Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Jewish Life in Morocco

Unique photographs of Jewish life in southern Morocco in the 1950s are on display at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam. Today, only dilapidated synagogues and empty cemeteries are the reminders of what was once a vibrant community. The photographer Elias Harrus (1919-2008) took pictures portraying Jewish life in southern Morocco in the 1950s, before most of the country's Jews migrated en masse to Israel. The Dutch photographer Pauline Prior travelled to the same locations last year to photograph what remains of this heritage. Her photos provide a dramatic contrast. 
"My grandmother told me that Jewish and Berber women used to work the land together," says the secretary of Amsterdam's district council of Zeeburg, Fatima Elatik, at the opening of the exhibition.
"They spoke the same language, had the same culture and sang the same songs. I always found it a very special story."
The Jews lived around 2,000 years in Morocco, usually in harmony with their Berber neighbours. Since the establishment of Israel in 1948 most of the 270,000 Moroccan Jews have emigrated to the Jewish state. Only a small community remains. Today most Jews live in the large cities in the north of the country. The first wave of migration was underway when Elias Harrus took his photographs.
Harrus worked for much of his life for schools founded by the Alliance IsraƩlite Universelle, a Jewish educational organisation dedicated to the emancipation of Jews in Muslim countries by advocating a modern, secular education. As an insider his photographs document the daily life of the Jews of southern Morocco in intimate detail.
The organiser of the exhibition, Sulimat Cohen, says Eliat Harrus' photographs form a unique testimony.
"They recorded the life of a community just before it disappeared."
The photographs testify to the good relations between the Jews and the Berbers. They had daily contact and depended on one another financially. You see Jews working in the trades in which they specialised, such as tanning leather and jewellery making. They fashioned the famous silver ornaments which Berber women in southern Morocco would wear on their wedding day.
There are also portraits of Sunday markets where Jews and Muslims would work side by side. 
Sulimat Cohen: "The Jews often worked as merchants who would travel through the mountains from market to market.This would have been very dangerous for the Berbers, since the different clans were often at odds. However the Jews enjoyed protection from everyone due to their important economic function."

Cohen points to comments made by a Berber merchant in southern Morocco which were cited by English writer John Waterbury: "Before the arrival of the French we were always fighting one another. However there were two rules which everyone abided by. We did not tolerate prostitution among our women. And whatever we did to one another, we would never touch a hair on a Jew's head."
What is left of the Jewish presence in southern Morocco? In 2008 the Jewish Historical Museum sent the Dutch photographer Pauline Prior to the Atlas mountain range and the Sahara to look for traces. Her photographs are on display alongside those of Harrus. Harrus' portraits are full of people, while those of Prior are silent and empty. You see dilapidated synagogues, a desolate Jewish neighbourhood and an unused cemetery.
However the cemeteries - especially the graves of holy rabbis - are the most lively places photographed by Prior. Moroccan Jews revere holy men who worked wonders during their lives the same as Moroccan Muslims do. The graves of holy men are scattered across Moroccow, many of them Jewish. Moroccan Jews who live in Israel frequently visit some of them.

Amsterdam district council secretary Fatima Elatik says most young people of Moroccan origin in the Netherlands have little knowledge of the close contact which Jews and Muslims once had in Morocco. She hopes that many children of Moroccan origin will visit the exhibition.

Click here to read the entire article and here to visit the Jewish Historical Museum Amsterdam.

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