Posts Tagged ‘Morocco’


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Cohabitation et tolérance
La singularité et l’exception marocaines exaltées à Londres
flecheRouge Publié le : 11.11.2010 | 17h26
Le modèle marocain singulier s’impose dans un monde en proie aux turbulences et aux divisions, dixit le président du Musée juif de Londres.

La vocation du Maroc en tant que havre de paix et terre de rencontres a été saluée à Londres à l’occasion de l’exposition «Morocco», organisée dans la capitale britannique par le musée juif de Londres en partenariat avec la Moroccan-British Society (MBS), que préside l’ambassadeur du Maroc en Grande-Bretagne, Chrifa Lalla Joumala Alaoui.
La cérémonie d’inauguration de cette grandiose manifestation a été l’occasion pour de nombreuses personnalités d’exprimer leur reconnaissance au Royaume, pays qui a su depuis plusieurs siècles donner l’exemple en matière de pluralisme et de cohabitation entre les différentes cultures et religions. «Le Maroc a été, depuis des centaines d’années, un modèle de coexistence entre les adeptes des différentes religions dans un cadre marqué par le respect des valeurs de chaque communauté», a déclaré à la MAP, Lord Young, président du musée juif de Londres et Conseiller du Premier ministre britannique, David Cameron. «Ce modèle marocain singulier s’impose dans un monde en proie aux turbulences et aux divisions», a dit Lord Young, émettant le souhait de voir les autres pays suivre l’exemple de l’exception marocaine.

Lord Young a tenu à souligner le rôle important que le Maroc a depuis toujours joué pour la promotion des valeurs de tolérance et pour trouver un règlement juste et durable au conflit du Moyen-Orient.
Par ailleurs, Lord Young a exprimé sa gratitude à la MBS pour son partenariat et son soutien pour l’organisation de l’exposition. Rappelant que la MBS œuvre pour le renforcement des relations d’amitié et de coopération privilégiées entre le Maroc et la Grande-Bretagne, il s’est dit convaincu que la grande contribution apportée par la MBS pour la tenue de l’exposition ne manquera pas de renforcer davantage ces relations.

La présence des juifs au Maroc date depuis plus de 2.000 ans, a-t-il dit, soulignant que l’exposition «Morocco» offre l’occasion propice pour rendre un hommage appuyé au Maroc, un pays où la cohabitation entre musul

Lord Young a également tenu à rendre un vibrant hommage à feu S.M. Mohammed V pour la sollicitude que le défunt Souverain accordait à ses sujets de confession juive.
L’exposition de Londres vise à la fois à promouvoir la diversité de la communauté juive et renforcer les relations de dialogue et de coexistence entre les différentes cultures et religions, a-t-il encore dit.

Même son de cloche chez Claire Spencer, qui dirige le département Moyen-Orient/Afrique du Nord à l’Institut Royal des Affaires Internationales (Chatham House, basé à Londres), qui a relevé que l’exposition offre l’occasion de mettre en relief la place du Maroc en tant que «référence clef» en matière de relations entre différentes communautés. «Nous sommes ici pour célébrer les aspects et les dimensions culturels du Maroc au Royaume-Uni, loin de toute considération d’ordre idéologique», a-t-elle dit. De son côté, Sydney Assor, membre éminent de la communauté juive marocaine en Grande-Bretagne, a rendu hommage à l’ambassadeur du Maroc en Grande-Bretagne pour les efforts inlassables qu’elle ne cesse de déployer pour la promotion de l’image authentique du Maroc en tant que terre de paix et de rencontres.

«C’est grâce à vos efforts que le public britannique aura l’occasion de découvrir la culture juive du Maroc, vieille de plusieurs siècles», a-t-il dit, réitérant l’attachement indéfectible de la communauté juive marocaine à la mère patrie et au glorieux Trône alaouite. L’exposition «Morocco», qui durera jusqu’au 6 mars 2011, représente un véritable voyage dans le temps, mettant en relief la richesse de la civilisation du Maroc et la splendeur de ses valeurs intrinsèques de tolérance et de respect de l’autre. A travers une collection de 74 photographies inédites, prises durant les années 40 et 50 par Elias Harrus, Marocain de confession juive, le visiteur découvre la vie quotidienne des juifs de l’Atlas et du sud du Maroc et leur interaction avec leurs concitoyens musulmans dans un environnement empreint de quiétude et d’enrichissement mutuel.

