'You are a Jew?'

An impromptu guided journey through the maze of Marrakech's mellah.

Marrakech 88 224 (photo credit: MYA GUARNIERI )
Marrakech 88 224
(photo credit: MYA GUARNIERI )
One wrong turn and I am standing alone in an alley in Marrakech, deep inside the medina, the dusty red wall of Palais de la Bahia on one side of me, a row of closed stores to the other. "You are looking for the mellah?" a young Arab man asks me. The swastika I saw spray-painted on a wall in Rabat flashes through my mind, and I hesitate to answer, wondering if it's wise to admit that I am indeed looking for the mellah, the Jewish quarter. "No, I'm OK," I reply, puzzling over the map in the Lonely Planet guidebook. According to the map, the mellah should be right here, I should be standing right next to it. But all I see on the empty street is shuttered doors punctuated by a handful of open stalls, bored men sitting in the entryways. The young man - dressed in a crisp, white polo shirt, a navy blue Nike baseball cap, navy blue Adidas warm-up pants and clean black Nikes - persists. "You are a Jew?" he asks. I look up at him, the open guidebook still in my hands. I say nothing. "It's no problem," he says. He raises his hands, showing me his empty palms, and he arches his eyebrows. His dark almond-shaped eyes are reminiscent of my mother's, who is often mistaken for an Arab. I consult the guidebook again. "Come. I know where the mellah is. I will show you." "If you could just point me in the right direction…" "It's no problem," he says. He closes the doors to his empty shop - filled with richly colored carpets - and locks it. I resign myself to the fact that, whether I meant to or not, I have just picked up a guide. We exchange names - his Omar, mine Mya. Omar is tall and thin, and I have trouble keeping up with his long-legged gait as we start down the street. "Where are you from?" Omar asks. When you're a Jewish woman who calls Tel Aviv home and you're traveling alone in an Arab country, the answer to this ordinary question becomes fraught with baggage. There is also the question of acknowledging the humanity of the person asking the question - and in doing so, shouldn't I be completely honest? "I'm from America, but I live in Israel now," I tell him. "Israel," he echoes. "It's no problem." We walk in silence for a moment. "You are Jew, I am Muslim," he says. "We are cousins. Brucha haba'a." I've heard this sentiment expressed by many Moroccans, but it doesn't set me at ease in these circumstances. He makes a sharp turn into a dark passageway. I linger at the entrance. "Follow me," he calls, his voice echoing off of the stone. Acknowledging his humanity or not, I'm still nervous - that swastika burned indelibly into my mind's eye, my vulnerability as a woman ever-present in my thoughts. "Follow me," he repeats his voice a little bit more distant. I know I can't negotiate the labyrinth of unmarked narrow streets without a guide. If I try, I risk becoming utterly lost. So, I follow my "cousin" into the maze of the mellah. The tall buildings, densely packed onto narrow cobblestone alleys, block out the sun and lend a claustrophobic feel to the mellah. There are few people around, save for some young Arab boys on child-sized bicycles, and most of the doors are closed. I try to imagine it as it once was - crowded with people, filled with the smells and sounds of life. Omar clearly knows his way through the tight, winding passages, and he weaves us through them without a moment's hesitation, his Adidas pants swooshing rhythmically with his steps. I do my best to keep up, and in concentrating on following him, I become disoriented. Did we go right, right, left, left? Or was it the other way around? He gestures at heavy wooden doors, and slows a bit. "There is a Jewish family here," he says. "Really? There are still Jews in Marrakech?" I ask. "Not so many," he says. "A few." We stop in front of an open doorway. "Beit Haknesset," Omar says, pronouncing beit the Arab way - bait. We enter the hallway. The upper half of the walls is painted light blue. The lower portion of the walls is a mosaic of white, sky blue and deep blue tiles - Stars of David, interlocked, and repeated again and again. At the end of the hall, before we enter a light-filled, open-air courtyard, a sign reads in Hebrew: Beit Haknesset Elazama Rehov Talmud Torah established in the year of 1492. Though both my guidebook and Omar tell me the synagogue is still in use, looking around the courtyard, it's hard