CEUTA, Spanish Autonomous City — She sauntered up Paseo del Revellin pedestrian street like a fashionista on a runway though I wasn’t sure she was headed my way. We’d had plenty of email between us, but this kind of felt like a blind date.
“Jono?” she queried with widened eyes.
“Ramona. Yes, I’m Jono. It’s so nice to meet you at last.”
Things started in September 2015 when the esteemed member of the community wrote, “We have read your request and we give our agreement to make the story of our community.” But just about everything else remained pretty uncertain until I looked into her eyes. They were friendly. They were welcoming. They were trusting. They warmed me on that chilly Shabbat morning.
We met me in front of my accommodation smack dab in the middle of this comely Spanish outcrop regarded by many as the southern-most frontier of the country. It is, in fact, a rocky speck of jealously guarded land on the northern coast of Africa, a little wedge — geographically and politically — on Morocco’s northern border.
There is nothing whatsoever African about its 18.5 square kilometers — except for its geographical location. And that was reason enough to include this territory in my Jewish Africa photo project just as I included Melilla, that other Spanish territory nestled into the northern coast of Morocco. In every regard, Ceuta (pronounced, the-oo-ta by the Spanish, and known as Sebta by the Moroccans) is Spain. Europe. It is most assuredly not “Spanish Morocco,” as it has contentiously been called at times.
As we sauntered the few minutes’ walk to the synagogue, Ramona added some color to the very sketchy image I had in my mind about photo plans. She spoke so fast, however, that my Spanish lagged on Moroccan time (which his to say, an hour earlier than Ceuta). I was pretty sure she was telling me when I would photo the one and only remaining synagogue, the one and only cemetery, a few shops, a butcher…slow down, I’m thinking…and where I’d be having Shabbat lunch.
“Oh,” I thought. “Another home cooked meal.”
I’d only arrived the evening before, just a couple of hours before Shabbat fell, after a long schlep from Casablanca to Tangier by a 5-hour train ride, then a delightful 75-minute taxi jaunt along the stunning coast, complete with vistas of Africa and Europe in one single eyeful. I had totally forgotten about the one-hour forwarding of the clock, so that added to the sense of a long journey, not to mention it rushing me to get to the synagogue in time for the start of Shabbat.
As I hurriedly settled into my diminutive but comfortable digs, I received several Facebook messages from a “friend”:
“Hello jono david, my name is Kemina, my granfather was Jacobo behar behar y my grandma amparo behar, they are from santiago de cuba, i found a picture of them in your page, i lose my grandfather a year ago, i ask you if you have more pictures of them and if you can send to me.some; thanks for your work [sic].”
Then a few more notes popped up, one by one.
“i already see you ar in ceuta”
“i live here 100mtrs of the sinagoge”
“are you going there for shabbat?”
I just didn’t have time to respond, so I didn’t, and mainly because it appeared this person lived in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. That’s what the profile said, anyway. A response could wait, I thought. Unwittingly, it wouldn’t be long before we’d meet.
There weren’t many people at the synagogue when I arrived, but they were deep in prayer as a Shabbat crowd steadily filed in, including Isaias. He beckoned me over and had me sit next to him. He leaned in and started to talk to me. With an extended digit, he guided my eyes to the upstairs ladies’ gallery and I saw a pair of eyes looking back down upon us. It was Kemina, his wife.
Kemina. My Facebook friend.
I kind of felt like I’d been busted by a complete “stranger friend” on Facebook. She admonished me with her gaze, or so I perceived it. I sort of bowed my head in both acknowledgement and shame for not responding. But, hey, it’s not that I didn’t want to reply. It’s that I didn’t have time to reply and then get engrossed in a texting volley.
Only a few minutes into our banter and Isaias invited me to share a Shabbat meal with him and his wife and little girl.
“That’s really nice,” I said. “But I’ve already been invited to Rabbi Yavin’s home.”
Later that night, I found another very welcoming FB missive from Kemina: “tomorrow afternoon my husband can get you to take pictures and Sunday also, there are many good places to take pictures, he likes a lot and always going to take pictures so you’ll know where to take you, and the cemetery also if want to go, he has the key. let me know right?”
