"Morocco: Jews and Art in a Muslim Land"


A review of the new show organized by the Jewish Museum in New York.

by Habiba Boumlik and Dalia Kandiyoti


© October 2000 The Levantine Project, All Rights Reserved

The long-anticipated show on Morocco is finally up and running at the Jewish Museum. While the organizers of the exhibit, including Dr. Vivian Mann, are frank about their use of Orientalist imagery, "Morocco" may well represent a lost opportunity. One might have anticipated a different kind of show, displaying both the folkloric and exotic aspects that are the focus of this exhibit, but also including a range of creative and intellectual works of Moroccan Jewry. Dedicated largely to artifacts and displaying few traces of modernity, this exhibit emphasizes the timeless, instead of the continuous culture of Moroccan Jewry. 

There are over 180 objects displayed relating to various aspects of religious, artistic, and economic life. The brief historical context offered in the first room underlines the close ties between Jews and Muslims; of special notice is the declaration of King Mohamed V, who refused to apply certain Vichy laws in Morocco; when asked during WWII by a Nazi commander, the monarch replied, "We have no Jews in Morocco. Only Moroccan citizens." In this room one also finds a menorah dating back to the 4th or 5th century, a testimony to the length of Jewish settlement in Morocco. 

Making your way into the exhibit, you are presented with a 6-minute film segment, showing on two large screens, with "typical" sounds and sights of Morocco. There is no voice-over or subtitling as the images of vast desert expanses, mountains, animals, and Jewish rituals float by. The next room, and the first major one in the show, is inexplicably dedicated to Orientalist paintings, by the infamous Eugene Delacroix and other minor painters as well as photographs from the late 19th and 20th centuries.  The Orientalist painting tradition acts as a visual guide to the Western imagination about the exotic East as an object, and in this case holds special interest because Jews, and Jewish women in particular were less reluctant than Muslims to pose for artists. But why place these works, by non-Jews and non-North Africans, in one of the initial rooms that set the tone for the whole exhibit? So that the viewer may see the rest of the show through these painters' eyes? So that we may be convinced that Moroccan Jewry does indeed hold interest (if Delacroix was there, it must have been worthwhile)? 

After this puzzling dedication to Western representation, occupying a relatively large space in this medium-sized exhibit, we are finally regaled with examples of the material culture of Moroccan Jews from the 19th and 20th centuries. The headdresses, fibulae, bracelets, pectorals, earrings are predominantly in silver, but there is fine artistic work done in gold as well. A wide array of artifacts, from mannequins bearing men's and women's clothes to gorgeous wall-hangings to ketubot, Jewish marriage contracts, are shown to combine artistic colors and design with cultural traditions. Jewelry-making, which Jews dominated as it was not appealing to Muslims, and other artisanal occupations are well covered. But there is no representation of the gastronomic arts and practices or of women's work.  And, besides the blurry images in the Orientalist paintings of the mellah, the Jewish
quarter, we do not come away with an idea of the living environment, the architecture, the indoor and outdoor life of the everyday.

The fifth and largest room, devoted to folk practices, displays the singularity of the Moroccan Mizrahim, all the while underlining the symbiotic relationship between Muslims and Jews reflected in beliefs and practices around health, healing, and death. The hamsa, the amulet in the form of a hand, and the Jewish cults of saints and pilgrimages (hilula) are typical of these shared traditions. In the next to last room, a 3:30 minute film features resident and diasporic Moroccan Jews participating in a hilulaof Amran b. Diwan, a Jewish saint from northern Morocco.

But Moroccan Jews nourished also their own specificities as demonstrated in the exhibit through two examples: the Zohar and  Mimouna.The Zohar was extremely important not only in the liturgy, but also for therapeutic
purposes. When someone was in trouble, it was removed from the synagogue and brought to the troubled house for a ritual reading. Mimouna,a uniquely Moroccan Jewish custom, is a day of largely outdoor celebration that
follows Passover, symbolizing the reintegration of Jews into society. It follows eight days of restricted eating and has, in fact, become a national holiday in Israel. Because Muslims considered this return beneficent for nature, they participated in this celebration by offering food to their Jewish friends. 

More traditional objects from religious life, such as torah scrolls, Torah pointer, circumcision chairs, and hanging lamps are displayed in the room adjacent to the one devoted to one of the principal institutions that secularized Jewish life in the Middle East and North Africa: the Alliance Israelite Universelle. The first of these French schools opened in Tetuan, Morocco, in 1862, and through a large network throughout the region introduced Jews to Western modernity and French language and secular culture. A small section here is dedicated to school materials used by students and teachers. Those who have been through the Alliance schools are invited to sign a small notebook.

Besides scenes from the hilula and a present-day Jewish school in Morocco (where the current Jewish population numbers 5,000-6000, according to some estimates), the short film in the same room as the Alliance exhibit also refers to the departure of the Moroccan Jews in 1956. This very brief mention is not complemented by any additional information on the circumstances surrounding the momentous exodus. What this significant omission has to do with the fact that the exhibit is partially sponsored by André Azoulay, the "conseiller aupres de sa majeste le roi" and under the patronage of the present King of Morocco is open to speculation. 

[An estimated 250,000 Jews left Morocco from 1948-1967, many settling in Israel, France, Canada and the United States. While the relationship between Israel and Morocco continues to fluctuate, Morocco has extended an invitation to its Jews to return, and is offering citizenship in some cases to those who can show a family history in the country. Morocco is the only Muslim country today where the Jewish population is on the rise. Editor's note.]

A large portrait of the King himself, pictured under a strangely glowing nighttime sky, dominates the last room, not only in size but also in spirit. In his statement, the king of Morocco emphasizes that "the Jewish Museum's exhibition pays tribute to one of the most remarkable experiences of tolerance of our time, and also to one of the most encouraging lessons of modernity, through the long standing history and memory shared by Muslims and Jews in Morocco."

If you go through the "Morocco" show hoping for a substantial treatment of the current life of Moroccan Jewry both within and outside of Morocco, you will be sorely disappointed. Besides the portrait and a statement by the
King, the last room offers only a glimpse into how the present-day, or even the last 50 years might look.   There is a photo of the Jewish consultant to the King in Muslim robe (a sign of his acceptance) and four contemporary pieces by Jacob El Hanani, a native of Casablanca living in New York.  The diaspora, spread through Israel, France, Canada, and the U.S., receives scant mention.  A splendid opportunity to show something of Moroccan Sephardic culture as it is perpetuated and remade in various contexts and places outside of Morocco is wasted. And the very few glimpses of current Jewish life in Morocco do not satisfy. Fixed in time with "ageless" artifacts, there is not much space for the present of Moroccan Mizrahim at the Jewish Museum. 

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Habiba Boumlik  is a Moroccan-born anthropologist who earned her Ph.D. in France and has focused her research on the relationships between the Jews and the Berbers of Morocco's southern region. She will be speaking on a panel, "Morocco: North South, East and West" with two other scholars, Gil Anidjar, and Alegria Bendelac, at Makor on Nov. 12, 4 pm. For details, watch our Calendar.

Dalia Kandiyoti is from Istanbul, Turkey. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from New York University and is currently a Visiting Scholar and Adjunct Assistant Professor at NYU. Her areas of specialization are literatures and cultures of migration in the Americas, ethnicity, and women's writing. She is a Fellow of Ivri-NASAWI, along with Richard Kostelanetz and Robert Esformes.

The Levantine Project is a new syndication service of articles, essays, art and photography available through Ivri-NASAWI.