Irrelevant differences: visiting Mellah, the Jewish quarter of Marrakech

“Est-ce que ceci a été le quartier juif, donc?”
Is this the old Jewish quarter, I ask, rather timorously, to my self-appointed guide. It’s Sunday, the day that will pass to history for the biggest gathering of people in a single manifestation in France. Three days have passed since the homicidal folly of the brothers Kouachi, and even less so from the massacre perpetrated by their accomplice Coulibaly in a supermarket in the outskirts of the city. Four of the victims were devout Jews. I couldn’t have timed my visit worse.
Abdir, though, doesn’t seem concerned. He’s walking fast-paced through the alleyway, oblivious to the traffic of mopeds and the occasional donkeys; he looks back at me, shrugs and says “Ouais, ceci a toujours été le quartier des feuj, mais il n’y a pas plus beaucoup d’eux, ils sont tous allés en Israel, en France où à Rabat”. Feuj, the verlan slang for Jews, denotes how in tune with modern France Abdir is, as if his Olympique Marseille football jersey wasn’t enough of a giveaway.
When you have only one day in a fascinating city, it’s in my opinion pointless to try and see as much as possible of it; at the end of the trip all you’ll be left with will be a blur of impressions and a sense of general hurrying, as if one had been out jogging with Lewis Carrol’s Queen of Hearts, huffing and puffing all day but not quite getting anywhere. It’s much better to find something, preferably off the beaten path, and spend some time actually looking at it in detail, taking the time to savour it, to sniff around and to have a proper idea of the place.
Sitting and waiting. The best way to get in tune with a place.
Sitting and waiting. The best way to get in tune with a place.
I had such a day in Marrakech; by happy coincidence, not long before setting off, I stumbled upon the history of the Mellah, the Jewish quarter of the city and immediately decided to elect it my goal for the day. I got in touch with the delightfully kind Jacky Kadoch, president of the local Jewish community and arranged a catch up.
Then Coulibaly happened.
I rang Kadoch as soon as I stepped down the bus from the airport, shielding my phone from the traffic as I stood under the minaret of the Koutubia mosque, the jewel of Almohad religious architecture that dominates the Djemaa El Fna district. Unfortunately, though, Jacky wasn’t going to be around. He and many more were at the French consulate, small drops in the massive ocean of sympathy that the attack had generated throughout the world. I was happy to join, but he wouldn’t have been able to take me to the synagogue.
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Depressed, I elected not to go to the consulate, a featureless building in the new part of the city, and went on. I wasn’t, and I’m not, insensible to the commotion that the Paris events have caused but I wanted to pursue my own little goal in the face of all possible disruption generated by religious lunatics. And my goal was to see how an overwhelmingly Muslim country could, and still can, host a Jewish community without descending into violence every other day of the year.
The Mellah is a square-shaped district to the south of the Medina of Marrakech. To reach it one has to take any road from the south side of Djemaa El Fna and Riad Zitoun Lakdim fits the bill just fine. Google maps will make it look like a grand avenue whilst, instead, it’s a tiny alley overladen with shops – everything from butchers with dismembered carcasses dangling happily in the wind to tourist traps – people and the omnipresent mopeds, all with the exhaust pipe sawed off to make a better noise.
Djemaa El Fna
Riad Zitoun Lakdim, if Google is to be believed, should then flow into Rue Ibn Kaldoun which in turn, if followed eastwards, will become Rue Bahia Bab Mellab. That’s, at least, the theory. In practice I emerged in a sort of a triangular-shaped junction that acted as makeshift market, au dehors restaurant and, finally, as racing ground for a multitude of vehicles, from Land Rovers to donkey carts, all busy trying to find out how much entropy they could generate. Predictably, I got lost.
Abdir jumped out of nowhere, offering in a halting English to help me out finding my way. We quickly switched to French after he showed an impressive knowledge of slang Italian terms for drugs, and we set off finding the elusive Mellah.
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We jumped through a series of small alleys being restored, builders using modern power tools and mules without any apparent issue, and then we started turning corners at what appeared to be random intervals. Finally, Abdir pointed at a door opening through a rather nondescript wall, painted ochre like any other wall in the area, and announced “Voilà la sinagogue”. 
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No, not this door.