Ces photos sont d’une importance particulière du fait que cette communauté juive a, depuis, virtuellement disparu des montagnes de l’Atlas et du sud du Maroc pour s’installer dans les grandes villes du Royaume ou immigrer à l’étranger, estime la directrice du musée juif, Rickie Burman. L’exposition comprend également des photos captées par Pauline Prior qui a revisité, à la demande du musée juif d’Amsterdam, les mêmes lieux que Harus pour transposer ce qui reste du patrimoine juif au Maroc. Le musée juif expose également des costumes traditionnels portés ou confectionnés par des juifs marocains ainsi qu’une collection de bijoux.

A signaler que cet événement phare vient rappeler l’exposition exceptionnelle des textes et des livres saints des trois religions monothéistes, qui s’est tenue du 27 avril au 23 septembre 2007 au siège de la prestigieuse British Library (BL) à Londres. Tenue sous le Haut Patronage de S.M. le Roi Mohammed VI et de S.A.R. le Prince Philip, Duc d’Edimbourg, l’exposition avait réalisé un succès éclatant témoignant ainsi du rôle de premier plan que le Maroc joue dans le rapprochement entre les religions, les civilisations et les cultures.

Un tel constat de succès a été souligné dans un rapport élaboré par la BL, qui a noté que l’exposition, a été l’événement le plus réussi jamais organisé par l’institution, attirant plus de 200.000 visiteurs durant cinq mois. Un sondage réalisé par l’Institut Mori a montré qu’une grande majorité des visiteurs de tout âge ont indiqué que cette exposition de portée universelle leur a permis de découvrir les multitudes de valeurs partagées par les trois religions monothéistes: l’Islam, le Christianisme et le Judaïsme.

Convergence des civilisations

«C’est un Maroc fort de sa diversité culturelle et riche de toutes ses histoires additionnées que l’Angleterre
est invitée à découvrir», a déclaré à la MAP André Azoulay, conseiller de S.M. le Roi.
«Espace privilégié de convergence des civilisations berbère, arabo-musulmane et juive, le Maroc a su résister aux mirages d’une histoire réécrite en fonction des aléas de l’instant», a dit M. Azoulay après avoir donné lecture du message adressé par S.M. le Roi Mohammed VI, que Dieu l’assiste, aux organisateurs de l’exposition sur le judaïsme marocain, inaugurée mercredi soir au siège du Musée juif de Londres.
«Le message de S.M. le Roi donne sa juste mesure à la singularité, à la modernité et à la profondeur des choix faits par le Maroc pour résister aux tentations du repli», a ajouté le conseiller de S.M. le Roi, en mettant en relief la détermination des communautés juives marocaines, où qu’elles se trouvent, pour «afficher, promouvoir et protéger leurs racines marocaines et leur mobilisation effective aux côtés du Maroc».

Par MAP

Cohabitation et tolérance : La singularité et l’exception marocaines exaltées à Londres

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Rosh Hashana Recipes Routed Through Africa


Nanda Gonzague for The New York Times
From left, Carole Chaouat, Cathy Levy, with makroud, and Corynne Mas share recipes for the High Holy Days. Like many Jews in France, their holiday meals have North African influences.

