Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

On Refinding Jewish Morocco: East from Marrakesh

Looking out towards Jewish cemetery in former Sidi Rahal synagogue (2012)
 Over the summer, I divided my short time in Morocco between 1) doing some of the research that initially launched this blog (rediscovering remnants of the former Jewish communities of Morocco with a focus on the south) and 2) working to get a better understanding of the role of Jews in the Moroccan music scene in the middle part of the 20th century. Some of the places I visited for the first time included Asni, Sidi Rahal, the Valley of the Roses, Tourbiste, Zaouiat El Bir, Tinghir, Tinjdad (Asrir), and Goulmima. As usual my intent is to put these places on the blogoma, to share my impressions and photos, and to hopefully start a conversation by those who remember these places. Here are some musings on a few of these locales.
In Sidi Rahal's Jewish cemetery with temps rising to 117 (2012)
Sidi Rahal
At the end of August, we left Marrakesh and headed east. Thankfully, we opted for the air-conditioned rental car. By the time we arrived in Sidi Rahal, the temperature had already risen to 117 degrees. Bsara, piping hot pea soup, seemed like the most sensible lunchtime option. It was also being served at one of the few restaurants in the shade. Another bowl? The owner asked. No, I said with a smile. This used to be the mellah, he offered, and we were soon off. Sidi Rahal, once home to over 500 Jews, multiple synagogues, and the other trappings of communal life, had long interested me. It was visited in the 50s by a number of travelers who chronicled its final Jewish years. It had a vibrant past but now it seemed dusty. We walked for about 2 miles along the wadi. Surprisingly there was a sidewalk of sorts. Along the way it was clear that knowledge of the Jewish cemetery was common currency. We spotted the cemetery. It was on a dangerously dry hill. As we started to ascend, we spotted a pickup truck. We introduced ourselves and told the men where we were going. As luck would have it, the guardian of the cemetery was with the truck driver. As mazal would have it, the truck had just come from Casablanca. We arrived at the very moment that a new marble grave marker was being laid for the tzaddik Hagai Peretz. Maktoub I thought.

Witnessing the reconsecration of Hagai Peretz's tombstone (2012)
What remains of Sidi Rahal’s Jewish past is its extended cemetery walls. Few tombs have survived the weather and neglect. The mausoleum containing the tombs of Haggai Peretz and Yaakov Nahmias remains. The extended Nahmias family, scattered across the world, makes an annual pilgrimage to the tomb as attested to by the logbook on site. The remnants of a small synagogue exist, as does a fondouq for Jewish pilgrims. We headed back to the car but not before purchasing a 5-liter bottle of water. Skhoun chweeya, I said to the owner of the hanout. He smiled just enough to make me happy.

The Valley of the Roses
Our initial plan was to continue east until Figuig and then cut up to Debdou before making our way back west. Needless to say, our plans would eventually change.

Jewish woman in Tillit c. 1950s
After leaving Sidi Rahal, we skipped Tazarte due to the heat. We made our way straight to the Valley of the Roses. A number of iconic images from the area photographed in the 1950s by Elias Harrus, former head of the AIU, occupied my thoughts as we approached a remarkably more fertile area than Sidi Rahal. I knew of two villages – Zaouiat El Bir and Tillit - that once had Jewish communities. Upon arrival in the Valley, almost everyone we met pointed us the mudbrick village of Tourbiste as the site of one of the oldest Jewish communities in Morocco’s south.
Tourbiste is located above Ait Said (2012)

I had never heard of Tourbiste, nor could I find it on a map. A series of vague directions and a short drive along a winding road and we had found it from a distance. To get to Tourbiste we had to literally ford a river. A halved tree spanned the diameter of the water, acting as a bridge between the village and the rest of the Valley. As we crossed the river, I made the mistake of looking down, only to notice how swiftly the current was moving. The halved tree was impossibly thin. I had flashes of vertigo. It was too late to turn around and yet it was difficult to keep going. I closed my eyes and slowly moved forward…and then I fell in. I was fine but shaken and eventually made it across. As we walked toward Tourbiste, which reminded me in architecture of Ighil N’Oro, we passed mostly women but some men who offered us the fruits of the land. Person after person gave us delicious peaches, apples, and figs. Tourbiste itself, incredibly tiny, felt like a ghost town. Women were working the fields. I later learned that the men worked in the larger cities of the north. Upon arrival, I quickly saw something that resembled a synagogue and I heard male voices inside. I softly and then loudly knocked on the iron door. A woman answered who spoke little Arabic. Were there men home? I asked. A man came to the door and quickly we were invited inside to eat along with what amounted to be the village’s elders.
Approaching Tourbiste from its agricultural fields (2012)
We washed our hands and we were introduced to the Cheikh, muezzin, and other notables. We dug into delicious lamb tagine. It was just after Ramadan and people were happy. What better group to inform me of Tourbiste’s Jewish past? I thought. And so I asked and everyone looked at me like I was crazy. There never was a Jewish community here, one said. Another mentioned Zaouiat El Bir and Tillit. Are you sure? I asked. A resounding, “yes,” filled the air. We finished eating with them, thanked them, helped two young boys with their English homework, and were on our way. As we walked back, crossing dangerously worn wooden bridges, I began to wonder how Tourbiste had become constructed in people’s minds as Jewish. Was it ever really Jewish? Hadn’t others told informants that this village was seemingly never Jewish? I let these questions linger.

