“Our Moroccan identity was relegated to folklore, the kitchen and amusing viral phrases that boosted the ratings of television comedies.”
Rabat – “Sometimes I think my entire life was preparation for Morocco. At home we always knew we were Moroccan,” begins a long, homecoming-themed article by Khen Elmaleh, a Moroccan Jew who says she has always wanted to bond with a part of her identity she felt she had lost.
Elmaleh recently travelled to Morocco to have a firsthand feeling and experience of the memories and stories she grew up with as the child of Moroccan Jews who migrated to Israel after World War II.
As a Jewish Moroccan child in Israel, she recounts, Moroccanness, even as it was part and parcel of how children like her felt, how they wanted to project themselves in the larger Israeli society, the Moroccan, or Arab, part of their identity “gradually faded” as they attempted to fit in, to be part of Israel’s national melting pot.
“I’m grossly generalizing the experience of an entire generation, but in practice, Morocco’s presence in our lives gradually faded. Our Moroccan identity was relegated to folklore, the kitchen and amusing viral phrases that boosted the ratings of television comedies,” she writes.
Elmaleh presents this gradual weakening of identification with Morocco as a result of the hostility, even if subtle, that being Moroccan or Arab evoked in Israel’s national imaginary. Growing up in Israel, she explained citing a known figure among Jewish, Moroccans was a “dirty word.”
As people like her navigated Israel’s political and cultural reality, she writes, there was a pervading feeling that the country wanted them to “kill the Arabness inside us,” to sever ties with their grandparents’ home, to let go of the umbilical cord binding them to the past, their grandparents’ past and memories.
This erasure of the past came with the possibility of being part of the Israeli melting pot, Elmaleh argues. “The traditional Israeli narrative holds that these places belong in the past; they’re no longer relevant to us.”
The past-erasing strategy worked for some time, for decades.
But in time, and most emphatically in recent years, many have taken upon themselves to challenge the dominant narrative.
They want to know “the truth” about who they really are. Elmaleh speaks of her own longing to visit Morocco as a desire to inhabit the home that her grandparents left, to own the stories that they told her growing up. “The more insistent this effort was,” she said of the societal demand that she let go of her Moroccanness, “the greater was my desire to understand just what it was I was supposed to forget.”
The trip to Morocco, which she only took this summer, was both a homecoming and a biographical exploration.
“I needed a visual perspective to understand what the DNA of my existence is comprised of. I needed to understand where Morocco and I intersect today and to what degree it’s relevant to our lives, we second- and third-generation people. I was going on a first date with the place that has had the most influence on me other than the place where I was born.”
Poring over Elmaleh’s colorful and almost cinematic description of her trip to Morocco, there is a sense that Morocco did not disappoint. She said she felt a twinge of powerful emotions and cried as her plane landed in Marrakech, revealing the city “in all its strange rosy beauty – a kind of beauty I had never seen before, a kind it’s possible to imagine only on a movie set for a biblical period piece.”
After visiting “beautiful and quirky” Marrakech, Elmaleh—predictably— headed to Essaouira, the repository of Morocco’s Jewish past.
A small coastal city two hours drive from Marrakech, Essaouira’s cultural centers and infrastructure still bear markers of a time when Jews were a thriving community in Morocco, when Moroccan Jews and Muslims lived in harmonious, peaceful cohabitation. Essaouira, which Elmaleh said is “as beautiful as a painting,” felt both distant and familiar.
“We had arrived in Essaouira – or its former Portuguese name, Mogador – during the 22nd annual Gnaoua World Music Festival. Some 130,000 visitors from Morocco and the rest of the world flood the city every year, which seems like a cross between Acre and Venice Beach in California.”
One thing that stroke Elmaleh at the Gnawa festival was that most of the attendees were young, in their early or late twenties. She thought the kind of rhythm and evocation that come with the festival would tune best with an older audience.
In Essaouira, however, the festival was not merely a cultural event for fun. Rather, it was taken as serious stuff, integral to Morocco’s history and identity. “Gnawa is our tradition, it is an integral part of our identity,” one young festival-goer from Casablanca told Elmaleh.
Such attachment to tradition or anything deemed part of the Moroccan identity, Elmaleh suggested, is only possible in a country striving to keep its memories alive, or invest in its rich and diverse history so that it becomes an anchoring force for its youth, a rallying cry for the next generation, regardless of differences that may exist. Elmaleh speaks of a “manifold Morocco” to drive her point home.
“The Moroccans are made up of many different tribes: Amazighs (Berbers), Arabs, Sub-Saharan Africans, immigrants from Europe. They have experienced conquests, colonialism and splits and still there’s some unity of a shared fate, a basic brotherhood among people who have ended up in the same place. It’s impossible not to be aware of the sharp contrast between this and the fissures we grow up on in Israel.”
Elmaleh herself was graced with that sense of shared, inclusive Moroccanness. She recounts how insecure and misplaced she felt at first as she spoke Moroccan Arabic with a different accent.
She expected to be found out, to receive at some point a slightly contemptible look, or a cold shoulder, or an unwelcoming smile, as her difference or her insufficient Moroccanness showed in the way she articulated her Arabic words. To her surprise, however, that rejection never came. Instead, her Moroccan interlocutors embraced her difference.
“I stuttered my way into Morocco insecure and afraid that the next moment I’d be discovered as not really ‘one of theirs.’ But gradually, as the language barrier melted, so did this feeling. I was absolutely ‘one of theirs,’ only a bit different,” she wrote.