I was in Melbourne three weeks ago visiting my kids, and I finally had some time to sort through a box of old papers and letters. It was like taking an afternoon stroll through the accumulated memorabilia of my past: kindergarten and primary school reports; the bus ticket from my first school trip as a child in South Africa; assorted high-school and university-era photos.
Amongst these memories I also found the first travel story I ever wrote, from when I visited Morocco on my post-university backpacking trip around the world. This was before the age of laptops, so what I found was physical paper: two dusty, yellowing cut-outs from a local community newspaper in Sydney, where the story had been published on my return to Australia.
It might be nearly twenty years old, but on re-reading this story it still seemed current, even after all this time. So I thought it would be appropriate to republish the story on this blog. I hope you enjoy.
I have been to some isolated and unusual Jewish sites in my life. Nothing, however, prepared me for a Jewish cemetery in the middle of the Moroccan Sahara Desert.
My father’s family left Morocco for Israel in the early 1950s. Since then, no member of my family had visited the country. [Note: this is no longer true; many of my family have visited Morocco in the intervening years, and my father made a return trip there – six decades after leaving – a few years ago].
In late 1996, almost half a century after my grandparents boarded an ocean-liner bound for Marseilles and then Israel, I arrived by ferry at the dusty Moroccan port city of Ceuta. My friend and I had come to Morocco as holidaymakers, but I was keen to explore my roots, in my family’s hometown of Fes.
First, however, we wanted to be tourists and see some sand dunes, so we bypassed the main towns of the north, heading directly to the deep south of Morocco, where the paved road ends, the Sahara Desert begins, and a sign informs in French that the next town, Timbuktu, is 52 days away – by camel.
Driving along a rough track, we stopped to admire a Kasbah (a fortified desert castle made of mud, usually decorated with intricate wall carvings) set in a lush palm oasis. While we were standing there, we were approached by a young man who introduced himself as Aziz, a student home for the holidays, and a member of the family who owned the Kasbah. We got chatting, and he offered to show as around.
We strolled through the rows of palm trees, munching on fresh dates, while Aziz explained to us the complex system of ownership that governs land and water usage in an oasis. We saw several Kasbahs, each more exquisite than the last. Finally, we turned to leave, when Aziz, out of the blue, asked: “Do you want to see the Jewish Kasbah?”
Jews, here? I knew there had been Jewish communities in Fes and Marrakesh. But we were more than 300 kilometres from these cities, in a place with no roads or electricity. We followed, and Aziz showed us around a deserted Kasbah, no different in form or design from any other. Its only unique feature was that, according to Aziz, a Jewish family had until recently lived in it. He said that in 1986 the family had moved to Casablanca, and since then the Kasbah had been uninhabited. Meaning, unbelievably enough, that there had been a Jewish presence in this fly-blown backwater until only ten years ago.
My evident enthusiasm prompted Aziz’s next question: “We also have a Jewish cemetery in the oasis. Would you like to see it?” Sure enough, in a clearing surrounded by palm trees was a small, run-down cemetery, the gravestones covered in faded Hebrew writing. Again, I marvelled at what this small cemetery actually meant: it wasn’t just one crazy Jewish family; there had actually been some form of organised Jewish communal life, out here in the desert.
Aziz told us that this cemetery was by no means unusual, and he knew of at least five others, some even deeper into the Sahara. Some were abandoned; others were being restored with the aid of donations from abroad.
Seeing how interested I was in the subject, Aziz asked: “Are you Jewish?” This was a tricky question. Morocco is an Arab Muslim country. I had deliberately left my Israeli passport behind, preferring to travel on my more politically neutral Australian passport, even though technically Israelis are allowed to enter Morocco these days.
On the other hand, I am who I am. So I timidly told Aziz I was Jewish, and that my father had left Morocco for Israel as a child. I half-expected Aziz to set upon me or at least to give me the cold shoulder; I certainly didn’t expect him to tell me: “I am a great admirer of the Israelis. They have done wonderful things in their country, particularly in the desert. We should learn from them, and we too can make our deserts green”.
What followed was a lengthy discussion about Israel, the peace process, Islamic fundamentalism in Moroccan universities, and religious pluralism. Aziz assured us that many of his friends shared his views, and that the King of Morocco was ardently pro-Israel.
When we left the oasis an hour later to continue our journey, Aziz insisted we first pose for a photo with him, and he gave us a big bag of fresh dates to take with us – “food for the road”, he said.
