By Ousama Saki
By Ousama Saki
Agadir – Jews under Moroccan Skies: Two Thousand Years of Jewish Life is a long awaited book and the fruit of a research enterprise undertaken by a Moroccan Jew, Raphael David Elmaleh and his Scottish co-author, George Ricketts.
Ricketts describes their book as an attempt to preserve some of the long, unwritten history of Moroccan Jews, which has frequently been transmitted by word of mouth. The authors also hope to fill the void in the field of the culture and history of Moroccan Jewry, a relatively unknown subject in international academia. The book also aims to reconstruct, through writing, a forgotten Judeo-Berber culture that once was a part of Moroccan plurality.
George Ricketts, the co-author, was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, but moved to Morocco in 1991, where he has permanently lived ever since. He decided to settle in Morocco due to its warm and sunny weather, the country’s abundant natural beauty, and the friendly character of the Moroccan people. Being devoted to studying Moroccan history and culture has led him to travel all around Morocco, to practically every small village and town, in order to see things with his own eyes and mingle and talk with the locals in his fluent Moroccan Arabic. Besides teaching English to non-native speakers, he also takes a great interest in the work of his co-author, Raphael Elmaleh.
When I met George Ricketts and suggested conducting an interview, he was very enthusiastic and keen to grant it.
Can you tell me a little about your background?
George Ricketts: I was born and raised in Scotland, but moved to the south of England in my early twenties. This was mainly due to the fact I found the Scottish climate unsuitable. I need light and lots of sunlight in order to function well on a daily basis. The improved climate in the south of England allowed me to live there for several years. However, during the late eighties the weather became unstable with less days of sunshine, which had an adverse effect on my well being. I then made the decision that I had to move to a country with guaranteed sunshine.
When did you come to Morocco and why did you decide to stay?
GR: At first I visited a few countries in southern Europe to see if I could feel comfortable living there, but somehow things didn’t work out. I came to Morocco in 1991, and knew immediately it would become my adopted home. As far as I was concerned, it had everything I could wish for: an amazing climate with brilliant sunlight that lasted throughout the year; the friendliness and hospitality of the Moroccan people; the geography, culture and history of the country fascinated me, so much so that I took it upon myself to study all three of the latter.
What urged/inspired you to write about Moroccan Jews?
GR: The initial inspiration for writing the book came from questions and answers I overheard when the co-author, Raphael Elmaleh, a Moroccan Jew and tourist guide specializing in Jewish heritage tours, was with a group of American Jewish tourists. My jaw literally dropped when I heard him talk about the history and culture of Moroccan Jews. I later convinced him of the importance of documenting such an interesting subject. We then got down to putting the contents of the book together.
What distinguishes Jews under Moroccan Skies from many of the other books available on Jewish Morocco?
GR: In a nutshell, the book is different because apart from including the history, culture and aspects of Moroccan Jewish life, it is in addition a guide book. When the readers reach a Jewish site or a place where the Moroccan Jews used to live, they are able to read about it while standing right there, and hopefully feel some connection to the former occupants, as I did when visiting such places.
How did you manage to accumulate all the information and ideas in the book?
GR: Much of the content was researched from different sources, such as having access to the archives in the Jewish Museum in Casablanca, talking with members of the Jewish community, interviewing elderly people who once lived side by side and grew up with Moroccan Jews, and also by personally visiting Jewish sites around Morocco, to name a few. Raphael Elmaleh, as co-author, made a strong contribution with the knowledge he already possessed. And as I had previously studied Morocco’s history, culture and geography, I was able to add a great deal to the finished work.
Did you collaborate with any Moroccan writers, specialists or intellectuals?
GR: Simon Levy, who was a history professor and the director of the Jewish Museum in Casablanca, at the time of our research, was gracious enough to impart some of his knowledge and allow access to the museum’s archives. Also, the museum’s curator Zhor Rehihil gave much encouragement and assistance.
How many publishers did you approach and how long did it take you to find one?
GR: Finding a publisher that is interested in your work can be a challenge. In my case, I had the idea of narrowing the search down to a publisher specializing in the category of Jewish genre. I did have the intention of approaching some publishers when I had the time to get round to it. However, it was purely by chance that I stumbled on the publisher that did accept the work. There I was searching the internet for information on the Jews of Tetouan, when I came across a website with a photograph of a European- looking man standing inside an old synagogue in Tetouan. First of all, I asked myself what he was doing there. Then, looking down to the bottom of the page, I discovered he was a publisher, based in the USA. I immediately sent a proposal for the publication of the book to the listed email address. The reply came back – it was positive.
Why did you not opt for having your book published by a Moroccan publishing house?
GR: As the work was written in English, and not French or Arabic, it was logical to choose a publisher that publishes books in the English language. The other reason for publishing the book abroad is that I strongly felt its home was with a publisher that specialized in the category of Jewish genre.
Did you write it with a particular readership in mind?
GR: Not really! In fact, just as I and the co-author had hoped, the book so far has appealed to a wide range of readers. For example, the other day a female reader in Egypt contacted me. She’s a doctor. She said she found the book very enlightening, especially the relationship that exists between Moroccan Jews and Moroccan Muslims.
How would you describe the cultural encounter between Moroccan Jews and their Muslim counterparts these days?
GR: These days, and for as long time as I can remember, the relationship between the two communities is cordial and respectful. Apart from the way they practice their separate religions, the cultural differences as Jews under Moroccan Skies explains are minimal.
What are you working on now?
GR: I have completed two novels, both set in Morocco. The objective now is to have them published.
*Ousama Saki is an English teacher. He holds a master’s degree in Comparative Studies from Ibn Zohr University, Agadir. In 2014, he traveled to the USA to study at Indiana University School of Education as part of the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program.
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