In the works of Moroccan Jewish writers, authors, philosophers, and filmmakers, aspects are presented that illustrate a sense of double- or pluri-belonging, both to an abandoned homeland and to a new country of immigration; be it Israel, the mythical dreamt-of homeland; or, be it a foreign adopted country, devoid of any mythical connotations. Jews, originating from several places, may possess a sense of belonging to multiple locations at once. Consequently, they exhibit dual characteristics of simultaneously belonging to their place of birth and place of exile. The experience of the time spent in Spain, which in turn became an exile, remained firmly anchored in the sense of identity and collective belonging of Sephardic Jews, while the Sephardic identity reconciled itself in the colonial and post-colonial period of their new dwelling place. Thus, Jews hailing from Al Andalus retained a sense of belonging to and pride in their place of origin, which they inhabited for more than five hundred years before being exiled, once again. This feeling continued even when they reached their new destination, Morocco, and was further enriched by their heritage.
Jews, originating from several places, may possess a sense of belonging to multiple locations at once.
Based upon the works of various Jewish Moroccan creators, a significant difference is presented between those who emigrated to Israel and those who went to other countries (such as: France, Canada, or the United States). Specifically, it is those who emigrated to Israel who took the time to remember the country or town left behind, manifesting strong and complex feelings of double-belonging and identity. Conversely, those who emigrated to other countries maintained a greater distance from their native country or town, often mentioning it only fleetingly or describing it in a detached manner, their preference to their current country strongly evident over Morocco, offering a less rose-tinted memory compared to the reality of the surroundings they found in their new country. Hence, it is the writers who have emigrated to Israel who present feelings of double or multiple identities of belonging, which is to say belonging to the city of their birth, to the country where they emigrated, and sometimes to an earlier place of exile, that of Spain.
Marcel Bénabou, a writer who emigrated to France, wrote about freeing himself from the “tyranny of memory,” yet remarked on the difference between those who had remained totally immersed in Morocco and those, like himself, who had managed to keep a distance. That distance of which Bénabou speaks of is a prime example of someone who did not emigrate to Israel, thus it was easier for him to keep a distance from the country left and to settle his conflicted emotions towards exile and the mythical land that Israel represented. Therefore, an unexpected correlation transpires between the mythical-ideological appeal to return to Israel, to the Homeland, and a strong sense of belonging to his place of origin, to Morocco, which is forever thought of as a country of exile.
Alternatively, Gavriel Bensimhon, an author and filmmaker, was born in 1938 in Sefrou and emigrated to Israel in 1947 aboard the first ship of immigrants. In the largely autobiographical Hebrew novel, Neurah be-hulzah kehullah1 set in Haifa, the writer tells the story of Yonaton Marciano, the young Sefrou-born protagonist, recounting tales with recognizable features of Bensimhon’s personal story. Over the course of the novel, “our” city of Sefrou becomes a place of reference and the fulcrum of the whole narration.
On the one hand, the protagonist would like to lay waste to the past in order to integrate faster into his new society, yet he demands that his past provide meaning to the present; this is the dilemma of a generation. How can the past be discarded away if Sefrou is a constant point of reference, the place to make comparison to and the root of his new existence? The present seems to exist only to recall Sefrou’s past.
Jerusalem is like the Fes medina, the same alleys, same voices, same colors, same smells, same music, and same children, but it is made of dreams
On the other hand, Sefrou and the Jews of Sefrou remain central to the narration. Awaiting the arrival of ships known to be carrying emigrants of Sefrou “in order to seek those among the new arrivals who belonged to us” (p.183) is described in vivid detail, rich in color and emotions, adding value that only a narration can provide.
Bensimhon notes that the Israeli landscape echoes the one left behind and appears to acquire meaning precisely because it harkens back to Morocco: “Jerusalem is like the Fes medina, the same alleys, same voices, same colors, same smells, same music, and same children, but it is made of dreams (p.148)”.
