Shades of Morocco

As a Jew from Israel, I felt comfortable traveling in Morocco.

A view of the mud brick houses of Ouzazarte in the Atlas Mountains (photo credit: AUSTIN BOND)
A view of the mud brick houses of Ouzazarte in the Atlas Mountains
(photo credit: AUSTIN BOND)
Jews have a historical connection to North Africa beginning with the Roman period. Following the Islamic invasion of North Africa in the eighth century, the Jews migrated across the northern part of the continent dependent upon the benevolent attitude of the Muslim rulers in allowing freedom of religious practice.
During the Middle Ages there were difficult periods with forced conversion to Islam or emigration. The situation improved with subsequent ruling dynasties and coincided with the development of the imperial cities of Meknes and later Marrakesh, when the Jews came under the protection of the royal court.
Fortuitously, this occurred around the time the Jews were expelled from Portugal and Spain, and provided a safe haven for their emigration. Later during the colonization of the region by European powers – especially by the French and Spanish – improved commercial and trading interests offered to the Jews allowed them to exploit their mercantile skills but they were consequently exposed to a more vulnerable situation with the local population, often resulting in raised religious tensions and pogroms.
During World War II, King Mohammed V of Morocco resisted implementation of anti-Jewish laws imposed by the Nazi-controlled Vichy French regime, and to a large extent saved the Jews from the degradation of racial laws. The liberation of North Africa by the Allies changed the tide of the war for North African Jewry and prevented the fate that befell European Jewry – mass deportation and genocide.
After the creation of the State of Israel, the situation for North African Jews living in Arab countries became progressively more difficult and hastened their emigration. At the outset Morocco was an exception in the sense that it was more politically moderate regarding coexistence with the Jews, but as it developed a more significant role within the Arab League the Jewish population felt more vulnerable and fled.
Certainly, as a Jew from Israel, I felt comfortable traveling in Morocco.
EXITING THE Casablanca train station, I hailed a red taxi which proved a challenge to my Middle Eastern negotiating skills. Red taxis are small Fiats that normally provide very affordable transport within the city.
A short distance from the station we drove through time-frozen 1920s French colonial art-deco architecture.
The French-style buildings dominate the center of the city, providing classical ornamented facades in contrast to the rather squalid and uninteresting surrounding structures.
We pulled up outside the Trans-Atlantique Hotel.
I stepped into the lobby with its large oriental candelabras hanging from the ceilings and colored glass windows surrounded by a maze of carved arabesque arches. Mosaic patterns graced the walls, overlooking brightly configured tiled floors covered with woven carpets in richly decorated geometric designs. Ornately worked inlaid tables, colorful drapes and period furniture in matching upholstery mesmerized the senses with charm and color. A flowing wrought-iron grille gracefully supported the sweeping balustrade that enclosed the narrow cage elevator connecting the upper floors.
The following day I visited the Grand Mosque of Hassan II, one of the largest in the world and a magnificent building situated on a promontory overlooking the Atlantic coast. Enormous double doors and arches facing every direction of the compass, surrounded by a vast plaza with a multitude of courtyards and fountains.
The artistic attention to detail is overwhelming.
Created by Morocco’s finest artisans, it was completed in the early 1990s and features the tallest minaret in the world. At the time, the expense of construction helped contain inflation in Morocco and dramatically assisted in reducing unemployment.
Wherever I traveled through Morocco, I informed my hosts that I came from Israel, and was answered with sighs of nostalgia, and praise for the previous relationship between the Muslims of Morocco and their Jewish neighbors. I was told I must visit the mellah (Jewish quarter) of Casablanca medina (city) – to see the old Jewish Quarter.
The Museum of Jewish Life in Casablanca exhibits photographs of synagogues and presents a display of ritual items. It recalls the former presence of a rich Jewish culture which all but disappeared, and is now significant by its absence. Apparently it is the only Jewish museum in an Arab country, and was opened in 1995.
We visited the old Jewish section, the mellah, where numerous houses were abandoned by Jewish families and re-occupied by Muslim tenants – a pattern I was to become familiar with throughout my travels. And always at the back of my mind lay the question – if the Jews are regarded so favorably, then why did they abandon Morocco? Today there are around 5,000 Jews still living in Morocco, whereas at the start of the 1960s, there were more than 250,000.
ON THE third day I took a six-hour train ride to Fez. The landscape was dry and flat, with rising hills in the background.
Plowed fields awaited the delayed rainfall and the dread of a drought seemed to linger in the air. In small rural villages I was often surprised to see plowshares drawn by beasts. As the train approached the former imperial city of Meknes there were streams, and cultivated fields with large olive groves, orchards and vineyards. Meknes once held a proud Jewish community of traders and metallurgists.
Arriving in Fez at dusk I took a red taxi drive past the immense Royal Palace, a large fortified compound with prominent gates, to the mellah, traditionally positioned within protective proximity of the imperial palace. The driver was pleased to indicate and emphasize the neighborhood. We then entered the medina through one of the gates, and because the passages were so narrow I had to go on foot until I located my accommodation. It was dark and I wandered down a long dimly lit alleyway, lined with tall walled enclosures, with large arched wooden doors that contained smaller entrance doors for daily purposes. The doors were studded with bolts and had large bronze knockers.
