I pedaled to the first village and quickly found the requisite old man. He said there was no mellah in the village of Kouighlyn (I now had the name) and there was only one in Rissani. No matter how many times I asked he seemed to be sure. Those around him, decades younger, agreed. I asked them if there were tunnel like structures in the village. It was an excellent game of charades. I had heard that the synagogue was almost underground and until I saw it for myself I didn’t quite understand what I was even asking for. After successfully pantomiming what I was looking for they pointed me in the right direction. The tunnels are called zuqaq in Arabic. An alley is created by the space between mud-brick buildings. What makes these structures unique is that there are dwellings above all this making for an enclosure. Only at the edges does sun peak through. At points you are walking in complete darkness. It is incredibly cool in the zuqaq and so I walked, almost blind, not knowing when I would find what I was looking for. I heard families in the darkness and animals. I finally found some sun. There were four kids there.
Is there a mellah here?
No. They said. Where are you from? Casa?
Give us some money.
You give me some money. I said.
No give us 5 dirham.
This continued back and forth for a while and it was actually quite fun because we all were good humored about it. Then an old man appeared. A blessed old man.
Is there a mellah here?
Yes, this is it. This street here.
Is there a synagogue?
Yes, just half a “block” down.
I opened an unmarked very short door. The four kids followed me inside. I had found it. 700 years old. All mud-brick. Unbelievable condition. Almost perfect. Hay covered the ground – perhaps it was used for storage. It was so dark but two slits allowed concentrated light in. The slights gave just enough light to illuminate the space. It concentrated two beams of light on where the Torah would/should be read. I had never seen concentrated light like that before. It looked solid. You could clearly see the ark and where the nerot tamid would sit. By now news of the American in the village had reached many young ears. Now me and about 25 12 year olds filled the synagogue.
Are you American Idriss? (I had told them that was my name – it sounded close enough to Chris I thought.)
Give us money.
Are you Christian?
I was so excited just to be there. Perhaps best discovery since arriving here. The old man was waiting outside. He was amused by all the commotion. Wanted to know about me. Did I know anyone from this village? He remembered folks – the Shetrits, Abitbols, and then he struggled to name others. It bothered him that he couldn’t remember but he was proud of what once was. I headed with my bike and my gang of 25 12 year olds to the main road in town. They started calling me Barack Obama as I think this was the only American that came to mind and they thought it was funny. So me and my minions had headed towards town. It was quite a sight. I was stopped by some young folks my own age that wanted to know what was going on. I was saved from the 12 year olds. We sat and talked and then I pedaled off completing the circuit.