Zaouiat El Bir Judeo-Berber family names (2012)
Zaouiat El Bir
The Jewish cemetery in Zaouiat El Bir is almost impossible to miss. It’s located right next to the local Post Office, along the main road. The cemetery itself has a few curiosities. First, the family names of the former residents are listed on a plaque in the cemetery and all of the families bear the Berber patronym “Ait.” While this is not surprising given that the former Jewish community would have been comfortable in the local Tashelheit and Moroccan Arabic, I had never seen this before. Second, a hand painted sign in the cemetery mentions the Jewish exodus from Spain in 1492, pointing to real or imagined Iberian refugee origins for the local Jewish community as well. The juxtaposition was fascinating.

I had the pleasure of meeting with the guardian of the cemetery, a man in his 80s. I asked him the usual question about the location of the mellah, when the last residents left, etc. But this time I came with musical questions as well. Had he heard prayers in Hebrew? He had. I also asked him if there were any local, relatively famous Jewish singers. If so, did they perform Chleuh ahwash and ahidous? I had caught his attention. As he began to sing what he called Jewish ahwash, I cursed myself for leaving my digital recorder in the car. He beautifully sang a few more pieces, we had tea and sweets, and we continued east.
Handpainted sign marks the Jewish exodus from Spain in Zaouiat El Bir (2012)
We spent a couple of days in Tinghir, touring the city with our friend Kamal Hachkar. Hachkar is the visionary behind the film Tinghir-Jerusalem: Echoes from the Mellah. He has done incredible work historically reconstructing Tinghir’s once populous Jewish community and is using his documentary to have necessary, difficult conversations about Moroccan identity. His film is now touring the US and I strongly recommend going to check it out.
Clip from Tinghir-Jerusalem
Tinghir’s mellah is well preserved in many ways. The mellah gate can still be seen, as can its unique architecture. We had the pleasure of attending a presentation on Tinghir’s Jewish past at the local community center with remarks by Hachkar and a professor from Agadir. About 100 Tinghiri youth were not only in attendance but engaged. Watching this conversation happen was one of the highlights of this short trip to Morocco.

Tinjdad, Goulmima, and back to Fez
Jewish cemeteries in Asrir, Tinjdad (2012)
It was starting to rain by the time we reached Tinjdad. An older man on an even older bicycle, pointed us to Asrir, the douar which housed one of the region’s still identifiable mellahs. Yossef Chetrit has written about the former community of Asrir. Some of the Jews there used to own farmland and apparently the largest landowning family in the area was Jewish. As we walked through the mellah and toward the bright pink walls of the cemeteries, the sky opened up. Intense gusts of wind and rain made it difficult to see and walk. The doors of the cemetery were locked and the walls were too high to scale comfortably. A man with a sickle approached. Since my last travels in Morocco, I had trained myself to embrace this type of encounter rather than be petrified. He offered to give me a boost but I was afraid that once inside the cemetery I wouldn’t be able to pull myself back out. I decided to try to jump up and grab the top of the wall myself and to some how hoist myself to a position where I could see what was inside. One, two, and I was up. I peered down. Literally nothing remained. It was unfortunate but not uncommon. It was raining even harder and so we left. When we finally settled in to Goulmima and spent an afternoon visiting the mellah there, I got increasingly interested in drastically altering our itinerary.

I was fixated on the prospect of returning to Fez. My deep passion for the Maghreb’s musical history was pulling me to the city once home to one of Morocco’s greatest female singers, none other than Zohra El Fassia, and to a host of other musicians like the Botbol clan. I dreamed of chatting with those who remembered the music scene and maybe even finding a stash of 78s buried somewhere deep in the medina. With only a few days remaining in Morocco, we hurriedly made our way back west and north.

You can find more photos of my recent travels to Morocco on the Jewish Morocco Facebook page (which you can also “like”). My next post, which I’m putting the finishing touches on, will be on record digging, cassette collecting, and musical memory in Jewish Morocco. Stay tuned.

1 comment:

Haji baba said...

There is a fine fortified mellah at Bou Thagrar north of the Valley of the Roses and I was assured there were Jews still living in the area though iof course I was sceptical. But my informant who had lived in France insisted it was true!

There is also a fine pise synagogue at Tamnougalt in the Draa Valley. Even more fascinating were the remains of about five small bathing cubicles adjacent to the main room with an area where a tub had stood for heating water. My guide told me Muslims had continued to use the hammam (as he called it)when the synagogue became disused. I sort of assumed later it was for ritual bathing but not being Jewish I really wasn't sure. He told me a restoration project was planned with help from the Spanish government and without doubt there were Jews of Spanish descent in southern Morocco. In Kairouan in Tunisia the old Jewish hammam is still in use (by Muslims) and another hammam had a ritual bath at one time.