Reading Jewish Fez: On the Cultural Identity of a Moroccan CitySkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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In Morocco, cities, towns and regions carry with them rich associations of history, social character and cultural heritage. Fez is known as a city of culture (in the sense of urban civilization), knowledge (in the sense of Islamic learning) and economics (as a center of production and commerce). In turn, Fasis (people from Fez) are reputed for their cultural refinement, religious piety and business acumen. For Moroccans aware of the honor, the city's recent selection as a UNESCO World Heritage Site reflects and confirms the view that Fez is a quintessential Moroccan city, typifying the most prestigious elements of national history and culture.
Moroccans also consider Fez to be a Jewish city. The "Jewishness" of Fez and its population often entails two claims. First, Fez was home to Morocco's original segregated Jewish quarter (est. 1438), which later became known as the mellah. Second, some of the most renowned Muslim families of Fez had Jewish origins. Family names like Ben-Choukroun or Ben-Soussan, shared by both Muslims and Jews, are said to indicate a Jewish source. Ben-read as a Hebrew word meaning "son of," and opposed to the Arabic variant, Ibn-is commonly taken by both Muslims and Jews as proof of Jewish ancestry. To situate this possibility in historical terms, Moroccans sometimes invoke periods of mass conversions of Fasi Jews under the rule of medieval Moroccan dynasts.
Some Muslims I knew were proud of their possible Jewish heritage discerned from other creative readings of their names. For example, one Muslim man from Fez claimed that his family name, L'abi, was a derivative of the Jewish name Levi. Although none of my attempts to corroborate this etymological claim were successful, the tenacity with which the man affirmed his Jewish ancestry is indicative of the ways in which Fez is read as a Jewish city.
As in the rest of Morocco, the Jewish population of Fez has dwindled to a small fraction of its once significant size. At the end of World War II, approximately 300,000 Jews were living in Morocco. By the 1990s, fewer than 10,000 remained. Fez, a Jewish community that numbered over 20,000, now sustains barely 200 souls. Most have emigrated to Israel, France and Canada, moved by a complex set of historical circumstances: postcolonial economic opportunities, educational opportunities, Zionism and fears of Arab nationalism.
Muslim men and women, especially those old enough to have living memories of Jewish neighbors, often express nostalgia for those who departed. This nostalgia extends beyond the mellah and its Jewish populace; Fez as a whole is read by Moroccans as a Jewish city. In so reading Fez, Muslims indicate the possibility of a shared identity with their departed Jewish neighbors. This is most dramatically seen in those Fasi Muslims who claim Jewish ancestry, but it is also evident in the ways Jews themselves are recalled as typically Moroccan. For example, Jews are remembered for their knowledge and abilities in traditional Fasi crafts, their integration into the Fasi economy as merchants and their command of local Arabic. "They were Moroccans, just like us," was a sentiment I heard repeatedly. Yet, at the same time that Jews are remembered as native, they are also remembered as distinct, often by reference to the same indicators that mark their Moroccanness: they were engaged in typically Jewish trades, they lived in a segregated quarter and they spoke a peculiar dialect.
A virtual tour of Jewish Fez, based on the perceptions and commentaries of Muslim residents, can illustrate some of the many ways Fez is marked as Jewish, both within the Jewish quarter and beyond it. The most prominent Jewish features of the city remain the mellah and the cemetery enclosed therein. Although Jews no longer reside in the quarter, those few who retained businesses there during my stay-a shoemaker, several goldsmiths, a dentist, an ironmonger and some others-are local personalities. Among these the ironmonger had a reputation. An elderly woman known for her strength in body and in voice, she was both mocked as eccentric and respected for the ability to express her interests in forceful and well-constructed language. She was also feared, both for her unusual strength of character, persevering in a man's job, and because of her reputed ability to wield dangerous curses.
Although there are no functioning synagogues in the mellah, several are being restored with UNESCO funds, and one attached to the cemetery has been converted into a museum of Jewish artifacts and memorabilia. Fasis recognize the mellah as resolutely Moroccan in character, with its narrow lanes, public fountains and retail stalls. At the same time they note its distinctly Jewish features. According to Fasis I knew, there is a particular Jewish architecture that finds clear expression in the mellah. The main thoroughfare is lined with exceptionally tall buildings, with ornately carved and decorated facades. Windows, screened with finely crafted metal grates, are distinctly long and slim. The balconies, jutting out over the streets below, are found in no other section of the old city.
