Born and Raised in Israel, Moroccan Jew Sets Out to Find Erased Identity in Her Parents' Homeland

Khen Elmaleh's Moroccan roots shaped who she is. On a first visit to Africa's northwestern corner, she tackles cultural erasure and fulfills her grandfather's dream ■ Part 1 of 2

Khen Elmaleh in Morocco.
Khen Elmaleh

Sometimes I think my entire life was preparation for Morocco. At home we always knew we were Moroccan, but this was a dry fact, like knowing that a hand is a hand or a foot a foot. And our closest relatives with first-hand experience of Morocco were our grandparents, the generation that for children represents an old, irrelevant world.

Our parents, who were born in Israel or came here very young and barely remember anything, were pioneers of the melting pot, in the days when that steamroller was operating in high gear. They were the ones linking here to there, but eventually they could barely manage a sentence in Moroccan Arabic without warping it with an Israeli accent.

>> Read part II of our correspondent's journey to Morocco here

I’m grossly generalizing the experience of an entire generation, but in practice, Morocco’s presence in our lives gradually faded. Our Moroccan identity was relegated to folklore, the kitchen and amusing viral phrases that boosted the ratings of television comedies.

Still, these limited appearances kept the Morocco of the past alive among us. People could still identify themselves as Moroccan. That’s exactly why we repeatedly watched Ze’ev Revach and Zehava Ben in the movie “A Bit of Luck” and listened over and over to a bootleg tape of Shalom Assayag’s stand-up routine.

That’s also why the first fan letter I ever sent was to the actress Yael Abecassis; I knew she was the only Moroccan host on the children’s television channel. A Moroccan like me.

With this insight we went out into the world, as Israelis in every respect.  But for those of us with sharp eyes, another insight quickly came crashing down, one that, very unfortunately, still has an influence over the future that awaits our children.

File photo: People walk through an alley of a traditional souk in the old Medina of Marrakesh, December 30, 2014.
AFP

As most Israelis know, the Moroccan community was shunted off to the country’s outskirts – ghost towns and a future status known in advance. “When I was in Israel, you know, sometimes ‘Moroccan’ was a dirty word,” chef Simona Elharar of Ashdod, owner of the Brussels restaurant Kitchen 151, told chef Barak Yehezkeli in an Israeli documentary series on Israeli chefs overseas.

Elharar, like me and many other members of the generation born in Israel to parents born in Morocco, discovered the treasure of her identity and its advantages only outside Israel.

The same goes for singer Neta Elkayam. “In one of my first interviews,” she recalled, “I was asked, ‘Why did you choose to limit your audience by singing only in Moroccan Arabic?’ This question shows the degree to which we live within ourselves, in a ghetto. Forty million people worldwide speak this language, and he asks me why I’m limiting myself.”

This approach isn’t unrelated to Israel’s political reality in which Arabs are the enemy, so we must kill the “Arabness” inside us, and any sign of non-Western identity. But recently, people like Elkayam and I have been challenging this narrative of utter enmity.

Cultural phenomena like the Moroccan Arabic of Neta, the Yemenite Arabic of the singers the A-WA sisters and Liron Amram, and the Iraqi Arabic of Dudu Tassa and the Kuwaitis are the clearest expression of this search, understanding and re-creation. It rests more on personal foundations than on these artists’ biographies and isn’t necessarily faithful to the national narrative, nor does it serve it. That narrative has always rejected Arabic, as well as its geographic space and past.

Erasing the past may have been the most important condition for establishing the nation as we know it – and it’s an ongoing condition. We are asked to erase not only remembrance of the Diaspora, but any memory that eats into the sacred national ethos of the unity of the people.

In recent years, intellectuals, artists and political activists have dared to challenge the practices of erasure and the melting pot. The traditional Israeli narrative holds that these places belong in the past; they’re no longer relevant to us. At most, you’ll find expressions of them in “popular folklore,” outdated academic studies or exhibits about Jewish communities’ pasts for the benefit of local museums. But a real foothold in daily life, in art, in language, in our identity, in who we are? No. It doesn’t exist.

