CASABLANCA, Morocco — When I started thinking about this Jewish Africa photographic survey project in 2011, I thought I’d begin in Morocco. I figured that its rich Jewish history was a logical place to start. But I quickly came to the realization that I’d likely face logistical obstacles and challenges that might just put me off getting to a second leg. So I started in South Africa (which was incorporated into the first 5 legs of this odyssey).
Finally, nearly 4 years after first thinking about it, leg #6 (of 8) landed me in the Maghreb (also, Maghrib). It was a wild 25-day ride that resulted in 6,852 archived images including some three dozen cemeteries, a couple dozen synagogues, and dozens more miscellaneous items such as old Jewish schools, mellahs (Jewish Quarters), shops, and Purim holiday events in Casablanca.
My time in Morocco was intense in a few ways: the hectic pace (for most of the time), the amount of driving (including being hit by a construction digger machine), and an inordinate amount of stress I faced in dealing with the person with whom I was traveling for the first 18 days. Per the last of those things, I will leave it at that except to say that I very nearly had to quit after the first week. I persevered simply because there literally was no one else who could guide me on such a journey.
Jews have been in Morocco for thousands of years. Today, there are an estimated 5,000 Jewish souls remaining. For those in Casablanca (where the majority reside), at least, life appears to be dynamic and vibrant. There are a goodly number of active synagogues, Jewish schools, social clubs, functions, and Jewish businesses including kosher butcheries and bakeries, not to mention Jews who are active in government and international business. I found all of this bustle inspiring.
But the most common sound I heard in Morocco (besides the muezzin’s tinny loud-speaker calls to prayer from the minarets) was that all of the Jewish activity is in peril.
“There’s no future,” some would say. “Who’s going to look after all the Jewish cemeteries and synagogues?” others would ponder.
The community is simply not sustainable on its current demographic trajectory. The bulk of the community across Morocco is getting on in years (in Meknes, for instance, there are only about 40 Jews remaining, all of them elderly), and not many of the youngsters see much of a future here. They are enticed by the prospects of a life in Israel, Europe, and the United States and many already have relatives in those places who can facilitate a move.
On the one hand, I was surprised by the vibrancy of the community today, but not at all surprised by its apparent fate. Just how long a meaningful Jewish community will endure in Morocco is anyone’s guess. But I doubt it will fall into oblivion in my lifetime as has happened in neighboring Algeria.
For most of my Moroccan journey, I was removed from community life. In fact, it wasn’t until my third week that I finally photographed a living, breathing Jew (Shalom Botbol, the caretaker the defunct Talmud Torah Jewish School and Synagogue in Meknes).
I was on the road, crisscrossing what I have long considered the second-most beautiful country in the world (the first being Namibia). The topography rotates like a world-sized kaleidoscope with twists of desert and the snow-capped Atlas Mountains. The scenery is simply awesome, the colors rich, the moods palpable. The Jewish communities, past and present, are equally alluring.
Midst all the geographical treats, Jewish communities of varying sizes thrived all across this impressive land. They were traders, craftsmen, and smelters among other skilled work. Today, the remnants of that life is found mainly in decaying cemeteries (though, with rare exception, they all had well-maintained walls and a local guardian, some of whom live on site).
Many villages and towns still have synagogues that are rarely, if ever, used today. In some seemingly random places, the synagogue has been recently restored by a former resident of the town or a descendant of a relative from the town or village. In almost all cases, the cemeteries and synagogues are looked after by Muslims who are paid a meagre stipend by the Moroccan Jewish Community in Casablanca for the task.
My driver/guide did his best to insure that each day included anywhere from 2 to 5 sights for me to photograph, not to mention some days with long drives. Our days usually started at 8:00 or 8:30 a.m. and lasted till late afternoon. But for me, that was only half a work day. My evenings on the road are filled with editing the day’s photos. Daily editing is essential to keep things in order, or it can all quickly become overwhelming. As such, my day didn’t really end till as late as midnight. It was the most intense burst of Jewish photographing that I can recall, though some work in South Africa comes pretty close.
Easily, the most intense day was a 20-hour marathon that took me to my first-ever Hiloula, a celebration of a “Jewish saint”. I had been given this golden opportunity on the invitation of Vanessa Paloma, a dynamic and driven woman who is, among other things, a polyglot, a musician/singer and the founder/director of KHOYA Jewish Moroccan Sound Archive. I had made contact with her via Facebook a few months prior to my arrival. Also in the car were her brother-in-law and a young woman who makes independent documentaries.
The day started at 4:30 a.m. in Casablanca with a 5-hour drive to Tetouan. By 3:30, I thought I was going to be on my way back to Casa when we took a turn to Tangier to drop Vanessa off there (she was flying out from there to the US the next day). We didn’t get there till nearly 5:30. But, oh, what a treat it turned out to be.
Vanessa was staying the night at the beautifully (and enviable) restored home of a friend of hers on the edge of the Medina (old town) which overlooked the impressive Jewish Cemetery. Despite my exhaustion and my eagerness to get on the road to Casa, I was exhilarated at both the cosiness of the house and the views from the rooftop. No way did I even consider entering the cemetery as exhausted as I was (and entry at that time of day was probably out of the question anyway). But that didn’t stop me from taking some photos from the rooftop terrace. If I do get back to Tangier on my second Morocco trip next year, I certainly am not going to have access to that vantage point again. So I fired away. Finally, by 6:30ish, we started the 5-hour drive back to Casa where we arrived by 11:30, completely and utterly spent. I needed another hour to wind down to sleep.
With all that photo work and milage behind me, however, I merely scratched the surface of Jewish Morocco. While some might think 6,852 photos is a lot, it doesn’t feel like much from my point of view. It is said there are some 300 cemeteries and 200 synagogues in the country. At most, I photographed just 10% of those numbers. From the outset of my project, I planned to make two journeys to Morocco: one to cover the southern-central regions, another to cover more of the northern areas and to get more people/social images. I also hope to include the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on the far northern reaches of Morocco.
After completing my Morocco trip, I realized just how spot on my planning and projections have been in approaching my project. For the most part, everything has worked out and fallen into place. I still have many destinations to get to on the last two legs (from one end of Africa to the other), but in my mind, the plans seem right and reasonable.
I hope you’ll continue to join me for the ride.
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