From Fès to Rabat – honoring the king

We arrived to Fès which is North of Casablanca at night. The Hanair Hotel sits on hill and we could see the whole city from our room.

Today, the Jewish population is small but when you visit the cemetery you find graves of tzadikim from the 18th century and a royal blue building marks the grave of Soulela, a young girl with whom the prince fell in love. The king, at that time, decreed that all Jews had to convert to Islam, and many did…. but Soulela refused. The legend tells that they dragged Soulela around the city and left her head on a stick. Her remains are buried here. She is a symbol of the strong Jewish identity and the pride the Jews in Morocco have to their believes. [Some would argue that Soulela’s behaviour contrasts favourably with that of Maimonides, who as a young man in Fès reportedly converted to Islam see here – ed] As we saw in Essaouira the graves are painted white. The name of the cemetery is “Beit HaChaim” which translates as “The House of the Living”. There is a strong belief in Morocco in praying  at the graves  of the tzadikim, scholars, and asking for a blessing.


  
Next to the Mellah ( Jewish quarter) is the King’s palace. We tried to take a photo of the guards but were chased by the palace guards who demanded that we delete them. The artwork on the palace gates is typical of Moroccan intricate carving. Fès is know for its artists. We visited a pottery factory and watched the potter literally grow a tagine dish and of course had to shop, for some to bring home.


  
The medina is the largest in the country. We walked through the narrow alleys and through the shouk, shopping for carpets and leather goods. It was exhausting.  When you buy any item at the shouk the haggling starts, it is a ritual that left us tired.

We left Fès and rode the bus to Rabat, the capital. We had a “date” with a Colonial Major and Mr. David Toledano, the head of the Jewish community in Rabat to lay a wreath at the tomb of King Muhammad the V and King Hassan the II. After laying the wreath, the Rabbi said El Moleh Rachamim and the colonel thanked us for coming. King Muhammad the V protected the Jews from the Vichy government during World War II [see here] and that was our way of saying thanks.


 
Lunch was held at Mr. Toledano’s home and Mr. André Azoulay who is the advisor to the king joined us. This is a Muslim country and although the Jewish population feels comfortable, it is important to know the King. Mr. Azoulay talked about the Israeli dignitaries who visited Morocco and about his desire to help negotiate peace in Israel. There used to be an Israeli embassy in Morocco but it closed when the Intifada started. Today Israelis need a visa to visit Morocco, many come on a “Roots trip” to look for their ancestors graves and homes. Mr. Toledano’s home is in an area called Sale where the we saw the American embassy and others.  Also in attendance was the US Deputy Chief of Mission Matthew Lussenhop and Kyle Spector, Foreign Service Officer.

In the afternoon I decided to check the newly built Contemporary Museum. It has a nice exhibit of Morocco Now art since the 195’s. As we were planning to visit the Moroccan Biennale in Marrakech, it was a good preview.

On the way back to the hotel we passed the Palestinian Embassy which brought to mind the reality, as comfortable as we feel now it can all change in a heartbeat..

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Rendezvous in Casablanca – Weekend by the sea

It’s been 35 years since I visited an Arab country.  The first time was during our honeymoon to Egypt. I remember thinking at the time that even though Israel had signed a peace treaty I should not speak Hebrew. Well, after getting a cup of coffee, being polite, I said “TODA”. The waiter smiled and wanted to know all about the Israeli girls in Tel Aviv. There went my cover…

Fast forward last week, I flew from Israel through Paris to Casablanca. Men wearing long galabias, women with head coverings are the sights that welcome at the airport. I remind myself that I’m here on a JDC mission to explore the life of the Jews in this country. 350,000 Jews lived in Morocco prior to the 1950s and Jews have lived in Morocco since the 18th century. But only few thousands are left today. The king’s grandfather, King Muhammad the V protected the Jews during WWII.  Many Jews left after the six day war due to unrest but those who stayed do not currently have to fear for their safety.

There is something mysterious about this country-Morocco.  Maybe it’s the bright colors or the delicious food or the stories about Alibaba and all the evil eye superstition. I knew on coming that there is a lot to uncover.

We left the airport and  drove four hours South to the seaside town of Essaouira. The landscape reminded me of southern Israel. Flat, fields of wheat, some sheep grazing. Very picturesque.  Essaouira is a port city.  Its buildings are painted in blue and white. The sand is soft, the sea was calm but we heard it’s the best place for surfing. We entered the Medina, the walled city, walked through the shouk, picked fish at the port which we had cooked for lunch.

The Jewish history is rich but out of the 35,000 Jews who lived here, one is left.We visited the Rabbi Chaim Pinto synagogue which is used for ceremonies. The cemetery which is located by the sea had silhouettes of women and men on the gravestones but no names. We were told that the Rabbi had a list of who is buried where.  Later the custom changed and we found some graves with Hebrew writing but it was hard to find a name as the letters eroded over time. There are two other synagogues that are being restored but most of the houses in the Jewish Quarter (the Melach) were destroyed.

There was tranquility in the air, it felt like a vacation. Tomorrow we will go to Casablanca to meet the rest of the group and start our mission.

Ma’al-salamah (with peace) Essaouira.


  Portuguese arch , star of David signify a Jewish home  Annual “Fantasy” commemoration of Independence from the French
 Rabbi Chaim Pinto grave in cemetery. Nameless graves identified by chart.Which would you have for lunch??

  Berber Musicians  Argan nuts.

It was mostly a boring ride but we did discover some goats on a tree.  Yes it’s an argan tree and they just wanted to eat some nuts and entertain the passengers.

Casablanca is a bustling city, lots of people on the streets, just hanging , walking , haggling to sell something or just busy going to work. It’s a business city. We took a driving tour and saw some nice villas and lots of construction.

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King Hassan II commissioned a French architect to build a mosque that will provide Casablanca with a single landmark monument. He was hoping to finish it for his 60th birthday but it took few more years. The result is the third biggest mosque in the world. 25,000 worshippers can be inside and 80,000 outside. It took around 10 years to build the mosque.  The moorish designs are incredible. I must say it is intimidating to imagine so many people listening to one person. The influence that one person, the imam, can have on all those who came to pray is scary.

great mosque womens sectionWomen’s section at the mosquedsc05915The Mosque in Casablanca

great mosque hamama

The Hammam at the bottom of the mosque. It has never been used.

 There are 3 Jewish clubs in Casablanca. We ate at the one that has some tennis courts. We had a nice kosher meal and continued to the only Jewish museum in the arab world to see some of the treasures that were collected after the Jews left.

The Jewish community in Casablanca amounts to a few thousand Jews. There are many synagogues, most of them are family synagogues.  Few primary Jewish school, a co-ed Maimonides high school, some kosher butchers. We visited the Neve Shalom primary school. The kids were singing in Hebrew  and getting ready for Purim. At the high school we met with students.  Jewish and Muslims who are studying together and learning to respect each other. We visited an old age home and a clinic that serves the needy with their health needs. From a glance you can sense the pride that Jewish Moroccans have for their country and heritage. Although the young generation leaves the country to study abroad and, for the most part not return, the hope is that the king will continue to favor the Jews and maybe more will come back.

As they say in Arabic, Inshallah or in Hebrew Amen..

We bid goodbye to Casablanca and to Rick’s cafe and Humphrey Bogart and continue North to Fez. Stay tuned for the next post.