n a small room within a large house its construction nearly complete with a breathtaking view of a valley of argan trees, a Moroccan carpenter planes doors made of local cedar wood. It seems unlikely that he knows exactly what he is making. In fact, for the past few weeks he has been building the holy ark for the synagogue of the Moroccan community of Kfar Sava. When the ark is ready, the owner of the house, Claude Senouf, a Jewish painter and journalist, will ship it to the central Israeli city, where it will be dedicated in honor of his grandfather, Raoul, who was one of Morocco’s moneyed elite. By then, too, the construction of Senouf’s magnificent home in western Morocco, not far from the town of Essaouira on the Atlantic coast, will be finished.
You may not have heard of Essaouira, but it was the birthplace of A.B. Yehoshua’s mother. The future writer was sent there in 1950, during the period of the austerity regime in Israel, to cavort for three months with his cousins. He has not been back since. Yehoshua told me that it was in Essaouira that the seeds of his 1997 novel “Voyage to the End of the Millennium” began to germinate. This week, an herbs and spices stall in the local market still had signs in Hebrew, such as: “Heightens desire for men and women,” and “Operates against kidney stones.”
Also born in this colorful town, the only place in the Arab world that had a Jewish majority, were Andre Azoulay and his wife, Katia. I have met few people as impressive as Azoulay, the long-time chief adviser to the king of Morocco. His deportment, together with the tone and content of his speech, bespeak nobility and sagacity.
More than 25 years ago, when I first met him, I called the hotel in Jerusalem where he was staying and asked to speak with Mr. Azoulay. “Does he work in the hotel?” the operator asked me, obviously thinking that Azoulay could not be the name of a guest. Azoulay still likes to recall that incident. Katia Azoulay also has an unfortunate recollection from Israel, where someone once remarked to her, “You don’t look in the least Moroccan.”
Azoulay was somewhat dispirited and disturbed when I met him late last month. For the first time in his impressive career as senior adviser to King Hassan II and to his son, the present monarch, King Mohammed VI, Azoulay was accused by a local attorney, Khalid Soufiani, a pro-Palestinian activist of being a Zionist agent in the employ of the Mossad.
Azoulay has an impressive background. He established the Identity and Dialogue group, one of the first forums to call for negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, back in the 1970s. He has devoted much of his career to working for peace between Jews and Arabs and always took pride in his Jewish identity while remaining a Moroccan patriot. He is responsible in no small measure for the relative democratization his country has undergone and for its comparative economic prosperity. He lived for about a quarter of a century in France and became an important economic figure there, but returned to his native land. Yet he finds himself suddenly under a cloud. It’s hard to believe that this never happened before after all, he is a top Jewish adviser to the king of an Arab country, and with a home in Caesarea, too (until he sold it because of the frequent break-ins). But that says something about the openness in Morocco, where everyone is meticulous about calling the king “his majesty.”
The headlines of the kingdom’s newspapers immediately came to Azoulay’s defense, and Azoulay himself did not hesitate to take part at the end of April in the annual gathering of the Mimouna Club an organization that seeks to preserve the Jewish cultural heritage in Morocco held at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane. Mimouna, the traditional Moroccan festival marking the end of Passover, is held in Morocco’s answer to Switzerland. Ifrane is an elegant ski resort in the Atlas Mountains that seems to have been cloned from the Alps, with a university in which the language of instruction is English. Yet the university, which was established with Saudi funds as compensation for the pollution of the Moroccan coastline by a Saudi oil tanker, hosts the Mimouna Club meeting every year, with a large sign in Hebrew at the entrance to the resplendent auditorium. There is an exhibition of photographs of Jews, the president of the university opens the gathering and the Secretary of State to the minister of tourism, Anis Birou, is present. I could hardly believe my eyes.
Well, I could hardly believe my eyes altogether on this, my first visit to Morocco. The first preconception was proved wrong even before we landed: it was clear through the window of the plane that Morocco is green. In the days to come, many similar preconceived notions would have to be discarded. Morocco is not what I thought, and maybe not what my readers think, either.
For Avraham Sabag, a ritual slaughterer, it was a particularly busy day, and he still had two more chickens to slaughter. Nevertheless, Sabag, who also does ritual circumcision when needed, found time to show us around the mellah, the former Jewish ghetto of Fez. Indifferently dressed and speaking an archaic Hebrew, Sabag doled out charity to the many local beggars with his left hand, because that is what Jewish law prescribes. The left hand is used for giving to Arabs, he explained, just as one differentiates between sacred and profane, between the homes of the Jews and the homes of the Arabs. “There is no hatred here,” Sabag said, after all his supercilious mannerisms toward the mendicant Arabs, some of whom kissed his hand.
Armenian music was playing in Senouf’s Honda, followed by songs of Shlomo Bar, the Israeli musician, as we approached the House of the Living cemetery in the heart of Fez. The Jewish-owned Apollo cinema used to be here on the left, while on the right are the plastered headstones, inscribed in beautiful Hebrew: “A place of shrouding for a mortal’s body, a concealment to preserve the body for when the dead shall return to life.”
