Essaouira Is in the Vanguard of the Moroccan Renaissance

Morocco is going through a real Renaissance, which only promises to bring the country to greater achievements, and its Atlantic coast port city, once nearly 100% Jewish, is leading the way. It is not a big city, yet this year alone, Essaouira, a designated UNESCO city, promises to bring together at least three musical festivals – Classical Music festival at the end of April, Gnawa festival in June, and Andalusian festival in October. The patron of this artistic revival is none other than Andre Azoulay, who is the counselor to King Mohammed VI, and is one of the many noteworthy former Jewish residents of the city.

The city’s Jewish population is small, but active, on occasion gathering together with their Muslim neighbors to continue celebrating long-standing traditions, such as the Moroccan post-Pesach holiday of Mimouna.  For decades, however, the dwindling number of Jewish residents pointed in the direction of the erasure of the rich Moroccan Jewish heritage inside the town. The younger generation of Moroccans have heard many stories from their parents and grandparents about their peaceful and amicable cohabitation with their Jewish counterparts, often in the same buildings, but what are the stories that they would have to pass on to their own children? With most Jews having moved away to the newly created State of Israel in 1948, or to other countries in search of better economic opportunities, it appeared that history and family lore would be all that the city would have left.

And yet, as it appears, demographic decline is not necessarily destiny.

When I arrived in the city for the first time, my first impression was that it was merely another tourist spa town with lots of great seafood, beautiful weather, and a pleasant, quiet community.  However, after being guided into the Medina (the mellah – or old city) by the deputy Mayor Tarik Ottmani, I discovered that, appropriately for April, the city had harbored seeds of spring, which after lying dormant had sprouted and will soon be ready to blossom. Indeed, thanks to Mr. Azoulay’s support, the Association Essaouira-Mogador now actively works on bringing to life the rich tradition of city’s Jewish culture before it slips away, forgotten by the generation that has not seen many Jews and most of whose information about Jews in the region comes from the media propaganda about Israel and the Palestinians.

The Association itself is harbored in a beautiful building, which, in addition to having a gathering space for events, hosts a library open to the public, which has books in Arabic and French touching on a broad spectrum of subjects, ranging from the city’s history, to Judaism and Islam. The first thing that catches the visitor’s eye upon entering the library is a beautiful mother-of-pearl and shell-encrusted model of Jerusalem featuring, prominently the Moroccan gate, decorated, symbolically by the country’s flag.  A long table with inviting chairs beckons the enchanted viewer to stop for a moment and to browse through some of the cultural treasures endowing the stacks around it. The library is only a room, but it is growing – and as we paused to admire the Jerusalem model, we saw a group of random visitors come in.

Afterwards, we went to see the future Haim Zafrani Center for Jewish Culture, which should be fully renovated and ready to receive visitors in approximately two months. Haim Zafrani’s books in French and Arabic were found in the library. The American Sephardi Federation translated his book to English a few years ago.  The Zafrani Center is a remarkable majestic places, featuring several floors richly decorated with cedar and featuring a traditional Moroccan courtyard in the middle, where concerts will be held. Not the least remarkable attraction was a fully restored synagogue featuring original pews and the arc, as well as beautiful antique oil lamps hanging from the ceiling. While it remains to be seen whether it will ever be used as anything more than a museum for visitors, the hopes are that with the flourishing of a Jewish culture in the city, more visitors, who already frequent Morocco on religious pilgrimages and holidays, will take random vacations throughout the year, or come visit for an occasional Shabbat. If that happens, they will have a space to celebrate their Jewish heritage in more than just symbolism.

Upstairs, we were treated to a remarkable assortment of clues as to the future of the city. First, we saw a photo exhibit of famous Jewish cultural icons from all over the North Africa, many from Essaouira, which was known for its musical heritage long before Andre Azoulay made the restoration of this important history part of his own focus. Singers like Rabbi Chaim Louk are already part of Morocco’s national culture, and are randomly played in non-Jewish establishments ranging from restaurants to Royal Air Maroc airlines. However, Morocco’s interest in Jewish contributions is not limited to old-school traditional ouevre. Moroccan Israeli singers, who are proud of their roots, such as Neta Elkayam, receive wide acceptance in Essaouira and beyond. The annual Andalusian festival brings together Jews from all over the world, including from Israel. While the politics of it are not widely advertised, it is truly an international gathering that celebrates the brotherhood of common culture, music, and coexistence, while introducing the wider public to a beautiful historical musical tradition that is now becoming increasingly popular and incorporated into various fusion movements as well.

