Riad Yima, an art gallery and boutique that showcases local handicrafts and is owned by Hassan Hajjaj. Khen Elmaleh

Returning to Morocco, Part II: Israeli-born Moroccan Jew Set Out to Find Her Roots. Instead, Here's What She Discovered

She wrote about it, dreamed of it and listened to its popular music, but never visited Morocco. Now Khen Elmaleh writes about the first encounter with a country that influenced her from afar



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

After three days in Essaouira we head back to the first city we'd encountered in Morocco, which from my perspective is the jewel in the crown and which many people see as the most desirable location: Bursting with anticipation, we are on the road to Marrakech. There’s nothing more delightful than good radio to sweeten the drive. And indeed, I insist on listening to local stations and not to our personal playlists. The only competition to the radio are the restaurants along the way, some of them at gas stations. Surprisingly, to anyone familiar with this dubious culinary phenomenon, they are also very good. Huge grills topped with tagines of meat and chicken stews along with bread baked on site – we just about manage not to stop and eat at every place we encounter.

Back to the radio. One of my main connections to modern Morocco is its contemporary music scene. As a music-lover and a deejay by profession, I identify with young Moroccan artists, both male and female – people from my generation who, like me, have grown up in a global era with access to MTV under American cultural imperialism. The Moroccan aspect, which manifests itself in a universal potpourri of hip-hop/trap/Latin productions, symbolizes the axis of life of many young people like me in the world, between East and West, between global and local. On Radio HIT, the popular Moroccan music station, I am exposed to the greatest hits, which get repeated hourly, like “Halala” by Maestro and Ayoub Africano’s “L’amour”; both artists are stars of the current pop scene in the country. In between, Justin Bieber’s latest is a constant presence.

One of the hottest artists, and one of my favorites at the moment in Morocco, is Issam. The truth is, he doesn’t get played on HIT – there is still official disapproval of hip-hop and trap, the genres most popular among young people here. But this whole scene is taking hold on the ground, far from the public forums that are still in the hands of the royal house. Issam is the new cool kid and he symbolizes a certain free flow of creativity and art, quite a bit of which is displayed on Instagram for the world to see and is gaining popularity in the social media.

Khen Elmaleh

Another member of this popular club is Tilila Oulhaj, a beautiful Moroccan woman whose most famous identifying characteristic – a very freckled face – can't escape mention. Tilila appears in Issam’s most recent clip, the song “Makinch Zhar,” and she is also the house model for the person responsible for creating the clothes worn in the clip, who's considered a leading local fashion designer: Artsi Ifrach. Yes, Ifrach, who was born and raised in Jerusalem and has been living and working in Marrakech for the past decade, has represented Morocco at African Fashion Week and won national recognition.

“I am a Moroccan. My DNA is Moroccan,” Ifrach emphasizes, when I ask why he's here, of all places.

We meet one afternoon at the designer's studio in the heart of Marrakech, in the vibrant Gueliz neighborhood, amid cafes, high-end designer stores and trendy boutiques – the favorite haunt of foreign-born residents and upper-middle class locals. In Ifrach's spacious studio hangers display his designs, which keep distracting me during our conversation. They integrate coarse, Berber-influenced embroidery and words in Arabic, woven into the fabrics. A wall hanging of two tigers that's been transformed into an evening gown reminds me of the rug that used to hang in my grandmother’s home.

“Yes, yes, it’s from there!” Ifrach confirms, referring to living rooms like those of our respective grandmothers. “But those were always my influences, even back in Israel.”

From his perspective there’s no such thing as Israeli design per se, at least not anything he can identify with. “We’re too young for that,” the designer explains. And indeed, as in cuisine and in other realms, there is a hasty and impatient desire by those who want to establish a tight narrative, to tell a single story, even in an artificial way. So Ifrach takes things from here and there and has the authority to declare: “This is Israeli.” Okay, fine. But if we break this down we find that no one has asked any of the elements involved if they are interested in being appropriated to construct this “Israeli” flavor.

Nevertheless, I challenge him: You could have been anywhere in the world – by Israeli standards, too, you were a successful designer. Isn’t your decision to live and work in Morocco not just a professional relocation, but also a U-turn by someone whose parents left the exact same place?

Khen Elmaleh

Ifrach: “I lived in Paris for three years and realized I was dreaming the wrong dream. Okay, it’s nice, the recognition and the money and dressing famous people, but I felt I was not really doing what my heart desires. I am in love, in love with this place. I am a Moroccan, 100 percent. In Israel I didn’t feel like that and I never imagined I would ever live here. It could be that it’s mektoub, foreordained, the return to here.”

I take leave of Ifrach who is in love, and I really believe him – you can see it on him. I am still probing, in love with ideas and looking for their foothold in reality during my first-ever visit to Morocco.

