Dr Mohamed Chtatou
A city of proverbial tolerance
North of Morocco, not far from the imperial city of Fez, lies the locality of Sefrou in the lap of the Atlas mountains. It was in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries a haven of peace and togetherness where Muslims and Jews lived in total communion. It forged, then, the image of a place where cultures, creeds, languages and traditions mixed freely without any bias or sense of of hatred. In spite of its small size, the city of Sefrou reflected the spirit of a plural, multiethnic, and tolerant Morocco with Arabic language (Moroccan Darija) spoken alongside Tamazight/Berber dialects as well as Hebrew and French.
Indeed, because of its location at the foot of the central Middle Atlas on the former trans-Saharan trade route (Trik as-Sultane), Sefrou was, throughout its history, a transit point, a crossroads of diverse cultures and creeds and a human receptacle. These factors combined with the diversity of its resources have given it important opportunities for integration and human fulfillment. As a result, it has attracted people of various ethnic and tribal origins (Amazighs, Arabs) and confessional backgrounds (Muslims, Jews and Christians). This has made it a home of exemplary cohabitation where a secular urban tradition based on openness, coexistence and tolerance has developed and thrived for two centuries on end.
The name of the city comes from the name of the Amazigh/Berber tribe Ahl Sefrou, who converted to Judaism around the second century AD. It occupied the Wad Aggay meaning « River of the Cheecks » in Tamazight and the river bore, also, the name of Wad Lihoudi, the « River of the Jew » past the Mellah, Jewish quarter, of the city.
Sefrou was born of the regrouping, for security reasons, of inhabitants who settled along the river in a walled settelment. The mellah, Jewish district, for the same security reasons, occupied a central position inside the Muslim neighborhoods of the medina and that shows quite clearly that Muslim population cared so much about the safety of their Jewish brethern, so they placed them in the center of the city, for maximum security. Dominating the river, stands the suburb of al-Qal’a (meaning fortress in Arabic), a detachment from the city, as to remind visitors of its refractory past and rebelious nature.
Sefrou is surrounded by high crenelated ramparts pierced by seven gates dating from the 18th century when it was an important stage of the caravan trade as evidenced by the many Fondouks (caravanserais) of the city. Its various zaouïas (religious lodges), mosques, hammams (public baths) and shops relate, in turn, its great commercial influence in the region. Sefrou has always been a place of human confluence (from different regions of Morocco and Andalusia) and confessional brewing (Muslim, Jewish and later on Christian) and ethnic communion (Arab and Amazigh/Berber).
Founded in 682, a century before the imperial city of Fez, Sefrou is located at 28 kilometers south of this city and culminates at 850 meters above sea level ; It has always been called the « oasis without a palm tree » or « the garden of the kingdom, » a garden that all the sovereigns of Morocco have carefully protected an praised. However, the late King Hassan II, in the 90s of the last century lamented, in one of his speeches, that the city because of avid and uncontrolled urban development, lost, alas, its garden specificity and became a jungle of concrete. He directly blamed elected local government for lack of ecology-mindedness and, undirectly, for corruption practises.
With its ramparts surrounding the city and protecting it from belicose tribes of bled as-siba (land of dissidence) and its 7 imposing gates, lucky number in Arab and Amazigh culture, and, also, in Moroccan Jewish cabal tradition. Sefrou was made famous for its waterfalls of about 10 meters high and the waters of Wad Aggay which make its land fertile, where many fruit trees grow, of which the best known is, undoubtedly, the cherry tree : habb lmellouk (the fruit of kings.)
The city became in the twelfth century a center of thriving commerce where the producers of the regions of northern Morocco and those of Tafilalet met to exchange crops, handicrafts and hides. It was, also, the starting point of the famed subsaharan caravan trade whereby Morocco exchanged salt and hides against the gold of the black African Ashanti mines, a commerce that is known, today, as the « unfair trade. » This trade, for centuries, was financed by Jews keeping small « banking shops » known as Hwanet tale’ in the medina of Sefrou and its caravans that travelled for 44 days to Timbuktu, in today’s Mali, led by Jewish guides respected for their leadership, fairness, patience, courage and sense of leadership. They were known as azettat (because they carried long sticks bearing the azetta, woven cloth of each Amazigh tribe travesrsed in peace (aman,)) which in down-to-earth language means pre-paid free passage tithe.
Moulay Idris II in Sefrou
Sefrou is twelve centuries old. Moulay Idris II stayed there in 806 before the foundation of the city of Fez. He lived in a place called Habouna (from Arabic ” they loved us ”) which is now a quarter of the city. During his stay in Sefrou, Moulay Idriss made some trips to Bahlil whose inhabitants he converted to Islam with much duresss.
According to Rawd al-Qirtass (The Garden of Pages,) Bahlil did not oppose any resistance to the conversion, but it seems from oral tradition that the Chqounda tribe resigned itself only to constraint and forced action of Moulay Idris, because it was probably still influenced by the ideas of the Second Roman Legion that dwelt the area during the Roman Empire colonization of Morocco (52 CE-5th century AD) .
In any case, the people of this tribe reserved a very cold welcome to the Idrisid Sultan and following his failure to convert peacefully the town of Bhalil, he reportedly returned to Sefrou and on his way he named a nearby mountain Jbel Binna, and said : “Had jbel binna or binhoum”, which means literally : this is a border mountain between us and them. Since, then the name of “Binna” referred to this mountain.
Without any drinking water in Bhalil, the people were obliged to go to get water supply from the Wad Aggaï of Sefrou, at the risk of dangers constantly increasing from animosity towards them shown by the Muslims of Sefrou. Tired of rejection, the Christian inhabitants of Bhalil submitted to the will of the sultan on the condition that he insured them access to precious water supply.
Moulay Idris, on their conversion, fulfilled their desire by a miracle ; he apparently visited anew their village and made the water spill from the ground after giving it a sword blow. This water would be since the source of Ain Rta which lies nowadays in the middle of the village. In admiration of this divine miracle, the last hostile Bahloulis (inhabitants of the village) rallied immediately to the will of the sultan, but not without having earned, since, the nickname of Bahlil originating in the Arabic word “bahloul” meaning “stupid and ignorant person verging on idiocy,” which was granted to them by their Sefrou neighbors who laughed at them at having hesitated so long to embrace Islam.
