Morocco, reweaving yarns of a faded embroidery

Morocco, reweaving yarns of a faded embroidery

16/10/2021 by Nassima Chahboun

Introduction:

Al Matrouz (from Arabic: المطروز, literally: the embroidered) is a Moroccan musical concept that is no longer widely performed.[1] Its poetic name is in reference to the artistic intertwining of components from four distinct cultures: Stanzas from Moroccan Darija, which is a mixture of Arabic vocabulary and Amazigh syntax, are harmoniously inserted into Hebrew poetry, and performed to the tune of Andalusian melodies.[2]  Therefore, every Matrouz song is a colourful embroidery in which some yarns are Arab, while others are Andalusian, Jewish and Amazigh. 

Al Matrouz is also a reminder that the current Arabo-Islamic cities of Morocco were originally colourful pieces of embroidery, where buildings and streets were composed of intertwined yarns of different colours and cultures.

Today, many non-Arabo-Islamic monuments have been deteriorated or forsaken, and many practices and rituals have been forgotten. Yet, some resistant yarns still remain: monuments, neighbourhoods and celebrations that are still living and authentic, and like the Matrouz, that still genuinely embody and revive the fading face of a multicultural country.

This article explores places where doors and arms are still widely open to embrace multiculturalism and diversity.

Synagogue of Bayt Dakira, By Nassima Chahboun, CC BY-SA 4.0

Bayt Dakira (literally: House of Memory) is a Jewish museum located in the old Medina of Essaouira, in the Jewish quarter. The building, which was formerly comprised of a house and a synagogue that dates back to the 19th century, now hosts exhibition spaces and a research centre on the history of relations between Judaism and Islam, while the synagogue preserved its religious function.[3]

Beyond museumification, Bayt Dakira offers a multi-layered experience where accuracy meets metaphor, and mere observation is fused with kinaesthetic experience. Besides the different academic learning supports, such as books, archives and ethnographic items, the visitor is invited to explore the Moroccan-Jewish daily life and religious rituals through the architectural details, spatial repartition and authentic objects that are preserved in the synagogue. Furthermore, the synergy between the physical space and the intangible elements that are key components of the place, such as music, contributes to rendering the experience more immersive and emotional. This scenography also includes the poetic display of objects put on display in the different spaces, such as in the main hall where an open Quran and an open Torah are in close proximity to one another, as a subtle reference to interculturality. 

Torah and Quran in Bayt Dakira – By Nassima Chahboun, CC BY-SA 4.0

Finally, in the building entrance, a powerful message of peace and coexistence, adopting the concept of Al Matrouz, sums up the raison d’être of Bayt Dakira: “Peace be upon you” through a harmonious juxtaposition of Arabic and Hebrew: “Shalom Alaykom, Salam Lekoulam”.

Shalom Alaykom, Salam Lekoulam – By Tomi Valny, CC BY-SA 4.0

Not far from Bayt Dakira one can find the synagogue of Rabbi Haim Pinto, one of the most famous synagogues in North Africa.[4] Haim Pinto (1748–1845) was the chief rabbi of the city of Essaouira.[5] The synagogue was built in 1837 as part of the family house.[6] Since the death of Pinto, his mausoleum and his house have become places of pilgrimage for Jews who come from all over the world to commemorate the anniversary of his death. The synagogue receives more than 2,000 annual pilgrims on the day of the anniversary of his death, called Hillula.[7] It is open for individual prayers and visits throughout the year.

Further, considering that the Jewish quarters of most Moroccan cities, including Essaouira, have witnessed a long period of decline and deterioration after the departure of their Jewish communities, the preservation of Haim Pinto synagogue has been an exception.[8] 

In fact, this synagogue has been standing for 200 years thanks to the personal efforts of the “Id Darouz”, a Muslim Amazigh family. Today, the keys to the synagogue are held by Malika Id Darouz, following the path of her father. She does not only participate in the organization of the annual Hillula, as she is also present for every individual visit to open the synagogue’s doors and accompany the visitors.[9]

For 200 years, the synagogue of Haim Pinto has been a place of gathering, celebration, reminiscence, and most importantly, of strong human connections between two families from completely different backgrounds.

Interior of Haim Pinto Synagogue – By Nassima Chahboun, CC BY-SA 4.0

From interaction to inter-influence

Beyond coexistence and synergies, the relationship between these major components of the Moroccan culture has also been characterized by inter-influence. One of the most striking examples of this phenomenon is found in the Medina of Tetouan.