Enchanted oasis

Everyone loves Marrakech. Yves St. Laurent loved it. Winston Churchill loved it. Everyone who has ever visited has loved it. I have never heard a bad word about Marrakech. And the truth is that it’s easy to see why. It is an enchanted urban oasis with pink buildings and towering green palm trees. It is a combination of modern and old, of urban tumult and ancient narrow alleyways. It is exactly what every tourist from abroad would expect to see in Morocco, in one place. Maybe because of that, I had a hard time with it.

In Marrakech you are a tourist, first and foremost a tourist. The whole city is aimed at serving you as a tourist, selling things to you as a tourist, presenting to you what you want to see, massaging your back as a tourist and taking from you what can be taken from a tourist: money. In return the city sells you the perfect Orient, and it's embodied in exclusive nightclubs like Comptoir Darna, designed as a showy colonial salon; in the cobras and monkeys at the big square, Jemaa el-Fnaa; in the huge bazaar where, between a traditional djellaba and pointy babouche slippers, someone will also try to sell you a massage at a questionable establishment nearby. It is waiters in a tarboosh at a highly rated restaurant that locals hardly patronize, it is one thousand and one nights, every night. And when you say “No thanks” in Arabic everyone is surprised – “Aha, she’s one of us!” – but that doesn’t stop them from trying to sell you something.

Despite all that, I was glad to be in Marrakech now. I could forgive those characteristics of the Marrakechis. First of all, and this something that can be said of all of Morocco – these folks are just plain courteous and friendly even when they are trying to take something from you. And secondly, who can blame them? People are just trying to make a living – and poverty is no stranger to urban Morocco – and if the masses of Frenchmen and Brits swarming in the streets of the Old City want their couscous served with a tarboosh and traditional garb, so be it.

I think I was simply angry because they saw me as a tourist. And as a Moroccan I got angry all over again at the Europeans who set standards and have a certain perception of how Morocco ought to look, and everyone simply scampers around them.

There’s something in this split experience that manages to trouble me during my entire trip in Morocco. On the one hand, I am a tourist with money that enables her to experience things and sit in places where the locals, if they aren’t wealthy, don’t sit. On the other hand, I am not a wealthy Moroccan nor am I even really Moroccan. But when I arrive along with my whole aura of foreignness at one of the hottest spots in town, the Nomad restaurant in the medina of Marrakech – and I ask the waiter about a French word on the menu that I hadn’t understood, and he tries to explain it to me in English (“It’s something that looks like an onion and has an anise flavor”) and a second later I come back with “Aha! Bish bash!” – he cracks a smile that's even bigger than the one that in any case had been spread across his at-your-service face, and says with a kind of a sigh of relief, like someone who has discovered that the connection between us doesn’t pass only through my foreign currency: “Oh! Bish bash!”

Not far from Nomad, which specializes in contemporary local cuisine, is an institution that's part of a recent trend toward creating a new visual language while still remaining faithful to the Moroccan aesthetic tradition. This is Riad Yima, an art gallery and boutique that showcases local handicrafts and is owned by Hassan Hajjaj, who divides his time between London and Marrakech and has earned the nickname abroad of the Moroccan Andy Warhol.

Hajjaj combines photographs with traditional fabrics, tins of food, cans and bottles of local products; integrated within colorful frames, these constitute the central images of his art – most often women and men in traditional Muslim or African garb, combined with Western brands like Coca-Cola or haute couture brands like Louis Vuitton and Gucci. He blurs the boundaries between luxurious and commonplace, original and imitation, high and low. The line for Hajjaji’s studio is long. Everyone wants to be documented and volunteers to model for him – from American rapper Cardi B to the A-Wa sisters from Israel. Everyone has posed in front of Hajjaji’s lens.

For my part, I take some pictures at this location with my smartphone lens, which is very far from Hajjaji’s. I post immediate documentation to a story and my Instagram feed and I get “likes” from Gad Elmaleh, the French Moroccan comedian and actor. It turns out that we share not only a surname (though his is pronounced differently in French) and Jewish roots – a commonality that finds expression occasionally in short exchanges in the social media – but also a location, as his story reveals to me: He too is visiting Marrakech, with his son. But he, in contrast to me and my amateur handiwork, will upload to his Instagram profile an iconic picture of himself taken by none other than Hassan Hajjaji.

Khen Elmaleh

Gad Elmaleh is a Moroccan symbol and a source of national pride. Unlike me and my partner Nadav, he was born in Casablanca to Jewish parents who did not emigrate to Israel, which enabled him to maintain his citizenship and a close connection to the land of his birth, even if today he mostly divides his time between Paris and Los Angeles.

“How can you be Moroccan and not know Arabic?” the guard at the splendid Hassan II Mosque in Casblanca will wonder later, when Nadav talks to him in English, trying to find out when the mosque is open to the public. “My nephew was born in France and he speaks excellent Arabic!” Abashed, we will move on and discuss all the political, personal and physical reasons why Arabic evaded us.

Stunning Rabat

We leave Marrakech pensive and a bit troubled and head for the city that for me, on paper, seemed to be the grayest and most boring place among all our options and thus of no importance in my journey to discover subterranean currents that don’t rise to the surface of any tourism guidebook to Morocco. But it rapidly turned out, from the moment we arrived there, to be a very exciting, interesting and stunningly beautiful place: Rabat.

