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Colors of Morocco

By on October 16, 2015

Morocco, a country of distinct culture and boundless color, a place where customs of East and West converge, has been a land of ageless history, architecture, and intrigue. Named Travel & Leisure’s 2015 “Travel Destination of the Year”, Morocco holds more than meets the eye as each city is personified by a distinct color and character.  While Morocco in its entirety is fascinating, the story of Jewish lineage is particularly so. Having had the exceptional opportunity to travel within Morocco this past year, I delved into the three-thousand-year-old history and traditions of ancient Moroccan Jewry.

The country that holds prolific inspiration for writers, artisans, and philosophers has been called home by generations of a tight-knit Jewish community. Until the past half century, a once bustling population of more than 300,000 Jews now remains a scattered 3,000. Although small, the Jewish community continues to be strong and vibrant. Dating back roughly 2,500 years ago, the Jewish population in Morocco was the largest in the Arab world. Under the reign of King Mohammed V (1927-1961) and subsequently his son, King Hassan II (1961–1999), Jews enjoyed living freely alongside their Muslim counterparts. As King Mohammed II was once famously quoted, “I do not have Muslim citizens, nor do I have Jewish citizens. I have Moroccan citizens”. A solid sense of patriotism is held within the gates of Morocco for Jews and Muslims alike. It became evident as I inquired with locals about living under their current and past monarchs – they are confident and proud. Despite being a minute community, many Jews compare their relationships to their Muslim neighbors as “brothers” and “close friends.” They show an equal sense of pride for both their Jewish and Moroccan roots. Paradoxically, a country nestled in between the most intolerable of regions shows a strong sense of camaraderie and acceptance.

moroccoAs a Sephardic Jew born and raised in Los Angeles, my childhood was constantly showered with stories of my parents’ upbringing in the Middle East. I learned of their homes near the most ornate age-old mosques and their relationships with the neighboring Muslim communities, but it was only until I entered Morocco that these stories finally came to life.

Upon arriving into Fès, the blue imperial city, the essence of the old Jewish community is near palpable as you are greeted by the grandeur of the Bab Boujloud gates, guarding what used to be the walls of the mellah, or Jewish quarter. Walking through the centuries-old mellah, which once held the largest of Jewish populations, it was as if the stories of my father’s adolescence had been painted before my eyes. The narrow cobblestoned paths were scattered with donkeys carrying freshly dyed leathers from nearby tanneries and local Moroccans sporting the traditional djellaba robe. It was evident that not only the architecture, but the day-to-day way of life remained unchanged throughout the decades. Still, the only traces of Jewish life remain within the stories of the city’s cobalt blue walls.

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    Ibn Danan Synagogue

The 17th century Ibn Danan Synagogue is adorned by a wealth of traditional Moroccan mosaic tile work, or zellij in Arabic. The striking patterns of the traditional Moroccan starburst motif, testir, in an array of forms makes evident how Arabesque architecture and culture have beautifully permeated the Jewish sphere. Within its rich turquoise walls, the strength the Jewish community once held was undeniable, as both Torah scrolls were seemingly untouched. As beautiful as this sight was, the real treasure lay hidden. As I followed a short dark corridor down three stone stairs, a dim light reflected a small pool of water in front of me—I soon realized it was the original mikveh of the synagogue, laying tranquil, unscathed. Still filled with water, it reminded me of what I once heard, “where there is water, there is life”, and this centuries-old mikveh had once been a witness to prayer and miracles—the beating heart of Jewish life.

March 2000 Meknes, Morocco

 

Driving through the lush pastures of Meknès, the city of green, into the capital, Rahbat, we were greeted warmly by natives of the Jewish community with two kisses on the cheek and offered aromatic mint tea. Over a beautiful dinner table adorned with traditional dishes of tajine, pastilla, couscous, and an array of spicy harissa, the locals were charming and warm as they conversed in a mélange of Arabic, French, and English. They were quick to express their delight in meeting fresh, young Jewish faces—something that has become a scarcity as most families have made aliyah since the formation of Israel. Nonetheless, they expressed the love and pride they hold for their native hometown, Morocco.

spice-market-marrakechAs I reach the rose-colored walls of Marrakech, the city of red, I am immediately drawn in by the warm sandstone glow the city emanates. Passing through the medina into the souk, or Arab baazar, my senses are heightened by the endless sparks of color; uninterrupted arrays of turmeric yellow, jade green, paprika red, and cobalt blue. The scents of spices seem all too familiar—coriander, saffron, cumin, and turmeric. An odd sense of familiarly and sentiments of home are felt as it seemed that my heart had a yearning to connect to my deeply embedded Sephardic roots.

My exploration of the Jewish community of Morocco proved to be an experience of intrigue and connection. I felt fulfilled as I was finally able to perceive first hand, the history, the struggle, and the ultimate resilience of my Sephardic roots. It taught me lessons of diversity, acceptance, and the promise to pass onto future generations what makes us who we are and has kept us resilient amongst our adversities–our Jewish legacy.

Similar to the interwoven patterns of the zellij, Jews each with a unique story require both an individuality and interconnectedness in order to create an intricate pattern—one cannot discover where one lineage ends and the other begins.

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About Rebecca Aframian

Rebecca Aframian completed her master’s degree in interior architecture and design at L’École des Beaux-Arts Paris American Academy in Paris, France. She is currently working as a residential designer with a firm in Santa Monica, California.