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Jewish Childhood in the Land of Islam

April 3, 2012 – 12:19 pmOne Comment

Image: Aaron Vincent Elkaim

By André Azoulay
I must have been 12 or 13 years old. Yet, more than half a century later, my mind dearly treasures, with the same emotion, force and exceptionally rich uniqueness, an image, a fleeting moment, a short-lived flare, as if it were yesterday.

An image, a moment and light that would mark my life and lend to my entrenchment in a Muslim, Berber, Arab and Jewish Moroccan community depth and legitimacy that got the better of the unforeseen turn of events at the moment, of all the doubts and amnesia dizziness which have, for too long, undermined the cultural, historical and human texture Muslims and Jews have woven together, for nearly a millennium, in the Maghreb and the Middle East.

One autumn evening in the 1950’s, a family friend, Haj Limam, entered my father’s office at the back of an alley in the Kasbah of Essaouira. After the customary salutation, he pulled out of his jellaba a small beige bag full of soil that he gently placed into my father’s hands saying: “This is for you and your family. I have just returned from pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and as you cannot go there I come to share my prayers with you and bring you some of this holy soil that belongs to both of us!”

It was much later that I understood the full extent of what I had experienced, of the now almost surreal character of the scene whose depth, modernity and quintessence had more substance than my child mind, my father or his friend could possibly grasp. This spontaneous brotherly sharing of the sacred was not exceptional. For the three of us, it was part and parcel of everyday social life of Muslims and Jews in Essaouira.

Everyone would have understood that that had been more than an anecdote; and that flashing lightning of the possible that I have, after due consideration, chosen to favour to give full meaning to the evocation of my Jewish childhood and life in the land of Islam.

Almost at the same period of time (it must have been 1953 – 1954), I recall having very naturally and spontaneously joined forces with my Muslim fellow compatriots to protest every evening at dusk, chanting slogans calling for the end of the French protectorate and the return of King Mohammed V from exile in Madagascar.

There was no heroism in that. We were children, running through Essaouira streets, calling for independence and freedom. We were hounded, without much conviction, by the auxiliaries of the time. The ritual had endured for a few months, to the great displeasure of parents worried about their progeny.

Here is, for once, what could have been an anecdote: Today, I wonder what could have pushed a 12 year old boy, attending the Alliance Israélite Universelle and the French school, to spontaneously identify himself with the Moroccan national movement while he had been indoctrinated, every single day in school, that the Gauls are his forefathers and that France is his alpha and omega.

A posteriori, the answer to this question was naturally imposed on many amongst us when we were consciously in keeping with this Jewish – Muslim capillarity built and maintained by both Jews and Muslims, and whose depth and continuity are expressed through the most common and truest gestures of our daily life. Such capillarity determined, more than any other rhetoric or theory, our main choices and our most fundamental attitudes.

Today, I revisit the episode, and many others, of the daily lives of Muslim and Jewish children in Mogador – Essaouira, with enthusiasm and elation.

Upon invoking this episode, a strange feeling of guilt overwhelms me for having unveiled something unutterable; something to handle with due care. The History of textbooks, research and literature had hardly opened its gates for us. This emptiness paved the way for clichés and fantasies.

Due to omission and ignorance, suspicion is lurking, sparking disbelief and, at times, concern at the evocation of the brainstorming which has the audacity to go against the current of the mainstream and unique thought. One which, at best, would have condemned me to amnesia, and, at worst, to knowing silence together with those who have finally lived with the fact of seeing their identity and history reconstructed or rewritten according to the unforeseen turns of the moment’s events.

In this attempt to resist oblivion, the typically Moroccan celebration of the last day of Passover takes on a dimension which is both emblematic of the art of the possible and symbolic of the extent of affinity and spiritual closeness Moroccan Muslims and Jews have cherished over the centuries.

Once a year, for centuries now, the Mimouna Passover last day takes on an air of carnival with all its parades and bonfires. Jews and Muslims in Essaouira came together, sung the same songs and celebrate, with the same fervor, freedom and happiness for being together.

In the streets of Essaouira, and in the market square, transformed for the occasion into a huge stage of blissful brotherhood, endless waves of dancers, musicians and families flowed, at dusk, and for hours, embracing and congratulating one another, exchanging the traditional Arabic greeting of solidarity “Terbah”[1].

Before this particularly touching event, Muslim families paid their Jewish friends visits in their homes. The doors were thrown wide open, from sunset, to Muslim neighbours and friends who came and brought trays filled with milk, honey, butter, wheat ears and flowers to celebrate this moment of grace which commemorates the story of the Exodus, in which the Jews had been freed from slavery in Egypt.

The history of Jews living in the land of Islam, which has yet to be written down, is by no means fiction staged out of kindness or for the sake of the cause at the service of, more particularly, those with whom I identify myself and who struggle so that both Palestinians and Israelis live in peace, each in their State; each admitting the other’s rights to dignity, justice and sovereignty.

It is rather time to say, write and propagate, through our testimonies, that our respective religions, cultures and histories should no longer be excuses or fig leaves to hide political realities which require political responses. Today, delicate issues between Jews and Muslims are neither religious, nor cultural or historical. They are political. Our spiritual traditions are all but dialectically related to the issues.

The long awaited and cherished trend is at last taking shape in the Muslim Mediterranean region. It is one of winning back and reconstructing the cultural and spiritual diversity which had shaped, and largely determined, our communities. Such recovery is legitimate in itself, but can be crucial for the start of new dynamics, more particularly between Jews and Muslims.

What held true in the past may inspire the modernity and universality of values our communities must recover.

Morocco has well absorbed the ideal and consequently entrenched in the preamble of its new Constitution, adopted in July 2011, the deep rootedness of Berber, Jewish and Andalusian civilization          al components in the Moroccan society and the identity of the Moroccan people.

As far as I am concerned, the indisputable nature of historical facts will eventually prevail and make up for the gaps, omissions and the errors of a moment.

More than half a century ago, a Moroccan Muslim had brought his fellow Jewish citizen a small bag of soil from Jerusalem which had been under Jordanian control. The bag has lost nothing of its topicality, exemplarity and truth.

Decades ago, I had witnessed this episode between my father and his friend Haj Limam. None of us, however, would have imagined, in the magic of the elating moment of shared brotherhood, that this true story would, one day, find its continuation in the preamble of the new Constitution put forth to the Moroccan people by King Mohammed VI.

While the joyous common celebration of the Mimouna no longer marks Essaouira market square, the city has been, for nearly a decade now, the unique meeting place in the world where Jewish and Muslim poets, singers and musicians are still celebrating with music lovers from around the world, the Atlantic Andalusias. The embroidered lyrics and music woven with a shared heritage sung alternatively in Arabic and Hebrew.

Indeed, history has often staggered in the process of this laborious and uncertain recovery of the often lost richness of our cultures.

Nevertheless, it should be understood that my Judaism in the land of Islam is not merely a nostalgic reminiscence about my childhood. I don’t want it to be written in the past tense only!

André Azoulay is a senior adviser to His Majesty King Mohammed VI of Morocco.

The above is the text of letter from Mr Azoulay, which was addressed to the participants of Friday’s (30/3) Capital Jewish Forum event in Melbourne, which was held in conjunction with JBD-Jews of the CBD, featuring the Ambassador of Morocco, His Excellency Mohamed Mael-Ainin (who was accompanied by the Deputy Ambassador, Mr Abdelkader Jamoussi). The letter was presented passionately by Mr Abdelkader Jamoussi.


[1] May you win and the year be prosperous

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