Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

Monday, August 25, 2008

Back to Rabat

The next morning I woke up sick. Not cold sick but I-should-not-have-eaten-that merguez-sandwich-from-that-shady-restaurant sick. I could barely move. I couldn’t get out of bed. I needed to return to Rabat. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be let back into the cemetery at Azjen, I couldn’t wait 12 more hours for the hilloula. I’m not sure if I made the right decision but at that point I just needed to get home. The Grand Hotel was feeling less and less grand. I finally got out of bed, checked out of the hotel, and decided I was going to give the medina one last go. I was on the hunt for the mellah and at least 4 synagogues. I stumbled out of the hotel and into the medina. Remember, look for the old men. I turned the corner and came upon 4 incredibly old men sitting in an empty store front chatting. PERFECT!

Where’s the mellah?
The mellah?
Yes, the mellah.
So I should go straight up.
Oh, I should turn around and make a right and then go straight and then make a right.

One took me by the arm and led us to the mellah. Funny, I had already walked down that street. It was totally under construction. Half way up the street was a gate and courtyard. Was this it? What was in the courtyard? I was hesitant to wonder in. I definitely didn’t want to go somewhere where I wasn’t wanted. Is this the mellah? I asked. I was motioned in. I looked around this courtyard for anything. This was the Jewish funduq, I was told. Were the synagogues here? Could I identify a mezuzah? Not that I could tell unfortunately. Or maybe I was just so sick I couldn’t see straight. Some men were inside a hay shed and I asked them what this area was. They said the second story around the courtyard was the Jewish area. Was there a synagogue here? No, they said. It was unclear whether they thought I meant a synagogue that is still in use or one that has fallen into disuse but still remains intact. I couldn’t communicate properly. I thanked them and left. I was told that there was a former Jewish school up the street but I could barely walk. I left barely satisfied but ready to return home. We headed to CTM and waited for our bus to Rabat to fill up so that we could leave.


We returned to Ouezzane for lunch. It was good, simple, and cheap. We checked into the Grand Hotel that wasn’t that grand. It had a shared Western toilet, we were happy enough. Tents were set up in the city center. A festival of some sort was to go on that night. Ouezzane was much different from Chefchaouen even though it was only an hour away. It seemed to be more conversative and as far as we could tell we were the only tourists in the whole city. We ventured into the old city but it was dead and Friday, Muslim day of prayer, had killed it. We inquired as to where the mellah was to the few souls who passed through the medina. They poined us in a few different directions but we realized our Friday efforts were futile. We returned to the hotel to rest.

Later that night I ate a delicious merguez sandwhich. We had determined that the festival started at 8. The city which seemed dead only hours early began to come alive. Music was played and vendors lined the street. Hundreds turned out for…a Moroccan craft fair! Outside people sold sweets, shoes, and snails. Inside was truly awesome: pottery, carpets, clothing, and jewelery. It was a mad house, it was capitalism. There was an interesting problem. Every time I stepped into a store, someone would ask me how much something cost. It appeared as though I not only looked Moroccan but looked like a Moroccan salesman. Literally every store we entered I was confronted with deal seeking Moroccan women. Jen and I found a jem of a pottery stall. By that point the proprieter had cordoned off his store and only allowed women to point at what they wanted as it had gotten too crazy. He allowed me to cross into the store at which point I was free to browse. This of course only encourage women to think that I worked there but it was worth it as I nabbed some killer pottery. That’s right, I said it, killer pottery. After our purchases we strolled a bit and returned to the hotel.

To Ouezzane

We left the next morning for Ouezzane by Grand Taxi (4 in the back, 3 in the front including the driver). According to my calendar there was a hilloula (pilgrimage) to the grave of Rabbi Amram Ben Diwan, an 18th century tzaddik, scheduled for Saturday. I knew that the large hilloula to Rabbi A. Ben Diwans grave was during Lag Baomer and I knew that in the past there was usually a smaller one on his yartzheit. Rabbi Amram Ben Diwan is buried in Ouezzane’s Jewish cemetery which is located 9 km to the north in the city of Azjen. I wasn’t sure of what to expect of Azjen. Would it be a proper city? Would there by a hotel for us to stay at so that we could attend the hilloula without breaking Shabbat? We decided to head straight for Azjen after reaching Ouezzane. We took a petit taxi to a grant taxi which dropped us at Azjen. Everyone knew that we were headed to the Jewish cemetery. We got out of the taxis, bags in hand, and approached three men. Two were clearly military and the third was a man wearing the jalabiya (traditional male dress) and baseball hat from an Israeli tour company. Was he the caretaker of the cemetery I thought? I started to explain in Arabic. They started to respond in Arabic and French and asked for our names and passports. I explained my purpose for being there (to visit the tomb of Rabbi Ben Diwan) and that we were Jewish. He motioned us in but didn’t let us get far.

Are you Jewish?
What’s your name?
Let me see your passport.

