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Moroccan Beauty: Marrakesh, Jewish History and Art, and Initial Culture Shocks
Inside Jewish Morocco: A Welcoming, Overwhelming, and Historical Place, Part 1
On my first visit to and first stop in Morocco: Marrakesh, the bustling, dusty, overwhelming tourist center—and home to Jewish sights and sites in a Muslim Land ?
I didn’t have much trepidation jetting off to Morocco, my first Muslim country (and #22 in my travels). As a queer, white, American Jew, I feel concerned about my welfare everywhere, the US and Europe included as of late—so this was no different to me.
And it turns out as soon as my first night, I was welcomed warmly. When I said “Salaam” – Arabic for Shalom, a sort of middle-eastern “aloha” as a greeting (“peace”, “hello”, “goodbye”)—I was asked if I was Muslim.
“Not yet,” the man joked to his friend at the rug souk where I first bought two gorgeous pieces. I didn’t tell them I’m Jewish and they seemed to assume I’m Christian, at least culturally. It was my first night in Morocco and it took awhile before discussing such things with locals.
That changed, fast, the next day as I spotted the numerous Jewish wares in the Marrakesh medina. Let’s dive in!
Medina Maze – Motoring Around Marrakesh
The medina—the oldest, windiest part of Moroccan cities—is incredible. Here is a trove of everything I’d always wished to see: A mix of middle east, west, textiles, patterns, color, smells, and religion.
The Jewish people of Morocco—a community that thrived for over 2,000 years and still exists, albeit a tiny fraction of what it once was—is ever-present. On my second day, Shabbat, I made my way through the byzantine stalls of the medina and was promptly overwhelmed by the sights, smells, and sounds.
And immediately I saw an unexpected sight: Stars of David in every booth. If there are metalwares, there is Jewish art; and quickly I made it known I was Jewish as I stopped and looked. Wow! I took home 6 hamsas, some quite large, and all handmade by Jewish Moroccan artisans.
A quarter of a million Jews once lived in Morocco, the largest Jewish community in the Arab world. But when Israel was founded in 1948, many were persuaded to leave. Today, only 2000 remain.Al Jazeera, Return to Morocco
These Hamsas—the Mano de Fatima in Spanish—were all over Mexico in my travels as well, but these are different. There is a small but mighty Jewish community remaining in Morocco, clustered largely in Casablanca, the Atlas Mountains and the edge of the Sahara, and a tiny community in Marrakesh and Fes. And I experienced them all.
Before getting to the stunning stalls of art and wares, an unexpected joy: A man spotting me looking at my phone to pick an alley to go down to the souks. He asked if I wanted to see the tanneries, which I did—and I hopped on the back of his motorcycle with him.
I took a couple of rides like this, first thing on a Saturday morning in Africa, marveling at how far I had traveled and what a delightfully different world I awoke to. I used to ride a Vespa and it’s a delight. To be clear: anyone asking you if you need help in the streets inevitably tries to lead you to a shop, so beware. But the experiences were worth it, and hey, I bought some gorgeous pillow covers. These people didn’t have visitors or income for two years, and the country had just re-opened. I’m an artist, but I came, so I can afford, albeit modestly, to support the beauty that I found.
As I hopped on with Abdul, he says “Yallah.” I immediately tell him I know that means “let’s go”, a Hebrew word my Israeli ex-boyfriend would use. It’s the same in Arabic, and I marveled at our shared history.
The Mellah: Jewish Quarter, Marrakesh, and Synagogue Lazama
I visited the Mellah—the Jewish Quarter—two days in a row; the first, everything was closed for Shabbat, but I was unsure if it would be open on Sunday, so I made the long walk after sundown anyway. When I strolled back toward the Mellah on Sunday afternoon, I was first led by a local to a shortcut – including passing through the tiny lobby of a women’s hammam, where no one bats an eye at two men walking past. That bypass saved me at least 5 minutes walk in the heat! That man though, and two others, insisted the “seen-a-goh-g” and cemetery were closed. I’m so relieved I did not listen and said “merci” and kept walking, because they were in fact, open on Sunday, and I think the local population is often unsure of when Shabbat falls.
This was my first visit to a synagogue in another country, and it did not disappoint. Marvelous, different, and holy, I said “Wow” many times as I looked at every object and surface and read of the history. This wouldn’t be the only time I would be alone in the sanctuary of a gorgeous synagogue in Morocco.
The synagogue building is a newer restoration, but the Jewish site is very old and when the Jewish population rapidly increased in Morocco after 1492, the mellah was walled, gated nightly, and protected area. The royal palace is adjacent, and there’s a police station next to the cemetery, and in both Marrakesh and Fes I found the main, surviving (and still in-use, because there are others) synagogue was right inside the city walls with the cemetery adjacent outside.
This special protection of the Jewish population continues, as my host at my Marrakesh riad explained. And many vendors I met, as I asked about the Jewish art, said the same. There was a refreshing, surprising respect for the Jewish population and Jewish history, a recognition that Morocco is a special, multicultural place, and my host even asserts (I can’t verify if this is true) that much of the native Berber culture was influenced by the Jewish migrations over the millennia, including introducing the native Berber how to create rugs to begin with.
