Thursday, January 14, 2016

Hajj

(This is the last story of a 3-part series that came randomly and never quite got finished during the time period allotted. But since I'm the time keeper, who's counting? These tales appear in a place where Jews and Muslims were once neighbors, sharing many of the same customs, the same stories, the same land.) 
   
During a long period of unsettled, buckling ground under my feet, I found myself dreaming of traveling far from home, a pilgrimage to distant lands.  All my imaginings were leading me to the Maghreb— Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia. Although I'd only been to Morocco once, it felt like i had traveled across North Africa, the whole of it, before. Maybe the influence of the writings of William Langeweiesche in Sahara Unveiled, or the romanticism of Rimbaud when I was young. Or maybe it was the story my uncle told about his service during WWII—a Jewish guy from segregated Louisville, leading an all black troop from Marseille to the port of Algers, marching across North Africa for the Allies.


But maybe it was none of these things, maybe it was my own terra inferma taking me away.

On my pilgrimage, I would go to the capital of Algeria first, to ride the new subway line in Algiers. From the moment i heard about the subway I needed to see it, to be there underground, speeding through the city from hai el badr to el harrach centre, 4 stations, I would stop at each one. 




And, of course, I would look for a guide. Who could possibly understand the complicated routes of a foreign subway system without a trusty guide? 



Next I would travel to Tunisia and camp out until the ancient Jewish festival of Lag BaOmer began on the Island of Djherba, where one of the last Jewish communities in the Arab world remains. Rumor had it the festival had been canceled, too dangerous for Jews, the Muslim population no longer hospitable; ships full of Israeli tourists sent back home. But in planning, I found the festival goes on. I wanted to be there.


The conservative Orthodox community of Djerba and their approach to girl's education is almost identical to conservative Muslims in that part of the world: girls not offered an education past primary, trained to be wives, kept confined to the home. My god, how similar these two religions are; don't they see it? They are the same story!

After Tunisia to Morocco. 


First, I'd walk in the old section of Fes-el-Bali, down Nougat Alley, eating soft pink nougat candies,


down Tanner's Row where i would finally buy a purse. Afterwards, I'd visit the Dar-el Ghalia to see if Omar Lebbar were still alive.

Most importantly, I'd look for our guide Mohammad who had been our bulwark in Fez. 



Without Mohammed we would never have found our way. He told us he'd discovered 2 British girls once, lost and crying in the middle of the medina, there for days, walking around in circles, not being able to find their way out. (If you've ever been to Fez, you know Mohammed wasn't lying!)

Traveling to North Africa would be my personal Hajj, my spiritual renewal, my moral passage, my life's... 

But then I woke up. 

I looked around and realized I didn't want to leave my home, or spend all my money on such a frivolous trip, or fly 36 hours across the world.... alone.

So that was that.

Or was it?

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Last Night


(Here's another one, for the 8th and last night of Hanukkah, a story from an old journal that could have happened yesterday.)
 
When We Finally Arrive.

We were warned against it, a Muslim country, too risky, especially with the kids. In the end, despite everybody's warning, we went anyway. 

It was May 2003: 14 suicide bombers attacked Casablanca killing 45 people, including 12 attackers. Three Jewish sites, a Spanish restaurant and a 5-star hotel were bombed Salafia Jihadia, an offshoot of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, claimed responsibility. Out of the 100 people who were injured, 97 were Muslim.

Two months later we're on the road, driving along the highway that borders the Rif mountains, in a Peugeot 206. Mohammad our driver has assigned me the tight back seat with the kids, while Tom sits with room to spare in the front, talking man to man with Mohammad

 
Not that Mohammad doesn’t also talk to me: “Whatever Madam wishes,” he says repeatedly, becoming his mantra for the next four days. But he does make a point of letting me know that a women has her place, and for right now, until we get to Fes, mine's in the backseat of the Peugeot. As I look out on the olive tree studded countryside, I put the warnings of our friends on the back burner, and concentrate on my cramped legs instead. 


The Mellah 

We've just been dropped off in the mellah, the Jewish section of Fes, looking for the Cimetiere Israelite de Fes, adjacent to the Royal Palace. Before our good and faithful guide Mohammad drives away, he points down the road and says, "It's there." But where?

We find the cemetery door partially hidden behind a guy selling CDs, with the instructions, like in a fairy tale, to ring 3 times. We ring as instructed and wait. And wait. Finally the caretaker arrives and opens the door with the intensity and ferocity of a lion. He has the skin of one too, brown and leathery with a scar running down his face



At one time there were 1400 Jewish families and 38 synagogues in Fes, but after WWII, like other places, Jews went into exile. Maimoun Gabay is the third generation of caretakers to tend to this ancient cemetery and he tells us Jews are still being buried here. Twelve thousand whitewashed graves, lying above ground and rounded off like logs of goat cheese, spread out before us.  