I pulled out my passport again and said in Hebrew that I have a Hebrew name and it’s Gedalia. He hit me on the arm and then said back to me in heavily accented Hebrew: Gedalia, why didn’t you say so? Let’s go. He told me I looked like his son in New York and asked me where I was from. I asked him his name, he said it was Amram too. I told him a little about my trip in Morocco, that I was living in Rabat and studying Arabic and interested in attending the hilloula. Was there indeed a hilloula tonight or tomorrow? Not really he said. I thought that had settled it. He showed me the complex, quickly, and led me to Rabbi Ben Diwans tomb. It lies under a very large tree and is covered with large rocks. The bottom portion of the tree is whitewashed. I bought candles and lit them and placed them on the rocks and then Amram said a blessing on my behalf. Amen, I said. I toured the synagogue on premises and asked Amram if I could look around a bit. He seemed to be in a rush or at least want us out of there. There were preparations for something, it was clear. On the way out I stopped at the tomb of Rabbi David HaCohen and noticed that the cemetery was also something of a convention center. It must be here that they housed pilgrims. On the premises there are little cottages.

We took some more photos and headed for the entrance. There we would wait for another grand taxi. We put our bags down by the gate and then Jen asked if there was a bathroom. I hadn’t noticed one before but apparently by the cottages there were also bathrooms. As I waited for Jen I saw three 15, 16 year olds eating lunch, all wearing kippot. I approached them in Hebrew and asked them about the cottages. There was indeed a hilloula, it would last all week. There were services on Friday and Saturday as usual and Saturday night would be the major celebrating with singing and dancing. Could I stay here I asked? They thought so but weren’t sure. You had to bring your own food with you. Perhaps I could go into town and return later that day. It was all very unofficial. I asked them where they lived. They said Casablanca but during the year in some city I hadn’t heard of.

Where is that?
England, they said.
Oh, you go to yeshivah there?
So…we all speak English?

I spoke to them some more, now in English, and told them I would hopefully return Saturday night. I definitely didn’t want to show up in a taxi on Saturday night if Shabbat hadn’t completed ended so I asked them what time they thought it ended. 9.30, they said. If I went, how would I get home? Would there be a grand taxi at 1 am after the festivities end? Could I walk the 9 km in the dark?

We wished each other a Shabbat Shalom.

You must leave this place

Unlike Temara where we live, Chefchaouen is a tourist town. Unfortunately we hadn’t prebooked a hotel and entered the medina only to find that every other tourist in Morocco had also descended on the tiny mountain town. We tried Hotel Yasmina but that was booked then we went to the Castellana and that was booked too. Then we headed to another hotel, had a wonderful conversation with a young man who worked there while waiting for the manager to return only to be told upon his return that the place was booked. Finally we were given some sound advice by one of the countless hoteliers we chatted with: You must leave this place. He meant the medina, the old city, but it was pretty funny. It was cryptic and Lost-like. So we left and finally found a decent spot at the Hotel Salam.

The next day was my first real test. I had three things I was looking for in Chefchaouen: 1) the Mellah (the Jewish area of town), 2) a synagogue, and 3) the cemetery. Rough Guide casually mentions that Chefchaouen has a mellah and generally describes its location but I was going to need more. I knew from my research that approximately 20 years ago that all three were visited by a researcher but what were my chances of finding any of this. The mellah would be easy as people still refer to this area but what about the rest? Other than knowing that these things exist what would my methodology be for finding them. I had been told to always seek out the oldest man I could find and he would point me in the right direction as he would still have fond-ish memories of his former Jewish neighbors but I suddenly felt myself shy and nervous.

I walked around for about 15 minutes sizing up different people. Would he know where the cemetery is? Would she understand my very bad Arabic? Would she tell me if she knew? I had been to Chefchaouen once before and I couldn’t believe that there was still a cemetery and synagogue. The town was/is so touristy that I thought surely if there was a synagogue and cemetery to be found then I would have seen it on my last trip or read about it in one of my three guide books.

I hailed a taxi. I liked the distance this placed between myself and the driver to whom I would direct my question.

Salam Aleikum.
Is there a Jewish cemetery in Chefchaouen?
There is?
Is it close to here?
How much is it to get there?

He drove for all of 5 minutes. There it was, right behind the Hotel Salam. The Jewish cemetery stands on the southeast of the city outside of the old city. It is on a hill and is today bifurcated by a paved foot path. There is no signage and if you didn’t know what you were looking for or at you would never know it was a cemetery. There is an entrance at the top of the hill and at the bottom, we entered from the top. There are still dozens of fairly well preserved tombs. The area is mostly enclosed and mostly free of trash. Larger tombs are discernable from smaller tombs and some of the tombs have carvings on them although I could not find any tomb that had Hebrew on it. The tombs spanned both sides of the foot path. It was an awesome event. I had found the cemetery and felt as though somehow I was helping to honor the memory of the Chefchaoueni Jews.

We headed up the mountain to the source of Chefchaouen’s water, the Ras El Ma. From there we descended back towards the medina to get something to eat. On our way we were confronted with store after store after store of stuff. We entered one and I noticed they were selling a worn looking menorah. I looked up and there was a plate (new) that had the Decalogue on it. I asked the shopkeeper about it and he said he had many Jewish and Israeli customers. He had old items and new items, whatever I wanted. Are you a Hebrew? He asked me. Yes, I said. Welcome brother, he said, and gave me a hug. It was a good show but I didn’t buy anything. Later we were wooed into a Berber home doubling for a carpet store where we were charmed into buying a beautiful rug for our new apartment in New York. Abdul, the salesman, told me I looked Moroccan, totally Moroccan. Later I asked him where the mellah was.