Haim Shiran, a director and producer, emigrated from Meknes to Israel. In his memoir Le rocher d’origin/ The rock of the origin2, his native town takes center stage, although he does not deny the difficulty of his years in Morocco and writes about a soirée dedicated to a celebration of Meknes at the Inbal theatre in Tel Aviv, after which a female friend reminded him that:
Life has certainly smiled more on me in my mature years in Israel than in my childhood. However, as my career progresses and the pages turn, I have never ceased ̶ I am well aware of it ̶ to shower praise upon my Meknes past … some will say that this book is a love song to Meknes … a friend of my youth (I said to him) “Why do you praise Meknes so much for we were not so really happy there?” In contrast to the ‘reality’ and to my intentions, despite the pain accompanying the re-opening of old sores, I was probably unable to get out of my mind this indelible love which untidily encompasses everything relating to my origins. (p. 97)
In a similar vein, Ami Bouganim, author and philosopher, born in 1951 in Mogador (today Essaouira) and who emigrated to Israel in 1970, has never ceased to evoke Mogador in all his tales and novels. Bouganim has continued to write his stories in French, the language he grew up with and the one allowing him to tell the tale of his exile, an exile comprising three migrations: from Jerusalem, Spain, and Morocco.
Bouganim, in his most autobiographical novel Es-Saouira de Mogador3 has not only written of Jewish Mogador but also detailed the origins of his town, its history, landscape, and artists. Bouganim offers us precise insights into the complex relationship between Jews and Muslims. Sparse in words yet rich in meaning, he offers us a glimpse into the symmetry of those relationships. The reality of Morocco is compared to that of Israel, defined as a supreme mellah-ghetto:
We did not barter the dusty and worm-eaten ghettos and mellahs with a supreme ghetto-mellah where military justification matters more than reason of state and messianic unreason more than political reason, to the point that Israel has no more moral lessons to give anyone either in terms of human charity or of social justice. (p.242)
He writes of coexistence with Muslims without mythicizing it as well as of his own position as an unbeliever who has, nonetheless, taken an interest in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. His is not only a Jewish Mogador, but a Mogador shared by Jews and Muslims, windswept, inhabited by seagulls and the ocean, and where in the 1950s Jews made up 40 percent of the population.
It is illuminating to read the phrases, expressed with a vein of irony and play on words, which he offers on the complex identity of the Moroccan Jew and correspondingly regarding his own identity, in particular as a son of Mogador:
I remained Moroccan, a son of Mogador, more Berber than Arab, with Jewish insanity. And yet in Morocco we were living as foreigners. It was not our country and could not become so. We were at once admitted and excluded, persecuted and protected, hidden and visible. We were happy and unhappy, confiding and reserved … We did not wish to bother ̶ we maintained a prudent reserve ̶ and we did not wish to mix ̶ we kept our distance. We were always about to depart and had been for thousands of years, destined to a better fate (p.44).
Living with this type of attitude, of those always ready to depart and destined for another place for more than a millennium, as well as nurturing the discourse of exile, resulted in a generation which eventually departed only to find itself remembering the past, which they had so desired to leave. We will find this attitude common in other writers.
Who could expect that coming to Israel as an immigrant would put an end to that double personality of the Jew as an exile and to the multiplicity of his identities?
For example, Shelomo Elbaz, a writer originally from Marrakesh, emigrated to Israel when he was already 33 years old. The long period he spent in Morocco is reflected in his writing and evident in the title of his memoirs: Marrakesh-Jerusalem: The Native Land of my Soul.4 Elbaz weaves a complex illustration of what it means to hold plural identities, as he notes:
“Plural, crossbred, assimilated, impure
And, in last place,
Israeli” (p. 64)
Exemplifying the meaning of possessing double or multiple identities, as he highlighted in his memoir:
Who could expect that coming to Israel as an immigrant would put an end to that double personality of the Jew as an exile and to the multiplicity of his identities? In truth, the result is the opposite. The proof is that in Morocco I carried three identities within myself. A (spiritual) Jewish identity, a (civic) Moroccan identity, and a (cultural) French identity. Today in Israel I carry within myself a (civic) Israeli identity, a (national) Jewish identity and a (cultural) French identity, a (community) Oriental-Sephardic identity and that is not all. Something has remained of the cultural French identity. (p.92)
Elbaz claims that the two cities (Marrakesh and Jerusalem) corresponding to his two homelands, share the same mental space, though he does endeavor to keep Marrakesh, his emotional city, at a distance; a distance that is not only measured geographically but also in terms of memory. Despite said intentions, both the physical city of his origins and the city of his memories continue to be dreamed of and idealized.
Moroccan Jews that have emigrated to Israel often evoke images of separation and amputation from the motherland, feeling as if they belong to two cities, that of birth and that of death.