I took my camera out of the backpack and walked through the corridor, hesitant. I had visited other Jewish worship places before, but every time I had to negotiate security checkpoints and I always felt like someone, from some mysterious recess, was keeping a watchful eye on me. Here it was nothing like this. The door was left ajar and, through the short corridor, I could see a beautiful inner patio covered in blue majolica, with a central fountain and small trees at the corners. Robins danced franticly from one to the others.
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As I stepped cautiously in, an elderly man dressed in suit and tie crossed my path, mumbled Salam Aleikum and went for the door. On the right a younger chap stood to his feet, smiled and said “Bonjour. Ici pour la sinagogue?”. He barely gave me enough time to say yes and he went to a richly ornate door, sprung it open, put on the lights and waved me in. In broken French he said “Là-bas, il y a la Torah. Ici siègent les hommes, là le Rabbi et en haut les femmes”. Then he gestures that I was free to take as many pictures as I liked and he, basically, left me in charge of the place. So much for panicking, I thought to myself.
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Jews arrived here, on the rolling plains east of the Atlas mountains, in two waves, both coinciding with two defining moments of the diaspora. The first one happened 2,000 years ago, when the legions of emperor Titus entered Jerusalem and laid waste to the Temple. The second took place in the XV century, when the Christian kings of Spain decided that the religious freedom enforced by their Muslim predecessor didn’t fancy them. Hundreds of thousands of Jews and Muslims were either converted or shown the road out, to be taken sans their belongings, obviously.
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In droves, then, Jews sailed across the Mediterranean sea looking for new homes. Many found them in Italy, in Dalmatia, in the Ottoman Empire and, also, in the Almohad Morocco. Initially, the Sephardic communities weren’t allowed to dwell in Marrakech, back then capital of the kingdom, and only in 1557 the Sultan, going by the name of Moulay Abdallah Al Ghalib Billah, allowed them to leave the mountain villages where they constituted the majority of the populace for a new place, the Mellah, to be built immediately south of the Medina and right next to his palace. Meanwhile, in other places in Europe, the first ghettos were starting to be built.
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Outside, the man who had invited me in waited, sitting at a table. The name of the synagogue was, he said, Slat El Azama and it had been built soon after the arrival of the first Spanish Jews, for initially they were allowed to visit the city but couldn’t stay the night. The community, according to the keeper, now numbered less than 200 souls, the vast majority of them having left for Israel. Smiling, he asked if I was Jew, and I said no. “Moi non plus” he said, “Je suis musulman”. 
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I learned that, from a tradition dating back to the time when the Jews weren’t allowed to sleep in the Mellah, a Muslim family had been contracted to live in the Slat El Azama compound, keeping the place tidy. So, whilst Europe drowned in a wall-rising frenzy or actively pursued ethnic cleansing, whilst the Holy Land fought three wars and two Intifadas, a tiny Jewish temple in a rather nondescript road in a borough of Marrakech continued to be run – and inhabited – by a Muslim family.
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What was their secret? How could an overwhelmingly Muslim country host a large Jewish community without it ending up in blood? I can’t possibly pretend to have the answer just by having spent a day there, but if I had to choose one, I’d put my money on the fact that, actually, the Moroccans simply don’t care: some of them kneel before God, others cross themselves whilst others wear a kippah. That’s pretty much it. Now, sports.
This entry was posted in Africa, Faith, Morocco, Overlooked locations, Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Irrelevant differences: visiting Mellah, the Jewish quarter of Marrakech

  1. richandalice says:

    A beautifully written entry, informative and evocative. You have an easy insight and an eye for textural details (like the mopeds with the sawed off exhausts) that are the hallmarks of excellent travel writing. I think this is one of your best entries ever… nice job.

    • awtytravels says:

      Many thanks Rich, I really appreciate it! Let’s say that Marrakech gave me a lot of inspiration, it’s given me a very strong and positive impression. Speaking a common language, moreover, helped a lot.

  2. varasc says:

    Really well-written, in a rather McNab style, and enjoyable. The kind of quick and fully impressive raid I prefer, with an exhaustive report. Chapeau!

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