Oh are you Jewish?
Yes, I said.
Oh you look Jewish, he said.
I thought you said I looked Moroccan?

He showed me a guestbook he kept. It documented his happy customers thoughts. He pointed out to me a number of inscriptions in Hebrew. I didn’t realize Israelis were visiting Chefchaouen as well. He told me the mellah is in Souika (from the word suq or market) and his son pointed us in the right direction.

Finding the mellah is sometimes difficult. There are no real borders between neighborhoods so you just have to keep asking if you are in the mellah. There are gates, etrances and exists, but it is still tricky. Bingo. Finally I asked the right person. The mellah wasn’t here, it was right through there. Indeed I turned around and there was the Bab El Mellah (the Mellah Gate). The doors were original he said (although not sure if this is true) and I could go wander. So we wandered. Construction hampered wandering too far but we wandered. Coming back the man said that there is still a former resident, Harun (Aaron), who continues to visit. He asked me if knkow him. I didn’t. I wasn’t sure if I believed the Harun story but I had indeed found the mellah. We later bought a small rug from him for a very good price and I asked him if there was anyone who knew more about the former Jewish community.

Yes, he said. Si Ali who lives right around the corner knows everything.
Can you take me there? I asked.
He took me to a door around a bend and knocked on the door, waited until a maid answered it, and then left.

I explained to her in broken Arabic that I was from the US and wanted to talk to Si Ali. She let us in. I couldn’t believe it. What would Si Ali say? Did he have the key to an old synagogue? Would he be annoyed that we were here?

Si Ali lives in an old Andalusian style home. It is large with an open air courtyard. We sat in one of a covered salons. Si Ali, a man of about 85, emerged from a second floor bedroom. He hobbled down the stairs and welcomed us warmly. After exchanging niceties in Arabic I asked him if he spoke English. He didn’t and wanted to know what we wanted. I told him that I only spoke a little modern standard Arabic. He said that that wouldnt be a problem. But what did we want? He wanted to know. I explained to him that I was interested in the Jewish community and from there on out I struggled to understand him mostly due to my Arabic. He said that this is Muslim land. That after the expulsion from Spain, Muslims had allowed Jews to settle here. They lived in Chefchaouen but left with the Spanish in 1956. They had gone to Spain and Venezuala and some to Israel. Was there still a synagogue in town? I asked. No, he said, there isn’t. He said that a Jew named Harun visits annually. I was shocked that the second shopkeeper’s story was true. I thanked him immensely for his time and we were on our way.

I wasn’t sure if a synagogue was still preserved but I decided to call it a day. I had had mostly successes and I thought a better strategy was needed for visiting synagogues in the future. I would have to figure who holds the keys to these places and how best to find them. We left and I stopped to take a picture of the street name in Arabic. Under it someone had drawn graffiti, a swastika. I was surprised. I took the picture and a man said something to me that I didn’t understand. He switched to English and said: this is a catastrophe. I wasn’t sure what he was referring to but pointed me up past the street name. Above the street name was new construction. The wall that buttressed the mellah was original on the bottom and above the street name was now concrete. This new part is a catastrophe, he said.

Headed to Chefchaouen

On Tuesday, August 12, after exploring Rabat, we made our way to CTM (the bus station). It was far less chaotic then I envisioned and certainly less chaotic then its counterpart in Cairo. Our plan was to head to Chefchaouen the next morning and then continue on from there to Azjen and then to Ouezzane. There was a sign at the station that indicated Chefchaouen and I spoke to the attendant inside. He said that buses leave for Chefchaouen almost every hour and that there was a 9 am and that we should show up the next day at 8.30. Success!

Dutifully we returned the next morning at 8.30 only to be told that the next bus left at 11. Slightly annoyed but cavaliering forward with a TIM (This is Morocco) attitude we bought our 11 o’clock tickets and sat outside at the station café drinking mint tea and making cheese and tomato sandwiches for our journey. While the journey was estimated at around 8 hours the bus took a little less than 6. We drove northwest to our destination passing sights that I would eventually visit including Ouezzane and signs for places like Ksar El Kebir.

The apartment

We arrived in Casablanca on August 11, exchanged some money, had a bite to eat, and hoped on the train to Rabat. We were picked up by our host Nourredine who showed us the apartment we would be staying in in Temara, a small city south of Rabat. Temara was farther from Rabat than I had previously thought but it was a place that we agreed would work for at least the first month.

The apartment is big: two bedrooms, a nicely sized living room complete with wall to wall couches, kitchen, and bathroom. In general the apartment has two problems: 1) It is far from Rabat (about an hour by bus) and 2) the toilet is Turkish. Nonetheless it is a refuge from everything outside the apartment. Our neighborhood is friendly. We are already known at virtually every vegetable stand, grocery, and the one restaurant.