The cemetery was established hastily by the Jews when they were compelled to move it from a nearby site, but today it is better kept than any of the old Muslim cemeteries in Israel. Here is the grave of the rabbi whose son is a bank clerk in Netanya, here the last resting place of a girl who died for her faith. The former Azoulay Street in the mellah now has an Arab name, like all the other streets that once bore Jewish names, but the synagogue in the heart of the quarter has been superbly restored at the initiative of Andre Azoulay, of course. There are only about 60 Jews left in Fez; our slaughterer, who is well into his sixties, is one of the youngest. Sabag is considering immigration to Israel: his son has arranged a job for him as a kashrut supervisor in an Eilat hotel.
Some of the Jews we met, notably our escort, Senouf, dream of applying the Moroccan model to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A colorful, charming figure, Senouf is now planning a project in which Israelis and Palestinians will come to Morocco to study the nitty-gritty of coexistence together with Moroccans. But in Morocco, as elsewhere, the Jewish community, which numbers only about 3,000 souls, does not speak in one voice. At the Ifrane conference, for example, Simon Levy, a communist and the director of the Museum of Moroccan Judaism in Casablanca, likened the Israeli occupation in the territories to Nazism. He also reminded the audience that the greatest massacre of Jews in history was perpetrated by Europeans, not by Arabs. Andre Azoulay told the gathering: “I have been a Moroccan for 3,000 years. I am a Moroccan and a Jew. Here in this country Jews and Muslims are brothers. We are the only ones who can say this.”
Morocco is a wonderful country, a land of contradictions and contrasts: the explicit and the mysterious, the overt and the veiled. There is much less interest in the Palestinian issue than one might expect domestic issues are more acute: democratization, the economic situation, the faltering education and health systems, the Moroccan diaspora and the disputed Western Sahara, which no one dares mention. The economic and social situation is a faithful reflection of the kingdom’s geographic location between Europe and Africa.
There are apparently far fewer political prisoners nowadays, and people no longer disappear without a trace. Kamal Lahbib, who spent five years in prison for communist activity, met with us at a trendy cafe in Casablanca and spoke freely.
Two hours from here, in a prestigious suburb of Marrakech, lunch is served at the home of Liz Lalanne and her partner, Jean-Pierre Benoliel. The meal is taken next to the pool of their spacious estate, designed in ornate Moroccan style, which seems to have leaped from the pages of a fashionable interior design magazine. The maid, signaled by an electric buzzer that keeps her moving between the guests and the kitchen, serves couscous, while the three house gardeners toil to level the grass in the sprawling five-dunam (1.25 acre) garden.
At the home of a former health minister, Dr. Abd Al-Rahim Haroushi, located in an affluent suburb of Casablanca, the host proudly shows off the many modern Moroccan works of art that adorn the walls. His wife, Claude, speaks knowledgeably about Amos Oz’s “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” which she recently read and greatly admired. Her husband sneaks a cigarette by the pool, out of sight of his wife.
A local Italian restaurant in the city serves prosciutto and Black Label on the rocks is offered at receptions, while outside many women wear the veil. “If not for the corruption, this place could be paradise,” sighs one of my escorts. Morocco, he means.
The fish market in Essaouira offers sardines and also sole and turbot, and then you move to the teeming workers’ restaurant, meager in the extreme, where the fish is fried and served with tomato salad and French fries. I have never eaten tastier seafood. At the inn on the main road between Essaouira and Agadir, mutton is ordered in advance; travelers delight in the stew, cooked on a low fire for three hours in an earthenware pot.
A bigger fire rises not far from there, at Had-Dra, site of the annual Fantasia. For two weeks, tens of thousands of Moroccans stream here from all parts of the kingdom to view the great horse-riding spectacle. Astride stylized saddles and holding colorful reins, the riders spur the animals on at frightening speed directly toward the audience. At the last minute the last second they bring the purebred Arabian steeds to a halt and in unison fire rifles into the air, generating an earsplitting noise and enveloping the crowd in columns of smoke. No doubt about it: the Moroccan rider is a man’s man.
Through the smoke and the dust kicked up by the charging horses, against the backdrop of the looming Moroccan sunset, are the furrowed faces of the thousands who flock here by roads and trails, dozens of them standing in the back of every pickup, for what is sometimes a brutal trip of several days. Many of them are illiterate some 45 percent of Morocco’s rural population and 20 percent of its townsfolk cannot read or write and this is their premier event of the year.
The Fantasia festival was held in the third week of April, and in the following week a chamber music festival, of which the honorary president is Andre Azoulay, took place in Essaouira. Azoulay beams with pleasure whenever anyone says something good about his hometown.
Snakes writhing to the tune of the flutes in the Marrakech market; a tapestry of straw rugs in the market of Casablanca; snow on the peaks of the Atlas Mountains in April; dozens of police along the road leading to Mohammed V Airport, perhaps because Mohammed VI is about to pass that way; traffic cops who waive your ticket in return for baksheesh, a small tip; and many checkpoints whose meaning became clear only afterward: a large Al-Qaida underground cell was uncovered here. A little Third World and a little First, Arabia and Africa with a touch of France, a land of almost limitless possibilities. In a word, Morocco.