Today, however, the inhabitants reject this story and say that the name Bhalil comes from the Arabic word « baha’ al-lil » which means in Arabic the « beauty of the night » of this unique troglodyte village. Many centuries later, the inhabitants of Bhalil would, in return, doubt of the true Islamic identity of the Muslims of Sefrou because of their proverbial coexistence with the Jews, by referring to them in Jewish Moroccan Arabic dialect, obviously distinct from Muslim Arabic dialect : « msalmin di safrou » (Muslims of Sefrou.)
Sefrou, the « Little Jerusalem »
In 1967, Sefrou this quiet beautiful city situated in the piedmont of the Middle Atlas was losing its last Jewish inhabitants in the wake of the six-day war in the Middle East. The Jews have lived in Sefrou since their arrival in Morocco on the year 70 AD, after the destruction of their second temple of Jerusalem by the Romans and it was for centuries the capital of Moroccan coexistence and tolerance. It had the highest concentration of Jews by square meter anywhere in the world, a fact tha owened it the sobriquet : « Little Jerusalem. »
In the limits of the small city lived Amazighs, Arabs and Jews in total harmony. The Amazigh practised agriculture and cattle-raising, the Arabs some agriculture, menial jobs and petty trade and the Jews banking services and Saharan caravan trade, whereby the « Sitting Jew » was a banker and shopkeeper and the « Walking Jew, » itinerant peddler and caravan guide known as « azettat. »
The cherry of Sefrou, known throughout the kingdom, is distinguished by its black color, a very sweet taste and a weight of more than 14g. Attached to this fruit, the Sefriouis devote to it every year a festival which sees the election of Miss Cerisette, a girl chosen from the most beautiful maidens of the kingdom, whatever her creed might be and daily processions and celebrations that attract people from all over the country.
Every year, on the early days of the Cherry Festival (moussem hab l-mlouk), from 1920 to 1956, the locals organized a procession to the grotto of Kaf al-Moumen which, supposedly, houses the tomb of the prophet Daniel and where, also, according to a local legend, Muslims believe that (sab’atu rijal,) the seven pious men and their dog have fallen asleep for centuries. Muslims and Jews organized this procession to ask their respective spirits to grace and bless with baraka their yearly celebration. Fantasias, dances and songs punctuate this important agricultural event.
At the edge of the city, there is a miraculous source, called Lalla Rqya, near the tomb of a rare woman saint (marabout) by the same name, reputed to have the power to cure madness, epilepsy and nervous disorders. During this moussem (yearly celebration), the blood of sacrificed animals is poured into this spring, after accomplishing the sacrifice at the shrine of the patron saint Sidi Ali Bousserghine, overlooking the city from the height of a hill and protecting it frome evil, for the success of the festival and the benediction of this well-known religious figure to the city and all its inhabitants.
Sefrou has, also, been known, for centuries, for its grace, tolerance and harmonious cohabitation of the three Abrahamic religions, as evidenced by these verses of thevenerable sufi Sheikh Abdelkader Timouri, in tribute to the oldest Festival of Morocco, celebrated every mid-June since 1920 :
« O you visitor,
Have you been informed about the beauty of this city ?
Its gardens, waterfalls and sites that
Give you the joy of the eyes and the happiness of living.
Its climate, its water and its cherries
Are for you the cure of all evils.
That you are Jewish, Christian, or Muslim,
The inhabitants of this city welcome you with open arms.
And, at dawn, take you to the highest point of the hill
To collect the baraka of venerated Saint Sidi Ali Bousserghine. »
According to Leo Africanus, Sefrou would have been built well before Fez : “We went from the city of Sefrou to village of Fez” said the local legend, attributed to Rawd al-Qirtas. Apparently, by the time he had started the construction site in Fez, Idris I had come to settle for two years in this piedmont town (807). He would have resided at a village called “Habouna”, the village of “those who loved us,” a name that would have been given by Idris II to this place, now located south of the medina and this in recognition of the warm welcome that the inhabitants of the place had given him during his campaign of the Islamization of the region.
According to several European writers, who visited Sefrou in the late nineteenth century on the eve of the French protectorate of 1912, the city was described as one of the most prosperous and most orderly in Morocco. In spite of its small size, the small community of Sefrou reflected, in the nineteenth century, the spirit of a plural, multi-ethnic, and tolerant Morocco. Inhabitants spoke Arabic, Tamazight/Berber dialects as well as Hebrew. It was a great center of Moroccan Jewish culture from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century.
During a presentation made by Si Mbarek Bekkai, mayor of Sefrou to the association Amis de Fes (Friends of Fez) on April 30, 1950, he put the population of the city at :
Europeans : 650 ;
Jews : 6100 ; and
Muslims : 12100.
In the nineteenth century in Sefrou, Jews outnumbered Arabs and Berbers
The Jewish population of Sefrou comes from Tafilalet region and Debdou area. A mellah was built for them under the reign of the Marinid Sultan Yacoub ben Abdelhaq (Marinid dynasty, 13th–15th century.) The Jews of Sefrou were artisans specialized in copper, silver, gold and leather, but, also, practiced weaving, carpentry, trade of wood and coal.
In addition to their commercial role, Sefrou Jews insured communication services from the city of Fez in the North to the region ofTafilalt in the south. The Jewish population accounted for almost half of the population before the French colonialization, it became diminished after the independence of Morocco, their neighborhoods, today, remain unmaintained, degrading and sheltering prostitutes and outlaws.
In 1890, the flood of the river caused the death of many of the inhabitants of the city, including several members of the Jewish community ; such a catastrophe was repeated in 1950 and further reduced the Jewish community which then comprised 5,000 people.