As we walk through the maze of graves, Gabay points out descendants of Maimonides from the 16th and 17th century.  

As you may recall from your Jewish history lessons (hah!), Maimonides was a brilliant philosopher, astronomer, physician, rabbi and Torah scholar, a polymath responsible for writing the basic tenants of Talmudic law.  

(The scholar I mentioned in my last post said that Maimonides moved from Fes to Egypt with his entire family and doubted very much any of his descendants were buried in Fes. But I object: I saw their goat cheese graves with my own eyes, I swear.)

As we get ready to leave, Gabay lets us know the only way the cemetery will continue into the future is through donations...like ours. To be honest, it's hard to imagine Jews have a future in Fes, but we reach in our pockets, then say goodbye.



Tall Shadows 

It's our last night in Morocco. We'd planned to go out on the town but decide to spend it at our riad, the palatial but homey Dar el Ghalia, in the heart of the old city. The courtyard, with its 8-sided star shaped fountain, is an island of peace and tranquility, and the intensity of the Medina slips away. Hassan brings us tea.

 
At dusk we climb the steps up to the rooftop garden to have our meal. Here, all of Fes-el-Bali opens up before us. The mechanical call of the first prayer, slowly revving up like an old 78, travels from minaret to minaret across the landscape.  
 

 
Children play on the roof top of the building across the way, dancing to loud music on the radio. It's hard to tell exactly what I'm seeing, if it's the children themselves who are dancing, or their tall shadows cast against the wall instead


Our meal finished we rest against the comfy pillows and soak up the mystery of this medieval city and its people. I think about the owner Omar Lebbar, who grew up in the Dar el Ghalia, with 60 siblings and servants, all living under one roof (his grandfather had three wives). Now, there is only Hassan, his helper, and the four of us. Business is bad, Lebbar tells us. Americans no longer travel here. Since 9/11 and the bombings, his business has been decimated. We can attest to that: we're the only guests we've seen all week. I can't help but wonder, is it reality, or only tall shadows that we fear? (July 2003)




The End

Happy Hanukkah Everyone!

  




 

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

One story to last 8 nights


I'd like to present some stories, including a recipe or two, over these next eight nights of Hanukkah. True, this is the third night and this is my first story, but since I haven't been blogging in some time, it's taken a few early morning jumping jacks to gain the stamina needed to blog again. (If you're a blogger you'll know what I'm talking about.) Anyway, I'd like to tell some stories, and altho they may not be posted consecutively, and may not be the holiday stories you're looking for, or may even be considered insignificant, I'm hoping they might shine a little light in these dark times.  

Here's the first story.



 Twelve against One

 Shalom Assaraf

Shalom Assaraf would NOT be outdone. A Jewish merchant in the Imperial city of Fes, Shalom had many Muslim clients with whom he got along, but there was one whose extravagant wife never paid her bills. Finally, after much pleading, Shalom took the man to Muslim Court and sued him under Sharia law.

For Jews in the 19th century this was a common practice, oftentimes with favorable outcomes. Jews and Muslims used both Jewish and Muslim courts to settle disputes. There was a fluidity between the courts. In the day to day, a fluidity too, as Jews and Muslims spoke with each other and were neighbors, unlike today, where a deep, infinitesimal chasm divides the two.

Chasm
[kaz´em]

noun
1. a yawning fissure or deep cleft in the earth's surface.
2. a marked interruption of continuity; gap
3. a sundering breach in relations, as a divergence of opinions and/or beliefs between persons or groups.



Back to Shalom: He sued the guy whose wife didn't pay. The guy sued back, saying Shalom had not one shred of evidence. Shalom then gathered 12 Muslim men in court to testify. They told the judges they knew the wife and knew she hadn't paid, thus, another suit


The Muslim man sued back saying there was still no written proof; Shalom returned to court and sued again (without papers, as he hadn't written anything down for the wife), and it went back and forth like this for months, the Jew and the Muslim fighting like boxing opponents in the open air market, knocking down stalls and spilling vegetables, without end.





Finally, after many trials and errors, the Muslim court declared Shalom the Jew the winner! 

I can see the headlines now, "A Jew wins in Sharia Court!"



The End

Note: Needless to say this couldn't happen today. The two people who come from the same father hardly speak to each other, are afraid of each other, have taken things from each other that they can't give back: goods, property, peace, life. But even the Jew Maimonides (next story) traded and worked with Muslims, rumor being he converted to one before he died. Even today there are still a small few who try to bridge the chasm.


This story was taken from notes written during a lecture by scholar Jessica M. Marglin, from her book, "Across Legal Lines: Jews and Muslims in Modern Morocco." Presented at ELYSIAN as part of Kan Ya Ma Kan. A portion of what she said is laid down here with a few additional flourishes, by me.