August 31, 2010

Rosh Hashana Recipes Routed Through Africa

Perpignan, France
CORYNNE MAS said the pastries she makes for Rosh Hashana were like teiglach, Eastern European cookies covered with nuts and honey.
But the version she’ll give her family when the holiday starts next Wednesday night will be stuffed with spiced dates and scented with orange flower water — Middle Eastern touches her mother, a French Jew with Eastern European roots, would not have recognized. They are called makroud, something she learned from her mother-in-law, an Algerian Jew.
Most of the dishes Ms. Mas cooks are North African. And when she gets together with her good friends Carole Chaouat and Cathy Levy, North African Jews, the food they share is more likely flavored with harissa, cumin and honey, than horseradish, dill or sugar.
The culinary transformation Ms. Mas experienced would feel familiar to many French Jews. About a quarter of the 300,000 Jews in France before World War II died in the Holocaust, and others later left for Israel or the United States. But as independence came to the former French colonies of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria in the late 1950s and early 1960s, many more Jews emigrated to France. The customs they brought came to define French Jewish food.
Ms. Mas, 54, said she was not raised with an appreciation for her Jewish background. “I have learned everything from my Algerian mother-in-law,” she said. “The Sephardic Jews are attached to their religion and are refueling Jewish life in France.”
Many of these Sephardic dishes actually have centuries-old roots here in southwestern France and Catalonia, from before Jews were expelled and settled in North Africa. Jewish cooks here still use the ingredients of those ancestors — anise, olive oil, rose water, and pine nuts — reimagined on stovetops in Marrakesh, Oran and Tunis.
The physical traces of these traditions here are literally cast in stone in the remains of Jewish quarters in nearly every town — Hebrew letters on a grave, the indentation on the right side of an ancient doorpost indicating a once-posted mezuza, names like Rue de la Juiverie or Rue de Jérusalem found on cobblestone streets.
But new synagogues in Perpignan, or nearby in Narbonne and Béziers, have only initials in French outside the door: A.C.I.N., for Association Culturelle Israélite de Narbonne. There is no clear indication to the passer-by that these are Jewish houses of prayer.
Ms. Mas; Ms. Chaouat, 54, born in Tunisia; and Ms. Levy, 45, born in Morocco, grew up in Perpignan, a center of Jewish culture during the Middle Ages. It now has about 450 Jewish families.
As the women gathered beneath an almond tree on the patio of Ms. Mas’s home, Ms. Chaouat served a potato salad, dipping two fingers in a jar of harissa and dabbing at the potatoes she had prepared, as she would do with other cooked vegetables.
“This is the way we share recipes,” Ms. Chaouat said. “Food is our identity, tradition and our roots.”
Each group of immigrant Jews brought its own influences.
“Moroccans like sweet and salty in everything,” said Ms. Chaouat, who works as a caregiver for the elderly. “Tunisians eat couscous, but it is always savory and we serve everything on the table at once.”
Vegetables stuffed with meat are a popular holiday dish. The stuffing sometimes is made with parsley or eggs, sometimes with nuts, and always cooked slowly. Ms. Levy’s version, a Moroccan dish with roots here, includes cinnamon, turmeric and nutmeg and is cooked at low temperature overnight to be ready on the first night of the holiday. (But it can also be cooked more quickly at a higher temperature.)
Ms. Levy, a deputy mayor in her village outside of Perpignan, is usually in charge of food for synagogue events, gathering her friends to cook with her.
“We cook everyday and our children like to eat our food,” she said. “Living in a small town, we don’t lose time in traffic. So we have time to cook.”
Ms. Levy added: “If you don’t make traditional recipes at Rosh Hashana or the Sabbath, it is the revolution. Every holiday meal starts with at least two dozen tapas. Once my son said: ‘Why do you work so hard at cooking? Why don’t you make just one salad for Rosh Hashana!’ ” The next holiday, she brought out one salad. Her son looked chagrined and said, “Where are the other 23?”
So she brought out the 23 other dishes that she had hidden in a cupboard.

Rosh Hashana Recipes Routed Through Africa – NYTimes.com: “

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Morocco’s Misguided War on Terror

How the persecution of Islamists across North Africa, in the name of fighting terrorism, is sowing the seeds for future instability.

