Mohamed Chtatou
Mohamed Chtatou

Sefrou, the “Little Jerusalem” of all times Part 3

The bazaar economy of Sefrou

The Suq de Sefrou is the focus of the second part of a three-part book entitled: Meaning and Order in Moroccan Society. Three Essays in Cultural Analysis (Cambridge University Press, 1979)[xxiii] by Clifford Geertz, Hildred Geertz, and Lawrence Rosen. This empirical analysis of a form of social organization with an economic vocation is a continuation of anthropological research on economics, politics, kinship, and religion undertaken in Indonesia.[xxiv] This book is complete in the sense that its three distinct parts can interest both the student in search of an approach to begin his fieldwork and the one who seeks accurate analyzes of the bazaar economy or finally a researcher with statistical or cartographic materials that he would like to compare with those of Geertz on Sefrou.

The preface by Daniel Cefaï opportunely traces the path of the anthropologist Geertz, once a Ph.D. student at Harvard University under the direction of Talcott Parsons in the 1950s, where he began his first collective inquiry work in Java, Indonesia.[xxv]

The teamwork approach to anthropological research was the high intellectual fashion at post-war American universities, it was the very same scientific research philosophy device used in Sefrou when Geertz became a lecturer at the University of Chicago. This collective work spread from 1965 to 1971 and involved a number of specialists in particular Hildred Geertz, Lawrence Rosen, Paul Rabinow, and Thomas Dichter. The team members took turns in Morocco and passed on their field notes to each other.

Each of the researchers has his specialty, but all “shared the conviction that social relations are the result of coordinated actions rather than the product of structural effects and that they are understood, motivated, articulated and ordered by networks of significant importance,” according to Cefaï (p.13).[xxvi]

The richness of the preface of the book makes it an exemplary work tool in every respect. We situate the study of the client-seller relationship between dense description and ethnographic analysis, between comprehensive sociology and interpretive anthropology. In turn, are described the practices of marriage, hospitality developed within the family, the house (dar), the neighborhood (derb), all understood as so many networks of meanings.

Geertz shows how Moroccans are constantly negotiating reality. The bazaar is treated as a cultural form, a social institution, and an economic type. But the way in which the research work is conducted shows an incredible level of cultural sensitivity and cross-cultural understanding, people of Sefrou still remember, today, this « gentleman scholar » conducting his work with much respect for traditions and beliefs.

We are dealing with a personal narrative based on surveys, which is elementary teaching of scientific fieldwork. The result is not lacking in style. In the end, the uninformed reader is familiar with a whole social world to face, to understand, to circulate in an anthill of stories and anecdotes. Take the example of the semantic interpretation of the usual suq discourse in Sefrou. Geertz succeeded in twenty pages (pp. 158-178) in laying the foundations of a theory of communication, a kind of practical epistemology in which Arabic words are translated with a multiplicity of meanings and derivations from the same root. The researcher bends to the constraints of the context and adapts the text to these. We are far from a reductive interpretation of the social world and the scientific narrative does not lose its logic. The reading of the book is like the narrative of an experiment.

The cartographic and statistical presentation in the appendix finds its place as a trace of a situated and dated survey. In addition, there is a text by Geertz that goes back to Sefrou in 1995. He reports on the evolution of the social and economic fabric of the medina of Sefrou, as well as on the metamorphosis of a small provincial town in three decades. Apparently, the unit that made the original suq of Sefrou seems to have disappeared with time.

While Geertz, in 1974, made the “understanding of the native point of view” one of the ankles of his interpretative anthropology, the question is hidden. Five years later, in his monograph on the suq of Sefrou where he expressed satisfaction for his approach stating that it is necessary to describe the situation as envisaged by the Moroccans themselves. This recommendation is, somewhat, puzzling today in many respects. Is there, in Morocco or elsewhere, an indigenous point of view (in the singular) that can account for the diversity of groups that make up a local society?

In the light of investigations since the 1970s enriching the understanding of Moroccan society, we see that Geertz gave way to essentialism masking the multiplicity and complexity of the strategies of the actors. He sketched Moroccan society in broad strokes, simplifying the social morphology fragmented in Sefriouis, Moroccans, Jews, Arabs, and Berbers, and by resorting excessively to the questions of ethos making Moroccans strong heads, and stubborn, opportunistic and calculating. If this fact is subjected to customer relations philosophy, the suq might well appear as a stark metaphor for Moroccan society.

Geertz’ comparatism is broad, he assimilates the suq of Sefrou with all the other suqs of Morocco and all the suqs of Morocco with those of Bali or Egypt and where is to be found a model of bazaar economy, a Persian word, unusual in Morocco, but which the English and the French colonization used to designate the eastern market and by extension the economy. It is thanks to this extensive and standardized use of a term foreign to the local language that Geertz can play the interpretation of an economic model applicable to all markets in the Maghreb and the Middle East. This passage from the dense description to the interpretative diagnosis, this concern to articulate the micro to the macro in a continuous dialectic go-return between the most local details and the most global of the global structures are the foundations of the Geertzian model of anthropology, intricate, precise, analytical, respectful and scientific.

