A Touch of Morocco in the Heart of Jerusalem

A newly restored center for North African Jewish heritage promises to become one of the capital's most colorful tourist sites. But not everyone is thrilled with the ambitious renovation project.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

When you ask 24-year-old Abdullah Dara his profession, he replies "soccer player." But for the last few months, the 24-year-old from Rabat, Morocco has been working in Jerusalem - in the family business.

Dara is an expert in the art of zellige, the Moroccan mosaics that decorate walls and floors. His work involves preparing ceramic surfaces painted in various colors and breaking them with a delicate hammer into thousands of tiny, identical pieces. Then he and other workers arrange the miniature pieces into a giant puzzle to create a beautiful colored surface.

After years of painstaking work by Moroccan artisans, the David Amar World Center for North African Jewish Heritage is to be dedicated in Jerusalem on Sunday.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

For the last few years, a team of Moroccan workers has been immersed in a zellige project in the heart of Jerusalem - the renewal of the David Amar World Center for North African Jewish Heritage.

The center will be dedicated on Sunday in the presence of President Shimon Peres and former President Yitzhak Navon. Dara did not hesitate to come to Israel. "We work all over the world," he says. "My brother has already worked in Spain, Dubai and France."

The center is situated between King David and Agron streets behind the Palace Hotel in Mahaneh Yisrael, one of the first neighborhoods outside the walls of the Old City. The building was constructed in the mid-19th century by Rabbi David Ben Shimon, founder of the community of North African Jews in Jerusalem who distinguished themselves from the general Sephardic Jewish community. It was used to house new immigrants from the community.

After four years of renovation and hundreds of thousands of stones, which Dara and his friends assembled into dozens of square meters of mosaic, the old building looks like a sultan's palace. It has definitely turned into the most colorful building in Jerusalem.

Authentic Moroccan style

The association of Jewish communities of North Africa, which has reconstructed the building, decided to build it in authentic Moroccan style - complete with an Andalusian-style garden, water fountains, carved and painted doors, ornamentation on the walls, and colored floor tiles.

Since there is not a single contractor in Israel who knows how to do this kind of work, the organization recruited the help of contractors and artisans from Morocco. However, the Interior Ministry tried to prevent their entry. "They didn't understand that they aren't foreign workers, they're artists. Every time they went home for a two-week holiday, it took me half a year to bring them back," says Haim Cohen, chairman of the association. When the workers finally did arrive, they didn't keep to the schedule. The Israeli employers were so afraid that the mosaics would not be ready on time for the festive ceremony that they prepared an emergency plan: wooden boards with a photograph of the mosaic, meant to serve as a cheap substitute for the real thing.

The renewal of the building in this style angered Jerusalem preservationists, who see it as importing foreign architecture and damaging a historic building.

Preservationists had reservations

"This undermines preservation, but I admit that it turned out special and has tourism value," says Itzik Shweiki, Director of the Council for the Preservation of Sites in Jerusalem. "This style is what was supposed to be the original character of the neighborhood," says Cohen.

Indeed the site is expected to become one of the city's leading tourist attractions. "The purpose of the center is to preserve the [North African Jewish] heritage through dress, music, vessels, piyyutim [liturgical poems] and prayers...and bring them to the general public," says Cohen. This will be done through exhibitions, a library and a computer center for studying the history of North African Jewish communities.

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