BY AIDA ALAMI | APRIL 9, 2010

On a rainy Tuesday morning in February, a group of about 20 veiled women — most of them dressed in black niqabs, the full-body veils favored by the most conservative Muslims — stand silently in the street in front of the Rabat administrative tribunal. These wives, mothers, and sisters of alleged terrorists detained by the Moroccan government have come from across the country to show their support for one of their own, Fatiha Mejjati. Inside the courtroom, Mejjati is bringing a suit against the Moroccan government for wrongfully detaining her and her then-11-year-old son for nine months in 2003.
Since the May 16, 2003, bombings in Casablanca, when 14 terrorists launched a series of suicide attacks on several sites in the city, including the Belgian Consulate and a Jewish community center, killing 45 people, Morocco has adopted its version of the USA Patriot Act. This law increased the punishment for terrorist-related activities and, most importantly, criminalized the “intent of committing an act of terrorism,” a crime the government interpreted broadly, using it to convict hundreds of people.
The U.S. government has embraced Morocco as a “moderate” ally in the region, more than tripling economic aid to the country since 2003. “Morocco is a leader in the fight against terrorism,” said the U.S. ambassador to Morocco, Samuel Kaplan, in a televised interview in early February. He insisted that the efforts taken by the Moroccan government were “clear, direct, and strong.” Indeed, the Moroccan government has taken staunch measures in the name of security over the last few years.
Human Rights Watch, on the other hand, stated in its 2010 annual report that “human rights conditions deteriorated overall in 2009 in Morocco.” The report cited the unfair detention of presumed terrorists among the reasons for this decline.
Following the 2003 terrorist attacks, more than 2,000 adherents to a conservative interpretation of Islam, known as Salafism, were arrested and sentenced to terms ranging from 30 years to life in prison. Today, Morocco’s Salafist population still labors under government suspicion and has been the target of repressive measures, including trials over trivial matters, kidnappings, and arbitrary detentions. These counterterrorism policies have particularly affected the families of the presumed terrorists. Many children remember very well their fathers’ arrests and have themselves been exposed to scrutiny. Their parents warn that they themselves can be bombs waiting to explode.
Inside the courtroom, Mejjati, dressed all in black and holding a Samsonite briefcase containing pictures of her son, is making her case against the Moroccan government. She is the widow of Karim Mejjati, the deceased al Qaeda operative who was allegedly involved in the planning of the Casablanca attack, as well as the 2004 Madrid train bombings, which claimed 191 lives. He was killed in a shootout with Saudi forces in 2005.
In 2001 and 2002, Karim Mejjati took his family to live in Afghanistan and then Pakistan, with the stated goal of meeting Osama bin Laden, before settling in Saudi Arabia as a midlevel field operative for the organization. Fatiha Mejjati claims that one morning in March 2003, while she and her son Elias were on their way to the doctor, they were arrested and sent on a private CIA jet to the Moroccan prison of Temara, where they were detained for nine months. Fatiha Mejjati said she was interrogated about her husband’s terrorist activities solely in relation to the United States. She said they underwent all sorts of tortures, such as sleep deprivation. Morocco denies Elias and his mother were ever detained.
Today Elias has serious mental and physical problems, including depression, paranoia, hormonal dysfunctions, and obesity. He is prone to violent outbursts. He does not attend school and only leaves the house to go to the doctor. “They ruined Elias’s childhood; they must pay for it,” said Fatiha Mejjati.
While Mejjati is inside the courtroom waiting for the judges to decide her case, her support group is waiting outside. Demonstrations such as these, a frequent occurrence in Morocco, are organized by An-Nassir, an organization that assists families of detained Salafists. All these women have a son, a brother, or a husband in a Moroccan prison. They all have a story to tell: the horrible detention conditions of their family members, daily repression from local authorities, denial of their rights as citizens, discrimination in the workplace, and marginalization of their children at school.
The women have a hard time containing their outrage. “Why are they in jail? Where are the proofs? Where are the bodies? Where are the bombs? To justify putting my brother in jail for 30 years?” demanded Khamissa Rtimi, the sister of Abderazak Karaoui. Her brother is innocent, she claims, and was arrested solely because he lived next door to one of the terrorists who conducted the Casablanca attacks.
