Moroccan mellahs and armadillos

The significance of Hannukah was lost on me as a boy, even years later, when I watched Ross Geller dress up as an armadillo to impress upon his and Rachel's son how important the festival is!

Happy Hannukah!

Or Chanukah! I can never remember which way to spell it. Anyway, please accept my warm wishes for the festival if you and your loved ones celebrate it.

I once celebrated the eight-day festival at a friend’s. She pinned doughnuts to a piece of string for friends to all compete over and grab, mouth-first.

I wasn’t at all clear why. In fact, I also wasn’t clear why as a family we didn’t celebrate the Jewish festival when I was a boy.

A Hannukah memory
Ross Geller dressed as an armadillo – even he struggled to explain why!

Its significance was therefore lost on me, even years later, when I watched Ross Geller (from comedy, Friends) dress up as an armadillo to impress upon his and Rachel’s son how important the festival is!

Snippets of history in the souk

Last week, I didn’t get much closer to understanding the festival. But touring the Souk in the Marrakech medina, I passed many a menorah, the traditional seven branched lamp. I also passed a Chanukiah too, which is unique because it is only lit over the eight-day festival of Hannukah. It is distinct from a regular menorah because it has nine branches.

In a later post, I will riff a little more on my recent cultural forays into Moroccan society.

For now, I will reflect on the snippets I am starting to piece together with regards Moroccan Jewry, and indeed, Moroccan Jewish history.

Hebrew script - or is it?
Using Hebrew script to give expression to Arabic speech

A fortnight ago, I stumbled across a fascinating – almost invisible – exhibition of photos celebrating Jewish community life in the mid twentieth century. It was located in the old passageways underneath the El Badi Palace, far from any conspicuous entrance. The Jewish population in Morocco once numbered a quarter of a million people, I soon learnt. Today, it is estimated around 3,000 Jews live here (and most of them live in Casablanca).

A ghostly world

In 1952, Casablanca’s Jewish population had totalled 75,000. But in four short years between 1952 and 1956, the year of independence, 40,000 people left southern Morocco alone. It is to a large extent a well-documented, but nevertheless a ghostly world. I cannot wait to discover more of it on my travels to the southern oases and High Atlas mountains in a week or two.

Jewish school
Jewish school from the mid-20th century

I hope to follow in the footsteps of Elias Harrus, Pauline Prior and others. Anthropologists, educators, photographers and indeed Zionists. I want to better understand what remains, if anything, of the ancient Mellahs in towns like Tinghir.

The mellahs of southern Morocco

There is a charmingly quaint (but seriously limited) documentary of the period, in Spielberg’s film archive. It is directed by Arnan Zafrir in 1961 and called ‘Edge of the West’. I have started to consult ‘The Mellahs of Southern Morocco: Report of a Survey‘ by Harvey E. Goldberg. It references arguments that the Jews – wilfully, wittingly, or perhaps not – were used as convenient pawns by the French colonialists to help embed their policy of Protectorate ‘divide and rule’.

This may have enabled some Jews in urban centres, such as Casablanca, to reach a particular social position. From what I recall, Goldberg also demonstrates how the Jews were themselves very much the victims of colonialism and not in all cases emancipated by the European ideals that the French theoretically sought to promote. Least of all in southern Morocco, where it took some years for Jewish communities to be convinced – by the Alliance IsraĆ©lite, among others – to seek Aliyah.

The sinking of the Pisces

An awful footnote to all of this is a story about the tragic sinking of the Pisces, a boat which clandestinely tried to transport Jewish migrants from the northern shore of Morocco, onward bound to Gibraltar and then Israel. It sunk on January 10th 1961 with 44 on board and most perished. The whole story makes for depressing reading. The backdrop? Jewish emigration was permitted in these years after independence, but not to Israel, the imperialist anomaly in Western Asia. King Hassan II took some convincing for the dead to many years later be repatriated and buried in Israel.

Moving on, I understand there is another film to watch – from ‘Tinghir to Jerusalem: echoes from the Mellah’. One to try and watch this Christmas week!

Moroccan Jewish Museum

I have used this past week to also visit the Moroccan Jewish Museum; the only one I am aware of in the Arab world. It was encouraging to see the revised Moroccan constitution of 2011, catalysed by the Arab Spring. It positively acknowledges the country’s diverse communities and historic spirit, including its Andalusian and Hebraic traditions.

The museum was empty, save a sleeping guard. I preferred the more (surprising) exhibition of Alliance IsraƩlite Universelle photos at the El Badi Palace, referred to above.

But it was useful all the same to see mementos of a community that co-existed with Berbers (were in many cases, effectively Berbers in terms of local customs and dress). And to see the rich tapestry of Hebraica, from the finest silver pointing yad to gold plated silver Tappuhim, covering the Torah. There were finely carved Teba, or a dais, from synagogues in the old Mellahs of Meknes and I believe, Larache. Other cases contained striking Berber fibules (or fibula): brooches.


I understand Izar, a traditional garment, was worn by both Jewish and Muslim women, certainly in the 1940s and 50s. Jewish women used to weave Imlal, worn by Muslim women. This only strikes me as relevant because it is so poignant in an age where polemicists such as Melanie Phillips are permitted to write columns for the Jewish Chronicle trivialising Islamophobia. And seeking to divide Jews and Muslims, when we coexisted so many centuries in relative peace.

Pointing scribes
Yad, which help a Rabbi or synagogue senior figure to follow the scriptures in the Torah

Unknown to me, Judeo-Arabic was used by some of these old communities, to effectively give Hebrew script to local Arabic words. I thank the Jewish Museum of Camden in London for providing me access to old archives to better understand some of this.

Travel adventures await

I left the corresponding museum in Casablanca a little uncertain what to do next, or how even to orientate myself back to the part of the city I was staying in.

I ended up finding a random hotel by the side of a motorway and pretended I wanted to stay a night. I even reviewed a bedroom I had no intention of staying at to muster up the courage to ask the receptionist to order me a cab!

Lovely Morocco
Beautiful, bewitching Morocco

But no doubt more challenging, and I am sure more daunting, travel adventures await. Indeed, I am now planning a seven-and-a-half-hour journey east from here (Marrakech), to discover what a friend explained the other night is one of the best preserved Mellahs they have ever seen. And no, I won’t be travelling by camel. Crossing the mountains – even by coach – is very hard work!

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