In the surroundings of Isaac Ben Walid Synagogue, located in the Jewish quarter,[10] one can find a traditional mural drinking fountain, open to the public. According to the inscription on the top of the fountain, the fountain was donated by a Tetuani Jewish man. The charitable aspect, as well as the proximity to the synagogue, recalls the prominent tradition of “Sebil” or “Seqqaya” in the Islamic culture, which consists in offering an “ongoing charity” (Sadaqah Jariyah) through building small fountains in vibrant public spaces, especially mosques, where water is freely dispensed to members of the public.[11]

The Jewish “Sabil” – By Yamen Bousrih, CC BY-SA 4.0

Another interesting example is the synagogue of Chalom Zaoui in the Medina of Rabat. Menahem Dahan, the last rabbi of this synagogue, was widely known and venerated by both Jewish and Muslims in the city.[12] Besides leading the religious rituals and providing religious education to the Jewish community, he was consulted by different people for advice, prayer and traditional medication. His house, which was right beside the synagogue, was a melting-pot and a welcoming gathering space for everyone, regardless of their cultural and religious backgrounds. But in January 2020, Menahem Dahan exhaled his last breath, and another yarn of the colourful Moroccan embroidery was lost.[13] 

Menahem Dahan opening the door of Chalom Zaoui synagogue – By Yamen Bousrih, CC BY-SA 4.0

Today, many Jewish monuments have been restored and reopened to the public as part of a broader movement which started at the beginning of the 2000s aimed at reviving Amazigh and Jewish intangible heritage.[14] Nonetheless, Moroccan culture is still commonly identified as merely Arabo-Islamic. For this reason, it is important to go beyond the restoration of buildings as stand-alone objects, and to act beyond the museumification of the tangible heritage and the folklorisation of the intangible one. 

We should rethink our traditional fabrics in a holistic way, in order to reinvolve the non-Arabo-Muslim components at every level of interaction between the local communities and their shared heritage and culture, and to ensure that these components are not solely known by Moroccans, but grasped and genuinely experienced as part of their daily life.


References:

[1] Haïm Zafrani, Deux mille ans de vie juive au Maroc : histoire et culture, religion et magie, Paris : Maisonneuve & Larose, 1983. 

[2] Ibid.

[3] Amine Boushaba, “Bayt Dakira, the Jewish Memory of Essaouira”, L’Economiste.com, 7 November 2019, available at: https://www.leconomiste.com/article/1052840-bayt-dakira-la-memoire-juive-d-essaouira

[4] Joel Zack, The Synagogues of Morocco: An Architectural and Preservation Survey, New York: Jewish Heritage Council and World Monuments Fund, 1992.

[5] Daniel J. Schroete, The Sultan’s Jew: Morocco and the Sephardi World, Redwood: Stanford University Press, 2002. 

[6] Tarek Bouraque, “Rabbi Haïm Pinto, symbole de tolérance judéo-musulmane”, 8 August 2014, Telquel.ma, available at: https://telquel.ma/2014/08/08/synagogue-haim-pinto-symbole-tolerance-judeo-musulmane_1411216

[7]Maghreb Arabe Presse, “Jews celebrate hilloula of rabbi Haim Pinto western Morocco”, 15 September 2006, available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20070213010436/http://www.map.ma/eng/sections/culture/jews_celebrate_hillo/view. 

[8] Michael Frank, “In Morocco, Exploring Remnants of Jewish History” , The New York Times, 30 May 2015, available at:https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/31/travel/in-morocco-exploring-remnants-of-jewish-history.html

[9] Tarek Bouraque, “Rabbi Haïm Pinto, symbole de tolérance judéo-musulmane”, 8 August 2014, Telquel.ma, available at: https://telquel.ma/2014/08/08/synagogue-haim-pinto-symbole-tolerance-judeo-musulmane_1411216.

[10] Diarna, “Tetouan Synagogue, Tetouan, Morocco”, accessed on 29 September 2021, available at: http://archive.diarna.org/site/detail/public/1589/

[11] Saleh Lamei Mostafa, “The Cairene Sabil: Form and Meaning”, Muqarnas, 1989, vol. 6, pp. 33–42. 

[12] Laurent de Saint Perier, “Maroc : le Rabat sépia du dernier rabbin”, Jeune Afrique, 9 November 2013, available at: https://www.jeuneafrique.com/135642/societe/maroc-le-rabat-s-pia-du-dernier-rabbin/

[13] Simon Benbachir, “Décès du rabbin Menahem Dahan”, Moroccan Jewish Times, 13 January 2021, available at: https://www.moroccojewishtimes.com/2021/01/13/deces-du-rabbin-menahem-dahan/#:~:text=La%20communaut%C3%A9%20juive%20du%20Maroc,il%20a%20re%C3%A7u%20son%20%C3%A9ducation

[14] JTA, “Fez, Morocco’s synagogue is restored”, IJN | Intermountain Jewish News, 21 February 2013, available at: https://www.ijn.com/fez-moroccos-synagogue-is-restored/.

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