Mellahs across Morocco have become synonomous with urban decay, poverty and increased risk. There is nothing different about the Mellah in Essaouira. Although culturally rich it has become neglected and necrosed. Here are some photographs at dusk portraying some of its inhabitants who walk through its narrow lanes every day.
Filali Mostafa paints in a small studio in Jotiya, close to the surging waves of the Atlantic ocean. Sourounded by the detritis of a flea market, his paintings of ordered simplicity and detail could not be further away from the unmitigated chaos of the landscape outside of his door.
It is easy to mistake simplicity for lack of content. Filali’s work consistently portrays important themes within Moroccan culture; berber design, jewish symbolism, the marriage ceremony, and superstitions which he believes he remains a victim of.
I had lunch today in the old Jewish Mellah in Essaouira, in a restaurant converted on the second ( top ) floor of a former Talmud Torah, or Jewish primary school. On the ground floor the building had been converted into a Day Hospital for people suffering with Alzheimers Disease, the first floor was now a creche and the top floor, with a large terrace area, was the children’s playground and the small restaurant.
The walls of the terrace had been painted with animals and symbols, in common with many if not all schools I have seen in Morocco. An old circular table where the intricate zellige tiles were crumbling was of interest and the three-legged chair beside it also attracted my attention, as well as the symbolic drawings behind it. Beside the play area the restaurant was light and airy, with stunning views over the old Mellah city walls to the crashing surf of the Atlantic ocean. It was a stormy day, with gusting wind and heavy rain, and the surging waves flew into the rocks and spray went everywhere.
Talmud Torah schools were conventionally for poor boys; no fees were paid. It was unusual for girls to receive a free education so subsequently it was rare for girls to receive any education. Boys started by learning the Hebrew alphabet, and then learnt spelling. Following this they were taught Perasa, the beginning of the Bible, then the Nebiim and the Kitubim; the Prophets and the written Law. Designed only to provide basic education, the primary school education stopped there, and those who wished to pursue further education were required to pay for the privilege. However following this, the boys had some notion of Jewish history; they knew the Hebrew alphabet, but didn’t know Hebrew. Their major language skills depended upon the locality where they lived. If children lived close to ports then Spanish was the most common; whereas in the other cities of the interior, Arabic was spoken with a very distinctive accent. They used their Hebrew alphabet to write in Hebrew characters and in Spanish or Arabic, depending on the language they spoke.
As I ate I saw that a large part of the dilapidated Mellah had recently been fenced off and large new signs and posters provided plans for its regeneration, a decade or more since redevelopment had originally been mooted. I had not been in this building before; its views were spectacular. I wondered how old it was and when it had been converted. There was no information available.
Some photographs of the terrace and restaurant follow below, between paragraphs of an article providing a first hand and contemporaneous account of the expulsion of Jews, following those from Andalucia in 1483, from other parts of Spain in 1492 and their subsequent difficult journeys.
Taken from the Internet Jewish History Sourcebook, a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts, it was written in Hebrew by an Italian Jew in 1495.
Much of the available online literature provides a positive description of Jewish/Arabic settlement in Morocco, suggesting a substantial legacy of intra-racial tolerance, accord and cultural harmony. Indeed, Morocco seems to be advertising this positive relationship in its marketing and promotional campaigns to attract tourists from Arab, Christian and Jewish diasporas. The specific qualities that a Jewish workforce brought to Morocco ( including banking, usery, jewel-making and contacts with the West ) were considered invaluable to Morocco’s economic expansion and world trade by former sultans.
But is this portrayal true? What really was the relationship between the originally settled Jewish communities across the Mahgreb and Arab invaders? What agreements and covenants were agreed and signed to facilitate peace and ordered co-habitiation? What socio/economic/political factors influenced that relationship and the lifestyle of Jews under Arab rule? Does a better understanding of the experiences of Jews living in Arab controlled countries and under Arab dominion for almost a thousand years contribute to a broader understanding of the Arabic-Jewish debate?
Link to a full Gallery of images here.
The low concrete dwelling was as white as the line of old tombs to its right, sepulchres built into the tall medina wall which formed one boundary of the old cemetery. A young boy emerged from the dwelling and approached me, his body appearing to lope rather than walk, his eyes cast mostly downwards. Another child emerged from the white dwelling and made her way towards us. In contrast she walked straight up to me, looked me in the eye, and in a moment of young feminine purpose extended her arm palm open, smiled disarmingly and asked me without any shame whatsoever for ‘l’argent’.
The group of Hasidic Jews from New York congregated around the mausoleum of Rabbi Vidal Haserfatty, a large tomb which looked down over the extended white blanket of graves of Beit HaChaim, the restored Jewish cemetery at the edge of the ancient mellah in Fes. After completing a number of rituals inside the little room they climbed back down the steps and threaded their way through smaller tombs to a blue shrine in the middle of the white expanse. There they quietly began again the rituals of veneration for a saint significant to both Judaic and Muslim faiths. Of even greater significance and rarity the saint was female.