Khen Elmaleh at the royal mausoleum in Rabat, Morocco, summer 2019.
Khen Elmaleh

This practice worked fairly well for decades. But such sterile isolation has become harder recently.

Between Jordan and Las Vegas

And so, with two suitcases and my partner Nadav, who also has roots in Morocco, I returned to that country. This followed years of growing closer via practice, study and political and cultural activity linked inseparably to the place from where my parents embarked on their journey to Israel.

I became a Jewish Moroccan woman born in Israel traveling to the place that at the most instinctive level, just with the sound of its name, awakens feelings of home – a place that political conditions in Israel, despite significant efforts, haven’t managed to erase. On the contrary, the more insistent this effort was, the greater was my desire to understand just what it was I was supposed to forget.

For years I circled around Morocco in my thoughts, in art, in culture. For years, people were dumbstruck when I told them I still hadn’t been to Morocco. But then the time finally seemed right.

Maybe it was linked to the fact that I’d become a mother, and for two years I felt I wanted the nitty-gritty, the truth – not the fantasies that flooded my heart – in order to build a future and answer the questions the next generation will ask. The space Morocco occupies in my life couldn’t keep living on air without personal acquaintance.

I needed a visual perspective to understand what the DNA of my existence is comprised of. I needed to understand where Morocco and I intersect today and to what degree it’s relevant to our lives, we second- and third-generation people. I was going on a first date with the place that has had the most influence on me other than the place where I was born.

Neta Elkayam, an Israeli singer with Moroccan roots, June 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

I’ve never cried during landings, not even in the days when my fear of flying was at its worst. But then the plane descended, revealing Marrakech in all its strange rosy beauty – a kind of beauty I had never seen before, a kind it’s possible to imagine only on a movie set for a biblical period piece. My tears flowed faster and faster – even as I filmed it on my phone, of course.

Years of delving into every Moroccan aspect of my life reached a climax; I was seeing the land that is the foundation of my life. I’m pretty sure this was the first time that land and everything this word symbolizes ever stirred any  emotion in me.

And then my personal biography and that of Moroccans in Israel in general would intermingle with every step I took in the old country. From the moment I saw this squat red city through the plane window, it was as if everything were telling me: They’re all with you. They’ve all come with you to Morocco.

So Nadav hugged me and asked what I was crying about, and I muttered something about my grandfather, who all his life dreamed about returning to Morocco, and wrote letters begging his family not to leave Morocco but to wait for him. He was the youngster who had arrived in Israel alone in the Youth Aliyah program.

But he put down roots, had children and grandchildren, and that dream was replaced by one modest desire: to go back for a visit just to see his childhood haunts. He died fairly young, he never returned to Morocco, and here I was. I had the privilege of carrying out his unwritten will, which I felt was the most important thing as the plane landed in Marrakech.

As someone who has gone through U.S. airports, being led to an office somewhere with a stern-faced official or cop wasn’t new to me. But this time, at the passport window, when we realized they were taking us to a room off to the side, I felt no fear. I realized it was an ordinary procedure experienced by most Israelis who visit Morocco, if not by all. In any case, at least officially, any relations between Morocco and Israel were cut off in 2000 during the second intifada.

I really mean it: Morocco’s security people and officials are especially affable. Later during the visit I would realize that my status as a foreign tourist helped, but I was even pleased by the kingdom’s security forces and the huge portraits of the king gazing from every corner of the airport.

Marrakech is beautiful and quirky, with creative buildings for public institutions that look like movie sets, among them the Royal Theater. All kinds of marvels of modern architecture in traditional style were visible in the short taxi ride to a car rental agency.

We’d be back in Marrakech, but in the meantime there was a nearly three-hour drive to a city that has become a popular tourism destination, especially among Israelis because of its glorious Jewish past. We were on our way to Essaouira.

A celebration of Morocco featuring Model Tilila Oulhaj in a collaboration between fashion designer Artsi Ifrach and photographer Mous Lamrabat.
artsimous

The road is new but looked familiar, like Route 90 in the Jordan Valley, or more precisely the Jordanian side – expanses of yellow and brown, and now and then a village. But then the landscape resembled the highway to Las Vegas. In a flash, the view shifted to the Nevada desert, though cows and goats crossing the road reminded us that we weren’t heading to a phony Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty.