As a capital city and especially as the official residence of the Moroccan royal family, I had imagined it to be staid and formal. And that is actually not very far from the reality: Green lawns meticulously mowed and watered by municipal workers with hoses in their hands all day long, impressive landscaping, antiquities and imposing city walls, the marina and the observation point overlooking the Atlantic, the cleanliness – all that is not surprising when we are talking about a place where the king lives, at least officially. Quite clearly, it is all part of a display put on for the world, a “model city,” in Moroccan terms. But in fact, it’s impossible to resist the beauty and splendor, and it immediately became clear to Nadav and me, even before we opened our mouths, that we were falling in love with Rabat.

The gorgeous royal mausoleum in which Mohamed V and his son Hassan lie buried, the Museum of Modern Art, the local market and the new light rail that traverses the city and makes the trains in European capitals look like wagons – all these make Rabat the impressive city that it is. And it has other good reasons for taking pride: for example, at the end of June when we visited it hosted for the 18th time one of the most important music events in the kingdom, the Mawazine Festival. The obvious Western analogue would be “the Moroccan Coachella,” but without the California camping and glamping, the hippie clothes and party drugs. A royal Coachella, something only a king could concoct.

A dream lineup, a meeting of cultures, a nine-day celebration and seven venues around the city where, in rapid succession, Rosalía, J Balvin, Nancy Ajram, Mohammed Assaf, Travis Scott, Future, Maluma, Elissa, Hussain al Jassmi, David Guetta, Najwa Karam, Kamasi Washington, Mashrou' Leila, Sister Sledge, the Black Eyed Peas, Migos and many others took the stage. Alongside them were hot local talents like Lartiste, Zouhair Bahaoui, Manal, Lbenj, Fnaire and lots more. Believe me – I mean more. Total madness. For anyone who isn’t into the Arab music scene – these are the biggest stars around today.

And as if that weren’t enough, all that is free. Okay, almost free; you can get in without buying tickets. From the moment we land in Rabat my Instagram message box fills up with offers and recommendation to hurry up and get tickets or at least gain access to the VIP entrances at all the shows I’m interested in seeing. Why is that so important when everything is in any case open to the public, gratis? All the recommenders give the same answer, similarly phrased: because there are bad people who make trouble and steal things. “Bad people” – that’s how they are described by those who send the messages and by the amiable receptionists at the stunning Al Diwan boutique hotel where we are staying, who look at my jewelry and hint with a friendly wink that it’s better to go low-key and take off the gold before I attend festival events. “Especially at the Moroccan stage,” they add.

The Moroccan stage, located on the beach, hosts performances by local artists. And going by the wink that accompanied the recommendation, I apparently was supposed to conclude that local popular music attracts a certain local audience. More bluntly: an audience of poor people, members of the lower class of the Moroccan urban sphere.

Khen Elmaleh

I am allergic to this sort of hierarchical arrangement and my body language automatically reacts with scorn to distinctions between “good people” and “bad people.” God knows life in Israel has put me in many such situations, in which I have often identified myself unjustly with that group of people who are prone to criminality and are morally corrupt, only because of our social class, skin color or surname. Each time I bristle anew at the attempt to relate to me as the daughter of the gods who must not come in contact with the dangerous masses, and I reject the dubious “help.”

Without bodyguards and without VIP tickets we head for the Moroccan stage every night, where local pop singers and hip-hop and other groups perform. The most powerful thing that hits you at the outset, in the midst of the crowd of young people, families and children, is the tremendous love the audience expresses for whomever is on stage. A warm audience, in the true sense of the word. Singing, dancing, flying flags and acting joyful in a way that is absolutely captivating to someone who's already undergone the Israeli typical process of acting tough. I wish all of you an audience like this, should you ever decide to take to the stage.

Those “bad people” about whom we were warned, incidentally, end up being enthusiastic girls and boys who compete among themselves over who dances more beautifully or is able to identify all the songs and recite all the words in English. They remind me of myself as a girl, imitating dance steps and moves from the clips of American rappers on MTV. Some of the ones we saw even encourage the parents there, who found themselves at a trap performance and were a bit embarrassed by the whole situation, to dance along with them. Small children, babies in carriages and even the late hour did not stop these Moroccans from partying.

Khen Elmaleh

From time to time the reinforced police presence in every corner cast a pall over the atmosphere when they dragged a youngster out of the audience by his shirt. With their massive presence, even if someone were planning to steal, he didn’t stand a chance.

Khen Elmaleh
Khen Elmaleh

According to the official Mawazine site, this year it nearly three million people attended. The number is astronomical but makes sense relative to the scope of the production. One of the millions who came was Netta Hazan, 33, from Jerusalem, a friend of mine who was on her fourth visit to Morocco. We meet at Najwa Karam’s show on our last evening in Rabat. Karam, the “sun of Lebanese song,” with the mountainous voice, is a Lebanese icon and one of the most beloved singers in all of the Arab world.

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