to imagine. Laundry - socks, underwear, sheets, towels - hangs everywhere, including the electric blue railing of the second story. An empty pink plastic washtub leans against a white bench, pitched on its side. The fountain in the center of the courtyard is dry and ringed with dead potted plants. "Are there people living here?" I ask Omar. "Yes," he answers. "Who?" "Poor people, old people." "Jews?" I ask. "Some." He seems uncomfortable with my questions and he walks me to the impressive bronze doors of the synagogue, which are secured with a padlock. In Arabic, he calls to a woman who is washing the floor. She comes and flips through a chunky set of keys, finds the right one, and slides the heavy padlock off. She pulls one of the massive doors open. She and Omar wait as I step inside alone. The interior does seem to be fairly well-maintained and, indeed, it looks as though it's in use. The white walls are clean and the red oriental carpets on the floor aren't worn. A marble ark with a deep brown velvet curtain houses the Torah. The rows of wooden-armed chairs are tidy and neatly arranged, and some of the cushioned seats are occupied by bags containing tallitot. A box of tissues sits on the simple white bima. Prayer books are scattered here and there on surfaces throughout the synagogue. I look up at the women's balcony on the second floor, contained by a plain brown railing. Simple glass chandeliers interspersed with octagonal bronze lanterns - their windowed sides adorned with colorful designs - hang from the ceiling. I stand there for a moment, engulfed by silence. I think of the thriving Jewish community that was once in Morocco and I'm saddened by how little remains. But I'm also heartened by the fact that small it might be, still, it remains. I exit and see that a third person has joined Omar and the woman who keeps the key to the synagogue - an old man, his white hair covered by a kippa, his blue eyes squinted tight. "Shalom," he greets me. "Shalom," I reply. From his movements, I quickly realize that he is blind. We began to talk. My Hebrew is not very good, but it's our only way to communicate. He is patient during my halting, awkward sentences, and I am eager to hear his responses. He tells me that he is Jewish and that he lives on the premises. He has lived his whole life in Morocco. Things are OK for him in Morocco, and people help to take care of him. And he tells me that, yes, there are some other Jews left in Marrakech. I tell him I am from America and live in Tel Aviv - to which he enthusiastically remarks nice - and that I am a writer, working on a book. I tell him I am trying to learn Hebrew, but it's not so easy. Our conversation stalls. Not just because of my limited vocabulary. We have generations and oceans and wildly different life experiences between us. But there we stand, outside the doors of a synagogue, conversing in a shared language, Judaism our common bond. Omar and I move on. Alone again, we are back in the shadowed passageways, and he's resumed his brisk pace. His silence is unnerving. "I think I'd like to go back," I say. "I will take you to the Jewish cemetery," he says. "That's OK. I think I'd like to go back," I repeat, feeling at once uncomfortable about going to a graveyard with him and equally uncomfortable with my mistrust - am I being smart as a female traveler or overly concerned about our respective backgrounds? "It's no problem," he says. I have no choice but to be ushered along by Omar. I couldn't find my way out of here if I'd wanted to. We emerge from the tangled rows of the mellah into brilliant daylight. The reddish-earth-toned wall before us is broken by a gate. Dark blue tiles frame plain gray metal doors, one ajar; the Hebrew inscription above announces the presence of a cemetery. Two dates are included: 5297 and 1537. We step through the door, and a poorly-dressed man stops us. Omar speaks to him in Arabic, and the man waves us on. "He cares for the cemetery," Omar explains and gestures at a small tin marked tzedaka in Hebrew. I put in a few dirhams. A dirt path leads into the sea of white-washed graves, and we wade in. The boundaries of the cemetery are outlined by an aged wall, its white paint worn with time, pinkish-red streaks showing. Omar points to the wall and mentions that it separates the Jewish cemetery from the Muslim cemetery. We stand in the sun on the rocky path, Omar and I. I contemplate our uneasy peace - "cousins," we are buried side by side, a wall between our graves.