Between Acre and Venice Beach

Then we caught sight of an amazing city. A carpet of the blue Atlantic and white buildings was revealed through the yellow hills, after three hours of bleak wilderness. The city is as beautiful as a painting; hence its name is Essaouira, Arabic for “the painted one.”

We had arrived in Essaouira – or its former Portuguese name, Mogador – during the 22nd annual Gnaoua World Music Festival. Some 130,000 visitors from Morocco and the rest of the world flood the city every year, which seems like a cross between Acre and Venice Beach in California. There’s an ancient port, boats, seagulls, old lanes and high walls alongside a broad beach and a pretty promenade illuminated by the brightest light proximity to the ocean can provide, amid restaurants, cafes and surfing clubs. Yes, the surfers, with their half-nakedness, both natural blond and dreadlocks, are an integral part of the city.

The Gnaoua festival provides great impetus to the city and its Gnawa music scene. Even while we were on our way there we could decipher the scale of the event by the masses of young people with impressive afros hitchhiking there. Gnawa – or Gnoaua – is the musical genre that links Morocco to the rest of Africa. The traditional beat of the Gnawa people – an overarching unification of all the slaves brought to Morocco from all over Africa into a single tribe with shared characteristics – is characterized by a minimalistic repetitiveness. It’s said to lead to a trance-like state and spiritual elevation, with the help of traditional instruments like the three-stringed lute called a gimbri or krakebs, a kind of iron castanets.

Gnawa music accompanies religious texts centered around the music’s holy patron Bilal ibn Rabah. His burial place is unknown but the center of his cult is in Essaouira, which explains the city’s connection to the music – this and the fact that in the past the ancient port was the center through which gold, spices and other goods passed, as well as the African slaves.

I love Gnawa’s beat. Moroccan Jews have an in-joke that I found out is also known in Morocco and actually originated there: Our grandmothers rocked us to sleep to this beat. The African rhythm that’s so identified with Moroccan music has flowed into other genres; even in Israel artists like Haim Ouliel and Yossi Fine, for example, have been influenced by it. However, despite all the love I have for it, I should have realized what I was heading into, one of the concepts I hate most: world music.

Overall, there was an oppressive sense of Israel’s Boombamela festival in the air, and I find a bit depressing the French female tourists heavily into turban fashion, caressing in every corner and happily led by local young men. It was if I was seeing the colonial power relations in all their glory against the backdrop of Bob Marley’s “One Love.” And I’m not sure where the exploited side ends and the exploiting one begins.

Still, the expression “world music” embodies this unequal power structure: There’s a “we” and there’s a “world,” there are musical genres in the West, which is the reference point, and anything that moves away from it can be squeezed under a single rubric because nobody cares and all the Africans are identical in the eyes of the white person. This is the fertile ground in which such romantic-love tourism blossoms. It’s an accurate reflection of the power relations and their blurring by reggae music and Indian scarves.

In the studio of Yassine Benali, a local Gnawa producer, we sat in a peculiar group of people that perfectly reflected the power relations in the world music industry. Among them were a representative of the record label Universal Music France and Maâlem Mokhtar Gania, a well-known Gnawa artist whose latest project we heard in the background.

Participating in one of the pieces in the album is Neta Elkayam, who has been flying back and forth between Israel and Morocco for years. “What defines my Moroccan audience is that they’re really young – young Moroccan hipsters, as opposed to my more mature Israeli audience,” she says. And this definitely makes sense, taking into account that Morocco isn’t relevant in the opinion of young people in Israel, and is at best a distant memory in the minds of their parents who were born there.

Soufian, an interior designer from Casablanca in his 20s who attended the festival, is among Neta’s young Moroccan fans. It was our second day in Essaouira and we met him in the old city, where we’d wandered for the first time the previous night. Narrow lanes were full of tourists and locals, amid stands for African clothing and accessories, henna tattoos hand-drawn by local girls, and lots of music everywhere.