“Hi, thank you,” I wrote back. “Very nice to meet you all this evening. A very special Ceuta welcome! 🙂 I am happy to join you tomorrow if you are offering. I am going to the synagogue with Ramona at 10:30 a.m., so after the service is ok for me…I do not know if Ramona has a plan for me. I will know more when I meet her tomorrow. Good night. Thank you.”
“Ok jono you tell me tomorrow. If Ramona has no plans, you can have lunch with us…and in the afternoon we can go with the car so you can see Ceuta.”
“That is REALLY SUPER nice of you! THANK YOU!” I wrote back, feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the tremendous Ceuta reception.
WHEN I ARRIVED AT THE SYNAGOGUE on Shabbat evening, it seemed utterly closed. I wasn’t exactly sure of the start time, so just judged a time from the light in the sky. After about 10 minutes, someone approached the door.
“Excuse me,” I said walking over. “Shabbat shalom,” I added to put him at ease.
My meeting with Mannie was fortuitous, and as luck would have it, there was no one better suited to meet. As the caretaker of both the synagogue and the cemetery, he soon became my guardian angel. I gave him my passport, and a few minutes later he returned to the door and welcomed me inside. He had confirmed my visit with Ramona.
The next morning, Ramona gave Mannie the full outline of my photo goals. Taking care of my photo needs mostly fell on him, and he was exceptionally gracious and eager to assist. He, too, soon became a Facebook friend.
“If you need anything,” he wrote, “you have my Facebook.”
And that is just how the Jewish community of Ceuta is: totally welcoming, completely warm, unreservedly friendly, whole-heartedly kind. Beyond photographing the synagogue and cemetery which he oversees, Mannie also took me to photograph the only remaining kosher butchery, whimsically named, Delicatessen Happy Kosher.
For Shabbat dinner, I was invited by Rabbi Yavin to his home for a meal with his wife and daughter (and rabbit). Apparently, their apartment, long before they moved in, used to be used as a synagogue or a prayer house. There’s no indication of that today, however.
After eating too much and serving a few slices of life to one another, I was back in my hotel room minutes after I said goodnight. Nothing is too far from anything in Ceuta (mainland Europe is only 14 kilometers / 9 miles away). As I took a mental inventory of all the people I had just met in such a condensed period of time, I went to sleep amazed by the welcome and thinking it pretty amazing that I was (again) in a slice of Europe in Africa.
A JEWISH PRESENCE IN CEUTA reaches as far back as the 12th century. After the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, the population grew a bit as Jews made their way to this fortress city and relative safety from decrees on the mainland. In fact, they were mostly left in peace to carry on with their lives as craftsmen, traders, and small business people. Today, the community is comprised of some 300 delightfully spirited souls with strong Moroccan ties, particularly to the Jewish community of Tétouan, a Moroccan city just 40 kilometers (24 miles) south. They exuded a zest for their community and they clearly cherish Ceuta itself.
Isaias took me out not once, but twice, to show off his hometown. The first time was an afternoon drive to all the best vistas in town. This hilly outcrop has more roads than I’d imagined, not to mention more cars (I realized there are many hidden underground parking lots). On one side of Ceuta is the bustle of downtown. On the other side, there is a forest that is a world away, nothing but the sounds of the breeze through the trees and wide views across the big blue to Europe or the long, curved beaches of northern Morocco.
On my last evening, Isaias sent me a Facebook message, an invitation to go for a walk. “I am here, outside the hotel,” he messaged me. He and a friend of his took me for a beer, then a walk around the bulwark that once fortified this town.
But my day started with Ramona in the Central Market, a beehive of activity, complete with boisterously hectic cafes. Before I could even order, a plate of piping hot churro — a fried dough pastry — and a coffee was served. I wasn’t quite sure why, but the bill came to zero. It was a great Spanish start to the beautiful day.
Late morning, Pastora, another welcoming member of the community, strolled with me around the central streets to some Jewish-owned shops and pointed out some Jewish-named streets.
By the time I crossed the border back into Morocco, I wondered why I had ever worried about who I’d be meeting and what I’d be photographing. I always hope to get photographs that not only I’m pleased with, but are worthy of the time and the welcomes I receive.
“Vale lo intento!! (Worth the effort),” Ramona emailed me two days later upon reviewing the images.
“:),” I replied.
— NOTE: For privacy and security reasons, the names of the persons in this story have been changed.
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