In the nineteenth century in Sefrou, Jews outnumbered Muslims : Arabs and Berbers. Peaceful and inviting, this city dazzled travelers, to the point that Colette speaks of it as a “paradise.” The Jews who resided in the city are indigenous Berbers from Tafilat, Arabic-speaking Jews of Fassi origin (of Fez) as well as descendants of the Spanish exiles of 1492, the Famous Megorashim (Hebrew : מגורשים “expelled”). They were highly integrated in their city and were masters of their destiny and prospered as small craftsmen, successful traders, religious scholars or Hebrew teachers. One of the most prominent members of the community is the Rabbi and Judge Shaul Yehoshuaah Abitbol (1740-1809,) who is known for his collection of legal decisions Avné chèch (Marble blocks).
For Collette, who visited Sefrou in 1920, the city was dazzling with beauty :
“Sefrou : The earthly paradise, more or less as we imagine it, if we imagine it oriental and populated, and restricted. Sefrou is a puddle of fertile, juicy earth, all quivering with the laughter of the water. The pomegranate grove flames, the cherry swells, the fig tree smells of milk, the grass delivers its juice as soon as it is crumpled. The Bengal rose masters the vine, a playful wind whitens the enclosures, showing the reverse side of all the leaves at once. Such a gentle place makes the man kind : the boys are beautiful, the young Jewish girls smooth, sparkling with eyes and teeth, and the water leaps under the bridges between rocks and wheat terraces where the grain, shovelled by children, flows like a blonde strike.”
On the account of the local representative of the state authority, the pasha, she says :
“A rustic pasha reigns over this small Eden of eighty hectares. He is gray and has a bellicose nose between soft eyes. Faithful, he fought well, loving as much the gun as the grafting knife. Another one who wants to reduce Abd-el-Krim to his exact dimensions : let him be entrusted with two thousand horsemen, and the matter is settled… His house is cold, clean, simple except for the parade beds, and when he leads us through the streets, everyone kisses him on the shoulder. The rose garden that enchants the square does not belong to him, but he forces the lock a little to enter, white and confident as a marauding archangel, and pick us roses.”
She further marvels at the beauty of the city in the following terms :
“We leave, in the noise of the springs that fall from the slopes, pass under the road, reappear, fill a green basin, cross the road again on our heads in a hollow trunk that lets trembling threads of water hang down, watering each layon of vine, each furrow of barley. Happy land, where fat children roll, where big snakes, round themselves, softly girdle the foot of the olive trees ! “
With the arrival of the French, the decadence of the city of Sefrou went hand in hand with the general economic crisis in Morocco. The French Universal Alliance (Alliance Israélite Universelle –AIU-) opened francophone schools and permanently disrupted the educational model of the hedarim (Jewish traditional elementary schools specialized in the teachings of the Torah). In the early 1980s, Norman Stillman reports that there were only four elderly people of Jewish descent left in the Mellah of the city.
Charles de Foucauld visits Sefrou
On the advice of Mac Carthy, curator of the library of Algiers, Charles de Foucauld following his intention to visit Morocco (Reconnaissance au Maroc : 1883-1884) met Rabbi Mardochée Abi Serour who offered him to become his guide and told him to pretend to be a Jew to better go unnoticed in Morocco, a country forbidden to Christians. Charles de Foucauld then decided to adopt the Israelite costume and, thus, became the Rabbi Joseph Aleman, born in Muscovy, of the Russian Empire, from which he was forced out because of recent revolutions and political problems.
In this fashion, he thought he could travel within Morocco without attracting attention, bearing in mind that the Jew is considered a useful person though of inferior rank because of his dhimmi status. He, also, hoped that if discovered by his hosts they will be more discreet and will not reveal his true identity to Moroccan Muslims. His alleged origin – of Muscovy – can also explain and excuse his bad accent.
Rabbi Mardochée Abi Serour, whose role was to swear everywhere that Charles de Foucauld is a rabbi, was responsible for finding accommodation where the latter can calmly make observations and write his results, to protect him. Neither his black cap, nor his traditional cadenettes (pigtails worn on both sides of the head) prevented a certain number of Jews from recognizing him as a false brother but gladly without much consequence.
His stay in Fez, longer than originally hoped, due to the impossibility of finding a guide to go to Boujad during the month of Ramadan, allowed de Foucauld to go in recognition to Sefrou and Taza, he called ; “the most miserable city of Morocco.”
Si Mbarek Bekkai, Pasha of Sefrou, during a conference at the “Friends of Fes” in 1950 evoked the passage to city of the future missionary de Foucauld :
“During his journey in Morocco Charles de Foucauld settled for a few days in Sefrou, in August 1883. He came from Fez, via Bhalil, disguised as a rabbi with his companion Rabbi Mordecai. He was received in a house in the now famous Mellah by a man named David Lhalyel ; the Chief Rabbi of Sefrou, Chaloum Azoulay, was appointed by the Jewish Community of the city to keep company to the two visiting rabbis. David’s wife surprised Foucauld one day while he was drawing in his room, where he thought he was safe from prying eyes, and she concluded that he was a false rabbi. When she was informed, Shaloum questioned Mordecai, pressed him with questions, and he finally confessed the truth, explained the purpose of his journey and made his host promise to keep it a secret for ten years. The latter kept his promise and, indeed, did not speak of this adventure until long afterwards.
In Sefrou, Charles de Foucauld worked. He wrote a magnificent page on this oasis which inspired him. I would take the liberty of quoting it to you in full, if you will, when we come to the chapter on tourism, because I think that this quotation deserves to be known, it is the best propaganda that can be made about Sefrou. About two years ago, the passage from Charles de Foucauld to Sefrou was filmed by a troop of filmmakers led by Léon Poirier. This episode of Charles de Foucauld in Sefrou will appear in the “Gateway to the Desert” when this film is delivered to the public. »
During his journey in Morocco Charles de Foucauld stayed for a few days in Sefrou, in August 1883. He came from Fes, by the way of Bahlil, disguised as a rabbi with his companion and guide Rabbi Mordecai. He was received in a house in the mellah by a man named David Lhalyel ; the chief rabbi of Sefrou, Chaloum Azoulay, was appointed by the Israelite Community of the city, to keep the two visiting rabbis company.
