May 6, 1999
Discovering Morocco, The legacy of a Jewish presence mixed with the local and Muslim culture is a sight to behold
If you think that with the tense climate in the Middle East no Muslim country would warmly welcome, let alone happily invite, Jewish visitors, then you haven't been to Morocco. Ever since Jews first arrived on Moroccan soil approximately 2,000 years ago, they have, for the most part, subsisted and even prospered as a protected minority. While there are only about an estimated 5,000 Jews left, Morocco is a revelation to the Jewish eye. As part of a Jewish press tour sponsored by the Moroccan National Tourist Office and Royal Air Maroc, I and 10 other Jewish journalists visited the Jewish communities of Morocco's prominent cities, finding the legacy of the Jewish presence mixed with the Moroccan and Muslim culture a sight to behold.
I heard a rumor that Matisse found his colors in Marrakech, and I'm not surprised. Marrakech is surely one of the most exotic and mystical cities. With the High Atlas mountains in the distance, the countryside is dotted with shapely palm trees and pink buildings made out of the red, iron-rich Marrakech soil. The Djemaa El Fna Square is famous for its snake-charmers and acrobats. It's no wonder that Marrakech was a hot-spot in the sixties for artists and musicians; each character and building is worthy of a canvas.
Love, tolerance and openness characterize the city, said Jacques Zafrani, the president of the Jewish Community of Marrakech, who dined with us at the ornate Le Sepharde restaurant. Le Sepharde is kosher as well, and its ornate architecture and scrumptious Moroccan food probably attracts non-Jewish clientele. I certainly hope it does; there are only some 250 Jews left in Marrakech.
"I feel love from the community," said Zafrani, a liberal Jew who owns automobile franchises and claims to enjoy full participation in mainstream Moroccan life. Zafrani has chosen Marrakech over a more intimate love. Now in his 70s, he has remained a bachelor because he never wanted to leave. Understandably, there are no eligible women for him in Marrakech. He invited me to stay with him, but despite his charm and his lovely city, I thought it best that I turn down his proposal.
Certainly, not everyone in Marrakech sympathizes with Zafrani. One of the few remaining merchants who lives in the mellah (Jewish quarter) is also a bachelor, and he'll leave if the right one asks that they live elsewhere. Then again, business at his stationary supply shop has been down lately.