The curious case of the Moroccan Marranos

If you ever go to a football match in Morocco where a team from the old imperial capital Fez are playing, the chances are you will hear the opposing team’s fans shout: ‘al-yahud!’ ( Jews!)

Now, it’s not unusual for the London team Tottenham Hotspur, with a Jewish fan base, to call themselves, not without pride, the ‘Yid army’. Ajax of Amsterdam, a city once known as the Jerusalem of Holland for its many Jewish residents, are still taunted as a Jewish team. But the Fez football team ? A city in an overwhelmingly Muslim country, where Jews are almost extinct?

Fez conceals a secret not apparent to its many visitors: it is home to a mysterious population of Moroccan marranos.

Conventional wisdom has it that marranos – a pejorative term to describe converted Jews who continued to practise their religion in private – are a phenomenon exclusive to medieval Catholic Spain. In fact, there were Judaeo-Muslim marranos in Morocco: hundreds of thousands of their descendants still live in a limbo world, identifying neither as Jews nor accepted as fully-fledged Muslims.

Conventional wisdom also has it that fundamentalism in Islam is a ‘passing phase’. According to Sorbonne professor Paul Fenton, however, the fundamentalist rule of the Almohades, originating in southern Morocco, lasted over a century – from 1130 to 1269. Hardly a flash in the pan.

The Almohades conquered Fez, Marrakesh and finally Cordoba in southern Spain, burning Jewish books and destroying synagogues in their wake. Christianity died out altogether, and to all intents and purposes, Morocco became judenrein, as Jews converted en masse to Islam rather than be put to death for apostasy. But some Jews literally went underground – living in caves – in order to keep practising their religion.

The most famous Jewish ‘convert’ to Islam was Maimonides himself. A realist and rationalist, he consoled distraught Jewish converts that human life is to take precedence over law in 610 cases out of 613.
This was in direct contradiction to Muslim theology, which held that death for one’s religion was the supreme value.

Maimonides fled the Almohad invasion of his native Cordoba for Morocco, but was forced to leave for Eretz Israel and Egypt when he was denounced for reverting to Judaism. Maimonides eventually became the private physician to the Viceroy of Ayyubid Egypt. Professor Fenton believes that it was less a sign that Jews could attain the very highest office under Muslim rule; rather, the community at large were hostages to these Jews’ good behaviour: Jews could be trusted not to poison or betray their masters. Otherwise, they risked unleashing a massacre of their co-religionists.

Many Jews fled Spain for Morocco because there they would be unknown, less easy to persecute and not subject to close supervision. Nevertheless, an Inquisition operated there.

Even Jewish converts suffered various disabilities and vexations: they were only allowed to practise certain trades, could not marry off their daughters to ‘real’ Muslims, had to wear the special headgear and black garments with absurdly long sleeves reserved for Jews and worn ‘off the shoulder’. This custom persisted into the 20th century.

The Merinids, who succeeded the Almohades, allowed secret Jews to practise openly once again. However, a fair proportion of converts remained Muslim and moved out of the Jewish quarter, or Mellah, for the Medina. A number became successful businessmen with access to the kissaria, or covered market, selling silks and fine fabrics. But their business rivals, the Sharifians, who claimed descent from Muhammad, accused the crypto-Jews (also known as beldiyyin ) of pretending to practise Islam. In 1468, they forbade ‘Jews and dogs’ from accessing the precincts of the Shurafa mosque, built to house the body of their ancestor Idris. They had the beldiyyin expelled from the kissaria. The struggle between the Sharifians and the beldiyyin , whose shops and clothing had to carry distinguishing markings, would last until the 19th century.

With every famine, more Jews would convert to Islam in order to qualify for sedaka, the corn reserves held by the religious authority, or Wakf. Gradually, Fez, in the centre of the country and most vulnerable to drought, was emptied of Jews. As late as 1912, when 12, 000 Jews were left homeless as a result of the Fez massacre, still more Jews in fear of their lives converted to Islam.

The beldiyyin retained business contacts with the Jews of the Mellah and ‘subterranean’ religious links. Thus they would call on a mohel or rabbi to perform a circumcision. A Bildi bride would receive a perforated piece of wood to encourage her to prepare kosher meat in the traditional style.

There could be 100, 000 beldiyyin still living in Morocco today, whose facial features, surnames (Zicri, Choukroun, Benzaken, Al-Banani, Miyara), accents and dialects betray their Jewish origins. The community survived largely intact because they married among themselves (monogamously). Many are prominent in law or Moroccan intellectual life today. Unlike the Mashadi Jews of Persia or the Chala converts of Bukhara, who remained in or next to their Jewish quarters, cases of beldiyyin reverting to Judaism are rare.

But local consciousness of a Jewish past is never very far beneath the surface. Just go and see the Fez team play a football match.

About the Author
Lyn Julius is a journalist and co-founder of Harif, an association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa in the UK. She is the author of 'Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilisation in the Arab world vanished overnight.' (Vallentine Mitchell)