Clifford Geertz gives us here, besides a dense ethnographic description of a Moroccan suq, the construction of the Weberian ideal-type of the “economy of bazaar“.[xxvii] The first development of this type of construction is based on an empirical ground in Java, which will give rise to the work Peddlers and Princes (1963.)[xxviii] Then, as his approach is comparative and analytical, he decides to test his “economy of bazaar” on a new field, the suq of Sefrou. On this occasion, Geertz distinguishes more explicitly the ideal type of “bazaar” from “industrial economy” and “primitive economy“. He defends neither an evolutionist perspective: one will not necessarily replace the other; nor strict opposition: economies overlap and coexist.[xxix] For him, if the suq is an institution characteristic of the civilization of Islam, “the economy of bazaar” is mainly a tool of analysis, which can be used for the study of other cultures. This bazaar model shares commonalities with the bazaars of Indonesia, of course, but, also, that of Mexico, etc.


In their opus entitled: “Meaning and Order in Moroccan Societies: Three Essays in Cultural Analysis “Clifford Geertz, Hildred Geertz, and Laurence Rozen discuss life in a Middle Atlas settlement: Sefrou, where Jews, Amazighs, and Arabs lived side by side in total harmony for centuries. Thanks to this scientific work of these world-renowned anthropologists, the city of Sefrou became a high place of tolerance in the Anglo-Saxon scientific community around the world.[xxx]

These American anthropologists who took a close interest in the social structure of the city of Sefrou and its economy of bazaar came to the conclusion that the Jewish community of this city, although Jewish of confession, was no different from the Muslim community and was certainly not a separate community living in seclusion:[xxxi]

“The Jewish trading community provides, when set beside the Muslim, a model case in the delicacies of sociological comparison: From many points of view it looks exactly like the Muslim community; from as many others, totally different. The Jews were at once Sefrouis like any others and resoundingly themselves. Many of their institutions –in the bazaar setting, most of them- were direct counterparts to Muslim ones; often even the terminology was not changed. But the way those institutions were put together to form a pattern, the organizational whole they add to, was in such sharp contrast to the Muslim way as to be almost an answer to it. It is not possible to treat the Jews as just one more “tribe” in the Moroccan conglomerate, another nisba, though they were certainly that too. Moroccan to the core and Jewish to the same core, they were heritors of a tradition double and indivisible and in no way marginal.” (Emphasis mine: Mohamed Chtatou)

At the same time, these researchers came to the conclusion that the Jews, who were certainly one hundred percent Moroccan, played a pivotal role in stabilizing Moroccan society in the region. On the one hand, they were instrumental in the growth and development of local commerce, rural trade, and caravan trade and, also, and most importantly, calmed the adversities of the Amazighs of the Middle Atlas and the Arabs of the plain of Sais and prevented potential urban feuding. So, in many ways, Jews acted as undeclared peace-makers and social mediators :[xxxii]

… the role of the Jews in connecting Sefrou’s region-focusing bazaar to the cloud of locality-focusing bazaars growing up around it was crucial from the earliest stages of the transition from passage to central place trade and to some extent even preceded them. Just why this should have been so, why the Arabic speakers of Sais Plain, Morocco and Berber speakers of the Middle Atlas should have needed a third element distinct from them both to relate them commercially, can only be a matter of speculation. The desire of intensely competitive groups suspicious of each other’s actions, jealous of each other’s power, and frightened of each other’s ambitions –to conduct their trade through politically impotent agents, individuals who could bring neither force nor authority to bear in the exchange process and could achieve nothing more than wealth by means of it, is perhaps part of the answer. A related desire to divest trading activities of any meaning beyond the cash and carry and so blunt their acculturative force may be another. But whatever the reason, the fact had a profound impact, virtually a determining one, on the shaping of Jewish activities in the bazaar economy.”

Today, there are, maybe, one or two Jewish families left in Sefrou, the others have all migrated to Fez or Casablanca or immigrated to France, Canada, and Israel. But, despite their physical departure, they remain emotionally very attached to this mythical city which has seen, for centuries, a harmonious and exemplary cohabitation between two religions, three ethnic groups and cultures, and several standards of living.[xxxiii]

Many Jewish families come back to Sefrou every year to undertake a sentimental pilgrimage in the delightful mazes of this millennial town and see again, the mellah, known as “Little Jerusalem,” and visit the synagogues and the Talmudic school.

Sefrou was not only a city where Muslims and Jews lived in harmony, it was also a town that invented, long ago, the concept of religious coexistence in its true sense.

Although the Jewish community of Sefrou was very small in number, its importance in the life of the city and the economy of the bazaar was predominant for more than one reason as explained by Geertz at length.

In the thirties of the last century, the majority of Jews lived in the mellah with the exception of a minority of them who served in the colonial administration as interpreters or civil servants. These, because of their importance in the social hierarchy, lived in the New Town (Ville nouvelle), the European district. In the 1950s, living in this neighborhood was a symbol of social “climbing,” to use the local Arabic related term tla’, for ambitious and aspiring Jews, most of after the six-day war of 1967 chose, as such, to migrate to France.

