Jews was all in the apparent spirit of protection, but it was an isolation nonetheless– one that became more and more obvious as time went on, and continues to do so.
“Today the mellah in Fez still feels distinct from the city’s other precincts,” writes Frank. “The buildings are multistoried, since the limited acreage developed vertically to accommodate a growing population,” he adds.
Youness also comments on the distinction between the mellah and the rest of the city, pointing out that Muslims would often step foot in the mellah to drink alcohol and fool around with unveiled women in the more popular areas.
In stark contrast to some of the bawdy festivities that went on in the mellah and to themselves stand the Danan Synagogue and the Slat Al Fassiyine Synagogue, just steps from each other but originally made for two groups of rival Jews– the megorashim and the toshabim, respectively. The megorashim were the group of Jews expelled from Spain and the toshabim were the group who had lived in Morocco for some time before that.
The megorashim had “an enriching” in 1492, during which time many of the remaining traces of their existence were etched in the mellah for years to come. Today, the Danan showcases “ample evidence of their abiding flair in the intricate zellij tile work and dashing green carved wooden trim on the bema, the raised platform from which the Torah was read,” reports Frank.
Despite the period of enrichment and ostensible peace in which the Jews lived, factors such as the founding of Israel and the end of the French protectorate caused most of the Jews living in Morocco to pour out of the country in “hiccuping waves” in the middle of the 20th century. The Jewish people in Morocco realized that although living in the country was possible, their safety and futures in Morocco were unpredictable.
Frank dwells on the dilemma at hand for those hoping to preserve what is left of Jewish history in Morocco. In Fez, 81 year old Edmond Gabbay is determined to remind the world of his ancestors’ presence with his Jewish museum full of old passports, prayer shawls, and even soccer balls.
In Casablanca, Frank met Vanessa Paloma, a singer and collector with an impressive archive of Moroccan Jewish music, recordings, oral histories, and photographs. Paloma fights to make the country whole again. “Right now in Morocco it feels like there’s a limb that is missing,” she says. “Young people realize there is something in their culture that they don’t have easy access to. Old people long for what is gone.”
Both of these individuals, as well as English anthropologist and synagogue guide Katherine Roumani and Viviane Cohen, an architect serious about saving the physical traces of Morocco’s Jewish past, all face the same obstacles: what to save? What to do with it? And most importantly, why?
There is something intangible in the air of the mellah that keeps these scholars passionate about preserving the Jewish history, but it is almost impossible to do so when so little of it remains, and so little people care about the little that does.
That, of course, will not stop them from trying.