Moroccan artist Chama Mechtaly is building aesthetic bridges

The Dubai-based Moroccan visual artist sees a new golden age for the newly peaceful region, with art showcasing indigenous Jewish history and Muslim influences.

MECHTALY’S TECHNIQUE? Painting in the ‘language of luxury goods and fine jewelry.’ (photo credit: CHAMA MECHTALY)
MECHTALY’S TECHNIQUE? Painting in the ‘language of luxury goods and fine jewelry.’
(photo credit: CHAMA MECHTALY)
A cultural renaissance is taking place in the Middle East. A new golden era could be blossoming and possibilities are being unlocked. These feelings are being conjured up by a Dubai-based Moroccan visual artist and activist who has been shedding light on the unique Jewish history in Morocco
“I am a romantic and I dwell on the romanticism of Andalusia,” says Chama Mechtaly, founder of Moors and Saints, which makes handcrafted products in Dubai and is committed to cultivating pluralism and tolerance. In the wake of the Abraham Accords and the new peace deal between Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, as well as improved relations between Israel and Morocco, these kinds of projects have increased importance.
“I am working with the Jerusalem Biennale on the first Jerusalem-Dubai art residency and exhibition, which will foster co-creation and artistic development through Hebrew and Arabic calligraphy,” says Mechtaly. She harkens back to the Golden Age of Spain in the period before the expulsion of Muslims and Jews in the 15th century.
“I can’t help but think of the golden era of Ibn Ezra and Judah Halevi, Solomon Ibn Gabirol and the giants of Hebrew poetry who developed in close contact and under the influence of Arabic poetry. This is a cultural renaissance that is being ignited in Dubai. Now the flames are being fanned and fed. Dubai and Jerusalem have many similarities, such as ‘Jerusalem of Gold’ and Dubai as a ‘City of Gold.’”
CHAMA MECHTALY, founder of Moors and Saints. (Photos: Chama Mechtaly)CHAMA MECHTALY, founder of Moors and Saints. (Photos: Chama Mechtaly)
In December, I traveled to Dubai during the brief travel window before Israel’s lockdown. It seemed that half of Israel was coming in on flights. There were 10 planes landing each day from Tel Aviv and some 66,000 Israelis poured in. Not since Moses parted the Red Sea had so many traveled so quickly all at once.
One of the shining lights I ran into in Dubai, over a nargilah and a soft drink at the Dubai Marina, was Mechtaly. She grew up in Casablanca in Morocco, then moved to Boston when she was awarded a scholarship to study at Brandeis University. At an early age, she was interested in learning more about her family history and also the origins of her last name.
“This set me on a journey to dig through our identity and on a journey to decolonize Moroccan history in terms of the way it was taught at the time. I discovered that my father didn’t share his family story and history. His father had come from a Jewish family and converted to marry a Muslim woman,” she says.
She began to discuss what her family’s identity means, however, some subjects were taboo at the time. Morocco has a historic and large Jewish community. Many hundreds of thousands of Jews in Israel have roots in Morocco. But the full depth of how Jewish history has informed Moroccan history is not always well known in Morocco.
Mechtaly turned to art. 
“I had always painted since I was a kid and I took those questions [I had] to the canvas. I used to paint portraits of Amazigh [Berber] women who were Jewish. This is what is called intersectionality today, when you sit at the intersection of multiple forms of oppression and accumulate layers of invisibility.”
With her mother, Mechtaly sought to unfold the layers of complexity of North African Jewry. The complexities here relate to the history of Jews of Morocco. Many Jews came to Morocco as a result of the Spanish Inquisition. But there were other, deeper indigenous Jewish traditions. 
“When I focused on Amazigh Jewry, my mother was exposed to another narrative. In this narrative, Jews were indigenous to that land for at least 3,000 years, maybe even more. I observed transformation everywhere I did an exhibition and attracted diasporic North African communities. They noticed these women looked like their grandparents but these women were Jewish. They began to process the similarities of Jews and Muslims in this context of North Africa. It dismantled the ‘othering’ of people that had gone on for decades.”
This “othering” is present when Jews are seen as outsiders rather than part of Middle Eastern countries. 
“That transformation is what pushed me to keep using art for social transformation... I received messages from strangers, both Muslims and Jews, about how my work made them feel seen and repaired something within them.”
 
