The Jewish writer Edmond Amran El Maleh, also known in some academic circles in America as the James Joyce of Morocco, once wrote a novel with the symbolic title: Mille ans, un jour. After reading it numerous times for my courses on the Maghreb, the closest possible interpretation of its title that I could come up with rests on an equation that contrasts the thousand years of Jewish presence in Morocco with the shortest possible time that it took them to leave the country. The title would translate as: A day in a thousand years. The novel zeroes in on the hasty and inexplicable departure of Jewish Moroccans, which was then the largest Jewish community in the Arab world, a large presence that did not go unnoticed to visiting George Orwell in 1939: “… whichever way you look you see nothing but Jews. As a matter of fact there are thirteen thousand of them [in Marrakesh], all living in the space of a few acres. A good job Hitler wasn’t here. Perhaps he was on his way, however” (A Collection of Essays, Harvest Book, p. 183). The departure of Moroccan Jews happened swiftly, with large communities packing up what little they could carry with them in the long and arduous journey to the Promised Land. Although the digressive and somewhat postmodern style of El Maleh makes reading his fiction a hard feat, something my American students reproached the author with, the anecdotal “storiettes” make up for an entertaining narrative, certainly fictional but very informative from an historical point of view.
Out of an estimated 300, 000 souls that left, El Maleh stayed behind and joined the political struggle for democracy and human rights in the 1960s, suffering imprisonment for belonging to the communist party, before being released and leaving to France, his wife’s homeland. El Maleh’s exile never shook his staunch attachment to Morocco, which he kept visiting until 1995 when he settled in Rabat, Morocco’s capital, for good. Very critical of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians and accusing Zionism of decimating Arab countries of their “Other”, i.e. the Jews who left Arab countries, El Maleh eventually chose to die in Morocco and made two requests before his time came in 2010. First, he wanted to be buried in Essaouira’s (Formerly Mogador) Jewish cimetière marin, Essaouira being the birth place of his parents. His grave, as I witness on my occasional visits to the city of my birth, has become a tourist site. El Maleh’s second request carried cultural and ideological significance. He asked Khalid El Ghrib, who is a painter and a close friend, to engrave his name in Hebrew, Arabic, and Berber, on his tombstone, a clear indication of the composite ethnic mix that formed the author’s identity.
The fictional world of El Maleh portrays buildings in ruins, abandoned dwellings, nomadic characters devoured by loneliness, and an impossible eventuality to reinvent history. A scene from Mille ans laments the impossibility to conduct prayers in the absence of the required number of worshippers: the minyan. At one point in the narrative, Nessim, the narrator, recounts how Jews once outnumbered Muslims in Mogador, how it counted more synagogues than mosques, how both communities lived in absolute peace, exchanging gifts on each other’s religious holidays and social ceremonies. Judging by today’s standards, the news of this coexistence sound as though they came from another world. Through the way he chose to live his life, El Maleh sent a message to Morocco’s youth who did not live this coexistence and who are prone to fall prey to the ideologies of radical Islam coming from the East, betraying their country’s history. As we read through El Maleh’s narratives, a question keeps coming back: what would have the Arab world looked like had the Jews decided to stay, a question I hastily admit is not my own, but of filmmaker Hassan Ben Jelloun who made sure to show it on a black screen at the end of his movie: Où vas-tu Moshé? Where are you going Moshé? (2007). This question has been subsequently deleted in the commercial version of the movie.
This difficult question underscores the impossibility to reinvent the past. The Jews are not coming back; Nessim is not coming back; Shlomo, the protagonist in Where are you going Moshé? resisted departure but eventually left; the coexistence between Jews and Muslims that had been spontaneous is forever gone; the city lives on the distorted memory of a once thriving polis of mixed ethnicities, religions, and races. In the space of a few decades, the Arab world suddenly appears to be monolithic and inimical to alterity. This scenario marks not only El Maleh’s fiction but also the movies about this sad episode in Moroccan, if not Arab, history. The characters encounter almost the same predicament in Mohamed Ismaïl’s Adieu mères/Goodbye Mothers (2008) and in Kamal Hachkar’s documentary Tinghir-Jerusalem: Les échos du Mellah/Tinghir-Jerusalem : Echos from the Mellah (2013); they undergo the aimless trajectory, as they do in El Maleh’s fiction.
