A revival of Moroccan culture

A Moroccan renaissance of culture, economic development and diplomatic outreach is bringing about a revival in the history of shared Jewish and Muslim culture and activities.

TOURISTS VISIT the Lazama Synagogue in Marrakesh, Morocco. (photo credit: KATI ROUMANI)
TOURISTS VISIT the Lazama Synagogue in Marrakesh, Morocco.
(photo credit: KATI ROUMANI)
While the headlines in Europe are filled with stories of the Jewish communities under siege and Jewish depopulation in such centers of Jewish life as Paris and Brussels, Morocco is enjoying a resurgence of interest in exploring the intersection of Jewish and Muslim cultures that has contributed to the creation of the complex common identity. There are only approximately 3,000 Jews living in the country, but they enjoy communal protection and are fully integrated into the country, living peacefully side by side with their Muslim neighbors.
Jewish tourists from around the world are showing an increasing interest in touring the many Jewish sites well preserved across the country – including the beautiful functional Chaim Pinto synagogue in the city of Essaouira, as well as the 167 cemeteries restored by Morocco’s King Mohammed VI. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish citizens of Morocco who now reside in the United States, Europe, and Israel retain pride in their Moroccan identity, celebrate cultural holidays such as Mimouna, and increasingly flock to discover the cities where their families had resided for many generations before making aliyah to Israel or seeking economic opportunities in France, Canada, and other countries.
Government support for such historic interest and uptick in cultural activity is part of this revival, which is contributing to the Moroccan renaissance. However, a number of private initiatives are bringing together Moroccan Jews and Muslims in an effort to recreate memories of a multicultural and well-integrated interfaith past into a new reality. The Mimouna Association, which started out as a university club organized by Elmehdi Boudra and Laziza Dalil, is an organization dedicated to introducing Jewish culture to Moroccan university students and young professionals through cultural events across various campuses. They are also now working with the US Holocaust Museum to develop the first Arabic-language Holocaust educational curriculum for Muslims by Muslims.
KING MOHAMMED VI’S Jewish adviser, Andre Azoulay, is in large part responsible for the rebirth of and growing interest to the crown jewel of Jewish history in Morocco, the once-Jewish majority city of Essaouira, now also known for its resorts. He founded the Essaouira-Mogador Association, an organization with the mission of preserving history. One of the latest projects, which the Association helps bring to life in conjunction with the Moroccan Ministry of Culture, is the Bayt Al Dakyra (“The House of Memory”), a cultural center that arose from the remnants of an old synagogue. It brings Jewish and Muslim residents of the city, as well as tourists, for an assortment of cultural events. Jewish and Muslim neighbors come together every Shabbat to enjoy homemade Shabbat dinners featuring traditional Moroccan Jewish food, such as daphina, a Sephardic version of cholent, slow-cooked overnight. It will also have a space for scholars in residence to study relevant subjects.
I had an opportunity to visit the center in April when it was still in the process of being built. I saw a rich and growing library of books on a variety of subjects related to Judaism, Jewish history and culture, Islam and Morocco in Arabic, French, and other languages, as well as the beautiful space where residents and visitors of all backgrounds enjoy the multiple music festivals held in Essaouira throughout the year.
Most recently, in conjunction with their American Jewish partners, the American Sephardi Federation in New York, the Essaouira-Magador Association hosted the 15th Edition of the Atlantic Andalusia Music Festival. While the American Sephardi Federation hosted the Sephardic Music Festival celebrating a variety of traditions early in October, the Atlantic Andalusia Music Festival took place at the end of the month, bringing together such famed artists as the Mohamed El Brihi Orchestra; the mounchid Ahmed Marbouh; the paytanims Hay Korkos and Benjamin Bouzaglo; and the famed Diva Melhoun Sanaa Marahiti, featuring a musical ensemble of traditional Andalusian music style accompanied by a choir of singers. The festival included traditional Jewish liturgical performances, spiritual piyutim, and more modern styles, such as the fusion music performed by a relatively new ensemble called Andalucious, which brought together 11 young Jewish musicians from eclectic musical backgrounds, such as jazz, classical and rock who have united around their common passion for traditional Moroccan music.
Their repertoire includes traditional Moroccan songs enriched by the arrangements and original compositions, featuring Elad Levi of the New Jerusalem Orchestra. The Moroccan singer Hayat Boukriss, the Algerian Rym Hakiki, and the Tunisian Syrine Ben Moussa came together to pay tribute to the great figures of the Maghreb repertoire and to show the unity of the Arab Maghreb cultural traditions. The concert also celebrated the memories of two great poets of the al-Andalus, the Muslim poet of divine love Muhyiddin ibn Arabi and the great Sephardic mystic Solomon ibn Gabirol.
THE HISTORY of Andalusia is the history of cross-cultural encounters, dialogues and exchanges. The return to this tradition of both Jewish and Muslim musicians and audiences seeks to revive that spirit in a contemporary world and to return to a spirit of mutual respect and the joy that comes from engaging in the arts, to displace the vitriol propagated by political agendas and sensationalist media headlines. Essaouira is the perfect place to revive this tradition and to demonstrate that such an environment once was and is increasingly becoming a norm. Many of these songs and texts were once just part of the daily life for all Moroccans. Though history has not always been smooth, there is an opportunity to learn from it, to choose the experiences that elevate each person culturally and spiritually, and to focus on reintegrating the past into the present, with the vision towards a common future where such concerts and gatherings are no longer an exception but a better norm, where past tensions are left in the dustbin of history.
None of this exceptionally high-quality experience would have been possibly without the hard word, dedication, passion, and vision of the organizers – Tarik Ottmani, Essaouira’s deputy mayor, in addition to his involvement with the Essaouira-Mogador Association, and Kaoutar Chakir Benamara, who is a fluent Hebrew speaker – and a spark of fiery inspiration, helping bring together a diversity of performers in a natural, flowing way. The interest in the festival has grown over time, and is already a truly international phenomenon. It celebrates not merely the history of the city or Moroccan culture, but the living, breathing identity of a country where one cannot pass a storefront or a village without a reminder of the diverse ethnicities and faiths who have lived together side by side for thousands of years.
The recognition and celebration of that identity in a more scholarly context will take place in mid-November in Marrakech in a conference that brings together Jewish and Muslim Moroccans from around the country and from the diaspora for a gathering of approximately 250 people exploring Moroccan Judaism. It is organized by Daniel Amar, known for his participation in the organized Jewish community in Morocco and Canada and for his involvement in the “Memoires and Dialogues” group, whose goal is to “reinforce common ancestral bonds” and to “build bridges of understanding,” particularly in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. This organization represents all segments of the Moroccan society and holds various events, conferences, and discussions focused on the common identity in Quebec.
The upcoming conference takes this dedication one step further by bringing Moroccans of all backgrounds together physically in Morocco, where the memories of the past are tangible, and the experience of the present likewise gives them life. These joint efforts are not flukes of luck or stunts to generate attention; most such efforts are virtually unknown in the interfaith world and hardly generate press attention. But they are a vital sign of the growing interest and dedication of Muslims and Jews to create a reality based in mutual respect, understanding, and enduring shared values – a reality that exists beyond headlines, stereotypes and the inevitable political hurdles. These efforts may still be in relative minority, but they are picking up steam and are welcoming new passengers onboard with every new event and occasion.
The writer is a columnist for Morocco World News, a board member of the local community group “Moroccan Americans in New York” and hosts monthly social networking dinners bringing together American Jewish professionals and Moroccans of all backgrounds along with her Moroccan Muslim counterpart Simo Elaissaoui.