If this encounter in the desert shows anything, it is how extensive the Jewish community in Morocco was, for many centuries and right up until the 1950s.
Jews first arrived in Morocco from Israel, 2,000 years ago, following the destruction of the Second Temple. Others arrived over the next fourteen centuries, and according to legend, my grandfather’s family was descended from Rabbi Alfasi, a Talmudic scholar and resident of Fes in the 12th century.
Morocco’s Jewish community experienced its greatest period of growth in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, following Queen Isabella’s expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, and later from Portugal, in 1496. Masses of Jews crossed the Straits of Gibraltar into Morocco, and finding a relatively tolerant society they spread out across the country, multiplying and prospering to become one of Judaism’s greatest communities.
Again, family legend has it that my grandmother’s family came to Morocco from Spain around that time, and even many centuries later her family were considered to be “foreigners” by those Jews who had been in Morocco beforehand.
By the early part of last century, there were around 400,000 Jews living in Morocco (and there were sizeable Jewish communities all across the north of Africa, from Morocco into Algeria, Tunisia and Libya). The total population of Morocco at the time was around four million people, so Jews made up almost ten percent of the country.
Most Jews lived in the larger imperial cities of Fes, Meknes and Marrakesh, but there was a Jewish presence in almost every town and village in Morocco. Thus as we toured the country we were able to explore the old Jewish quarters – or mellahs, as they were known – in towns like Chefchaoun, Tangier, Asilah, Rabat, Sefrou, Agadir, Tafraoute and Taroudant. Not to mention Jewish Kasbahs and cemeteries in the Sahara Desert, too.
Jews coloured every aspect of Moroccan life. From beggars to date farmers, leather tanners to court physicians, rouges and scoundrel to philosophers and rabbis. Even the tagine (a stew that cooks for hours on a low heat, and Morocco’s national dish) has Jewish roots: preparation of food on the Sabbath is forbidden under Jewish law, so traditionally the lunch meal for Saturday is placed on the fire the evening before, to slowly cook through the night.
Until Morocco’s independence in 1956, around 100,000 Jews lived in the then-capital city, Fes. Our Moroccan journey eventually brought us to this sprawling metropolis, and home of my ancestors.
Unlike most other mellahs, which were typically contained within the walls of the greater city, the mellah in Fes stands alone, occupying the ground between the imperial palace and the rest of the city. Apparently, this served a dual function of allowing the Jews to be closely supervised by the palace, and providing a buffer zone between the palace and the Muslim population in times of civil unrest.
I had booked for us to stay in the only hotel in the mellah. It was run-down and flea-infested, but staying there had a certain romance to it. I later saw a photo of the hotel taken in the 1920s, when it was known formally as Hotel Maroc, and informally as Hotel Juif, the outer facade decorated with Magen Davids (Stars of David).
We spent two days wandering around the mellah. Many doors still have niches in which mezuzahs were once nailed (Jewish prayer scrolls in an ornamental box, affixed to the doorpost of every Jewish home). Some gateways had Hebrew writing over them.
The Fes mellah, like all the others we had seen, served as a grim reminder of the abject poverty in which the vast majority of Morocco’s Jews had lived, contrary to the modern-day image of Jewish communities typically being wealthy ones. The lanes are dark and narrow, sloping down a hillside. Houses are built one on top of the other. Until fifty years ago there was no running water or electricity. Even today the poorest, most overcrowded part of any Moroccan town are those areas that once were the Jewish mellahs.
On our second day in Fes, we visited the Jewish cemetery. It is a vast place, and recent restoration works have allowed most of the tombstones to be repainted brilliant white. In accordance with Jewish tradition the graves are unostentatious, and inscribed in Hebrew and often French, almost never in Arabic. I spent the better part of the morning searching the tombstones for my family name, without success.
Whilst ambling around, I was approached by a security guard, who for a small fee offered to show us some old building attached to the cemetery, which were otherwise closed for restoration.
We followed him into an old and beautiful synagogue – the Beit Knesset Em HaBanim. The roof is covered in magnificent stone carving and stucco work, and the faded colouring was being wonderfully restored. Old brass lamps hung from the ceiling, the crystal globes engraved with biblical phrases. An antique wooden Ark stood at the centre of the room. The place may have been dark and musty, but it was uplifting to walk around a synagogue where my family may once have prayed.