After knocking on a door, I was greeted and entered a beautiful “riad.”
A riad is a traditional, old-style Moroccan house, several floors high. All the rooms have wooden screened windows facing inwards towards the central courtyard garden. The courtyard has a fountain, arched columns, potted palms, beautifully tiled floors with carpets and is well-furnished – its walls are adorned with the traditional ornate mosaics. The function of the courtyard is to create a sense of tranquility and embracing hospitality. The ceilings of the rooms were made from carved cedar- wood. The charm of the building and its decoration was enchanting, and so too the hospitality.
Fez is the spiritual heart of Islamic Morocco – evident by the number of mosques and minarets that grace the skyline. It is an old city on a grand scale, and wandering through the narrow streets and getting lost is part of the attraction. The old medina in Fez is like stepping back into medieval history.
The narrow streets and alleyways lead through covered markets and residential neighborhoods. Various sections of the market are divided into crafts where artisan guilds of a special skill dominate. There is a quarter where brass vessels are beaten into shape, jewelry created, fabrics and textiles woven, and animal skins soaked in vats, dyed and prepared for leather goods. A maze of cottage industries exists within the residential area, built surrounding the neighborhood mosques. The medina itself centered around the famous ninth-century Kairouine Mosque, surrounded by a myriad of columns.
Wherever I walked there were fountains and gates with entrances leading to further passageways. The medina seemed endless – a self-contained city within a city. Laden donkeys trod the narrow passageways.
SEFROU IS a Berber village located in the Lower Atlas Mountains, 30 km.
from Fez; a small town that housed a Jewish population of 8,000 until the late 1950s. The Jews, who were mostly traders and craftsmen, lived alongside the Berbers harmoniously and, to my surprise, often intermarried. The Berbers trace their history as indigenous ethnic North Africans before the Islamic invasion and Arabization.
The transport available for my visit was a “grand taxi” – a Mercedes sedan, into which the driver stuffs as many people as possible. It is quite a squeeze and involves familiarity with fellow passengers.
The taxi eventually pulled up outside the old walled medina of Sefrou. I entered through one of the gates leading down into the old city. It was the weekly market day, abounding with commerce, and Berbers from all the surrounding villages gathered to trade goods and produce.
We crossed a bridge over a canal and made our way deep into the colorful produce market. Stalls were laden with fruit, vegetables, fish, olive oil, pastries and all sorts of tools, clothing and secondhand goods. We arrived at the gates of an old two-story compound – formally a Jewish orphanage, with a beit midrash and synagogue. A Muslim family cared for the building and there was accompanying security.
We continued wandering through the market and into the old Jewish quarter.
It was a labyrinth of alleyways and stone courtyards, rundown and gloomy.
The more affluent sections of the Jewish Quarter were gated compounds built around a large central courtyard, with wide verandas and open balconies. A large protective gate stood at the entrance.
Today a carpentry workshop and other trades occupy the premises.
We walked past a number of primitive forges where blacksmiths beat metal shafts into plowshares, employing the old world skills of furnace and anvil.
In the afternoon I returned to Fez to visit the local mellah. Fez attracted the mercantile and artisan skills of Jews since its establishment around the eighth century. Their existence there depended upon the benevolence of the reigning regime. Periods of religious and commercial freedom would be followed by pogroms, and then once again liberalism would allow the community to flourish. The Jews lived in a quarter within protective proximity of the Royal Palace.
The charming Ibn Danan Synagogue was built in the 17th century and recently restored. It is open to the public and under the care of an Arab family. There are two ornately carved wooden arks holding the Torah scrolls, surrounded by carved Arabesque marquetry and arches. The interior of the synagogue is supported by tall columns, with the women’s gallery located upstairs.
The bima at the rear of the synagogue, facing the Torah ark, is covered in a canopy of fine iron grille-work.
The upper walls, along the ceiling, are surrounded by colored glass panels. A tiled marble floor is furnished with low wooden benches facing each other. The late afternoon sunlight through the colored glass flooded the empty synagogue with a myriad of colors.
Underneath the synagogue are the remains of a mikve (ritual bath) carved from stone and still filled with water.
The flat roof of the building affords a view over the white cylindrical tombstones of the adjacent old Jewish cemetery.
Outside, the narrow streets are lined with well renovated houses and open, wrought-iron balconies face one another.
The ground floor of the dwellings are market stores, leading into a gold and silver market. The Jews of Fez abandoned the mellah in the 1960s, while a small community still remains in the modern part of the city.
