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.
Is there a Jewish cemetery in Chefchaouen?
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.