We followed our guide to the basement. The first room he led us into was filled with assorted Jewish memorabilia. Our guide told us that there were plans to create a museum of Fes Jewish history, but until then this was where all the exhibits were being stored. There were signs for a kosher restaurant, stuck to the wall. There were piles of photographs of Jewish life in Fes, showing men in suits, others in djellabah cloaks and Fes hats, children playing, women in traditional garb, social groups, bar-mitzvahs and weddings. There were old prayer-books. There were faded letters, a yellowed account book showing the income and expenditure of the mellah governing body, and countless other memories of this once-vibrant community.
The final room was a schoolroom, apparently closed since 1967. The desks were covered in dust, children’s painting still hung on the wall, and a table was piled with old reports. They were written in French, and I spent some time browsing through them, wondering what happened to little Chaim Aboutbol, who excelled at maths, or Yosef Hamani, who enjoyed sports and Jewish studies.
Two months later I was at a family wedding in Jerusalem, and my trip to Morocco was something everyone wanted to talk to me about. I showed one of my aunts the photos I had taken. When she came to the photos of that derelict schoolroom in Fes, she stared at them for a very long time, and her eyes filled with tears. “Do you realise”, she said, “that this is where your father began his schooling?”
Thus far in Fes I had only encountered what once was: reminders of a Jewish community that is no more. Other than a hustler who had pretended to be Jewish in an effort to woo us into his souvenir store, we had not found any sign of a present-day Jewish community in the mellah.
Enquiries at the tourist office revealed that in the Ville Nouvelle – the more modern part of Fes built by the French – there was an active synagogue and a Jewish community centre.
So on the morning of our third day in Fes we presented ourselves at the gates of the Fes Jewish Community Centre. We were told by a workman painting the wall to come back at noon, when the members normally gathered for lunch. A few hours later we returned, and were ushered into the building. From the outside it is discreet, but inside there is an airy, leafy courtyard, with an adjoining games room, function room and restaurant. A lone man, probably in his mid-40s, sat in the games room, playing solitaire.
I introduced myself, and found myself talking to Didier Tobaly, a Moroccan lawyer, an expert on Moroccan Jewish history, and one of only a handful of Jews who still calls Fes home. Didier told me that in Morocco today there are several thousand Jews living in Casablanca, about 120 in Fes, less than 100 in Marrakesh (including his sister) and the odd Jew scattered here and there in the rest of the country.
I asked why he stayed; he answered simply: “because it is my home”. He told me that the community was dying; most of the remaining Jews in Fes are elderly, and younger Jews have largely migrated to Israel or New York.
The room slowly began to fill. By 1.30pm there were about twenty men sitting at the tables, playing cards. They fell into two categories: mid-40s and well dressed, with expensive Rolexes and designer French clothes, or elderly and frail. It occurred to me that this is probably why these last fragments of a Jewish community linger on in Fes: either they are too old to leave, or being educated, urbane and comparatively sophisticated, they have lucrative careers or businesses that they are unwilling to forego. Most of the men arrived in chauffeur-driven BMWs or Mercedes, and Didier’s elderly father, on hearing that I had an upset stomach, promptly sent his “Arab boy” to collect some pills for me.
There was considerable excitement when it was explained who I was, and everyone there tried to remember if they knew my family, but no-one could place it clearly. That is, until a wizened old man arrived. Without a second’s hesitation he said: “Ah yes, Shimon Uliel [my grandfather] – he was a very good carpenter”. My grandfather had indeed been a carpenter in the mellah – just like his father and his father’s father before him, going back hundreds of years. This old man’s comments gave me goose-bumps.
Last to arrive that afternoon was the manager of the community centre. He was a Moroccan Jew who had migrated to Israel in his childhood, and had returned to Fes in 1994, to run the centre. He, too, knew my family, although in his case not from Fes but from Jerusalem, where he had attended high-school with one of my father’s older brothers.
He asked if we would like something to eat, recommended the shish-kebabs, and went to collect the meat from the community rabbi who was out back slaughtering chickens. We spent the rest of the afternoon eating kosher chicken shish-kebabs, listening to old men arguing in a strange mixture of French, Hebrew and Arabic, discussing my family history and that of the Fes Jewish community, and laughing a lot.
It was a wonderful afternoon, an experience I could never forget. I had found my roots, and seen where I come from. My Moroccan journey was complete.