MECHTALY MOVED back to the UAE four and a half years ago. At the time the Abraham Accords were not even a dream.
“I couldn’t even access Jewish websites for scholarship and research purposes at the time,” she recalls. “I had studied conflict resolution and international relations at Brandeis, so I was interested in reconciliation work and activism for the inclusion of the history of minorities of the region in school curricula, especially because I don’t believe that peace can be sustainable without addressing historical grievances and narratives of trauma.”
Mechtaly’s concept for Moors and Saints came out of her experience in Dubai. She wanted to continue a mission she had embarked on through painting in a “language of luxury goods and fine jewelry,” she says. This could bring dialogue and reconciliation and highlight the shared history between Jews and Muslims in the region without threatening or offending anyone, she says. The idea involved blending Jewish and Islamic themes, such as a Magen David inspired by jewelry models on Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo. 
“I knew that people were ready to embrace the shared history between Muslims and Jews in the region even if they didn’t necessarily express it in public.”
Mechtaly is a living example of the hope of the Abraham Accords, and her life embodies this bridge between Jewish and Muslim history, the region and the mosaic of cultures from the Atlas Mountains to Jerusalem and the exquisite nightlife of Dubai. She returned to this by way of the United States. She held exhibitions in the Boston area and abroad when she was studying at Brandeis.
“I began to talk about Amazigh Jewry, the Berber Jews of North Africa. I had friends and colleagues who were baffled when I mentioned the Amazigh Jews... so many people were taken by surprise. So in a sense I went to a place that I felt I belonged the most. I felt my identity was confusing and not represented. The more interactions I had, the more I wanted to talk about that part of my history and do more exhibitions and panels. I did a lot of conferences and exhibitions in the US and then in Europe and in Morocco,” she recalls.
Reactions have been positive, but at times her work has been seen as political in North Africa and became the subject of censorship by government authorities. 
“I did navigate a lot of challenges and censorship. But when I was censored it gave me more fuel to do that work.” 
‘MORENICA: FEMME et Foi en Méditerranée’ (Women and Faith in the Mediterranean). Inspired by a 15th-century tile from a Moroccan mosque, the painting combines Torah and Koran scriptures about the Queen of Sheba and Deborah the Prophetess.‘MORENICA: FEMME et Foi en Méditerranée’ (Women and Faith in the Mediterranean). Inspired by a 15th-century tile from a Moroccan mosque, the painting combines Torah and Koran scriptures about the Queen of Sheba and Deborah the Prophetess.
For instance, she made a work called Moroccan Flag Revisited, and when it was censored, it helped show how important it was to explore these themes.
“Now, five years since the last censorship – and my last exhibition in Morocco – it is being really well-received since the news broke out of diplomatic relations of Israel and morocco, and people are sharing the painting, displaying it as the profile picture of new WhatsApp groups, and talking about it on videos,” she says.
When she discusses the Amazigh Jewish community, it may raise some eyebrows. Who are they? 
“Ibn Khaldoun says this community was a combination of things. This was due to the wave of migration of Jews moving after the destruction of the Second Temple and settling, and then there were local conversions. Some theories say that Jews settled in the Maghreb region even before. The Amazigh community had been pagan, so the conversions or interactions with Judaism go back for at least 3,000 years. So there is so much richness,” she says.
In these communities there were deep connections between Muslims and Jews, and eventually this also influenced artistry and craftsmanship. 
“There is a museum in the south of Morocco that shows how this visual syncretism takes place, with the Star of David in jewelry or on old flags and Hebrew scripture on a wooden guillotine,” she says.
IN DUBAI, Mechtaly has met many Jews who recently came from Israel who are interested in this Amazigh history. The mayor of Yeruham, for instance, said her dream was to have a museum to Amazigh Jewry in Israel. When it comes to design, Mechtaly emphasizes how important it is to stress the Andalusian and Sephardi history of the region. 
“There would be no Moorish design and Andalusian architecture without the influence of multiple religions, there would be no Golden Era of Islam or Golden Age of Hebrew poetry in Andalusia without one another. They were crucial to the creation of this golden moment in history we refer to with longing and admiration as Andalusia,” she says.
When she speaks about “decolonizing,” she means honoring this history of diversity. That means being a proud intersectional feminist and advocate for interfaith dialogue and pluralism, according to her website. This fits well with the renaissance in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where the UAE is pushing tolerance as a national agenda.
Mechtaly is fascinated by the synthesis of Moorish designs with modern themes. For instance, the Dohány Synagogue in Budapest and the Eldridge Street Synagogue in New York were influenced by this design when Jews embraced the Moorish past in the 19th and early 20th centuries in architecture. 
“This Moorish design was influenced by the Alhambra and great mosque/cathedral of Cordoba. You might think that due to separation we are different, but if you are willing to look you see we share so much, and this is a metaphor for layers of shared heritage that we have in common,” she says.
“What is happening in places like Dubai can be healing for everyone, including Palestinians, and can change the dangerous dynamics we’ve gotten used to,” according to Mechtaly. “I speak to Palestinian friends here all the time, and they always ask me about Judaism and why Mizrachi Jews moved to Israel. They say they want to have those discussions with Israelis, but because of the grievances and the separation, they feel blocked and unable to make the first step. This is why this moment is so important.”
This is how a new golden era could take shape. 
“There is potential... if we can tap into our own need to connect with one another and tap into our wealth of shared history that spans thousands of years, and how to take the best part and propel us forward and innovate and tackle the world’s pressing problems, from climate change to issues of justice and misrepresentation or managing resources and reforming schools. We can tackle these issues better by working together.”
The UAE and Dubai are shifting their economies to attract people with even more talent than in the past as they develop a cultural hub. Israelis are rushing to take part and will be seeing cities in the UAE that have people from all over the world. I saw this when I was there in December. From tech fairs to food confabs, the city is humming with activity that bridges Asia and Africa to Europe and now Israel, all in one place.
Mechtaly agrees. 
“This mixture of innovation and modernity and preserving tradition.... You feel it now when you talk to people. It’s very different than four or five years ago. You feel a sense of curiosity about the other. You feel an inner joy that people carry today. There is an excitement about the potential that you didn’t see before.
“I am positive. If I wasn’t positive, I would give up and it would be a pity for the dreams I have. I also grew up with positive stories about Muslims and Jews through what my father shared with me.
“So for me, that utopia is completely attainable.”