The Jewish saints of Sefrou
Despite its small size, Sefrou contributed enormously to Jewish culture in Morocco. The rabbis who were there were famous all over the country and even beyond Moroccan borders. Many rabbis settled there and taught, and their works concerned all the domains : the laws, the sacred texts, the Cabal, the songs and the praises, the moral etc. The influence and the importance of this city within Moroccan Judaism, made it central and that is one of the many reasons for which it was commonly called “Little Jerusalem.”
In the image of plural Morocco with its cities where Muslims, Jews and Christians rubbed shoulders and coexisted in total peace, the city of Sefrou had hosted for centuries a community of Moroccans of Jewish faith. It was made up of Amazigh/Berber-speaking locals, Tafilat natives, Arabic-speaking Jews of Fassi origin (from Fez) and even descendants of the Spanish exiles of 1492, the megorashim. This is the case of the El Baz family.
For many generations, the Rabbi occupied a very important place in the life of the Jewish community. His extensive knowledge and scholarship directed him both in law, in his life style, and attitudes to adopt. He became adviser for personal problems, but also judge in conflicts between members of the community and practised highly-recommended mediation between Jews as well Muslims and Jews or just Muslims. He, thus, helped reconciling between men, between a man and his wife, and even materially supported those in need. He was considered a sage of the city by all its inhabitants.
The Mamane family belonged to families linked to the expulsion of Jews from Spain, as well, the majority of whom are concentrated in Marrakech, Meknes, Fez and Sefrou. The older generations considered the family Ben Mamane as descendant of the “Great Eagle”, the guide of all Israel that descended from King David. Formerly, the members of this family were named Ben Maïmoni, then the name contracted in Ben Mamane, and it is only recently, that the word “Ben” disappeared, and they answered to the name of Mamane. This evolution is indeed confirmed by the testimonies of the oldest inhabitants of Safed and Tiberias, such as Rabbi Shlomo Ohana emissary of Israel in Morocco, sometime in the past.
Thus, from that time, until today, in the texts, the name Ben Mamane was kept in full. The addition of the particle “Ben” is considered an honor for families who lived in Spain, under Arab rule. “Ben” comes from the Arabic word “ibn”, like Ibn Ezra, Ibn Danan, Ibn Tsur. Over time, and with the influence of accents, the “alef” having disappeared and only ” Ben ” was preserved. Nowadays, some even write only the ending “noun”, followed by a dot above.
The Jews took the habit of adding “Ibn” in front of their surname, and even some Spanish sages as well as Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, Rav Shmuel Ibn Tivon, Rav Ibn Gavirol, and all those who like them mastered the Arabic language and Islamic jurisprudence. The famous Jewish philosopher and religious scholar Maimonides, known also as Ibn Maimoun, (1138-1204) of Muslim Spain, Andalusia, had tremendous influence on the Jewish religious sages of Sefrou and Morocco.
Rav Rafael Abu, of blessed memory, who had a great importance in Morocco, also by his creation of the school Ozar Hatorah wrote that during the last generations, the majority of families with large Rabbanims or respectable leaders, are from Morocco (such as Ben Shimon family, Ben Mamane family of Sefrou.)
Thus, the Mamane family, residing in Sefrou left an imprint on this city. From this family, come many rabbis and personnalities of the Torah and Hebraic jurisprudence. From the 17th century until today, we find members of the Mamane family occupying important places, both materially and spiritually. They, thus, laid solid foundations for Jewish community life and its organization not only in this city but all over Morocco and beyond.
The fame of the rabbis of Sefrou, like Rabbi Moshe Elbaz, known as the « Master of the Grotto, » extends beyond the city and throughout Tafilalet and outside of Morocco. A holiday destination for the townspeople of Fez and Meknes, Sefrou is also a place of pilgrimage for this saint buried in the Jewish cemetery.
Elbaz, A name of Arabic origin meaning “the hawk”, belongs to a family of scholars and rabbis who have marked the Judeo-Moroccan history. Among others, we find Maimon Elbaz, rabbi in the seventeenth century, author of a cabalistic commentary of ritual prayers, Shmuel El Baz rabbi in the seventeenth century, member of the Rabbinical Tribunal and author of Talmudic comments and Amram El Baz, rabbi-judge and codifier who lived in the eighteenth century.
It is within this family, which is of Spanish origin, according to some sources, that Rabbi Raphael Moshe El Baz was born in 1823 in Sefrou. He was also son and grandson of two rabbis and prolific authors : Rabbi Yehuda El Baz and Rabbi Samuel El Baz.
Early on, Rabbi Raphael Moshe El Baz is then appointed rabbinical judge at the age of only 28 years. And at the time, he was already a prolific writer, dealing in his books with various fields, such as the writings of rabbinical jurisprudence, the precepts, laws and commandments that govern the life of the individual according to the law of Moses.
For, in addition to being rabbi and judge, Rabbi Raphael Moshe Elbaz was also a lover of songs and poetry. He wrote several songs and didactic poems in dialectal Arabic (darija), in addition to many poems that entered into the liturgy tradition.
With Nissim Elbaz, Rabbi Raphael Moshe El Baz is, also, considered one of the greatest Jewish poets who adopted the Arabic popular and semi-classical genre called Qassida, as Reeva Simon Spector, Michael Menachem Laskier and Sara Reguer say in “The Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in Modern Times. ” He is even described by the Library Hub Discover platform as one of the artists “most representative of Hebrew poetry in Morocco.”
During his 73 years, Rabbi Raphael Moshe Elbaz also wrote several books, including “Halakhah Le-Moshe” which is a collection of legal decisions, “Parashat Ha-kessef” which is a work of morality and proverb, “Arbah” on jurisprudence,”Chir Hadach” where he collected liturgical songs and poems or his famous “Beer Cheva” on science dealing with mathematics, astronomy and geography, as well as a book on the Moroccan Jewish community, entitled : “Kissé Hamelakhim.”
To illustrate the Rabbi’s investment in the texts of the sixteenth century, Sina Rauschenbach and Jonathan Schorsch recall, in “The Sephardic Atlantic : Colonial Histories and Postcolonial Perspectives”, that Rabbi Raphael Moshe El Baz wrote a comment on the sixteenth-century law code “Sefer ha-Taqqanot” (The Book of Ordinances) written by Rafael Berdugo (1747-1821) of Meknes.
