Friday, June 01, 2012

The last Jews of the Algerian Sahara

To mark the 50th anniversary of Algeria's independence, Jason Dzubow dug up some old photos of his trip to Ghardaia for The Asylumist. The town was once home to a community of Jews. There are no more than a handful left in the whole country. (With thanks: JIMENA)

This June marks the 50th anniversary of the Evian Accord, the agreement recognizing Algeria’s independence from France. Since Roman times, Algeria was home to a large Jewish community. During the French colonial period, Jews were granted French citizenship*. After independence, however, Algeria denied citizenship to its Jewish population and most of the country’s 140,000 Jews left for France. By 2004, there were less than 100 Jews remaining in Algeria, and most of those fled during the civil war (1991-2002) when the Armed Islamic Group threatened to exterminate them.

Ghardaia

I had an opportunity to visit Algeria in 2001. I traveled with an Ibadite Muslim friend who is from the M’Zab Valley, an oasis in the Sahara, about 500 km south of Algiers. The principal city of the M’Zab Valley is Ghardaia, which a French philosopher described as a “Cubist painting beautifully constructed” (maybe I am a bit more pedantic, but to me it looks like the video game Q*bert). There, I visited an old abandoned synagogue and the Jewish graveyard. As we are approaching the 50th anniversary of the Evian Accord, I thought I would share some photos and facts about the Jewish community of Ghardaia.

As best as we know, Jews arrived in Ghardaia in two waves. The city’s original Jews arrived in the 13th or 14th century, a few hundred years after the town was founded. The Jews were invited to the M’Zab to work as jewelers and smiths, professions traditionally avoided by the local Muslims. Legend tells of four families who came to the desert town from Djerba, an island off the coast of Tunisia. The Jews of Djerba trace their lineage back to Biblical times.

The second group arrived in the late 15th century. At the time, an extremist Muslim movement (possibly fueled by the failure of Islam in Spain) attacked and expelled Jewish communities in Morocco. Some Jews fled to Ghardaia. They joined the existing community, and over time, the two groups merged together.

Abandoned Synagogue in Ghardaia

The Jews of Ghardaia lived in relative harmony with their neighbors until the mid-20th century. By then, Algeria was controlled by France, and the population of Ghardaia was divided between Ibadite Muslims (who originally settled the M’Zab Valley), Jews, and Sunni Muslims. When the war of independence began in 1954, the situation for the Jews of Algeria deteriorated, and by June 1962, all the Jews of Ghardaia had been forced to seek refuge abroad.

Just as this 800-year chapter of Jewish history was drawing to a close, two French anthropologists arrived on the scene, hoping to study genetic traits of the Jewish people there. Instead, they documented the final years and days of Ghardaia’s Jews. The anthropologists, Lloyd Cabot Briggs and Norina Lami Guede, wrote up their observations in an amazing (and obscure) paper called “No More Forever: A Saharan Jewish Town.” The paper begins: “This book is the record of a people who are gone.” Recalling their own departure, through newly established rebel checkpoints in the now independent Algeria, Briggs and Guede write:

The notebooks and pictures that we carried with us were the only coherent record that remained of a curiously distinctive way of life which had gone on for centuries and came suddenly to an end, leaving behind it only empty houses and an abandoned cemetery in the desert.

The same synagogue, circa 1958

It so happened that I was visiting Algeria during Passover, and so I was particularly keen to find other Jews, or at least visit Jewish sites. With the help of several friends, I was able to visit the old synagogue of Ghardaia and the Jewish graveyard.

The synagogue had been empty for almost 40 years when I visited, and it was in bad shape. A man lived there, and he allowed us to visit for a few minutes. I took some pictures, which you can see here, and I said a prayer. It was quite moving to pray in that abandoned temple, where (I assume) no Jew had prayed for almost 40 years.

The synagogue was a typical Sephardic design, with blue and white walls, and numerous thick columns. A wooden bimah (stage) would have formed the center piece of the room, but it was gone. Parts of the domed roof had collapsed, covering the floor with piles of stone and mortar. The ceiling above the women’s section had fallen in, filling the balcony with rubble. A few chains hung from the ceiling. At one time they held lamps with an eternal flame, long since extinguished. Two Stars of David were all that remained to confirm that we were in a synagogue.

Another view of the synagogue.

After visiting the synagogue, we walked to the Jewish cemetery, which is a mile or two outside the town. It’s difficult to get a sense for the size of the graveyard, as it blends perfectly with the rocky surroundings. It was here, in 1962, that the last Jews of Ghardaia buried their old prayer books, before departing their oasis homes forever (in Jewish tradition, books containing the name of G-d are buried, not thrown away). The oldest dated grave is from 1749 (5509 in the Jewish calendar), but some graves are probably centuries older. Members of the community used to come to a small grotto here to light candles and pray for assistance from their ancestors. Women who reached menopause came here to pray for one more male child. I also said a prayer at the graveyard and I placed stones on some of the graves (it is a Jewish tradition to place stones on the graves).

The Jewish cemetery near Ghardaia

The last Jews of Ghardaia left Algeria in 1962. They fled to France and most of them are still there.

Read article in full


* The Jews of Ghardaia did not have French citizenship, according to this article

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

http://www.jweekly.com/article/full/65349/wheres-the-outrage-persecuted-jews-suffer-in-arab-lands/