The Jewish identity of Fez and Fasis is not only circumscribed within the walls of the mellah. Traces of Jewishness can be seen in the heart of the old city of Fez [Fez l-bali], which lies to the northeast, and in the colonial era new city [la ville nouvelle], which lies to the southwest. In the old city, whose 150,000 residents include not a single Jew, the name of one quarter, funduq l-yihud (literally "hostel/warehouse of the Jews") suggests to some Fasis a history of Jewish residence in medieval times. This tendency to read Jews into the history of the old city found expression in the commentary of a local Muslim man who noted an eight-pointed star carved in relief over a door in funduq l-yihud. Eight-pointed stars, resembling superimposed squares, are a common motif in Moroccan architecture, found in a variety of settings from mosques to private homes. Despite the ubiquity of such designs in both Muslim and Jewish ornamentation, the man interpreted this particular star as a distinctly Jewish emblem, signifying the Jewish history of the home and neighborhood. Against the retorts of his companions, who suggested he might be mistaking the star for its six-pointed variant, the commentator held fast to his position.
Moroccans recognize the six-pointed star in association with the modern Israeli flag, which appears frequently in media coverage of Arab-Israel conflict and negotiation. But the six-pointed star is also inscribed on symbols of Morocco's own national past. Sherifian coins-printed under the auspices of the pre-colonial Moroccan sultanate and found today in the myriad tourist bazaars of Fez-often bear the engraving of a six- pointed star. According to some Moroccans, this design indicates the past role of Jewish metal workers as concessionaires of the royal mint. That Jews were renowned for their occupational specialization as artisans of precious metals reinforces this interpretation of Moroccan money. Inasmuch as money was produced in the vicinities of Fez, the coins indicate further the identity of the city as a Jewish place.
The old city is rife with symbols that stand for Fez's pre-colonial Jewish heritage. Another such symbol is found in the person Maimonides (1135-1204), the medieval Jewish philosopher, physician and rabbinic author who lived for several years in Fez. He is known as Rambam and Ben Maimum in Jewish parlance, Ibn Mimum in Muslim discourse. Jews and Muslims alike recognize his residence on one of the old city's main thoroughfares. Educated Muslim Fasis identify Ibn Maimun as an important medieval scholar renowned for his religious and scientific knowledge and notable for his Jewish ancestry, his conversion to Islam and his tenure as a teacher in the neighboring Islamic university. (The idea that Maimonides converted to Islam, it should be noted, is inconceivable to most Moroccan Jews I came to know.)
Jews as flesh-and-blood neighbors are increasingly beyond the experience of Muslim Moroccans. Younger generations, for whom Israeli and Jew are likely to be synonymous, are less prone to the kind of nostalgia I am discussing here. Yet, when it is expressed, Muslim nostalgia for Jews relies partly on the sense that local Muslims and Jews shared an identity as Moroccans and as Fasis. For Moroccans, losing Jewish neighbors has meant losing a part of oneself.
Muslim and Jewish identities mingle intimately, but not completely, both in the place and the people of Fez. Muslims discuss the Jewishness of Fez in bifurcated terms, both circumscribed within the mellah and extending to Muslim parts of the city. In terms of religious identity, the Jews of Fez are likewise remembered as different from and similar to Muslims. In classical Islamic terms, Jewish knowledge is suspect. Islamic interpretations of the Torah as an adulteration of Mosaic prophecy suggest that Jewish knowledge is corrupted.
Yet in certain contexts, Muslims respect and even value Jewish religious knowledge. Moroccan Muslims, for example, will eat meat prepared by a Jewish ritual practitioner [shohet] whose knowledge and skills are considered to be comparable, or even superior, to that of Muslim slaughterers. Moroccans remember Jewish rabbis as respected persons committed to religious learning, piety and justice. One Muslim man went so far as to compare the Torah favorably with the Quran. In terms usually reserved for the latter, he explained that the Torah was true, sacred and eternal. Notwithstanding such extreme valuations of the Torah, and whether evaluated in negative or positive terms, Jewish religious knowledge and practice are marks of difference (although always ambiguous) in a predominantly Muslim environment.
