In Morocco, Exploring Remnants of Jewish History
Boy 1: “What are those two guys doing walking around here?”
Boy 2: “It’s obvious. They’re looking for the Jews.”
This exchange was translated from Arabic by Youness Abeddour, a guide and documentarian who agreed to share with me his knowledge of the mellah, the walled Jewish quarter, of Fez. Boy 2, though, was mistaken. Although as many as 240,000 Jews lived in Morocco as recently as the 1940s, only around 3,000 remain in the country today. Youness and I had not come to look for the Jews; we had come to look for the traces they left behind.
These traces, whether in buildings or objects, or less tangibly in music and stories and memory, were ubiquitous if sometimes elusive in the mellahs of Fez and, as I discovered later, Marrakesh. Some were easily found, others less so; but running like an electrical charge through this rich but disappearing heritage was a palpable sense of urgency about what will happen in the coming years to Morocco’s Jewish legacy.
It was a sparkling morning last fall as I approached the mellah, a 20-minute walk from Fez’s medina, with its vivid theater of hucksterism, artisanship and transport-by-mule. The mellah felt downright slumberous by comparison — and comparison is in a way the point, since geography is so central to this dramatic story of a place and its people: Until I stood at the gate to the mellah, I did not quite grasp the significance of the Sultan’s decision to relocate the Jews within waving distance of his own back door.
Synagogue Lazama in the Marrakesh mellah. Credit Ingrid Pullar for The New York Times
The year was 1438, and this move marked a momentous shift in Moroccan Jewish life. Oral tradition places the Jews in Morocco since just after the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem in the sixth century B.C. Under Arab rule the climate was for long periods (but not without exception) characterized by a general spirit of tolerance, first formulated in the seventh century, when Jews became known as dhimmi, or “protected persons.” They were free to practice their religion, but they were also required to pay a special poll tax, and they were barred from certain occupations. At times they were allowed to live in the city; at others not. Long stretches of tranquillity were interrupted by sporadic outbreaks of violence.
It was after one particularly extreme attack that the Sultan moved the city’s Jews to a walled neighborhood near his palace on what had once been a salt marsh, or mellah. Mellahs soon appeared in Marrakesh, Rabat, Salé and elsewhere. But whereas European ghettos were established out of a punitive impulse, the Moroccan mellah was — ostensibly — intended to safeguard.
Today the mellah in Fez still feels distinct from the city’s other precincts. The buildings are multistoried, since the limited acreage developed vertically to accommodate a growing population. They are also pierced with windows and fitted with festive balconies, while in the medina most turn a blank facade to the street, in support of the Muslim policy of keeping women concealed.
“Muslims used to come to the mellah to party,” Youness said as we made our way along its market street. “They could drink alcohol and look at unveiled women. Sometimes,” he added with a raised eyebrow, “more than just look.”
Not, presumably, at our first stop, the Danan Synagogue. Named for a rabbinical family that goes back 50 generations, the 17th-century synagogue underwent a major restoration in 1998 under the guidance of Simon Levy, a historian. Congregants at the Danan were megorashim, Jews expelled from Spain, and had a different language, liturgy and place of worship from the toshabim, the Jews who had lived in Morocco before their arrival.
Nothing like a little intramural rivalry to spur synagogue building. Coming along so soon after the establishment of the mellah, the 1492 exodus had an enriching — but for the toshabim also disconcerting — effect on Moroccan life. Sephardic Jews worked as scholars, writers, printers and artisans whose metalwork transformed the local culture. At the Danan there is 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; downstairs a mikvah, or ritual bath, and communal oven attest to the multiple uses the building was once put to.
I found it very moving to stand with Youness in this empty synagogue and afterward in the nearby Slat Al Fassiyine, an equally exquisite 17th-century synagogue named and created for the residents of Fez, rather than the newcomers. Separate synagogues for rivalrous Jews, built close to the same time and within a few blocks of each other? How poignant, even pointless, all this seems now, with nearly everyone gone.
The recent history of Slat Al Fassiyine — a carpet workshop and boxing gym until its meticulous restoration in 2010 and 2011 — in a way encapsulates the tricky present moment in Morocco’s relationship with its Jewish heritage. For if Jews trickled into Morocco during the ancient period and poured in after the Spanish Inquisition, they poured out of the country in a series of hiccupping waves in the middle of the 20th century (the founding of Israel, the end of the French protectorate, the Six-Day and Yom Kippur Wars) that cumulatively convinced the vast majority of Moroccan Jews that their beloved country, which sided with its Arab cousins in times of conflict, fell on the unsafe side of unpredictable.
The riad Lazama’s courtyard in the mellah (Jewish quarter) of Marrakesh. Credit Ingrid Pullar for The New York Times
A dramatic change in such a brief span of time raises many questions. How is so much shared history to be told when so few people are on hand to tell it? How should the abandoned and decaying yet significant urban fabric be preserved, and by whom?
I felt the complexity of these dilemmas everywhere I went in Fez. I felt them in the comments of the boys in the mellah streets. I felt them in the Jewish cemetery, whose graves, only recently fully cataloged, spread over a large sloping plot where notable rabbis are set off in a separate section and prolific offerings (including olives and fruit) are left for Sol Hachuel, a Jewish female saint whom both Jews and Muslims venerate for her defiance of forced conversion, one of several examples of such shared worship that is specific to Morocco.