Another woman, Rachida Baroudi, stands by herself. Her head is not covered, and she is dressed in pants and a jacket. Her son was arrested and jailed for a comment he wrote on a blog in which he expressed his anti-Western sentiments. “He is a prisoner of opinion. He has not done anything and is not prone to violence,” his mother said. “I have to financially support his wife and his two children. One of them was born while he was already in jail. She only knows her father inside a prison.”
The word “Salafist” is very often misunderstood and confused with terrorism. That is because al Qaeda’s religious ideology rests on a particular jihadi branch of Salafism that encourages violence. However, the jihadists are the minority among adherents of Salafism. Most do not believe in using violence to spread their beliefs. The distinctive dress of Salafists — the women are fully covered, and the men have beards and wear long blouses — might make them easy to pick out of a crowd, but their ideology is poorly understood by most.
In fact, there is a politically quietist strain to many Salafist movements. French scholar Gilles Kepel, a visiting professor at the London School of Economics IDEAS center and an expert on political Islam, describes the original Salafist trends as nonviolent. “They are not advocating the revolt against one who holds power, against the powers that be,” he said in a PBS Frontline interview. “They are calling for re-Islamization at the daily level.”
In Morocco, however, all Salafists are treated as a potential threat to national security. Thousands have been thrown in jail over the last few years. Abderrahim Mouhtad, who runs An-Nassir, said the estimated number of prisoners today is around 1,000. Human Rights Watch’s annual report denounces the conditions of suspected Islamist extremists of the 2003 bombings, who continue today to serve prison terms. “Many were convicted in unfair trials after being held that year in secret detention for days or weeks, and subjected to mistreatment and sometimes torture while under interrogation,” the report states.
The Salafists have attempted a few hunger strikes to protest their detention, but with little effect. “There are a great number of innocent Salafists in the Moroccan prisons,” said Mohamed Darif, a political science professor at Hassan II University in Mohammedia, Morocco. “There wasn’t enough proof against the majority. They were convicted even if it wasn’t clear that they were involved in any kind of terrorist activity.”
According to him, Morocco’s example is not unique. Many North African regimes, such as Algeria and Mauritania, in a bid to consolidate their power, have used the U.S.-sponsored war on terror as an excuse to crack down on their Salafist populations. “After 9/11, the American government has pushed many countries to fight religious extremism. The Moroccan government instrumentalized the May 16 attacks to pass an anti-terror law,” Darif said.
King Mohammed VI, Morocco’s ruler, has tried to soften the edges of his country’s harsh treatment of Salafists. In an interview with the Spanish newspaper El País in 2005, he admitted that the measures taken in the past may have been “exaggerated.” The king said that “there are no doubts that there have been abuses” and pledged that “it is necessary that such events never occur again.” In 2006, he pardoned a few Salafists as a goodwill gesture.
According to Selma Belaala, who studies North African Islamic movements at the Centre d’Études et de Recherches Internationales in Paris, the Moroccan government successfully cast its counterterrorism efforts as a set of policies that not only employed the security services, but also aimed at reforming the country’s legal and cultural norms. “The king did not only engage in a wide repression; he also reformed the laws, and society with a new family code,” she said. “Women gained more rights, and the population was more educated. This is an effort to culturally fight radicalism.”
From the Rabat courtroom, Fatiha Mejjati has a different perspective. She is waiting impatiently for the judges to deliver their decision. She paces in and out of the courtroom, thanking her “sisters” for coming all the way to the country’s capital to show their support. She even fights with the security guards, asking them to let the other women in the courtroom so they don’t have to stand in the rain. Near noon, the judges finally read their judgment: Her motion is denied.
“This court is a masquerade. God will give us our payback,” Mejjati yells. She then walks out of the courtroom and hands the women assembled outside pictures of her son, Elias, showing him before and after his detention. A normal looking 11-year-old has transformed into an obese, sickly, acne-ridden teenager. The women start marching peacefully under the rain through the streets of Rabat in protest, followed closely by the police.
Aida Alami is a journalist based in Morocco.

