Historic Jewish quarter of Marrakech sees revival
Colourful history. Visitors take part in a religious ceremony to observe the holiday of Sukkot (the Feast of the Tabernacles) at a synagogue in Marrakech, on October 12. (AFP)
2017/11/05 Issue: 130 Page: 23
Marrakech - The once teeming Jewish area of Moroccan tourist gem Marrakech is seeing its fortunes revived as visitors, including many from Israel, flock to experience its unique culture and history.
“You’re now entering the last synagogue in the mellah,” the walled Jewish quarter in the heart of the ochre city, Isaac Ohayon said as he enthusiastically guided tourists in the courtyard of the Lazama Synagogue.
“Many visitors come from Israel. You wouldn’t believe the demand!” said the jovial 63-year-old hardware shop owner.
This place of worship and study was built in 1492 during the Inquisition when the Jews were driven out of Spain. Known as the “synagogue of the exiles,” it hosted generations of young Berbers who converted to Judaism and were sent from villages in the region to study the Torah, before being deserted in the 1960s.
In classrooms transformed into a museum, fading colour photographs tell the story of a now-dispersed community, with many having left for France, North America and Israel.
The caption on one sepia shot of an old man sitting by a pile of trunks says it all: “They are travelling towards a dream they have prayed for for more than 2,000 years.”
Rebecca is in her 50s and grew up in Paris but she has “great nostalgia” for Morocco and says she returns as often as she can.
“The Jewish Agency began recruiting the poorest in the 1950s and then everyone left after independence (from France), at the time of King Hassan II’s policy of Arabisation,” she said.
The Jewish Agency of Israel is a semi-official organisation that oversees immigration to the country.
Before the wave of departures, Morocco hosted North Africa’s largest Jewish community, estimated at 250,000-300,000 people. There are fewer than 3,000 left, unofficial figures indicate.
Marrakech at the foot of the Atlas Mountain range was home to more than 50,000 Jews, a 1947 census stated. Now, approximately 100 are thought to remain, many of them extremely elderly.
Jewish-owned homes inside the mellah were sold to Muslim families of modest means and the walls of the district were eroded by time.
“Sometimes we can’t get even ten men together for prayers,” said one woman worshipper at the old synagogue, preferring to remain anonymous.
However, at celebrations marking the end of the festival of Sukkot, which commemorates the Jewish journey through the Sinai after the exodus from Egypt and the Simchat Torah holiday, the place buzzes with song, dance and traditional dishes.
The worshipper said she had “never seen so many people” there.
Jacob Assayag, 26, proudly calls himself “the last young Jew in Marrakech.”
“Since the quarter was restored, there have been more and more tourists,” the restaurateur and singer said.
A restoration project begun about two years ago has seen $20.5 million spent.
Ferblantiers Square, a large pedestrian area near the spice souk lined with benches and palm trees where tourist buses gather, also benefited from the revamp.
Twenty years ago, the quarter was renamed “Salaam (‘peace’ in Arabic)” but this year saw its original “El Mellah” name restored on the orders of King Mohammed VI “to preserve its historic memory” and develop tourism.
The streets with their ochre façades once more bear their names on plaques in Hebrew. The synagogue, for example, is on Talmud Torah Street.
There is much to see inside the mellah.
Camera-toting tourists snap vigorously at shopfronts and the carved wooden doorways of houses in the quarter.
“Many people come every year from Israel for the (Jewish) holidays and this year has seen even more, maybe 50,000,” said Israeli tourist guide David, leading a group from Tel Aviv via Malaga in Spain on an eight-day trip.
“I feel at home in Morocco because I was born here,” added the 56-year-old from the port of Ashdod just north of the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip.
His parents left Marrakech in the 1960s, when David was 4 years old, “because they were Zionists.”
Ohayon said visitors from Israel are often bowled over by Marrakech.
“Moroccan Jews can’t forget their homeland and Israelis who come here for the first time find the spirit of tolerance here almost unbelievable when they themselves live under constant tension,” he said.