New York Times
                October 20, 2000

              ART REVIEW

              When Jews and Muslims Uneasily Shared Morocco

              By HOLLAND COTTER

              The drive west from the interior of
              Morocco to the Atlantic port city
              of Essaouira in summer is a
              desert trip. The heat is blistering; the
              terrain stays the same for hours,
              brown earth and platinum light.
              Suddenly there's a change. As if
              someone had thrown a switch, the
              temperature drops, a moist breeze
              stirs, green appears. The sea is miles
              away and invisible, but you feel its
              presence like a balm.

              That's Morocco: grueling and inviting.
              Probably it was that way for the
              Berbers who arrived millenniums ago,
              and certainly for the immigrants who
              came after them, most recently Arab
              Muslims in the seventh or eighth
              century. Their presence is the
              dominant one now, in language,
              music, food and art and in the
              minarets that ornament the urban
              horizons and anchor the oasis towns.

              Another highly mobile people, less
              often noted in the history books,
              preceded the Muslims. These were
              Jews, who have lived in Morocco since
              at least Roman times and who
              flooded in when they were expelled
              from Spain and Portugal in the 15th

              Overall, the relationship between the
              ruling Muslims and the Jews was cooperative but uneasy. Under Islamic law,
              Jews, as "people of the book," were a protected minority. They were also
              second-class citizens, confined to separate neighborhoods, made to pay extra
              taxes and handed jobs like moneylending and jewelry- making, which Muslims

              Even so, Jews gained wealth and power. With an ancient tradition of rabbinical
              scholarship, they were vital players in great university centers like Fez, where
              Maimonides of Córdoba lived for a while. And because they were plugged into
              international economic networks, they found careers in diplomacy and trade. For
              nearly two centuries Essaouira was the primary node of commercial exchange
              between Morocco and Europe. And although it was officially a Muslim town, Jews
              made up 30 to 40 percent of its population.

              "Morocco: Jews and Art in a Muslim Land" at the Jewish Museum tells the story
              of the tense mutual dependence of two cultures and tells it perhaps as well as it
              can be told in an exhibition format. Scant Moroccan Jewish material survives
              from before the 18th century. For firsthand depictions of Jewish life, we have to
              rely on 19th-century Orientalist painters from Europe ó an iffy source ó and
              some early photographs.

              Vivian B. Mann, the show's organizer and the museum's curator of Judaica,
              makes the most of what is available by offering a little bit of many things: jewelry,
              textiles, folk amulets, paintings, political posters. She and the exhibition
              designer, Stuart Silver, have obviously thought hard about how to put such things
              across while avoiding a rummage- sale effect, and they have done a good job in
              a carefully paced and atmospheric installation.

              Much of that atmosphere, it should be said, is generated by two short films
              commissioned for the occasion. Made by the Iranian-born director Hamid
              Fardjad, who has worked with the video artist Shirin Neshat, the films are not
              optional audio-visual supplements set off to one side. You have to walk past
              them to enter and leave the show.

              The introductory one is especially absorbing. Only six minutes long, it is a poetic,
              double-screen evocation both of life in Morocco and of the show itself, with the
              camera sweeping across bare landscapes and into lamplit synagogues, then
              traveling in close-up over the iridiscent, gold-shot surfaces of textiles on view in
              the galleries beyond.

              The history of the Jewish presence in Morocco is phrased in more concrete
              terms in the show, beginning with a pair of objects that establish a chronological
              span. One is a fragment of a third-century tombstone, found at a Roman site and
              engraved with a woman's name: "Matrona, daughter of Rabbi Judah Noah." The
              other is a painting from 1875 titled "A Jewish Marriage in Tangier" by the Spanish
              artist Francisco Lameyer y Berenguer.

              Lameyer's vision of a festive courtyard gathering is standard Orientalist fare:
              exotic display with an ethnological gloss. But to his credit, he seems more
              interested in recording than dramatizing his subject, and he pays close attention
              to details that reveal a range of cultural ingredients, from Islamic-style
              architecture to the design of the bride's dress, which includes Jewish symbols
              but has sources in medieval Spain.

              An identical dress, with an arc of gold embroidery surging up from the hem,
              appears in an 1832 watercolor by Eugène Delacroix. Another is worn by a
              cushiony, sloe-eyed, come- hither beauty in Charles-Émile Vernet-Lecomte's
              1868 painting "Jewish Woman of Tangier." And finally, a "live" example can be
              found in a gallery devoted to "material culture," which delivers a shot of pure luxe
              at the center of the show.

              Some of the textiles seen in the film are here: shimmery silk belts woven in Fez.
              And anyone heavy into jewelry, especially heavy jewelry, will want to linger over
              the gem- encrusted headdress and silver ankle bracelets, which have a primeval
              heft even though they are from the 19th and 20th centuries.

              The cultural blend of Moroccan art, though, is most pronounced in religious
              objects. Some, like an openwork Hanukkah lamp from Meknes, are generic in
              design, while a pair of elaborate silver Torah finials take the form of Spanish
              turrets pierced by Moorish windows.

              With a group of amulets made for the protection of infants, the show enters truly
              hybrid ground. Each includes an open hand, an emblem brought to Morocco by
              Phoenician sailors in the ninth century B.C. and adopted by both Jews and
              Muslims. It is ubiquitous in the Moroccan Jewish context, whether cast in metal,
              drawn on paper or, in one spectacular instance, imbedded within a filigree
              pattern of trees, flowers, menorahs and swans cut from paper and colored foil.

              No shared tradition is more striking, though, than the Moroccan devotion to the
              cult of saints, which Jews borrowed from Islam. Most of the saints were rabbis
              revered in life but credited with miraculous powers after death. Some were local
              personalities. Others were near-mythical figures, like Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai,
              thought by some to be the author of the mystical five-volume Zohar. Many saints
              are worshiped by Jews and Muslims alike and their tombs are magnets for
              ardent, sometimes arduous pilgrimage.

              The show ends with a reference to a journey, though not a pilgrimage exactly. A
              small installation recreates the type of classroom found in Jewish schools set
              up throughout Morocco by the French philanthropic organization Alliance Israélite
              Universelle. Secular and francophile, the schools were meant to prepare Jewish
              children in "backward" countries for life in the wider modern world, and the wider
              world is where many of the graduates ended up.

              Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries Jews left Morocco for Europe, the
              Americas and elsewhere. Then in the 1950's and 1960's virtually the entire
              Jewish population ó some 280,000 people ó emigrated, spurred in part by the
              founding of Israel but mostly by fear for the status of Jews once Morocco gained
              independence from the Europeans.

              This diaspora is a star-crossed tale of illusions and betrayals, one far too
              complex for mere objects to explain, which makes the exhibition catalog a crucial
              component of the show. It includes solid historical essays and a reminiscence
              by the Muslim writer Oumama Aouad Lahrech about her confused reactions as a
              young girl to seeing her Jewish friends leaving their homeland.

              Most evocative, though, is an account by the novelist Ami Bouganim about his
              Jewish childhood in Essaouira, a city "on the fringes of history, banished from
              the heavens, at the windswept crossroads." Many images from the exhibition find
              mention here: amulets and Torahs, Jewish quarter streets and imminent
              departures. The result is a short, intense trip through the Moroccan past as
              dreamlike as Mr. Fardjad's film, as sad and sardonic as a Kafka tale, and as full
              of contradictions as the country that produced it.

# # #

[home] [org] [news] [calendar] [membership] [links] [open tent] [past]  [poetry]