Similarly, for Uzziel Hazan, an author, the Atlas Mountains possess a paradoxical symbolism. On the one hand, they provide a physical reminder and link to his hometown, on the other they serve as an amputation, separation, and detachment from his birthplace. Hazan was born in Morocco in 1945 and emigrated to Israel in 1955. In Armand,5 written in Hebrew, while describing the journey to see his grandfather, Hazan describes the difficult separation from his mother at birth. He compares it to the separation from his birthplace: “Here lies perhaps the origin of the persistent link between the uterus, the land, and one’s birthplace but also, many years after separation, between distance and severance. It is like an amputee still feeling the tips of their fingers long after they have been removed (p. 11).”
Moroccan Jews that have emigrated to Israel often evoke images of separation and amputation from the motherland, feeling as if they belong to two cities, that of birth and that of death. Both cities are joined by the same golden threads, to a life divided by exile in the homeland, ruled by feelings of sobriety and tenderness; and exile in Israel, ruled by intoxication and excitement, culminating in an indelible love for one’s city of origin, like an infant being nurtured by its mother.
Conversely, the writers that did not emigrate to Israel typically dwell more on the traumatic event of the departure itself and less on any nostalgic feeling for the city of their birth. For instance, David Bensoussan, originally from Mogador, who later emigrated to Canada, reconstructs in his historical novel, The Rosette of King Solomon,6 the generational line of Jews living in Morocco. He connects the Jews of Morocco directly to King Solomon, symbolized by a six-petal rosette. Each of these petals represent a generation who descended from Solomon, portraying their own unique story, handed down from generation to generation until our own times. Mogador, the author’s birthplace, receives great attention, as does the story of the fifty martyrs of Oufran, a tale of violence and abuse towards Jews in a small settlement in the south of Morocco. Only the Jews have retained a memory of what occurred there and carried that memory wherever they went.
The question of why the Jews left Morocco, which is still a matter of scientific debate, is a thorny and complex issue. In an attempt to provide some answers, Bensoussan has two young men, one Muslim and one Jewish, converse. From this conversation their differing stances are expressed. In their exchange, feelings of nostalgia are attributed above all to the Muslim, who feels the shadows of the Jewish past weigh on him, “the past of our town haunts us”:
“I can conceive that the French have returned to their home country,” says Mounir. “But why have the Jews left the town? They felt at home and lived in friendship with us!”
“They have nonetheless gone back to their homeland”, says Elika, “but how can we speak of homeland? They had lived on Moroccan soil for more than two millennia. The past of our town haunts us,” declares Mounir. Many of our elders talk of nostalgia of the town “at the time of the Jews.” Your ghosts gnaw in our walls. (p.230)
As with Bensoussan, the next writer expressed ambivalence towards his hometown. Jacob Cohen, a writer born in Meknes in 1944 and a resident of Montreal, Berlin, Casablanca, and Paris, tells in his novelThe Danger of Climbing onto the Terrace 7 of the kidnapping of a little girl, whose kidnappers try to convert her to Islam. In a novel that touches upon this delicate and controversial theme of the 1960s and 70s, the author grasps the opportunity to express his own nostalgia for Meknes:
“Did people live in peace in Meknes?”
“Well, to tell the truth … it was peace in fear but nonetheless peace … it was also more cheerful, warmer … and in this vapid life (in Israel) … even the parties had no taste. Have you forgotten Meknes? The clandestine departures, the humiliations…” (p.12).
Accordingly, as someone who did not emigrate to Israel, Cohen expresses criticism of the migratory experiences of Moroccan Jews towards their mythical homeland:
They had left the mellah because we had nothing to expect from the Muslims, despite the fine words, except to find themselves in a similar situation, openly exposed to the sarcasm of humorists and politicians. The Moroccans again lowered their gaze, this time before other Jews who believed in Western superiority… “The portrait of the colonized” described him, well fitted, this has become an intrinsic part of his being. Ashamed of his origins, he would say he was from Marseilles. (p. 35)
For Ruth Knafo Setton, who was born in Safi and emigrated as a child to the United States at the end of the 1960s, her past is colored black but splashed with color: “When I look back into our past as Moroccan Jews, it’s dark, like the mellah. A dark line, broken by glimpses of sun”8. In the novel, written in English, Setton revisits the story of Sol Hatchuel, known to Muslims as Lalla Suleika (“Holy Lady Suleika”), the girl from Tangiers who in 1834 chose martyrdom rather than surrender her faith. In the novel, it is a return journey to Morocco which recounts the weight of family memory. The environment described is that of the Moroccan Jews belonging to the upper class, who remained in Morocco after many left in the 1950s and 60s. In this context, anyone who stayed behind maintained a disillusioned vision of Israel, which no longer corresponded to that of a mythical country dreamed of for centuries. The only people who continued to dream were the older generation, subjugated by a still memory and image.
