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samedi 10 mars 2012


Until 1956, when Morocco became independent of France, the popular seaside town of Essaouira (very popular with Americans of certain regard such as Orson Welles) was known as Mogador.

It was an important port, with an island off the coast that the famed Berber King Juba II of Mauritania created beautiful Tamuziga where the current town stands, known by Hanno of Carthage circa 500 BCE as Karikon Teikos where he had established a dye industry. In the 11th century of the Common Era, el Bekri mentions Amagdoul in his ourvre Al Mamalik wa al Massalik. The Portuguese who were the first Europeans to visit these parts, even built a fort here, Castello Real, in 1505 called it Mogadouro. The Spaniards changing the orthography to Mogador, during their colonial incursions which resulted in Spanish Sahara and now the no man’s land of the Republic of Saharalui
The etymology of the word Mogador has been studied and has been suggested to be Jewish-Berber origin.
It became an important Jewish centre of Southern Morocco in latter years, with some great rabbis of blessed memory holding court, among them Rabbi Haim Pinto a Moroccan Jew of Portuguese origin. Many other well known Moroccan Jewish names were represented here for decades and centuries among them Cohen-Solal, Sebbag and as the town became prosperous, Jews from other Moroccan cities joined them and at one time over 4000 Jews lived here in complete harmony with Berbers and Arabs, and were prominent in every aspect of the life in Mogador.
Unlike in India where the establishment of the State of Israel was an impetus for the mass migration to Israel, In Morocco, it was fear of selves and properties soon after the independence of Morocco in 1956 that prompted a mass migration of Moroccan Jews: France, Israel, Canada, USA being the main recipients of the outgoing population.
It was to this city that I arrived at noon one day last week. It is situated along with its islets facing the strong winds from the Atlantic and the fragrance of the sea enveloped the town. Now very touristic, one can still see the ancient parts of the town and in fact the first synagogue, albeit in ruins, can still be seen.
I wandered around the town, now full of tchotchke shops selling souvenirs of your visit to Morocco and Essaouira, much like what the Jew Street in Jew Town has become in Cochin. But hidden amidst all this noise and calamities one could find gems.
I did find one.
Just two nights before on Moroccan TV, a documentary was shown: Edmond Amram El Maleh_Le Captif Amoroureux, which could be translated as A Prisoner in Love. It was a touching story, El Maleh, who became a prisoner of time, being in exile in France since 1965 and then beginning to write about his beloved Morocco, which was never far from his thoughts. In that documentary, an interview was conducted with a bookseller and antiquarian living in Essaouira, who was his friend, who also happened to be that last of the 6 or 7 Jews remaining there. Love of books and Literature keeps this man in his shop full of authors in various languages and genre (I saw Murakami’s Wild Sheep among his books), Most of the books are in French but there are books in other languages. He does not specialize in Jewish books or Jewish literature but in Literature. He has a fine collection of antiques among which can be found good examples left over from the magnificent period in which Jewish life flourished here.
I went inside his shop, the windows displaying the antiques, Jewish and non Jewish, and to the hall where books lined every possible space.
Excuse me; are you the bookseller interviewed in the documentary shown on Moroccan TV a couple of nights ago? I asked
About Amram El Meleh, he was a friend.
He was shy and possibly tired of the stream of tourists looking for tchotchkes and leave disappointed.
I said to him in French, I am a Jew from Australia.
He replied in English and he spoke good English, as he is a repeat visitor to London and New York and of course Paris.
Sudden warmth enveloped us as we talked about what we have In common, the history of Jews in Morocco. His family are recent to this country, so to speak, 1492, just 500 odd years as there were Jews during the Phoenician times, roughly 2500 years ago!
He asked about Cochin, I told him the story of how, during one Simchat Torah, there were not enough people to hold a Minyan, I undertook to round up a few Israelis, which I did so that we could have a boisterous, as usual. Simchat Torah celebration, Cochini style. The Halleguas, Yitzhak and Samuel were alive then, and as is the custom, we drank merrily while dancing around.
To show the extent of his knowledge, his next question was, Haven’t the Lubavitcher Hassidim come and try to conduct the services at the synagogue/ Yes, it is true, I said, wondering and admiring this bookseller from Essaouira keeping up with yet another vanishing Jewish community on the other side of the planet.
We talked for some more, and he said, I am sure we will meet again. I felt the same.
When you are here the next time, I will get a few people together and we can have a good chat.
I knew in my heart that I would be returning to Essaouira, to renew my acquaintance with one of the last Jews of Mogador, this bookseller and antiquarian.
I want to take something small with me, from the Moroccan Jewish community, for me to remind me of the glorious history and continuity of our people and that dispersed as we are, we are still loyal and faithful to certain ideals, which may differ from person to person, but in the end, it is am Israel chai.
He gave me a coin, the size of a 25 cent US piece, copper, with a fading Star of David on one side and an inscription and the date 1285, according to the Moslem Calendar, the coin is about 157 years old.
I shall carry it with me, on my upcoming trip to other parts of the world, thinking about this Bookseller, al Yahoudi, a Moroccan and a man of the world.
Nice to have met him…