The night before there were food stands instead, amid a tumult of a different sort of people wandering among the performances that went on into the night, as you grabbed a cob of corn blackened on a fire or skewered meat dripping fat in frena bread. There, among the food stands, in a mental state somewhere between awake and fragility after a flight, the fact that we were in Morocco gradually began to seep in.

To communicate, we had to refresh our dormant Arabic. Esh kin nakel? Shahel hada? (What is there to eat? How much is it?) I stuttered my way into Morocco insecure and afraid that the next moment I’d be discovered as not really “one of theirs.” But gradually, as the language barrier melted, so did this feeling. I was absolutely “one of theirs,” only a bit different.

We walked around with Soufian. What does a guy like him, a total hipster, have in common with an old genre like Gnawa? His reply typifies the approach of many young Moroccans: “Gnawa is our tradition, it is an integral part of our identity.”

I try to think about a parallel situation in Israel, a festival of devotional or liturgical music. I tell Soufian that It’s unlikely I’d see such a vast majority of young people bordering on teenagers in the audience. He himself has taken an interest in Jewish Moroccan piyyut liturgical poems and is familiar with the modern Jewish-Arabic music scene that has developed in Israel.

Manifold Morocco

The Moroccans are made up of many different tribes: Amazighs (Berbers), Arabs, Sub-Saharan Africans, immigrants from Europe. They have experienced conquests, colonialism and splits and still there’s some unity of a shared fate, a basic brotherhood among people who have ended up in the same place. It’s impossible not to be aware of the sharp contrast between this and the fissures we grow up on in Israel.

In one of the lanes we came upon the cultural center Dar Souiri, home of the Association Essaouira-Mogador. This group, which promotes awareness of Morocco’s cultural history including Jewish history, was established by André Azoulay, who last year was crowned by Tablet magazine as “the most influential Jew in the Arab world.”

Azoulay was born in Essaouira into a community that at the start of the last century made up around half the city’s population. He is considered one of the people closest to Morocco’s King Mohammed VI (and in the past, his father King Hassan II). Azoulay advises the king but most of his efforts are linked to bringing cultures closer together and promoting dialogue among different groups. Azoulay is also the father of UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay, a former French culture minister.

Dar Souiri is located in a traditional Moroccan building called a riad: a two-story structure with an internal courtyard. The walls are decorated with pictures of Jewish artists from the Islamic countries throughout history. There’s Algerian singer Salim Halali, Moroccan-born singer Samy Elmaghribi who ended up in France, and Moroccan singer and poet Zohra Al Fassiya, alongside Israeli singers Zehava Ben, Ofra Haza and Sarit Haddad. It’s a series that encircles the building and creates a logical sequence of Jewish artists in North Africa and the Middle East, from Zohra to Zehava.

Nadav and I explained to Soufian that this makes us happy but it’s also a bit depressing because in the place where we were born, which is or was the home of some of those artists, it’s rare to encounter them on the walls of official institutions and museums. It’s rare that a child in Israel will know who Salim Halali was, even though every child in North Africa knows at least one song of his.

2019 Gnaoua World Music Festival held in Morocco

Soufian was very surprised. He’s knowledgeable about Jewish Moroccan culture by virtue of being a Moroccan. Thus it’s is an integral part of his identity more than it is a part of ours, even though we’re Moroccan Jews.

But Gnawa music also has a more political dimension. Identification with it and the Berber identity of the native tribes before the Arab conquest is a subversive statement. The struggles for control and sovereignty in large swaths of Morocco, along with the repression of Berber cultural markers, are an integral part of the country’s politics.

Only recently were the Amazigh language and script recognized as official, alongside Arabic and French. On the central stage of the Gnaoua festival the Amazigh flag was flown. The audience identified with its African roots in the city whose trademark is multiculturalism – but in the good sense of the word, the one that captures the essence of the Moroccan unity that’s made up of many parts.

This story is the first in a two-part series. In the second part, Khen Elmaleh visits Marrakech.