Upstairs, we saw what Tarik Ottmani modestly described as a “small kitchen”, and which I can only describe as a space the size of an average apartment in New York City. The purpose of the kitchen is to provide kosher catering for future gatherings and celebrations, with food lovingly made on site by volunteers. One of the traditional Moroccan Shabbat dishes to be featured extensively is called “dafna”, and is a slow-cooked stew, which bears some similarity to the Ashkenazi cholent, but is far superior in every way.  That kosher food is to be cooked for the first time in many years in a public space in a city mostly devoid of resident Jews is by itself remarkable, but that the expectation is that the food will be shared with the Jews who will be drawn to visit shows a remarkable shift in mindset towards not only preserving remnants of Jewish traditions in the setting of museums and storytelling, but the dedication to keep it vibrant and followed by living Jews. In other words, the intent here is not only to teach young Moroccans history and Jewish culture, but to live it and to work towards restoring the relationship that is still warmly remembered by many Moroccans of Jewish descent all over the world.

To that end, the Center will also feature resident scholars, who will have their own rather spacious studios, for research and creative pursuits related to celebrating the Jewish heritage.  The reviving interest in Jewish heritage is part of the national emphasis on the national diversity and multicultural identity of Morocco, which features Arab, Amazigh, and Jewish cultures in its Constitution and prides itself on being an intercultural bridge between Africa, Europe, and the Middle East.  Celebrating the renewal of interest in Judaism, then, is welcome, but not shocking as it has been such an integral part of Moroccan history for many centuries.  What is truly remarkable, however, is that these efforts, executed by Moroccans of all backgrounds, are entirely voluntary and done with genuine passion, the like of which I would have enjoyed seeing more among many of the Jewish communities in the United States.  People who run the Association Essaouira-Magador are not Jewish; they may have one practicing Jewish grandparent – or none at all – , but the glow of joy and interest in their faces as they discuss their work is unmistakable.  These are people who are longing not for “peacebuilding” or “conflict resolution”, but friendship and genuine cultural appreciation of one another.

This spark that may have started within a small group of people is spreading across the country, as more and more Moroccans in different cities are invited to film screenings, concerts, exhibits, and other cultural events which incorporate Jewish elements or touch on Jewish themes. Essaouira is at the center of it all. At the Zarifi Center, we saw a print of a painting by Delacroix called “The Jewish Musicians of Magador”. The original hangs in the Louvre.  In 1832, Delacroix was invited to visit Magador, and was treated to performances by a variety of top artists and orchestras. Inspired, by that experience, many years later, he paid tribute to many of the JEwish artists, who alongside their Muslim colleagues, played a variety of traditional music and left an indelible impression on the painter.

Where Jewish life once flourished, for decades, decline into irrelevancy seemed almost inevitable. However, one man’s will and dedication coupled with the genuine interest arising from the country’s open and integrated cultural tradition showed that it is possible to reverse these trend, and to bring life to the places, where such gatherings, for a time, seemed no more than a distant memory.  The Essaouira Association is wisely taking it one step at a time. Rather than making grandiose plans for the future, pining away in nostalgia, or neurotically handwringing over whether or not it will ever be possible to recreate the sense of diverse community which once made Essaouira what it was, they are focused on their jobs, step by stop bringing to life each element of cultural heritage in a practical, manageable, and enticing way that leaves many of the younger people wanting for more.

With each year, Essaouira does more to make Jews from various backgrounds, and particularly, the descendants of Morocco’s own citizens welcome and involved. The city that is still off the radar of most tourists, now hosts a wide variety of cultural events throughout the year, even as Morocco herself is dedicating significantly more effort towards participation in a variety of international cultural festivals, book fairs, and other efforts at galvanizing creative juices and catalyzing a movement of artistic and scientific enlightenment that extends far beyond her own borders. Just as Morocco is reasserting its African identity, and hosting a variety of events welcoming to known and rising African artists, and just as it is partnering with Middle Eastern and European states to share and exchange various cultural elements, it is also looking to restore the greatness of its own diverse cultural traditions, and with that, to set an example to many of her neighbors and counterparts in other parts of the world. Essaouira is the torch that lights the way in that direction.

About the Author
Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.
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