14 March 2011
It is hard to escape news from North Africa these days. Yet fascination with dramatic current events – whether the invigorating struggles for freedom in Tunisia and Egypt, or the tragic bloodletting in Ghaddafi’s Libya – gain a new dimension when we look at the region’s extraordinarily rich past.
Now the Jewish Museum in Camden throws light on the Jewish community of southern Morocco, a corner of the Maghreb where for over 1,000 years Jews lived in social and cultural co-existence with Muslim society. The exhibition lasts till Monday 2 May, and features two sets of photographs, rare film footage of Jews preparing to leave Morocco for Israel and France, traditional Moroccan ceremonial costume and jewellery from the Dahan-Hirsch Collection, in Brussels.
At its centre, though, are the photographs. The earlier and larger collection consists of the work of Elias Harrus (1919-2008), a Moroccan Jew who in the 1940s and 1950s decided to explore the more remote regions of his country. There in the Atlas Mountains of the North and the Sahara oases of the south he snapped evocative images of the crafts, traditions and religious life of Jews living alongside Muslim Berbers and Arabs. In many ways they resembled each other; in other respects, rural Moroccan Jews worked, lived and dressed distinctly from their fellow villagers, and indeed from fellow-Jewish Moroccan urbanites, like Harrus.
Jews in the Sous valley, we learn, were expert at working with precious metals. Their delicate filigree jewellery retained its medieval Andalusian style, possibly brought to the North African Kingdom by Jewish exiles from Spain after 1492. One charming photograph from Demnat in 1950 shows a Jewish tailor, his apprentice and a Muslim customer. Most Jews were merchants and artisans, though some were farmers. From the same village, Harrus pictures a Jewish farmer negotiating the price of a cow with a Muslim trader. Other photos show bustling markets, a Jewish cobbler fashioning babouche slippers, and merchants in tallit (Jewish prayer shawls) praying in the palm groves of Marrakech, en route to Demnat, about to travel on roads protected by friendly Berber clans.
Many images evoke the central economic role that Jewish women played. For instance, there is a photograph of a young mother sitting with her baby and shelling almonds in Tillit in 1950 (left) ; and other women sorting barley and baking bread. Or Esther Levy, later interviewed in Israel in 1999, who in 1958 was pictured in Ighil N’Ogho, Morocco, crafting colourful imlal shawls that were popular with Muslim women. In Tinjdad, amidst the palm groves of the southern Tafilalet region, we see Jewish women wearing long izar garments to honour the Passover, with coined headdresses and necklaces. Jews and Muslims lived side by side as the oasis village had no separate mellah quarter for Jews. One photograph of two Jewish traders and their Muslim compadre on horseback symbolises the integrated life that the distinct yet mutually respectful communities enjoyed.
Here and there, signs of modernity creep in: like the French school inspector visiting a mellah in a cluster of Berber villages in 1955, the year before Morocco achieved independence. Similarly there is the sight of 13-year-old married girls somewhat forlornly watching their single peers enrol at a new Alliance (secular Franco-Jewish) school in 1950. Alliance campaigned against child brides and forebade them to join classes. In one almost incongruous scene, a Jewish woman mends clothes with an imported Singer sewing machine in 1956. This little device was to transform rural life as dramatically as Facebook and email has revolutionised society today. Changing times also struck the venerated Rabbi Jacob Benhamou, reputedly the richest Jewish merchant of the northern Sahara. Pictured on horseback in 1958, he still seems happy, if somewhat bemused after World War II and modern transportation methods thwarted his once lucrative trans-desert caravans.
Right: Jewish cobbler in Oufrane, Sous Valley, Morocco, 1960.
In the film Muslim villagers seemed bemused when they see their Jewish neighbours suddenly leaving. Perhaps Harrus had an inkling that history was about to change. “What makes the photographs so precious”, states the Museum brochure, “is that the communities represented have since virtually disappeared. This is therefore a rare snapshot into a vanished world.” Equally precious is the intimacy that Harrus the craftsman and insider achieved – a sense that a more conventional anthropologist might not have captured.
In 2008, the contemporary Dutch photographer Pauline Prior revisited the same regions and found another Morocco. Now most of the Jews were gone. What remains are particularly poignant: like the picture of green-doored cupboard that housed the kabbalistic tome, the Zohar, in a formerly abandoned and now restored synagogue at Ighil N’Ogho. Or the Ourika Valley tomb of 16th century Rabbi Shlomo Ben Hench, who legend says turned into a snake before he died. His burial place is still a destination for pilgrims from America.
Or there is Prior’s lively shot of an Alliance establishment in Marrakech, now a Muslim school with 1,200 pupils. Finally, Prior has hinted of the persistence of living Moroccan Jewish traditions, as seen in bridge-players at a present-day Casablanca Jewish Centre; a state-backed hillula celebration at a Jewish shrine where participants throw candles into bonfires; or Netivot in Israel, where a Sephardi woman prays fervently at the tomb of Baba Sali.
Above: Jews and Moslems travelling together to Tagounit in 1958.
Since the exhibition opened last November, a Moroccan spirit has pervaded the Jewish Museum. At the museum’s kosher café, couscous, pastilla and mint tea sits alongside more typically Ashkenazi fare, and the shop sells a number of Moroccan objects. Prince Charles and Morocco’s Princess Lalla Joumala Alaoui helped launch the season, which the Museum is co-presenting in partnership with the Moroccan British Society. Associated events have included a concert by London-based Sephardi music specialists, Los Destarrados; Dr Hillary Pomeroy on song, Colour and Spice – Celebrating Moroccan Sephardi Life; a virtual tour of Sephardic London; and a talk by Dr Ahmed Chahlene of Rabat’s Mohamed V University on “Co-existence – Then and Now”.
Perhaps the abiding memory is the glass-encased display of a traditional bridal outfit worn by urban Jewish women, el-keswa el-kbira, which visitors see when they enter and leave the exhibition. With its swirling gold hoop patterns it blends Jewish tradition, Arabic aesthetics and a surprisingly modern sensibility – a tribute to a multi-layered heritage that the Jewish Museum preserves, and shares.