Having left no heirs behind him, Rabbi Raphael Moshe El Baz will leave no less than 19 manuscripts, which he considered “his children” to his nephew Rabbi Benyamine El Baz. But some of these manuscripts will only be printed around the nineteenth century.
Rabbi Raphael Moshe El Baz died in 1896 in Sefrou, his hometown, where he was buried in the Jewish cemetery of the city. His hiloula is celebrated during Lag Baomer, the Jewish festival of rabbinic institution.
Kaf Lihoudi “The Cave of the Jew “
The ancient existence of the Jews in Sefrou, is further demonstrated by the Wad Lihoudi “The River of the Jew” that goes through the city, and by a cave called Kaf Lihoudi, “the Cave of the Jew” which is on the southern flank of Jbel Binna and overlooks Sefrou. Every year, this cave, is on the part of the Jews of Sefrou and Fez, the object of a true naturalistic cult. The pilgrimage of this cave takes place at the same time as that of the sanctuary of the chief rabbi Hamou ben Diouane, in Ouezzane.
This cave is located at the foot of the Binna cliff, at about 800 m altitude. Of immemorial tradition it is claimed that the rabbis were buried there ; on the other hand, the majority of common native people see it as the dwelling of a genius and some Muslim saints. This would indicate that there was very old habitat or some place of worship as old as the human dwelling in the area. This cave opens to the east and includes two long guts, all empty since centuries.
The archaeological site of Binna was the subject of an important discovery, so in 1965, the two caves Kaf El Moumen and Kaf El Bagra which pierce this rocky spur have revealed the existence of a prehistoric vestiges and industry :
Tools in flint and basalt ;
Paleontological remains such as bear teeth, Rhinoceros and other extinct species ; and
Rock paintings that have unfortunately completely disappeared and can only be seen in the photograph.
On the Jewish veneration of Kaf al-Moumen, Simon Levy, a Moroccan linguist, university professor and historian wrote :
“The tradition of “sanctity” comes from far away, before the arrival of Islam, from more or less “naturist” cults. In Sefrou, a town that is said to be older than Fez, there is a cave, Mul bhl, “That of the mountain”. A cult which seems to have been “adapted” by the Jews : “whoever cannot find Rebbi Amram in Ouazan, finds him in (the cave) of Mul bhl”… Substitute saint ! Holy commodity ! In the cave there is nothing. No grave … Rebbi Abraham Mul Ness, in a cave of Azemmur, does not seem to have a surname, but it is “He (who) works miracles”… Others, closer in time, have more concrete stories. Some form “dynasties” and can be dated, such as the Abehsera, from Rebbi Yacaqob, buried in Cairo, to Rebbi Ishaq, whose grave is in Gurramah (Tafilalet) and, finally, Baba Salé, who died in Israel a few years ago. »
Pascale Saisset visited Morocco in the 20s of the last century to check on the situation of Moroccan Jews : « n’est pas né du désir d’écrire, mais pour vérifier ».
“Sefrou is almost entirely Jewish. Today its population is a little drowned by the people of the village and the Fasi, who came to do good business with the mountain people. But if, before going to the market, we stop at the suq, we find these same Jewish shops that have the talent to make an encyclopedia of goods in a cubic meter of space. »
Pascale Saisset wrote a text on Sefrou known as « Little Jerusalem » between October 1925 and January 1926, in memory of her grand father Youssef Ben Illouz who was born in the Mellah of Meknes.
Then she goes on to describe meticulously the scenes of the suq with Berber people dressed in burnous garments, the arguments, the haggling proper to Moroccan clients :
“At the edge of the suq, before entering the full sun of the street, and crossing this line so extraordinarily clear between shadow and light, we hesitate to blend in with the human flow that comes, more and more hurried, and brings us, with the rough grazing of burnous, the clattering of daggers, the clattering of sticks on the ground, the flight of silver dust, the gutturals thrown down your throat, the invective, the imprecations, the insults cut with wild laughter, the ambiguous smiles of these disturbing faces – because they are unknown – and all the violent, acrid, unbearable, deadly and delicious flavour of the human beast, which one only becomes aware of in the body to body of love or in the crowd. »
And, then, talks about the various merchandises in display : grains, coal and Arab singers performing in cafés :
“Facing the game of jostling, here we are at the grain market, the coal market, the salt market, the coarse grey salt from the mountainsides. It is the same in its coarseness to these villagers whose souls, barely freed from the material, must also be all in indecisive greyness, in impurities, and in limpid reflections.
Suddenly, amidst the tumult, a child’s voice was heard singing. The strident timbre, high-pitched like that of most Moorish singers, had I don’t know what purity and desperate passion. Escape from the crowd and we found the singer crouching in a tiny Moorish café on the first floor of a house festooned with vast arcades where the shade was cool as in a temple…”.
The description of Pascale Saisset of the people of the countrside (bled) who descended to the suq of Sefrou could reflect more the vision of a “Western Jew” as she defines herself, unaccustomed to frequent “burnous rough” (burnous rugeux) in the mercantile tumult of the suq, ” disturbing faces because unknown, ” (faces inquiétantes parce qu’inconnues) she says, however.
The Jews of Sefrou, more numerous at that time than the Amazighs/Berbers and the Arabs, rubbed shoulders daily in the commercial relations and certainly did not have, in their great majority, this worried vision of the men of the countryside.
Jews and Muslims had complex relationships that were difficult for even well-informed travelers to seize ; mistrust was sometimes great between Jews and Muslims but at the same time they were often very close, living in harmony in “this earthly paradise” (paradis terrestre) and doing business together.
Pascale says she heard many of her friends say they were “milk brothers” (frères de lait) with a Muslim or a Jew : the Muslim mother confided to her Jewish neighbor, when she was away for a while she left her child of few months with a Jewish neighbor and at the time of the feeding, the Jewish mother fed in turn or at the same time, her child and that of her neighbor. Another day, it was the opposite.