This feeling of disillusionment is evident in the writings of Daniel Sibony, a French psychoanalyst born in Marrakesh in 1942 and later relocating to Paris. Sibony exhibits feelings of belonging to his native city. These emotions fed on the roots of the Diaspora and were built on the hopes surrounding the eminent departure from Morocco:
As for me, I’m back in my native city where I never felt at home and here I once again have the impression of only feeling “at home” when I’m due to leave; throughout all my childhood I have felt it within my body… it is one exile which takes over from another, where we were not at home. In Marrakesh we were deeply “rooted” and these roots were made of exile, just by the fact of being there9.
It was exile which, although represented as a delightful, festive act, remained nonetheless an exile: “our exile was of those which are made of uncertain little acts of home-building and are delightful, festive, radiant havens (p.15).”
The narrator objects to those Jews who stayed in Marrakesh when they declare themselves satisfied and lacking in nothing; a nothing that has permeated throughout their entire lives:
“We have everything here (tbark llah ̶ thanks be to God); we lack nothing.” Yet the nothing lacking seems to have invaded everything. The emptiness I encountered was filled by our presence ̶ our gestures, our bustling activity, our arguments, our parties and our desire to leave. (p.144)
In conclusion, it would seem that the phrase uttered by Bensoussan, “How happy within himself is the Moroccan Jew and how infinitely happier he is outside Morocco,” may be true above all for those Jews who have left Morocco for Europe, Canada or the United States and less so for the Jews who emigrated to Israel. The feeling of a double sense of belonging, on the one hand to one’s city and country of origin and on the other to the country of arrival, as described, are noticeably present among those who have emigrated to Israel. There is an ideology of denying the memory of the past, denying the Arab language and culture, or put simply denying the possibility of having a dual Jewish-Arab identity. Despite this, the past seems even more ready to rise up in the generation that left Morocco as children or adolescents, and contribute to a diaspora identity within Israel, forming a “Little Morocco” in Israel.
Throughout, we have borne witness to the colonial mechanism aiming to distance Jews from the country they were living in, which had become an object of contempt. This mechanism worked very well, favoring the growth of new Jewish élites educated in French colonial history, geography, culture, and politics but ignorant of the country they were living in and wishing only to leave. This colonial mechanism has been reproduced in Israel, in a post-colonial context, with paradoxical and opposite effects. In other words, the furrow between Jewish-Moroccan and Arab culture and Muslim-Moroccan culture, has allowed the culture of the past to be devalued but also triggered a desire, on the part of those who left their old world behind, to treasure, recover, discover, bequeath and lament it.
It was different for Moroccan Jews who emigrated to other countries, where the burden of memory was indeed lightened through the process of writing and creation, but without excessive value being granted to the past. In Israel, nostalgia mixed with frustration promoted the desire to “return,” for no other reason than as a result of writing about and composing the image of Morocco that had been devalued, through the expression of feeling as if they belonged to multiple locations and identities.
Due to the variable nature of our posts and the wide spectrum of ideas exchanged, we feel it is important to clarify that the thoughts and opinions shared in posts and articles reflect the opinions of the author and are not representative of our contributors as a whole.
- Gavriel Bensimhon, Neurah be-hulzah kehullah, Young Girl in the Light-Blue Shirt, Tel Aviv: YediotAhronot Books, 2013
- Haim Shiran, Le rocher d’origine, The rock of the origin, Paris, La compagnie Litteraire, 2013
- Ami Bouganim, Es-Saouira de Mogador, témoignage, Avant Propos, Waterloo, 2013
- Shelomo Elbaz, Marrakesh-Jerusalem: The native land of my soul, Avant Propos, Matanel Fondation, Luxembourg, 2013
- Uzziel Hazan, Armand, Sifriat Po’alim, Tel Aviv,1982
- David Bensoussan, La rosace du roi Salomon, the rosette of King Solomon, Paris: Les Éditions Du Lys, 2011
- Jacob Cohen, Du danger monter sur la terrasse, The danger of climbing onto the terrace, Rabat: Tarik Editions, 2006
- The road to Fez, California: Counterpart, 2001, p. 85
- Daniel Sibony, Marrakesh, le départ, Marrakesh, the departure, Paris: Odile Jacob 2009 p.14-15