Morocco’s Misguided War on Terror | Foreign Policy

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<http://www.jpost.com/> The Jerusalem Post Internet Edition

The Last Jews of Essaouira

Jun. 25, 2009
BRETT KLINE , THE JERUSALEM POST

Josef Sebag says he has a fine life in his native Essaouira, though he has
no friends here. This retail-artisan heaven for tourists on Morocco’s
southern Atlantic coast is a town unique in the Arab world for its history
of Jewish-Muslim relations.

He is often in his casbah antiques and book store, just off the large main
square and next to the hippest night spot in town. Sebag does not hang out
in the rooftop Taros Café, but does spend a good amount of time in London,
Paris and New York. Something about living in Western cultural capitals
suits him. He has friends there.

Visitors come to see him, from France, Canada and Israel, but most tourists
are not insiders in Essaouira, known as “Souira” to the locals. The Moroccan
Arabs call him “el yahoudi” (the Jew) but Sebag says it is never meant
nastily. He is as Moroccan and Souiri as they are, and they know it. His
family has been in Morocco since fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.

His store is a must for British, Australian, American and French tourists,
as well as for surfers from all over and for increasing numbers of Israelis,
especially the ones born in Morocco who don’t come as part of organized tour
groups.

Most Moroccan and foreign Arabs do not come to his store, though it has
nothing to do with Sebag’s being a Jew. An exception is certain Arab authors
who leave their poetry and prose with him, a sign of respect, as they know
he carries few Arabic-language books.

“I know everyone born and raised here but have few friends,” he begins in
French. “What can we talk about – art, literature? No, we can’t. The local
people are more concerned about making money in their stores and restaurants
than reading. Some do very well here in Souira, but many have never been out
of Morocco.”

Sebag is one of some 4,000 Jews still living in Morocco, mostly in
Casablanca, but that is another story. He and his ailing mother are two of
perhaps four – or seven or eight, depending on whom you ask – Jewish
Essaouira natives left from a community that has lived here since 1760.

ESSAOUIRA USED to be an example of a small Arab town in which Muslims and
Jews lived side by side in both rich and poor districts, working together
but socially segregated – and in peace. It was unique because there were
almost as many Jews as there were Muslims, so the term “minority” did not
really apply, as it did in every other town and city in Morocco and
everywhere in the Arab world.

Aside from ownership of the land in and around the town, which always
remained in the hands of the caids and makhsen – local landed gentry and
royal family clans – most urban-style import-export business was dominated
by Jewish families.

The one exception was all artisan work connected to wood, directly linked to
the vast forests around the town. But as an example, from the very beginning
of royal trading in the 18th century, the Corcos family dominated the import
of tea leaves from Britain, which originated from its Far East colonies, and
was thus responsible for making tea the traditional morning beverage in
Morocco.

Essaouira’s last Jews began to leave following the Six Day War. Many of the
working-class families left the mellah, the Jewish district in Arab cities,
for Israel. The casbah’s well-off business leaders headed mostly to France
and Canada. But thousands of Jews remain here, buried in two cemeteries on
the edge of town, including Rabbi Haim Pinto, whose tomb thousands of Jews
from abroad visit every September in a hiloula, a pilgrimage.

Today, real estate and tourism are booming in Essaouira, but the boom has
little to do with the Jewish world, other than a few very active key
players. The same is true for the music festivals, including the Gnawa
Festival in June that draws up to 400,000 mostly Western visitors.

“There are leading Moroccan Arab families here making a lot of money with
French firms in construction and tourism-linked activities in general, and
that is grand for them and for the town,” Sebag says, “but let’s say that
aside from the music festivals, culture is limited. Jews here were always a
bridge between small-town Muslim society and the Western world. There were
very few tourists here. Now the opposite is true. The Jews are gone, but
Souira is a tourist center.”

The walled city is home to hundreds of boutiques, some of which are attached
to small workshops, often with two stories of apartments above. Restaurants
and cafés are everywhere. Visitors check out the ramparts, the port and
historical sites, walking for kilometers along the beaches in the wind that
blows 20 hours a day. They drive to the surrounding villages, or surf, also
a big attraction here.

When people are anywhere inside the walls, the impulse to buy and buy again
in the casbah and medina is overwhelming. Visitors walk up and down the
car-free streets and allies, purchasing fantastically colored rugs and
scarves. They buy blue Gnawa cotton robes and head pieces, more clothing,
bed linen in gorgeous muted colors, paintings, silver jewelry, leather
footwear, metal lamps and objects and intricate wooden boxes and ornate
tables.

Essaouira was known as Mogador until the end of French colonial rule in the
early 1960s. Portuguese occupiers built the wall and ramparts, known as
Castello Real, in 1505 before Mogador was much of a town, but the
inhabitants of the Arab Chiadma region to the north and the Berber Haha to
the south gave them no peace, and by 1512 the Portuguese were pulling out
and sacking much of the region.