After independence, the mellah was no longer the exclusive place of residence of Jews since Muslim families settled there without any priori. This change of social norms created in this city culture of solidarity and sharing between Jewish and Muslim communities. This culture was based on the concept of respect for others in their religious and ethnic differences. In doing so both communities lived in complete symbiosis. The Muslims celebrated with the Jews their religious feast, while the Jews strictly respected the code of abstinence of the Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan, something which the latter greatly appreciated.


[xxiii] Cf. Geertz, C. ; Hildred Geertz et Lawrence Rosen. 1979. Meaning and Order in Moroccan Society: Three Essays in Cultural Analysis. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[xxiv] Cf.  Geertz, C. 1992.  Observing Islam: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia. Paris: La Découverte,

[xxv] Clifford Geertz, Le souk de Sefrou : sur l’économie de bazar, Traduction et présentation de Daniel Cefaï, Saint-Denis, éd. Bouchène, 2003, 263 pages

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Cf. : Clifford Geertz, 1979, « Suq: The Bazaar Economy in Sefrou », in Clifford Geertz, L. Geertz, H. Rosen, Meaning and Order in Moroccan Society: Three Essays in Cultural Analysis, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

[xxviii] Cf. Geertz, C. 1963, Peddlers, and Princes. Social Development and Economic Change in Two Indonesian Towns, Chicago: Chicago University Press.

[xxix] Cf. Fred Inglis, Clifford Geertz. Culture, Custom, and Ethics, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2000.

« This is the first full-scale study of the work of Clifford Geertz, who is one of the best-known anthropologists in the world today. In a lively and accessible introduction to his work, Fred Inglis situates Geertz’s thought in the context of his life and times, reviewing its forty-year range.

The book begins with a chapter-long biography and places Geertz in the anthropological tradition from which he broke so decisively. This break was inspired by the work of Wittgenstein and Kenneth Burke, who provided Geertz with the lead to construct his theory of symbolic action. This theory was vigorously at odds with the dominant idiom of scientific inquiry in the human sciences, and since then Geertz has led the practice of these sciences in quite a different direction.

 Geertz’s progress is charted in detail by his fieldwork in Java, Bali, and Morocco, as well as his work in the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. His two remarkable collections of essays, the Interpretation of Cultures and Local Knowledge, are enthusiastically summarized and criticized. The celebrated and controversial essay on the Balinese cockfight is defended against its critics, and in an extended conclusion, his account of the Balinese Theatre-State is, as Geertz suggests, proposed as a more adequate method for the combined study of culture and politics than the professionals’ routine application of heavy-handed concepts such as ‘power’ and ‘status’.

 This book provides a comprehensive overview of one of the most gripping, lucid, and entertaining contemporary thinkers, and in so doing, makes anthropology once again the popular science. It will be of great interest to anthropologists and to students and scholars of cultural studies. » (From inside flap of the book.)

[xxx] The Mellah of Sefrou occupied half of the Medina and in 1948 its total population was 5000 (the density was 415,815 per km2 one of the highest in the world). Sefrou shelters the tombs of several Jewish saints such as Moshe Elbaz, the Masters of the Cave, Eliahou Harroch, and David Arazil. The city of Sefrou had the nickname of « Little Jerusalem because » of its high Jewish density and its highly developed religious life. In the aftermath of Morocco’s independence, a rabbi from Sefrou was elected to the Moroccan parliament.

[xxxi] Op. cit. Meaning and Order in Moroccan Society: Three Essays in Cultural Analysis, p. 164.

[xxxii] Op. cit. Meaning and Order in Moroccan Society: Three Essays in Cultural Analysis, p. 170.

[xxxiii] Cf. Chtatou, Mohamed. 2009. « La diversité culturelle et linguistique au Maroc : pour un multiculturalisme dynamique ». Asinag 2.

About the Author
Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of “MENA region area studies” at Université Internationale de Rabat -UIR- and of “Education” at Université Mohammed V in Rabat, as well. Besides, he is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, American, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islamism and religious terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism. During 2015 he worked as Program Director with the USAID/CHEMONICS educational project entitled: “Reading for Success: A Small Scale Experimentation” in cooperation with the Moroccan Ministry of National Education and Vocational Training (MENFP). He recently taught cultural studies to Semester abroad students with AMIDEAST, IES and CIEE study abroad programs in Morocco insuring such courses as: “Introduction to Moroccan Culture,” “Contemporary North African History,” “Arab Spring,” “Amazigh Culture,” “Moroccan Jewish Legacy,” “Community-Based Learning” (internship with civil society organizations). He is, also, currently teaching “Communication Skills” and “Translation and Interpreting” to master students at The Institute for Leadership and Communication Studies –ILCS- in Rabat, Morocco and supervising several Fulbright students in areas of religion and culture in Morocco. He has taught in the past some courses in universities in the USA, Spain, France, Italy, England and Greece.