The bazaar economy of Sefrou
The Suq de Sefrou is the focus of a second part of a three-part book entitled : Meaning and Order in Moroccan Society. Three Essays in Cultural Analysis (Cambridge University Press, 1979) by Clifford Geertz, Hildred Geertz and Lawrence Rosen.This empirical analysis of a form of social organization with an economic vocation is a continuation of anthropological research on economics, politics, kinship and religion undertaken in Indonesia. This book is complete in the sense that its three distinct parts can interest both the student in search of an approach to begin his field work and the one who seeks accurate analyzes of the bazaar economy, or finally a researcher with statistical or cartographic materials that he would like to compare with those of Geertz on Sefrou.
The preface by Daniel Cefaï opportunely traces the path of the anthropologist Geertz, once a PhD student at Harvard University under the direction of Talcott Parsons in the 1950s, where he began his first collective inquiry work in Java, Indonesia.
Teamwork approach to anthropological research was high intellectual fashion at post-war American universities, it was the very same scientific research philosophy device used in Sefrou when Geertz became a lecturer at the University of Chicago. This collective work spread from 1965 to 1971 and involved a number of specialists in particular Hildred Geertz, Lawrence Rosen, Paul Rabinow, and Thomas Dichter. The team members took turns in Morocco and passed on their field notes to each other.
Each of the researchers has his specialty, but all “shared the conviction that social relations are the result of coordinated actions rather than the product of structural effects and that they are understood, motivated, articulated and ordered by networks of significant importance ,” according to Cefaï (p.13).
The richness of the preface of the book makes it an exemplary work tool in every respect. We situate the study of the client-seller relationship between dense description and ethnographic analysis, between comprehensive sociology and interpretive anthropology. In turn, are described the practices of marriage, hospitality developed within the family, the house (dar), the neighborhood (derb), all understood as so many networks of meanings.
Geertz shows how Moroccans are constantly negotiating reality. The bazaar is treated as a cultural form, a social institution and an economic type. But the way in which the research work is conducted shows an incredible level of cultural sensitivity and cross-cultural understanding, people of Sefrou still remember, today, this « gentleman scholar » conducting his work with much respect for traditions and beliefs.
We are dealing with a personal narrative based on surveys, which is an elementary teaching of a scientific field work. The result is not lacking in style. In the end, the uninformed reader is familiar with a whole social world to face, to understand, to circulate in an anthill of stories and anecdotes. Take the example of the semantic interpretation of the usual suq discourse in Sefrou. Geertz succeeded in twenty pages (pp. 158-178) in laying the foundations of a theory of communication, a kind of practical epistemology in which Arabic words are translated with a multiplicity of meanings and derivations from the same root. The researcher bends to the constraints of the context and adapts the text to these. We are far from a reductive interpretation of the social world and the scientific narrative does not lose its logic. The reading of the book is like the narrative of an experiment.
The cartographic and statistical presentation in the appendix finds its place as a trace of a situated and dated survey. In addition, there is a text by Geertz that goes back to Sefrou in 1995. He reports on the evolution of the social and economic fabric of the medina of Sefrou, as well as on the metamorphosis of a small provincial town in three decades. Apparently, the unit that made the original suq of Sefrou seems to have disappeared with time.
While Geertz, in 1974, made the “understanding of the native point of view” one of the ankles of his interpretative anthropology, the question is hidden. Five years later, in his monograph on the suq of Sefrou where he expressed satisfaction for his approch stating that it is necessary to describe the situation as envisaged by the Moroccans themselves. This recommendation is, somewhat, puzzling today in many respects. Is there, in Morocco or elsewhere, an indigenous point of view (in the singular) that can account for the diversity of groups that make up a local society ?
In the light of investigations since the 1970s enriching the understanding of Moroccan society, we see that Geertz gave way to an essentialism masking the multiplicity and complexity of the strategies of the actors. He sketcheed Moroccan society in broad strokes, simplifying the social morphology fragmented in Sefriouis, Moroccans, Jews, Arabs and Berbers, and by resorting excessively to the questions of ethos making Moroccans strong heads, and stubborn, opportunistic and calculating. If this fact is subjected to customer relations philosophy, the suq might well appear as a stark metaphor for Moroccan society.
Geerz comparatism is broad, he assimilates the suq of Sefrou with all the other suqs of Morocco and all the suqs of Morocco with those of Bali or Egypt and where is to be found a model of bazaar economy, a Persian word, unusual in Morocco, but which the English and the French colonizations used to designate the eastern market and by extension the economy. It is thanks to this extensive and standardized use of a term foreign to the local language that Geertz can play the interpretation of an economic model applicable to all markets in the Maghreb and the Middle East. This passage from the dense description to the interpretative diagnosis, this concern to articulate the micro to the macro in a continuous dialectic go-return between the most local details and the most global of the global structures are the foundations of the Geertzian model of anthropology, intricate, precise, analytical, respectful and scientific.
Clifford Geertz gives us here, besides a dense ethnographic description of a Moroccan suq, the construction of the Weberian ideal-type of the “economy of bazaar”. The first development of this type of construction is based on an empirical ground in Java, which will give rise to the work Peddlers and Princes (1963.) Then, as his approach is comparative and analytical, he decides to test his “economy of bazaar” on a new field, the suq of Sefrou. On this occasion, Geertz distinguishes more explicitly the ideal-type of “bazaar” from “industrial economy” and “primitive economy”. He defends neither an evolutionist perspective : one will not necessarily replace the other ; nor strict opposition : economies overlap and coexist. For him, if the suq is an institution characteristic of the civilization of Islam, “the economy of bazaar” is mainly a tool of analysis, which can be used for the study of other cultures. This bazaar model shares commonalities with the bazaars of Indonesia, of course, but, also, that of Mexico, etc.
In their opus entitled: “Meaning and Order in Moroccan Societies: Three Essays in Cultural Analysis”Clifford Geertz, Hildred Geertz and Laurence Rozen discuss life in a Middle Atlas settlement: Sefrou, where Jews, Amazighs, and Arabs lived side by side in total harmony for centuries. Thanks to this scientific work of these world renown anthropologists, the city of Sefrou became a high place of tolerance in the Anglo-Saxon scientific community around the world.
