A Jewish oasis in the Arab world

Posted in Broader Middle East | 10-Jun-09 | Author: Walter Ruby| Source: Common Ground News Service

Essaouira, Morocco - The Moroccan idyll I shared with my fiancée Tatyana began with a Passover evening service at the ornate Neveh Shalom Synagogue in the heart of Casablanca's Jewish Quarter - an upscale French-flavoured district in this mostly modern city where 3,500 Jews live among a much larger number of Muslims - and a sumptuous Seder (traditional Passover dinner) at the well-appointed apartment of prominent community member Sammy Ifergan, his wife Natalie and their two charming teenage daughters.

The elegant century-old synagogue was packed with about 200 worshippers, many of them members of the worldwide Moroccan Jewish diaspora of up to one million, stretching from Jerusalem to Paris, Montreal and Caracas. Then Tatyana and I experienced our very first Sephardic Seder, with Ifergan performing fascinating rituals like holding a platter of matzah (unleavened bread) over the heads of family members and guests, while intoning, "You were once slaves in Egypt, but now you are free."

We learned that among Moroccan Jews, the bitter herbs we traditionally eat in the Seder are not bitter at all, but rather a celery-like plant ("Maybe because our 2,000-year exile in Morocco hasn't been as bitter as some others", Ifergan said), and then enjoyed a scintillating Pesach dinner.

Ifergan explained that he and Natalie emigrated to Montreal as a young couple and lived there for more than a decade. But 15 years ago when the Moroccan government offered him a position in the business administration of the National Electric Company, he signed a two-year contract, and has been back here ever since. "Morocco is simply a very comfortable place to live as Jews", he said.

As we visited other Jewish families in Casablanca, the capital city of Rabat and Marrakech, we found everywhere the sense of watchful serenity manifested by the Ifergans. Despite a series of terrorist bombings in Casablanca in 2003, including one directed against a Jewish club (where there was extensive damage but no casualties), Morocco's Jews are staying put - at least for now.

According to Serge Berdugo, 72, a genial business executive who has served as general secretary of the Council of Jewish Communities of Morocco since 1986, "No one can say with complete confidence what will happen tomorrow. But we were strengthened in our resolve to stay here when the king came to the bombed Jewish Center and said, 'The Jews are citizens. I am here to protect their persons, belongings and sacred values.' Members of Muslim associations came also and held a candlelight vigil together with the Jewish community. It was very moving."

Moroccan Jews trace their history back more than 2,000 years, well before the Arab armies arrived here in the eighth century. Indeed, some of the Berber tribes who are the original inhabitants of Morocco, and remain the largest chunk of the population today, converted to Judaism centuries ago. And shrines to Jewish-Berber holy men like the 14th century Shlomo Bel-Hench, whose elaborate tomb we visited in the lush Ourika Valley amid the snow-capped Atlas Mountains, can be found around the country. Present-day Moroccan Jews are a mix of inhabitants who trace their roots to the earliest Jewish settlers and descendants of Spanish Jews who were expelled and resettled in Morocco at the time of the Inquisition.

The warmth and continuing vitality of Moroccan Jewry reflects the unique flavours of the country they inhabit. In a world of ever-increasing sameness, Morocco is a thousand-year-old civilisation that moves very much according to its own rhythms, at once exotic and other-worldly, yet accessible and welcoming. Moroccans are a people with a talent for the creation of beautiful objects that fill the country's enticing souks (markets); beauty that mirrors in miniature the majesty of the ancient cities and picture book landscapes of mountains, desert and ocean.

In Rabat, we were the guests of two headscarf-clad sisters, Hanane and Kadija, who guided us around a city replete with ancient casbahs (fortresses) and hidden gardens, while speaking proudly of the country's spirit of tolerance, which as Hanane put it, "allows each person to decide whether or not to pray."

The sprawling souk within the walled city of Marrakesh is a vast, pulsating marketplace where every product ever conjured by humankind seems to be on sale; including carpets, metalwork, pottery, jewellery and exotic herbs and spices. Visitors can watch robed and turbaned tradesmen plying timeless crafts including leather working, cloth dying and slipper making.

Tatyana and I especially fell in love with Essaouira, a much smaller, oh-so-mellow walled seaside town, where one can browse the souk in leisurely fashion; sit atop 18th century Spanish cannons on a stone parapet overlooking the pounding Atlantic, and ride camels down a long beachfront and over adjoining dunes.

Essaouira's most illustrious citizen, Andre Azoulay, a Jewish adviser to the king on Foreign Affairs, told us that his hometown, "the only place in the Arab world that had a Jewish majority until the 1930s, can today serve as the flagship for worldwide dialogue between Judaism and Islam." Certainly, it is hard to imagine a more propitious place for Jews and Muslims to search for common ground than in this enchanting, wind-tossed town in the heart of a land where adherents of the two faiths mingled for so many centuries to such positive effect.

Walter Ruby is a Muslim-Jewish relations programme officer at the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the author. The full text can be found at www.thejewishweek.com.

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