Thursday, March 2, 2023

The Complexity of Morocco

Perhaps no place better expresses the complexity of Morocco than Al Akhawayn University. Nestled in the Mid-Atlas mountains in the Alpine-looking town of Ifrane near Fes, the university presents to the first time visitor the appearance of a Swiss canton with structure after structure topped with A-frame roofs covered by bright orange ceramic tiles. 

Founded in 1995 by King Hassan II, Al Akhawayn is a vibrant example of the kingdom’s emphasis on Western culture even as it embraces its Moroccan heritage. The university is formatted on an American liberal arts college model, offering degrees in the Humanities, Social Sciences, Engineering and Business Administration. Classes are in English.

The 2,000-plus co-ed students come from all parts of Morocco, mostly from middle class or better households. Amazingly, one quarter of the student body belongs to Mimouna, a non-profit association created in 2007 “by 10 Muslim students to promote and preserve the Jewish-Moroccan heritage.”

Mimouna derives its name from a long-held Passover practice in Morocco. Prohibited by their religion to consume grain-based foods known as hametz during the eight day Passover holiday, Jews would entrust their hametz to their Islamic neighbors. When the food would be returned the Jewish and Moslem families would get together for a feast, a mimouna, validating their friendship and peaceful coexistence.

For years Morocco has had a discreetly friendly relationship with Israel compared to the antagonism exhibited by other Arab countries. But then, Morocco does not consider itself a fully Arab entity. 

Morocco was a Berber stronghold. Islam came to Morocco in the early 8th century incorporating Berber customs. Decades later a Moroccan king was the first to declare independence from the caliph of Baghdad. Too far to send an army to reverse the insult, the caliph sent an assassin, who was successful, but Morocco remained outside his domain. 

Morocco’s location on the western edge of North Africa also contributed to its ability to resist takeover by Turkey’s Ottoman Empire which expanded as far as neighboring Algeria. This quirk of history explains why, until about a decade ago, Moroccans did not eat humus and felafel, both considered Turkish foods. 

Of course, Morocco’s proximity to Western Europe led to its exploitation and conquest, in part, by Portugal, Spain and France.

The melting pot that is Morocco goes beyond Jewish-Muslim interaction. Morocco has three official languages: French, a vestige of its status as a colony of France from 1912 to 1956; Berber, recognition of the Berber tribes that have lived in the region for some 20,000 years; and Arabic, that is, Moroccan Arabic which is a different dialect than that found in other parts of the North African and Arabian world. 

Mokhtar, our guide during the recent Temple Israel Center of White Plains- Keshet Educational Journeys tour of Morocco, is a product of his country’s amalgamation. His mother—Berber; his father—Arab. 

There can be little doubt Jews played a significant role in Morocco’s history. While Jews in Europe were confined to ghettos, generally situated in the lowest part of towns because Christians thought they polluted their surroundings, in Morocco they were accorded space adjacent to nobility in a section of the enclosed fortress known as a Mellah. Mellah is the Hebrew word for salt. Jews were the salt procurers and traders of the kingdom, earning vast riches for themselves and the king. As such, a Mellah residence next to the king’s stronghold accorded them royal protection. Streets in the Mellah bear the names of Jewish luminaries. 

Salt was mined in the Atlas Mountains. Jewish merchants arranged caravans of 2,000 camels to transport the precious commodity from Fes to Timbuktu some 1,300 miles to the south. Eighty percent of the camels carried food, water, supplies, and armed guards for the 80 day journey. Salt was exchanged for spices and gold. 

It was that way for centuries, until in the late 1800s France sought to weaken Morocco’s economy by restricting caravan access to its territories in Algeria and French West Africa. Morocco eventually fell under French control in 1912. Morocco declared independence in 1956, six years before neighboring Algeria shed its French yoke. 

Mokhtar related that Jews also were among the most proficient ship builders, carpenters, tailors, tanners and other tradesmen of the realm. 

Shipbuilding might seem an odd occupation for Jews, but their expertise was important for a different enterprise not necessarily practiced by Jews—piracy.

Piracy and privateering have long been acceptable, even honorable, professions for coastal civilizations, from the Carthaginians to Elizabethan England to America in its wars with England to modern day Somalia. Jews assisted the Barbary pirates by building swift boats that could easily seek refuge in the river entry to Tangier near the Strait of Gibraltar.   

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