These American anthropologists who took a close interest in the social structure of the city of Sefrou and its economy of bazaar came to the conclusion that the Jewish community of this city, although Jewish of confession, was no different from the Muslim community and was certainly not a separate community living in seclusion:
“The Jewish trading community provides, when set beside the Muslim, a model case in the delicacies of sociological comparison: From many points of view it looks exactly like the Muslim community; from as many others, totally different. The Jews were at once Sefrouis like any others and resoundingly themselves. Many of their institutions –in the bazaar setting, most of them- were direct counterparts to Muslim ones; often even the terminology was not changed. But the way those institutions were put together to from a pattern, the organizational whole they add to, was in such sharp contrast to the Muslim way as to be almost an answer to it. It is not possible to treat the Jews as just one more “tribe” in the Moroccan conglomerate, another nisba, though they were certainly that too. Moroccan to the core and Jewish to the same core, they were heritors of a tradition double and indivisible and in no way marginal.” (Emphasis mine: Mohamed Chtatou)
At the same time, these researchers came to the conclusion that the Jews, who were certainly one hundred percent Moroccan, played a pivotal role in stabilizing Moroccan society in the region. On the one hand, they were instrumental in the growth and development of local commerce, rural trade and caravan trade and, also, and most importantly, calmed the adversities of the Amazighs of the Middle Atlas and the Arabs of the plain of Sais and prevented potential urban feuding. So, in many ways Jews acted as undeclared peace-makers and social mediators :
“… the role of the Jews in connecting Sefrou’s region-focusing bazaar to the cloud of locality-focusing bazaars growing up around it was crucial from the earliest stages of the transition from passage to central place trade and to some extent even preceded them. Just why this should have been so, why the Arabic speakers of Sais Plain, Morocco and Berber speakers of the Middle Atlas should have needed a third element distinct from them both to relate them commercially, can only be a matter of speculation. The desire of intensely competitive groups suspicious of each other’s actions, jealous of each other’s power, and frightened of each other’s ambitions –to conduct their trade through politically impotent agents, individuals who could bring neither force not authority to bear in the exchange process and could achieve nothing more than wealth by means of it, is perhaps part of the answer. A related desire to divest trading activities of any meaning beyond the cash and carry and so blunt their acculturative force may be another. But whatever the reason, the fact had a profound impact, virtually a determining one, on the shaping of Jewish activities in the bazaar economy.”
Today, there are, maybe, one or two Jewish families left in Sefrou, the others have all migrated to Fez or Casablanca or immigrated to France, Canada and Israel. But, despite their physical departure, they remain emotionally very attached to this mythical city which has seen, for centuries, a harmonious and exemplary cohabitation between two religions, three ethnic groups and cultures and several standards of living.
Many Jewish families come back to Sefrou every year to undertake a sentimental pilgrimage in the delightful mazes of this millennial town and see again, the mellah, known as “Little Jerusalem,” and visit the synagogues and the Talmudic school.
Sefrou was not only a city where Muslims and Jews lived in harmony, it was also a town that invented, long ago, the concept of religious coexistence in its true sense.
Although the Jewish community of Sefrou was very small in number, its importance in the life of the city and the economy of the bazaar was predominant for more than one reason as explained by Geertz at length.
In the thirties of the last century, the majority of Jews lived in the mellah with the exception of a minority of them who served in the colonial administration as interpreters or civil servants. These, because of their importance in the social hierarchy, lived in the New Town (Ville nouvelle), the European district. In the 1950s, living in this neighborhood was a symbol of social “climbing,” to use the local Arabic related term tla’, for ambitious and aspiring Jews, most of after the six-day war of 1967 chose, as such, to migrate to France.
After independence, the mellah was no longer the exclusive place of residence of Jews since Muslim families settled there without any priori. This change of social norms created in this city a culture of solidarity and sharing between Jewish and Muslim communities. This culture was based on the concept of respect of others in their religious and ethnic differences. In doing so both communities lived in complete symbiosis. The Muslims celebrated with the Jews their religious feast, while the Jews strictly respected the code of abstinence of the Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan, something which the latter greatly appreciated.
But the highlight of the religious coexistence initiated in Sefrou was the veneration of the same saints by the two religious communities. For Geertz and his team, Jews and Muslims, despite their differences, had much in common on the cultural level.
” … Jews mixed with Muslims under uniform ground rules, which, to an extent difficult to credit for whose ideas about Jews in traditional trade are based on the role they played in premodern Europe, were different in religious status. There was, of course, some penetration of communal concerns into the bazaar setting (exclusively Jewish trades, like goldworking and tinsmithing and such special phenomena phenomena as Kosher butchers), but what is remarkable is not how much there was but how little. The cash nexus was quite real; the Jew was cloth seller, peddler, shopkeeper, shoe-maker or porter before he was a Jew and dealt and was dealt with as such. Contrariwise, there was some penetration of general Moroccan patterns of life into the communal area: Jewish kinship patterns were not all that unlike Muslim; Jewish not only had saints of their own but often honored Muslim ones as well: and Arabic not Hebrew, was the language of the home.”
This perfect coexistence between Jews and Muslims in Sefrou has found its ultimate expression in the worship of the same saint by both religious groups. Indeed, at the northern entrance of the city in question, on the side of a small mountain on the right is a cave, which, according to the hagiographic literature of both Judaism and Islam, is home to the tomb of a saint venerated by the two religious communities. The site is deftly called Kaf al-Moumen “the Cave of the Believer”, without specifying which Abrahamic believer is it about. Nobody seemed to care about such a detail, anyway, ever.
The people of Sefrou, so confident in their ancestral traditions have never asked themselves the question whether it is one and the same saint for the two religions or for two different saints. In a way, such a question was totally superfluous for them. A saint is a saint.