Beyond the scope of religion, Muslims remember other kinds of Jewish knowledge. When speaking nostalgically, Muslims often speak about practical knowledge, about what Jews knew how to do. On the one hand, this typically Jewish kind of knowledge is reduced to "cleverness," the capacity of categorically subordinate Jews to outwit their Muslim neighbors. This ingenuity, which could translate into commercial acumen, is also attributed to Fasis in general. Jews are also recalled as skilled performers of traditional Moroccan music, ranging from popular and folk genres to the refined orchestral compositions in the classical Andalusian tradition. And again, while these domains of practical knowledge are associated with Jews, they are also emblematic of a more general and traditional Fasi identity, itself an element of the national patrimony.
The loss of the Jews, thus, spelled the potential for the loss of certain kinds of authentic Moroccan knowledge. The realization of this potential was avoided, I was told, by the fact that Jews taught their trades to Muslims. For example, certain vocations like metalwork and embroidery in gold thread continue to be spoken of as "Jewish" despite the fact that almost no Jews practice them anymore. Today, Moroccan Jews go so far as to commission out the production of Jewish ritual artifacts, such as engraved Passover plates and embroidered Torah scroll covers, to Muslim artisans.
Other kinds of practical knowledge, however, such as the Jewish arts of magic or sorcery, were not so easily passed from Jews to Muslims. S-hur in Moroccan Arabic refers to a variety of practices that rely largely on the manipulation of sacred texts and writing in order to invoke supernatural powers that promote or threaten such things as health, fertility, love, marriage and business success. Magic was not practiced exclusively or even predominantly by Jews, but Jewish magic has long been and continues to be viewed by many Moroccans as particularly powerful. I heard many explanations from Muslims as to why Jews are able magicians and healers. The relatively high levels of Hebrew literacy among Jewish men in pre-colonial times suggested a facility in the art of amulet writing. Moreover, since the Quran prohibits such sorcery, I was often told, magic must have a Jewish source. (I also heard Jews make the reverse claim-i.e. that magical knowledge and practice must have a Muslim source since it is prohibited by the Torah.)
The few Jewish magicians who remained in Fez during my research retained a predominantly Muslim clientele. For the most part, however, Muslims remembered Jewish magicians more than they hired them. Some even mocked the abilities of one current Jewish practitioner, noting that the real magic was taken with those of previous generations who had left Fez years ago. For still others, the magical power of Jews found its last remnant in that elderly ironmonger who stood in her stall in the mellah. To speak jovially with her was considered entertaining, but I was warned not to raise her ire. She knew how to speak and her words had dangerous power.
The ironmonger can herself be considered one of the traces of Jewish Fez that Muslims read into the city. Although present, she was a sign of a disappearing past. Like the city of Fez, the ironmonger was clearly Jewish and always identified as such, but also resolutely Moroccan-someone who spent her days with an almost exclusively Muslim clientele.
Her business had long ago stopped being profitable. At least that is what I was told, and hardly did I see her make a sale. She wielded no economic power of the kind sometimes accessible to Jews in Morocco and certainly held no political power. Whatever power she had was that of the weak, and it was enhanced by her Jewish identity and thus her association with certain kinds of knowledge.
Knowledge, particularly of the magical sort, can be a form of power exploited by the categorically disenfranchised. In Morocco, this conjuncture of magic and disenfranchisement, power and marginalization, is epitomized by Jews. Muslim nostalgia for Jews relies partly on an ambivalent identification with departed (and departing) neighbors. That identity, I think, extends to the fact that many Muslim Moroccans find themselves in positions of structural weakness, excluded from economic and political opportunities that are monopolized by an elite few. Remembered Jews, whose Moroccaness is read into the very walls of Fez, represent the economic and political marginalization of the masses. In reading Jewish Fez as a reflection of themselves, Muslims are reminded that even the most authentic Moroccans can be marginal, and that even they can have access to certain kinds of power.
Oren Kosansky is a doctoral candidate in the U-M Anthropology Department and a lecturer in anthropology at Lawrence University. In addition to two years spent in Morocco (1994-96), he has conducted ethnographic and archival research in Canada, France and Israel. He is currently completing a dissertation that focuses on pilgrimages to the shrines of Jewish saints in Morocco.