Thursday, April 07, 2011

Charles and Camilla visit Fez synagogue

Michelle Huberman, the creative director of Harif, has a scoop for her Jerusalem Post blog : A royal visit to the Aben Danan synagogue in Fez. The Aben Danan is no longer a working synagogue, and in 20 years' time, Michelle reflects, this ancient Jewish community too might be extinct (with thanks: Kenneth):

Prince Charles visited the Aben Danan synagogue in Fez, Morocco yesterday, whilst Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall was busy shopping in the Medina. The Prince of Wales was welcomed to the synagogue by Serge Berdugo, President of the Moroccan Jewish community. Dr Armand Guigui, the President of the Fez Jewish community, explained to the audience about the history of the Jews of Fez. Rabbi Sebbag gave his blessing to Mohammed VI, king of Morocco, Queen Elizabeth and all the British Royal family. At the end of the visit the community gave the Prince two Shofars and some local handicrafts engraved in Hebrew.

Some ten years ago, the synagogue, now a museum, was in desperate need of repair: the plasterwork was peeling and the beams were rotting. Henri Cohen is the Fez-based architect who restored the Aben Danan synagogue to its former glory under the auspices of UNESCO. We’d met in 1988 and our families have remained close friends ever since.

He told me: "After the service I had the opportunity to talk in French with Prince Charles. He asked me what I did and I was able to explain to him that I was a local architect and also that I was working on a Moroccan riad project in North London. He was fascinated and shook my hand before leaving."

Prince Charles (right) is shown the Torah scrolls in the Ark (Photo: copyright M Huberman)

I would have loved to have taken Charles and Camilla on an extra tour. I have been to Morocco about 30 times in the past 25 years, and it was in Fez that I was a whisper away from buying a second home. When I first visited the city, the Jewish community was around 350; today it has dwindled to 75. It will continue to do so - when their children finish school they pursue their education in France and don’t return. I know the community well and have happily welcomed their children into my London home and been a guest at their lavish weddings.

Fez is the most enchanting city; it’s very similar to Jerusalem. It’s on a hilltop, with winding, narrow alleyways that can only be crossed on foot. You feel like you’re in a time machine going back a thousand years. The unfamiliar smells are a real shock to the nostrils, exotic spices sold on colorful, open stalls contrasting with the nauseous odors of the old tanneries. All the assorted wares in the markets are transported to their pitches on donkeys. It’s an amazing sight at the gates of the old city to see traders transferring their goods from shiny Mercedes and reloading them onto donkeys.

The city is full of artisans, and a sneak off the main alleyways will take you into little courtyards crammed with garage-sized workshops, each one housing a dozen or so craftsmen tapping away at metal, chiseling into wood, stitching through leather and preserving crafts long lost to the West. Everywhere there are traces of ancient Jewish life, including the home of Maimonides, who lived in the city from 1159-1165. When you walk around the Mellah you will see in the doorposts the burrows that once housed a mezuzah, indicating a Jewish household. The nearby cemetery contains the tombs of many Jewish saints. It is impossible to ignore the prominent, brightly painted tomb of Lalla Solica, a Jewess from Tangier who was executed for refusing to convert to Islam. Her shrine has become a pilgrimage for infertile women of both Muslim and Jewish faiths.

Not that the Jews live in the old city any more: they all have modern apartments in the Nouvelle Ville, close to the Maimonides community centre, where there is a kosher restaurant and modern synagogue on the premises. The Jewish women stand out a mile from the local Muslim community. Stylishly dressed in the latest French fashions, these women divide their lives between their children in Paris and the business in Fez. Amongst themselves they speak French, but with the local community it’s Arabic.

Come Shabbat the community is up early for a 7.30am Shaharit service at the beautiful Ben Sadoun Synagogue. This synagogue was built in the 1920's. The floors are made of traditional zeillige tiles, from the ceiling hangs a multitude of colorful lanterns, engraved with names of departed relatives and the walls are embellished with exquisite plaster carvings, reminiscent of the decoration of traditional mosques and medrasas. By 10.30 am the congregation are all off to work in their own businesses.



Prince Charles (centre) wears his blue velvet kippa with Prince of Wales' feathers


There is an enormous love for, and loyalty to, the king. Every home and business has a framed picture of Mohamed Vl prominently displayed. The kings of Morocco have been good to their Jews and protected them from the rioting mobs. In the Fez pogrom in 1912 more than sixty Jews were killed, fifty wounded and a third of the Mellah was set on fire. The Jews took sanctuary in the precincts of the King’s palace, but a Jewish population of 10,000 was reduced to 8,000 and forced to survive on charity. The Fez pogrom deeply influenced the older generation of Moroccan Jews, and was a major factor in the mass exodus following the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948. My friends in Fez believe that a quarter of the Muslims in the old city are actually Jews who converted to Islam after 1912. They look different from the other Muslims and have names that start with ‘Ben.’ Some secretly celebrate Passover.

But what is the future of this community amid the unrest sweeping the Arab world? Will the Moroccan monarch survive the Arab Spring?

I hope so but I don’t think there will be any Jews in Fez in 20 years’ time. The only reminder of a Jewish presence will be synagogues like the Aben Danan, so proudly shown off to Charles and Camilla yesterday.

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1 comment:

Juniper in the Desert said...

I wish so much I had known of the Jewish community there, when I visited, 30 years ago! Thank you for the reminder. It was like going back in time then.