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Ethiopian Falash Mura people attend class at a transit camp in Addis Ababa Sunday April 9 2000. Photo by AP
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Diarna
A holy ark in a synagogue in Arazane. Photo by Diarna

For Jews with European roots, heritage tours to Europe have been a popular option for years. But what about the history and culture of other Jewish communities, from Arab and Muslim countries, many of which are not easily accessible? For decades after the disappearance or near-disappearance of those communities in the middle of the 20th century, Jews of North African or Middle Eastern descent have had to rely on memories and written documentation to pass on historical knowledge to the next generation.

So here's something else the Internet has dramatically altered: the preservation of memory and the virtual recreation of Jewish communities in North Africa and the Middle East. Dozens of websites have sprung up, documenting specific communities with old photographs and historical information about people and places.

One of the latest efforts is that by an organization called Diarna ("diarna" means "our home" in Judeo-Arabic ), which has launched an unprecedented and ambitious effort to use Google Earth satellite technology to map as many as possible of the Jewish cultural sites across the Arab world and in Iran. The project "Diarna: Mapping Mizrahi Heritage" was developed over the last several years by a group of academics, historians, social entrepreneurs, technology gurus, photographers and local residents of the countries in question - most of the latter group Muslims.

"[These people] realized the opportunities afforded by Google Earth and new database technologies to document endangered Jewish heritage sites," says Jason Guberman-Pfeffer, Diarna's project coordinator, and executive director of the nonprofit organization Digital Heritage Mapping, which oversees the effort.

The project's website, Diarna.org, offers tiltable views, 360-degree rotation and zoom-in options to allow people to get a peek at the tombs of Esther and Mordechai in Hamadan, Iran, or at Beirut's Magen Avraham Synagogue.

Over the past two years, Diarna has documented sites in nearly every country in the region being surveyed - a total of 650, of which 400 are in Morocco, and including tiny Jewish communities in Oman, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Sudan that have disappeared.

The entrepreneurs behind the project - a core group in Boston, plus people in other U.S. cities and volunteers in the various countries - have amassed thousands of photographs, videos and other information, and have conducted 12 research expeditions. The result of their efforts is that surfers on the Diarna website are brought back in time and can now gaze, wide-eyed, at contemporary views of places where their grandparents were buried.

Obviously, many of the sites are known and were previously documented in some way. Diarna's "added value" is bringing together archival materials with new visual documentation, including geo-mapping data and, in some cases, new historical information - all presented in a most compelling way, says Guberman-Pfeffer, who adds, "In many cases we are documenting sites that have not been seen in decades or have never previously been documented.

"Jews have lived in communities from the edge of the Sahara in southern Morocco to the Iranian-Afghani border for thousands of years. In the past few decades, and vividly illustrated recently with the flight of most of Yemen's dwindling Jewish community, most of these ancient communities have ceased to exist in essence or in fact," Guberman-Pfeffer explains. "As a result, future generations are losing tangible connections to the Middle East's rich Jewish cultural heritage. But while community members have left, their former structures and sites often remain behind.

"As memories fade and physical structures decay, we are in a race against time to preserve priceless cultural heritage before it is forever lost. We feel the urgency of capturing these memories now before the fraying chords of memory are completely broken," he adds.

Safe, but hard to access

All information posted on Diarna.org was gathered firsthand. To document Jewish heritage sites, the organization doesn't necessarily dispatch American or Jewish researchers and photographers, which could constitute a security problem; in fact, locals are often enthusiastic about helping. For example, a resident of Isfahan, one of Iran's oldest cities, helped to map all the local synagogues, and elderly Iraqi Jews helped Diarna staff to locate sites in Baghdad via Google Earth from the comfort of their homes.

The collective effort in Morocco is Diarna's first "exhibit" - a stand-alone website that unveils many previously undocumented sites for the first time. Called D'fina (meaning "buried treasure" in Moroccan Judeo-Arabic ), the site includes, among other things, 360-degree photos and video recordings of interviews, including with Muslim synagogue caretakers and local artisans. For instance, an artisan from the Saharan town of Amazrou, near the Algerian border, recalls learning his trade from Jews. But the most unique feature of D'fina is its Google Earth tour, where viewers can swoop in on individually marked shrines and synagogues, as well as Jewish cemeteries, homes and schools.

Before Israel's founding, 265,000 Jews lived in Morocco. Now there are fewer than 7,000 - the largest number of Jews living in any Arab or Muslim country. (The last Jew in Fez's mellah, or Jewish quarter, left two years ago. ) For its part, the D'fina exhibit focuses on the Amazigh, or Berber, region of southern Morocco.

Diarna's researchers sought to highlight Morocco first "because of the little-known richness of the area," says Guberman-Pfeffer. "The sheer number of sites that can be digitally preserved is staggering. You have stunning mountaintop shrines, Vichy camps where Jews were interned during the Holocaust and incredible stories of Muslim guardians preserving Jewish heritage."

In addition, Raphy Elmaleh, the only Jewish tour guide who lives and works in Morocco, contributed reams of information, says Guberman-Pfeffer. But just because it was relatively safe to visit the Moroccan sites didn't mean it was easy: The Vichy camps and cemeteries in towns like Figuig and Boudenib, where the Baba Sali (Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira ) was based for many years, are in the middle of nowhere; Elmaleh's 4x4 jeep twice broke down in the middle of the Sahara desert en route to these sites.

