New York Times
October 20, 2000
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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,
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
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
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.
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