This question, so relevant to some fundamentalists on both sides, was of no importance to the people of Sefrou. Their religious coexistence was so strong and solid that they laid out strict time periods to visit the cave around the religious calendar of each denomination and, for centuries during, this calendar worked wonderfully, for all, and without any problems and it could have continued to function if the Jews of this city had not left following campaigns of incitement of Jewish American and international agencies to make them migrate to Israel.
This religious coexistence was not the prerogative of the city of Sefrou, indeed there were plenty of similar examples in other localities of Morocco, whether they are imperial cities or small towns of little importance.
This coexistence, although effective throughout the territory, hid a phenomenon of latent racism, nevertheless, among certain social groups, especially the rich who saw the success of Moroccan Jews with great jealousy, and expressed this feeling by bullying, aggressive verbal behavior, or simply by invoking religion and viewing the Jew and the Christian as impure beings, and using, therefore, the Arabic racist and condescending term “hashak” (meaning impure being) when mentioning their names or referring to them.
In 1956, Morocco regained its national independence from France, and attended powerless or half-consenting, to the emigration of its small Jewish communities from the mellahs of the Atlas, followed closely by those of the medium-sized cities of the Kingdom, towards the young state of Israel. The danger, then, lay in the fact that:
“The Jews of Morocco were anxious to safeguard first and foremost what was the pivot of their existence : religion and erudition, without paying too much attention to keeping the material evidence of a life nourished by millennial tradition”
The year before the independence of Morocco, was marked by massive emigration of Jews, and by a series of deadly attacks. Zédé Schulmann’s sons left the country permanently to settle in France and their collection of Moroccan Jewish folk art was shipped to Jerusalem via Marseille. Ten years later, in 1965, during the inauguration of the Israel Museum, Zédé Schulmann and all the donors, occupied the places of honor, at this celebration, and received medals for “having saved the treasures of the tradition and the Jewish folk art.”
In 1973, the Museum organized the first major exhibition ever devoted to the Jews of Morocco, to “highlight the contribution of Moroccan Judaism to the culture and universal Jewish thought.” The exhibition is mainly based on the collection of objects, documents, photographs and films collected by Jean Besancenot and Zédé Schulmann. A warm tribute was paid to the latter for the passion with which he had engaged in “these real campaigns of rescue.”
In his autobiography, which he wrote two years before his death in 1981, Zédé Schulmann testified to his action as a necessary task, which he was proud to have accomplished, but which he does not intend to derive any glory from : “if I had not done this work at that time, it would have been impossible to do it.” However, he helped make Moroccan Judaism known and to preserve it from a prejudicial oversight and time decay.
Between 1948 and 1968, almost all Jewish families in Sefrou decided to abandon their « Little Jerusalem » and millennial Morocco to emigrate to Israel. A Moroccan Jew himself and believing to be : “one of the last Davids born in Sefrou”, David Assouline collected testimonies and archive footage to understand the reasons for such a massive departure which might be one or all of the following reasons : end of the French protectorate, independence of Morocco, creation of the State of Israel, Israeli-Arab wars, Oujda pogrom of July 1944, proselytism of the Universal Israelite Alliance, socialist ideal of the Kibbutz, etc. It is, indeed, a whole cluster of fears and hopes that pushed the Jews of Sefrou to go to the Promised Land.
But, faced with the Ashkenazi contempt for these so-called “knife-cut Moroccans”, the people of Sefrou had to fight to find their place in Israel and to found their new city : Ashdod. Today, as Youval says : “resentment is no longer appropriate, nor is idealism.” But for Moshe, Samuel, Aba, David, and even for their descendants, Sefrou remains a mythical dream, whose nostalgic memory remains “a sweet wound”
The documentary of David Assouline is, definitely, a must-see for the beautiful images of this peaceful past in the medina and discover, once again, that the drama of integration is not necessarily played where we expect it. For the elders of Sefrou, the promised land had a bitter taste : “I was a master, I became a servant,” says one of them who recounts the humiliations, haughtiness and the morgue of the Jews of Europe (Ashknaze) and the girls who turn their backs on Moroccan Jews. To end up accommodating : “My sons, at least have not been treated dirty Jews.”
What remains of Sefrou, the little Jerusalem of Morocco, the beloved oriental paradise of Colette ? A memory, a sweet wound for the children of these thousands of Jews who lived formerly in this small Moroccan town close to Fez. “The land of Israel was here,” said Moshe, one of the last Jews to leave Sefrou for Israel. They left one after the other, driven by the Moroccan independence, the wars of the Middle East and this diffuse fear which stifled the sweetness of living together, Jews and Arabs, without conflicts or hatred, whatsoever.
If these Jews and their descendants love Morocco so much, today, despite the passing of time, it is because this country is an integral part of their personal history. For most of them, Morocco is the land of their ancestors, a beloved land that has generally treated them well. The position of Mohammed V during the Second World War was not forgotten : he refused to surrender Moroccan Jews to the Vichy regime who wanted to deport them, stating that all Moroccans are Jews. Later, Hassan II did not cease to recognize the integral part of the Jews and Judaism in the Moroccan identity. As for King Mohammed VI, he ensured that Judaism is among the “secular tributaries” of national identity, and inscribed it , in gold, in the constitution of 2011 :
« With fidelity to its irreversible choice to construct a democratic State of Law, the Kingdom of Morocco resolutely pursues the process of consolidation and of reinforcement of the institutions of a modern State, having as its bases the principles of participation, of pluralism and of good governance. It develops a society of solidarity where all enjoy security, liberty, equality of opportunities, of respect for their dignity and for social justice, within the framework of the principle of correlation between the rights and the duties of the citizenry.
A sovereign Muslim State, attached to its national unity and to its territorial integrity, the Kingdom of Morocco intends to preserve, in its plentitude and its diversity, its one and indivisible national identity. Its unity, is forged by the convergence of its Arab-Islamist, Berber [amazighe] and Saharan-Hassanic [saharo-hassanie] components, nourished and enriched by its African, Andalusian, Hebraic and Mediterranean influences [affluents]. The preeminence accorded to the Muslim religion in the national reference is consistent with [va de pair] the attachment of the Moroccan people to the values of openness, of moderation, of tolerance and of dialog for mutual understanding between all the cultures and the civilizations of the world. »