One of the unique features of Diarna is that many of its foot soldiers - researchers and photographers who work pro bono - are comprised of a growing number of people who are simply curious about the Jewish communities being surveyed, hear about the project and want to contribute. Indeed this is increasingly becoming a grass-roots effort: For instance, for a recent tour of Morocco that the Andrea & Charles Bronfman Philanthropies organized for young American Jews, Diarna provided basic information on Jewish sites that team members had mapped, but that needed additional documentation. The trip leaders created a scavenger hunt of sorts, asking group members to document heritage sites for the D'fina project.

In addition, Jews who emigrated from these countries a half-century ago are sitting down at the computer with Diarna staff in front of Google Earth, which lets them sharpen their recollections of places and sites, and help identify places that have been slowly receding from collective memory.

Alma Heckman spent a summer in Morocco for the project, and then a year there on a Fulbright scholarship after graduating from Wellesley College in 2009. She documented the forced labor camps in southern Morocco and Algeria where the French Vichy government sent Jewish refugees and other foreign nationals, some of them Jews, who had volunteered for and fought in the French army. Some 4,000 Jews worked in approximately 30 such camps on the pan-Saharan railroad line, and conditions were harsh. Heckman and a team of fellow Fulbright students took a nine-hour train ride east from Rabat, joined up with a local professor, then got clearance from the police chief in the area, where tensions run high along the border. They traveled through rough terrain, much of which couldn't be traversed by car, eventually locating and tracking the coordinates of each camp with Global Positioning System technology, and emerging with a large collection of photos and videos.

Another volunteer is Maria Douich, a Muslim who grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Casablanca. She gathered data about Jewish Casablanca for D'fina, using her native Arabic and French, and her familiarity with the city of her childhood. Her grandfather was a fabric merchant whose clients were Jewish, and her family was the only non-Jewish one in their apartment building.

Hebrew University's Prof. Yoram Bilu, who has done groundbreaking work on the veneration of saints in Moroccan Jewish communities, helped a Diarna team map several sites around a remote village in southern Morocco, where a rabbi named Ya'aqov Wazana lived in the first half of the 20th century. Bilu's research on Wazana, says Guberman-Pfeffer, "brings to life the social, psychological and other characteristics of this tradition that are otherwise largely unintelligible to those who have not experienced a hillula [pilgrimage on the anniversary of a sage's death] firsthand."

Keeping memory alive

The Diarna staff wants to replicate the D'fina model for other countries in the region and beyond, and is well on the way to doing so in Egypt and Iraq. Diarna also has received documentation on Jewish heritage sites in places as diverse as Congo, Haiti and Burma. Its team is also involved in other efforts, such as in a recent exhibition on the region's Alliance Israelite Universelle network of Jewish schools. The exhibition was funded by the Leir Foundation, and held at Paris City Hall in honor of the network's 150th anniversary in September and October.

Diarna's biggest problem is funding, which so far has come mainly from foundations, recruited in part through partnerships with institutions like Wellesley College, Yad Ben-Zvi and Beth Hatefutsoth. Security isn't a serious issue - mostly because locals, and not Jews, Americans and Israelis, are the ones who are out in the field. Project organizers don't publicize the nature of the local volunteers' work, and Diarna declined to have its researchers go on record for this article, in order to enable them to continue to work unhindered.

Dealing with time pressures and finding suitable technology are constant challenges. "The amount of work that needs to be done and quickly to ensure that essential information is preserved before a key generation passes away is constantly on our minds," says Guberman-Pfeffer. Take, for an example, a "snapshot" of one volunteer's workload: Photographer Joshua Shamsi, from Boston, took a 13-day trip to Morocco in which he visited 33 sites, took 3,500 photos and shot about 10 hours of video. Plus the group has had to build a custom database to allow researchers to upload data to Google Earth rather than going through Diarna.

There have been a treasure trove of finds (see box ). One researcher, Ali Kaba, a West African Muslim, volunteered to track down sites in Tunis, a city that once boasted more than 80 synagogues, dozens of Jewish schools, kosher restaurants and a Jewish hospital, but is now home to only about 1,500 Jews. While walking down a dusty side street strewn with garbage, he discovered a small, faded Hebrew plaque above a doorway - all that remains of the tomb of Tunisia's 18th-century chief rabbi Messaoud Raphael el Fassi. Diarna researchers believe this is a new find, and they hadn't been sure the site existed until Kaba documented it, though an archival photo of it existed.

From Iraq, the volume of documentation is growing fast, as sites there are becoming increasingly accessible to foreigners. New photos of the famed Ezekiel's Tomb in al-Kifl have recently emerged, as have videos from Meir Tweig Synagogue, where Iraqi Jews once lined up en masse to sign up for Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, which brought most Iraqi Jews to Israel between 1950 and 1952.

Aomar Boum, assistant professor in Near Eastern studies and religious studies at the University of Arizona, is researching how Moroccan Jews maintain the memory of their communities and build new communities online. He has been watching Diarna develop. Moroccan Jews worldwide have continued to maintain their historical relationships with their native homeland long after the community disappeared, says Boum, who is writing a book-length monograph of oral histories of Jews, as told by multiple generations of Muslims in Morocco.

"Cyberspace is creating a new space for Jews outside Morocco to revive their Moroccan identity," he says. "For a Moroccan Jew who lives in France or the United States to see the tomb of his or her grandfather online without traveling is one of the achievements of these web communities." Other sites, he notes, like those dedicated to the Jews of Casablanca and the Jews of Tangiers, for instance, have helped Moroccan Jews by "recreating mini-virtual communities similar to the ones their parents left in Morocco."

Diarna's utilization of Google Earth technology, however, "makes you feel like you are there," Boum asserts. "This is not only good for members of these Jewish communities who live outside these countries to remember their past and heritage, but it is of great benefit to us as researchers and teachers."