And I felt it especially in the most particular museum created by Edmond Gabbay in the former school that adjoins the cemetery in Fez. Stepping into Mr. Gabbay’s museum was like entering a three-dimensional story by Jorge Luis Borges. One of the remaining Jews of Fez (under 100, all living in the new city), Mr. Gabbay, 81, has made it his mission to collect and display the goods and chattels the Jews left behind: the passports and report cards; the eye charts; the baskets spilling over with prayer shawls; the stuffed animals; the hats and clothes; the mixing bowls and soccer balls; and the books (“Jane Eyre” next to Simone Signoret next to Maimonides, who lived and wrote in Fez in the 12th century). Why had Mr. Gabbay scooped it all up and laid it all out as a kind of profuse if dizzyingly inverse flea market? “Because it shows that we were here,” he said. “And one day people will forget.”
In Casablanca I visited the Moroccan Jewish Museum, the only Jewish museum in any Arab country, where the more conventional display of Jewish-Berber costumes and jewelry, scores of hands of Fatima pendants, and an entire goldsmith’s workshop from the mellah of Fez express new expectations of inclusion laid out in the preamble to Morocco’s 2011 constitution. Drafted after events of the Arab Spring, it specifically acknowledges the “Hebraic” contributions to the country’s “diverse, indivisible national identity.”
Afterward I had lunch with Vanessa Paloma, a singer, scholar and oral historian whose inspiring work has turned her into a kind of one-woman roving museum of her own. For 20 years Ms. Paloma has been committed to preserving everything associated with Moroccan Jewish music: songs (which she performs), recordings (which she archives), sheet music and photographs (which she collects) and, most recently, oral histories (which she takes herself). “Right now in Morocco it feels like there’s a limb that is missing,” she said. “Young people realize there is something in their culture that they don’t have easy access to. Old people long for what is gone.”
In Marrakesh, my next stop, I found that parts of its mellah were undergoing the early stages of gentrification that are likely to have a very mixed effect on this storied place. Scaffolding covered the gate associated with a famous miracle that took place when a band of tribesmen approached the neighborhood intent on pillaging, and a man called Murdukhai ben Attar, who was the Jewish community’s representative to the Muslim authorities, prayed for divine intervention. A barrier of flames leapt up, and the attackers retreated. The gate was forever after painted blue, and for centuries passers-by would kiss its sides, which were believed to mark the beginning of a sacred and protected space. (Murdukhai ben Attar is another shared saint buried in the nearby Jewish cemetery.)
I found the vivid blue paint intact only on the inside of the arch, which gives way to a bustling street of spice, fabric and passementerie vendors whose wares echo those once sold by the neighborhood’s Jewish inhabitants. While a handful of shops just outside the gate still have Jewish owners, only three Jewish families reside in the mellah itself, one of them virtually in the Synagogue Lazama.
Katherine Roumani, an English anthropologist, lives with her daughter in the 16th-century riad (an inward-turning building wrapped around a courtyard garden) that contains the last functioning synagogue in the mellah, which once sustained 30 in all. She is a liaison and guide to the synagogue, whose name derives from Al Azma, a reference to “those who ran away” from Spain. Restored about 10 years ago, it is now decked out in buoyant blue and white tiles, with curtains, cushions and accouterments to match.
Ms. Roumani and I visited the nearby square where the Nobel-winning writer Elias Canetti wrote in “The Voices of Marrakesh” that he “found exhibited the same density and warmth of life as I feel in myself.” A half-century later it felt less dense with life than overlooked, with two lone old men sitting over tarot cards and a family of cats sunning themselves on the bricks.
As we left the square, Ms. Roumani withdrew an enormous key from her pocket. “I have an unusual treat for you,” she said.
I followed her to the abandoned Synagogue Fassin and together we opened the padlock on its front door. Inside, a layer of dust covered the red-leather benches. The Torah was still in place, protected in a handsome wooden ark; nearby a calendar, dated 1982, dangled from a nail. The stillness was ineffably beautiful and infinitely sad.
My last hours in the mellah were spent with Viviane Cohen, an architect who has chosen to return from France to her country of origin to see what she can do to save the physical traces of its Jewish past. Together we investigated the Riad du Rabin, a deluxe hotel that trades in its history as the one-time home of a bearded rabbi whose photograph rather improbably overlooks a swanky new sitting room. Around the corner we also visited L’Art de Vivre Oriental, a fashionable clothing shop in a Jewish family’s former home that is now a resplendently restored riad. (“Très chic,” Ms. Cohen said. “But not remotely Jewish.”)
Far more representative of the buildings in the neighborhood was the house of the Corcos family. It once belonged to a man whom Emily Gottreich, author of “The Mellah of Marrakesh,” described in a phone call as “the sheikh of the Jews, a major player in the old mellah”; by the time Ms. Gottreich began her research in the 1990s, the gracious and ample building had become a home for the aged. Now that nearly all the Jews of the Marrakesh mellah have died or moved away, the Corcos house is so far along in decay that Ms. Cohen and her builder recently stabilized the sagging second-floor balcony of the old kosher abattoir that backs onto the property with a series of raw logs.
That image summarized for me the tender juncture at which these neighborhoods find themselves. They are often untouched, and untouched means intact, but time, cruel time, has begun to have its way. Shoring up is a beginning. The question now is what comes next.
PUBLISHED IN NEW YORK TIMES