The entirety of my time in Morocco I never once heard a disparaging thing about Jews or even a mention of Israel. In America and in Europe, you can barely walk the streets of New York or Paris (National Geographic report) without being harassed for wearing a kippah, and attacks on Jews—especially our brothers and sisters in traditional or obvious attire—have rapidly increased in the past 5 years. I didn’t encounter a single Moroccan who had ire for Israel or “Zionists” (a label used disparagingly and directed at all Jews, especially by Muslims in many countries and the activist Far Left in America). The Moroccans were overwhelmingly chipper, helpful, delightful people, and though there has been violence against Jews in the past, it isn’t the deciding reason that the Jewish population of Morocco largely left for Israel. When talking about Islam, they spoke of peace and harmony between cultures, and some brought up and were very uncomfortable about extremism amongst some of their brethren. (See the Marrakesh Declaration)
I highly recommend you read much more of the history of the Mellah of Marrakesh at Wikipedia, including how in 2016, King Mohamed VI restored the names of the streets that had to do with the city’s Jewish heritage, including restoring the name of the neighborhood back to “El Mellah”, allocating over US$20 million for the restoration of houses, streets and synagogues. While religious buildings are increasingly preserved or restored around the world, Jews are decidedly not welcome or safe in much of the Arab world and in fact, are murdered if they were to return.
Part of the immense charm and experience of this first foreign synagogue visit for me was seeing glimpses of the local Jews in back rooms around the main courtyard. Anywhere else, you might assume these were Muslims. Someone should alert the Jew-hating groups I mentioned above: Jews came from the middle east, and these people look like it, as does over half of Israel.
Jewish Cemetery, Marrakesh
Adjacent to the old synagogue is the Jewish cemetery. Impressively, most of the marked graves are relatively recent, and even from recent years. The remaining, white, unmarked graves date from the 15th century on up. Truly a stunning experience, I walked throughout and wandered about the many people laid to rest here. What were their lives like?
Browse the gallery below:
Takeaways: Welcoming Marrakesh, and More Morocco to Come
These quick 3 nights in Marrakesh were just the start of my Moroccan journey. When I arrived, I’d only booked a flight out from Casablanca to Amsterdam to see my friend and ex-boyfriend. I decided to book a Sahara tour ending in Fes, and you’ll see that journey next—the amazing Berber sights, the Jewish surprises, and a camel ride in the epic orange dunes of the desert. ?
I had a magnificent, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Morocco was safe, easy to get around, and had the nicest airport in my entire journey (worst: JFK International Terminal).
And the entire time, I saw very little of what I see in America. There is no danger of gun violence. There are no homeless people or camps, at least not that I saw in the city centers and small towns as I ventured to the Algerian border and back.
Next up: Exploring the Sahara, Fes, and Casablanca. Stay tuned, and give me a follow for more:
Marrakesh Tips & Tricks
More Reading on Marrakesh and Morocco Jewish History
- Morocco is a trove of Jewish history if you know where to go AP News
- Moroccan Jews at Wikipedia
- The Top 8 Highlights of Jewish Marrakech, The Culture Trip
- In Morocco, Exploring Remnants of Jewish History, New York Times
- The Jewish Mellah of Marrakech: A History of the Jews in Morocco
- Mellah of Marrakesh, Wikipedia
- Slat al-Azama Synagogue History, Wikipedia
Terms in this Piece
|Hammam||Muslim bathhouses or hammams are historically found across the Middle East, North Africa, al-Andalus (Islamic Spain and Portugal), Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and in Southeastern Europe under Ottoman rule.|
|Hamsa||The hand-shaped amulet of protection in the Middle East, probably of Arabic origin.|
|Maroc||The French word for Morocco.|
|Medina||A medina quarter (Arabic: المدينة القديمة al-madīnah al-qadīmah “the old city”) is a distinct historical city section found in a number of North African cities, and in Malta. A medina is typically walled, with many narrow and maze-like streets. The word “medina” (Arabic: مدينة madīnah) itself simply means “city” or “town” in modern-day Arabic. It is cognate with the Aramaic-Hebrew word (also “medina”) referring to a city or populated area.|
|Mellah||In Morocco, the Mellah is a term used to describe an area of residents of Jewish origin. It is generally surrounded by high walls to separate them from other population such as Christians and Muslims. The Jewish Mellah of Marrakech is considered as one of the largest in Morocco|
|Riad||Traditional Moroccan and Andalusi interior garden or courtyard associated with house and palace architecture|
|Salaam||Arabic for “Peace”, and stemming from the Aramaic-Hebrew “Shalom”|
|Souk||A marketplace of many stalls and shops, also called a Bazaar or Souq, in the Middle East and India.|
|Yallah||“Let’s go” in Hebrew and Arabic. Arabic developed from Semitic languages long after Hebrew, but Modern Hebrew borrowed many words like this from Arabic as it became revived as a spoken language and needed to add vocabulary.|