Friday, June 26, 2009

A handful of Jews still live in Essaouira

Long feature article in the Jerusalem Post about Essaouira (Mogador), which once had as many Jewish as Arab inhabitants. Now it has fewer than 10 Jews, plenty of tourists, but no culture:
Josef Sebag says he has a fine life in his native Essaouira, though he has no friends here. This retail-artisan heaven for tourists on Morocco's southern Atlantic coast is a town unique in the Arab world for its history of Jewish-Muslim relations.
Fortifications built by the...
Fortifications built by the Portuguese and then the Spanish in the 1500s.
Photo: Brett Kline
He is often in his casbah antiques and book store, just off the large main square and next to the hippest night spot in town. Sebag does not hang out in the rooftop Taros Café, but does spend a good amount of time in London, Paris and New York. Something about living in Western cultural capitals suits him. He has friends there.
Visitors come to see him, from France, Canada and Israel, but most tourists are not insiders in Essaouira, known as "Souira" to the locals. The Moroccan Arabs call him "el yahoudi" (the Jew) but Sebag says it is never meant nastily. He is as Moroccan and Souiri as they are, and they know it. His family has been in Morocco since fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.
His store is a must for British, Australian, American and French tourists, as well as for surfers from all over and for increasing numbers of Israelis, especially the ones born in Morocco who don't come as part of organized tour groups.
Most Moroccan and foreign Arabs do not come to his store, though it has nothing to do with Sebag's being a Jew. An exception is certain Arab authors who leave their poetry and prose with him, a sign of respect, as they know he carries few Arabic-language books.
"I know everyone born and raised here but have few friends," he begins in French. "What can we talk about - art, literature? No, we can't. The local people are more concerned about making money in their stores and restaurants than reading. Some do very well here in Souira, but many have never been out of Morocco."
Sebag is one of some 4,000 Jews still living in Morocco, mostly in Casablanca, but that is another story. He and his ailing mother are two of perhaps four - or seven or eight, depending on whom you ask - Jewish Essaouira natives left from a community that has lived here since 1760.
Essaouira used to be an example of a small Arab town in which Muslims and Jews lived side by side in both rich and poor districts, working together but socially segregated - and in peace. It was unique because there were almost as many Jews as there were Muslims, so the term "minority" did not really apply, as it did in every other town and city in Morocco and everywhere in the Arab world.
Aside from ownership of the land in and around the town, which always remained in the hands of the caids and makhsen - local landed gentry and royal family clans - most urban-style import-export business was dominated by Jewish families.
The one exception was all artisan work connected to wood, directly linked to the vast forests around the town. But as an example, from the very beginning of royal trading in the 18th century, the Corcos family dominated the import of tea leaves from Britain, which originated from its Far East colonies, and was thus responsible for making tea the traditional morning beverage in Morocco.
Essaouira's last Jews began to leave following the Six Day War. Many of the working-class families left the mellah, the Jewish district in Arab cities, for Israel. The casbah's well-off business leaders headed mostly to France and Canada. But thousands of Jews remain here, buried in two cemeteries on the edge of town, including Rabbi Haim Pinto, whose tomb thousands of Jews from abroad visit every September in a hiloula, a pilgrimage.
Today, real estate and tourism are booming in Essaouira, but the boom has little to do with the Jewish world, other than a few very active key players. The same is true for the music festivals, including the Gnawa Festival in June that draws up to 400,000 mostly Western visitors.
"There are leading Moroccan Arab families here making a lot of money with French firms in construction and tourism-linked activities in general, and that is grand for them and for the town," Sebag says, "but let's say that aside from the music festivals, culture is limited. Jews here were always a bridge between small-town Muslim society and the Western world. There were very few tourists here. Now the opposite is true. The Jews are gone, but Souira is a tourist center."
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