Last week I took my first trip to a Muslim country. It was Morocco. Why Morocco? There were three basic reasons: First, it was not a political hot spot. Second, it was relatively inexpensive. And third, it was a chance to experience a culture which has been romanticized in the West, e.g. The Desert Song, Son of the Sheik, and Beau Geste — not to mention one of the greatest movies of all time, Casablanca.
While not a primary motivator, there was the Jewish connection. Morocco, at one time, had one of the largest Jewish populations in the Muslim world. I use the term “Muslim” and not Arab because, as I was to learn, Morocco is not an Arab country. While 99 percent of Morocco is Sunni Muslim, 85 percent of its population is Berber.
My tour group was fortunate to have as our guide Ibrahim, a Berber Muslim. I phrase it this way because, as Ibrahim put it, “We are Berbers first, Muslims second.”
Ibrahim is intelligent and knowledgeable. He is very proud of his Berber heritage and what his country has achieved over the past 20 years. If he had any message to offer our group, it was one of tolerance.
This message was especially important because of the attempted Christmas airplane bombing by a Nigerian national described variously as a Muslim terrorist, Islamist, jihadi, and Al Qaida recruit (choose your description). Ibrahim roundly denounced extremists and proclaimed that Morocco was a very tolerant country based on its geography and its history.
Without stating it outright, Ibrahim took aim at Wahhabism. As he put it, the problem with Muslim extremism starts in the center of the Muslim world — implying Saudi Arabia, the site of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina — and spreads out geographically from there. He views Morocco as a country on the outskirts of the Muslim world and thus, when the extremist virus gets to Morocco, it arrives in diluted form.
Looking at Morocco’s cultural history, Ibrahim pointed out the first practitioners of monotheism in Morocco were Jews. These Jews were probably merchants who came via caravan. My presumption is that these Jews were involved in the salt trade because, to this day, the old walled Jewish quarters of Morocco’s imperial cities are called mellah, the Arabic word for “salt.”
A mellah was situated near the royal palace or the residence of the governor in order to protect its inhabitants from recurring riots since its inhabitants played a vital role in the local economy. Rural mellahs were separate villages inhabited solely by the Jews.
According to Ibrahim, the Berbers were first Jews, then Christians when they entered the region, and later Muslim when Mouley Indris established the first Muslim dynasty.
A little more than half of our group was Jewish, so there was interest in things Jewish. We toured the mellahs of Fez and Marrakesh. In Fez, we went to the Ibn Danan Synagogue and its cemetery. The line of Danan rabbis traces itself back to Maimonides. I expected a synagogue in the Sephardi style, with the bima in the center, but here the bima was on the side. In Essaouira, about two hours from Marrakesh, we went to the Sephardi-style Rabbi Chaim Pinto Synagogue.
Ibrahim pointed out the difference between Jewish architecture and Muslim architecture. In traditional Muslim culture, women are to be kept concealed, thus there are no balconies on older Muslim houses. In contrast, Jews did not conceal their women, and their houses had balconies.
Ibrahim was particularly proud of an intersection between Jewish, Christian, and Muslim quarters in Marrakesh where the three groups shared the same hammam, or bathhouse.
While he showed us houses marked with stars of David, there were more houses in the Marrakesh mellah which had yellow frames on their doors and windows. Yellow is a special color to Jews, not only under the Nazis but also in Morocco. Abu Yusuf Ya’qub al-Mansur, the greatest Almohad prince, compelled Jews to wear distinguishing garments, with a very noticeable yellow cloth for a head-covering.
Centuries later, when Morocco was a French protectorate during World War II, King Mohammed V rejected orders set out by France’s Vichy government to make the 200,000 Jews then living in Morocco wear yellow stars, as they did in France. “There are no Jews in Morocco. There are only subjects,” the king is reported to have said.
Morocco’s Jewish population peaked at about 250,000. There were two significant exoduses, first, when Israel was established, second, when the French left in 1956.
Today, there is much Israeli interest in Morocco, with about 50,000 Israelis visiting the country each year. Many of them are buying vacation homes in Errachidia and Essaouira, a particularly nice seaport town on the Atlantic Coast. We found evidence of this influx in Restaurant Itran, an Esso rest stop on the road from Meknes to Ouarzazate. The door to the restaurant was plastered with business cards of Israeli tour guides.
I am happy this was my introduction to a pure Muslim culture. I am left with the feeling that if there were more Muslims who viewed the world like Ibrahim (“We have the same father”) and were as vocal and outgoing, the world would be a better and safer place.