THE TRAIN ride from Fez to Marrakesh was rapid and noisy. Along the way, the passengers in our small compartment entered and exited like actors in a play. There was an ingratiating Moroccan tour guide plying his trade; a middle-aged American in a jalabiya, trying to hide his Jewish identity and determined to defend Barack Obama’s policies towards Israel and the Middle East; a well-spoken Muslim fundamentalist engineer who espoused radical political theories of the region blaming the collusion of Israel and Saudi Arabia; a young woman IT engineer – independent and assertive of her newly gained freedom, and a few traditionally dressed passengers who remained on the periphery of the discussions. It was a comfort to disembark at Marrakesh station and take a long soak in my hotel bathtub.
In the evening I visited the large central plaza adjacent to the medina, Djemma el-Fna. The large open square becomes a night market covered with food stalls where crowds gather for outdoor entertainment. There were huge vats of harira soup and long racks of charcoal grills for meat and various types of fish and seafood. The plaza was packed and the grill bars were well patronized. The entertainment was in the form of ethnic musical troupes and acrobats.
Marrakesh was established after Fez, and developed as a commercial trading center in the 16th century. There is a modern section within the city, but the area of interest for the tourist is the old medina and the open plazas.
The prominent buildings surrounding the medina and the walled fortifications bear a pinkish-red sandstone façade. Colorful horse-drawn carriages are driven around the outskirts of the old city. I wandered through the markets: Spice and herbal stores seemed to abound in great multitude, with natural remedies for every ailment and occasion, from the multi-purpose elixir of life to relief from all kinds of physical conditions both real and imagined, to improved performance on all levels for all genders. Stacks of cooking spices lined the shelves of the walls, with fragrant perfumes and teas, and dried herbs and plants that would have captivated a botanist.
Decorative brass work and colored- glass hanging lamps of oriental designs and teardrop shapes, jewelry stores, blankets and fabric stores, slipper and leather emporiums amid restaurants and more spice shops. The former Jewish quarter features prominently in the medina; and the shops were under renovation. All the children in the neighborhood wanted to direct me to the local Slaat Lazama Synagogue and Beit Midrash compound, which was active until a few years ago.
It is an attractive two-story compound with a fountain in the central courtyard.
The synagogue was originally built in the 15th century. Once there were 35 synagogues in Marrakesh. Today the Jewish population numbers 200. Near the synagogue is a large Jewish cemetery, protected by a high wall and padlocked gates.
Re-entering the market I walked into an African mask shop. The proprietor took me to his storeroom in a nearby basement to reveal stacks of wooden masks and voodoo dolls covering the surfaces of the walls and piled in corners on the floor. I felt I had stumbled upon a pagan black African treasure cave. He also sold hanukkiot, which were mounted on the walls, and there was a framed blessing for the home in Hebrew – but he had no idea of its content.
WE LEFT Marrakesh in the early morning with a light rain falling and a drop in the temperature. After traveling an hour our minibus started climbing the foothills of the Atlas Mountains and the rain progressively increased. A heavy mist shrouded our ascent. Occasionally the cloud cleared and we observed brief glimpses of the surrounding mountainous countryside and deep valleys with small villages perched on the slopes and cultivated terraces – and then the view would disappear into a void whilst the temperature continued to drop. We could appreciate the bus driver carefully ascending and winding around steep switchbacks, and were aware that he drove with almost zero visibility, and the side of the mountain dropped away into oblivion. Eventually we reached the top of the pass at 2,400 meters, and then we began the descent with strong icy cold winds blowing. The view began to clear as we crossed the rain shadow of the mountain and approached the valley floor.
Visibility seemed to improve then once again it was obscured by the advance of a desert wind storm.
We arrived at Ait Bin Haddou. Bracing ourselves against the storm, we stumbled from the bus. Across a wide shallow riverbed stood the apparition of a series of giant anthills. The village was composed of strange-looking compounds with tall walls several stories high and fortress-like towers projecting skyward with narrow elongated windows, all built from compressed mud, with interesting geometric designs on the outside walls. The compounds are referred to as casbahs.
Each casbah has a single entrance with a large wooden door, covered with metal studs and leading into a central courtyard. The rooms of these small fortresses radiate outwards and staircases connect the upper galleries and towers. The ceilings of the upper floors are made from support beams with bundles of bamboo laid out and covered with hardened mud.
We crossed the riverbed and entered the village by climbing the narrow streets. It was once a medieval trading center populated by Jews and Berbers, situated along a caravan route, bringing goods from the interior before crossing the Atlas Mountains, leading to Marrakesh and the coast.
Today the casbahs are mostly abandoned and crumbling. However, they previously housed patriarchal families of several generations, households with multiple wives and harems and probably slaves in the not too distant past, and the livestock shared the ground floor.
The upper part of the town is surrounded by a protective wall and entrance gate. In recent history the site has been used as the location for filming numerous movies like Gladiator and Game of Thrones. There are scattered shops selling carpets, antiquities and Jewish artifacts. Today the town is inhabited mostly by elderly residents. However, the style of casbah building is typical of this valley and we came across numerous oasis villages built of mudbrick and compressed mud, retaining this form of architecture.
The writer is a licensed Israeli Tour Guide. He can be contacted at