Morocco is an Arabic country in North-East Africa, renowned for its deserts, scorching African sun and for being the setting to the film Casablanca.
Arabic and French are its two official languages, but you can easily get by with English. It’s one of only 33 monarchies in the world, and it’s also the only Arabic country where Muslims live in harmony with the Jewish community.
I’ve visited this filmmaker’s paradise twice. The first time I travelled to Morocco was to discover its culture – to experience the constant haggling and badgering to spend money, to ride a camel and to taste authentic Moroccan couscous whilst sipping mint tea. The second time, I went there to shoot a documentary about the only Arabic country where followers of Islam and Judaism live peacefully side-by-side.
Jews have populated areas of Northern Africa for 2,500 years. Muslims and Jews co-existed peacefully with each other for centuries, until European political movements, especially the French colonisation, caused enormous social changes. In pre-colonial Morocco, Jews were regarded as a tolerated ethnic minority. They enjoyed the right to religious autonomy with certain political, sociological and symbolic obligations. These conditions are best described by the term ahl al-dhimma – people of pact, which describes various safety precautions, as well as discriminations in various political aspects throughout several historical periods. Jews were commonly known as dhimmis – non-Muslims or ‘the protected people’. They had the right to practice their religion freely, but also had certain restrictions – being prohibited from riding horses, wearing shoes near mosques, wearing colourful clothes or building synagogues. They were even required to pay a tax for being dhimmis.
Wars waged in the Middle East in 1967 and 1970 caused a wave of social unrest aimed at Moroccan Jews. In Casablanca, the city with the highest population of Jews in Morocco, there was a terrorist attack against the Jewish community. In spite of the unrest and wars, Jews continue to live in Morocco and, more importantly, they live in peace. Although the numbers have diminished greatly, as there are only about 3,000 Jews living in Morocco now, their culture and customs are noticeable throughout the country.
I walked through the mellah - a Jewish district surrounded by a wall - to discover and experience the source of their culture. Mellahs are not the same as European ghettoes, designed to ostracise Jews – in Morocco, mellahs are created to protect their culture. Although at first glance a mellah appears the same as any other place in Marrakesh, Casablanca or Fez, the Star of David – a symbol of the Jewish faith – features on almost every wall along the way. The Star of David and The Crescent Moon side by side on one of the walls! This sight, which was completely normal to the locals, came as a huge shock to me. I stopped for a while to fully appreciate what I was seeing. I felt a shiver down my spine as I thought "Wow, this is incredible, these two religions really do live in peace with each other here" – before looking at the passers-by around me. They no longer noticed these signs; they live together in this city after all, they visit the same stores. There is peace between the two sides and it doesn’t appear as if it will ever be disturbed again. There was an inexplicable aura of peace in the air and I could feel the good, positive vibes of Marrakesh vibrating through the air.
The Great Media Lies
I wanted to find out more about what the future holds for Jewish culture in Morocco. Many Jewish Moroccans leave to go Israel or France and settle there for good. I visited a school in Casablanca – the Ecole Narcisse Leven.
According to Headmistress Sylvie Melloul Ohnona, British and American media lie about the Jewish situation in Morocco. It’s not true that children are discrimanted against on account of their religion. In classes, everyone is perceived as equal, regardless of their faith. The situation of Moroccan Jews can improve, however, many people emigrate in search of better job opportunities and higher salaries. Here, the main concern is job opportunities, rather than someone’s creed.
After tasting a delicious, if a tad too sweet, Moroccan tea, Sylvie took me on a tour around the school. Just as we set out, the bell rang, signalling a break in classes. What I saw will stay in my memory for a long time: the sight of ten-year-old boys in kippahs playing side by side with their Muslim friends. Their smile and that childish twinkle in their eyes – this sight filled me with a certain hope and belief. There was no segregation amongst them, be it down to religion or anything else, the only that mattered was the here and now.
Walking along the school corridors, I saw not only children’s drawings depicting the friendly relationship between the two sides, but also the menorah, a seven-lamp ancient Hebrew lampstand in one of the classrooms. At the end of the tour, the Headmistress told me a very important thing: Morocco, despite being in one of the poorer areas of the world, is a country that’s very open to new ideas and cultures that contribute to a brighter future of their nation.