Coming home to Morocco

Somewhere between the bustling souks, lavish meals and vibrant scenery, I uncovered a part of myself I didn’t know existed.

The writer and a member of the AJC delegation take a picture of the Casablanca sunset. (photo credit: NOA AMOUYAL)
The writer and a member of the AJC delegation take a picture of the Casablanca sunset.
(photo credit: NOA AMOUYAL)
On my first day in Morocco, I chased the sun.
After touring the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca – an awe-inspiring feat of engineering, artistry and architecture if there ever was one – our group exited the mosque to find a breathtaking sunset. Crisp and vibrant oranges and reds reflected upon the blue waters of the Atlantic, creating a vista that I felt had to be captured by my camera. Unfortunately, we had arrived at a time of year when the sun descends rapidly, and my window of opportunity was a matter of seconds.
So I ran.
It was a glorious moment where I felt I had to make the most of what was before my eyes. That is perhaps what governed my way of thinking throughout the whole visit: basking in the unique, once-in-a-lifetime experiences I was privileged to witness and appreciate every moment.
AS SOMEONE who grew up as a Sephardi/ Ashkenazi mix, with roots in Poland, Russia, Algeria and Morocco, being Moroccan just seemed part of the elaborate equation that made me me. The Moroccan heritage that runs through my veins was something I had either dismissed or made fun of in social circles. At family events, I would never, ever agree to wear traditional Moroccan garb for fear I would look silly.
But when I received an invitation to join an American Jewish Committee delegation aiming to foster dialogue between young Jews and Muslims in Morocco, the cynic in me couldn’t resist.
Little did I know that Morocco would seep into my soul during my one-week journey.
Surprisingly, instead of being the Jewish outsider looking in, Morocco and its people welcomed me with open arms. From an encounter with Yousef Safine, a young Muslim who taught himself Hebrew and spoke to me like a full-on Sabra, to being openly welcomed by high-level dignitaries across the country, for a week I was able to suspend the conventional belief that a Jew can never feel at home in a Muslim country.
That’s not to say everything is rosy in the kingdom.
Recently, King Mohammed VI enacted impressive measures to retain Morocco’s Jewish history in ways that are unparalleled in any other Muslim nation. In Marrakesh, the street signs in the mellahs (traditional Jewish neighborhoods) have been restored to their original Hebrew names, and Jewish cemeteries across the country are properly kept. In the small, sleepy coastal town of Essaouira, a city known for its harmonious relationship between Jews and Arabs, the government restored a synagogue, Slat Lkahal, one of the 110 synagogues being renovated by the kingdom.
But at its core, Morocco is a country grappling with adapting to modernity while not alienating its conservatives.
“Despite the fact that Morocco has been exemplary in terms of the Jewish experience, one can hardly claim that the life of Jews was anything nearing equality. There were bad periods as well as good ones, and as a subordinate community, they had to be careful not to overstep the mark,” Rabbi David Rosen, AJC’s director of interreligious affairs, told our group when discussing the history Jews in the country.
My grandmother Dina Amouyal can attest to this. While she wears her Moroccan identity on her sleeve in Israel, she has mixed feelings about life way back then, when she says antisemitism – while rare – was a main motivation for her family to leave in the early 1950s.
She was not alone, and Morocco’s pre- 1948 population of 300,000 Jews became a scant 3,000.
Its Jewish community is now in the precarious state of retaining what it has – as well as the very few Jews who remain.
“Why be sad? This is the life. I can’t break myself. I have a bigger responsibility now, more than before, because I have to think about the future. We don’t have time to cry or be upset,” Jacky Kadoch, head of Marrakech’s Jewish community, who was one of forces responsible for the king’s decision to restore the old signs in the city, told me.
Today, while relations between Moroccan Muslims and Jews (and Israelis) are overwhelmingly positive, there is a sense that nobody wants to rock the boat. That means no big moves, like diplomatic relations between Israel and Morocco, an El Al plane descending on one of the country’s runways or anything that could complicate a relationship that is – on the surface – very warm.
Very few Muslims and Jews were willing to go on record to address these diplomatic issues, indicating that while some 50,000 Israelis flock in and out of the kingdom on a regular basis without incident, there is still a hesitancy to be more open about the friendly relations between the two countries.
As for the delicate balance between traditional and progressive values, Fatima-Zahra Mansouri knows this all too well.
Mansouri is one of the first female mayors in the Arab world and served as the mayor of Marrakesh from 2009 to 2015. She spoke about the importance of Morocco being a beacon for tolerance, saying its warm relations with the Jewish people are crucial.
In many ways, the evening, which featured music by natives of the city and mingling between Muslims and Jews, was Mansouri’s vision personified.
Upon our arrival, her opulent foyer immediately felt like a Moroccan wedding, where we joined hands and danced as singers in Arabic sang about wanting “to come to Israel.”
The enthusiasm in the room was so palpable I was on the verge of tears.
Embarrassed to cry in public, I turned to one of the participants on the trip, Avihay Cahani, who is also of Moroccan descent, to see if he was experiencing the same emotional roller-coaster. I found that he, too, was visibly moved by the warm welcome.
“I don’t know why I’m crying,” he laughed.
AFTER A few days to reflect, we were both able to articulate why that night was so touching.
“My uncles told me for years that I should come here, and that Muslims and Jews get along here. I’m seeing this with my own eyes. They really love us here. It’s not that we can just live together, we can thrive together.
It was amazing to see,” Cahani said.
“Life here,” he continued, “is good for the Jews. Our history is their history. It’s like coming home.”
The writer was a guest of the American Jewish Committee.