Mogador, cité sous les alizées or “Mogador, a town in the wind” was written
by Hamza Ben Driss Ottmani, a French grande-école graduate and public-sector
research director in Rabat born of a well-known family in Essaouira. Ottmani
offers accounts of all the local villages, written in 1516 by celebrated
traveler and author known as Leon the African. Born El Hassan Ben Muhammad
el-Ouazzan el-Gharnati in Grenada, Spain in 1483, he moved with his family
to Fez in Morocco when Grenada was taken by the Catholic kings in 1492.

IN THE southern Berber Haha region, in prosperous and long-gone villages
with names like Tednest, Hadecchis and Eitdeuet, Berber Jews were a majority
or close to it, in a totally Muslim world.

Very little is known about these tens of thousands of people who lived in
relative comfort in this tiny isolated corner of Jewish and Moroccan
history. The Berber Jews are thought to have been there since the
destruction of the Temple. And it is believed that hundreds of thousands of
other people in southern Morocco are Islamic converts of Jewish origin.

Long before Leon the African, this area produced the royal purple color of
the Roman Empire from mollusks on the coast that was busy with trading
ships. Even earlier, the Phoenicians bought argan oil here; 2,500 years
later, argan oil is still made here and only here. Argan, used sometimes as
salad oil but mostly as a skin product rich in vitamin E, is a growing
organic rage in France and Europe – very expensive and not without a certain
intrigue.

Essaouira’s real beginning as a import-export center came in 1760 when the
sultan of Morocco appointed families from Casablanca, Marrakech and other
northern cities to settle here and become official royal traders. Many if
not most were Jewish. The town grew. According to Ottmani, seven of the
town’s leading families in the 19th century were Muslim, while 25 were
Jewish, with names such as Corcos, Afriat, Bensaoud, Cohen Solal, Belisha,
Ohana, Pinto and El-Maleh.

In the beginning, these families conducted trade by ship mostly with
Britain, but also handled local trade and the camel caravans coming from
Timbuktu across the desert, with links to Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, Cairo and
Mecca. In modern times the caravans disappeared, but international trade
focused on Europe became highly competitive.

The railroad built by the French in 1912 on did not reach Essaouira from
Marrakech, today a two-hour bus ride away. Casablanca and Tangiers were
deemed much more important, and the glory and prosperity of the town in the
wind slowly began to fade.

Its leading citizens were still Muslim, Jewish and European, but there also
were thousands of working-class Muslims and Jews. Essaouira was known for
its artisan work, using wood from the close-by thuya and argania trees to
make ornate, silver and stone-inlaid tables and mirrors. This was an
exclusively Muslim sector.

The silver jewelry work was famous for the much sought-after filogram
design, the Dag Ed Essaouiri – thin lines converge on a circular center as
meticulous radii, a design that was instantly recognizable as native to
Essaouira. The master silversmiths were all Jewish, as were many of the
workers, who lived mostly in the mellah. Today, the remaining silver
designers are Berbers, many of whom worked with the local Jews until they
left. The local Arab jewelers all work in gold.

SUDDENLY, AN Israeli couple enters Sebag’s bookstore, and there are smiles
and greetings in French, Maghrebi Arabic and Hebrew. Isaac Azencot was born
and raised in the mellah and at 16 left with his parents for Israel. His
father was a cantor in one of the 30 local synagogues, none of which exists
today.

“My parents were Zionists,” he says, “so we left. But they remained
Moroccans their entire lives, and I’ve done the same. I’m proud to be a
Moroccan-Israeli.”

His Hebrew is obviously fluent, with a Moroccan accent; his French is good,
if rusty; his English very good, and his Maghrebi Arabic is native and still
fluent, with a good Arab accent.

“Sbahelchir, la besse halik,” he says, meaning, “good morning, everything is
fine.”

His brother, a professor, directs all research on Essaouira at the
University of Haifa, near their hometown of Kiryat Ata, complete with
original documents transferred from Morocco.

“It feels good to see old Muslim friends here in Souira,” Azencot says
sincerely, in English. “We all lived modestly and respectfully back then,
and we boys in the mellah had Muslim friends.” But, he adds, they lived
differently. He mentions the Alliance Française school right away.

“We were 28 Jewish boys and girls in the class, but there was only one
Muslim boy,” he says. “It wasn’t the money. Working-class Muslims simply
didn’t learn to read and write back then. And then we all left, except for
Josef and his mother.” He laughs. Continue Reading »





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