In Where are you going Moshé?, Shlomo Bensoussan (Simon Elbaz), is unfazed by the discreet and underground campaign of recruiting migrants for Israel. His refusal to board the last bus shocked his coreligionists and dazzled his Muslim friends, among whom the Muslim bar owner who has all to lose in the absence of non-Muslims in town. The law stipulates that alcohol could only be sold to non-Muslims, although the majority of the customers are Muslims. This situation sets the stage for a showdown between Mustapha, who pampers Shlomo, and the city council that wants to see the bar closed and Mustapha’s alcohol license revoked. For that to happen, some members of the council agree to increase the value of Shlomo’s shop and offer him a price he would not be able to resist so he can leave town. Shlomo sells the shop and, on the day of his departure, he boards the last bus with his daughter and wife only to quickly change his mind and get off it. Shlomo stays behind, occasionally receiving letters from his daughter, Rachel (Rim Shmaou), the content of which, on Mustapha’s orders, is altered by those who read them for him so as not to scare him away. All seems to be going according to plan until Hassan divulges the truth to Shlomo when he himself discovers in one of the letters that Rachel, whom he still loves, has married one of the recruiters and moved with him to Paris. Feeling betrayed, Shlomo leaves Bejaad to Casablanca to meet a Rabbi to pick up his passport and immigration documents that Rachel has arranged for him so he can join her in France. It is in Casablanca that Shlomo stumbles on Braham Zaafrani, also known as Berbaqha, the mentally-ill Jewish resident of Bejaad whose condition prevented the “organizers” from granting him travel papers. Before the last goodbye, Shlomo scores one more great move; he makes sure to take care of Barbaqha by sending him back to Bejjad to the delight of Mustapha. The movie ends with Berbaqha wearing a military uniform and enjoying himself at the bar.
Except for the unlikely comic twist that Ben Jelloun gave to the end of his movie, the events are marked by the cruel inevitability of a process that cannot be undone. The movie is punctuated by brisk moments of humor and happiness but an overall tone of sadness persists throughout. There are intense emotional scenes that are almost impossible to watch, such as Shlomo’s visit to his father’s grave (which is indeed his father’s grave in real life), the separation of Shlomo’s family, Shlomo’s loneliness as he recalls the times when he used to play the Oud to his wife in bed, departing Jews selling their belongings for almost nothing at the market, the loss of the close-knit friendship that united Jews and Muslims in Bejaad, and Shlomo’s meltdown at the bar on the eve of his departure. The cruel inevitability that runs like an unstoppable force denies history its cyclic return. In a strong symbolic gesture, the belly dancer transvestite, Sem Bouzaglou, offers Shlomo a clock to remind him of the passage of time and the inevitability of his departure. Time cannot be turned back.
We find this cruel inevitability replayed in Mohamed Ismail’s Adieu mères/Goodbye Mothers (2007). The movie tells the story of two friends, one Muslim, Brahim (Rachid El Ouali), and the other Jewish, Henry (Marc Samuel). Again, the year is 1960 and recruitment of Jewish migrants is in full swing; Henry decides to leave first without his family; his wife Ruth and two children: Aida and Avi, remain in Morocco in the care of Brahim and his wife, Fatima. The plot of Goodbye Mothers revolves around the tragic incident of the the ill-fated boat, the Egoz, that clandestinely carried Moroccan Jews from Morocco to France, and then to Israel; Henry happens to be one of the passengers who perishes in its 13th voyage together with 45 other passengers in January 1961, triggering an international crisis. Upon hearing the news of Henry’s death, his wife never recovers from the shock and her health quickly deteriorates before she dies of cancer. With no other relatives to take care of them, the custody of Aida and Avi falls to Brahim and Fatima. Before her death, Ruth entrusts Fatima with a jewelry box that contains two necklaces with the Star of David, one for each of her two children. The last scene of the movie takes place 18 years later at the Jewish cemetery where Fatima, narrating her own action, fulfills Ruth’s wishes in the presence of Aida and Avi.
The plot of Goodbye Mothers is much more complex than Ben Jelloun’s Where are you going Moshé ? It boasts a large number of cast players as well. However, the outcome of the stories converges on a commonality that both movies share: the impossibility of a future for Jews in a Muslim country that has been theirs for millennia. If Hassan could not marry Rachel, it is also impossible for Mehdi to marry Eliane (Rachel Huet). Both Mrs. Chochana, Eliane’s mother, and Ben Chekroun and his wife vehemently oppose their marriage. Both parents invoked shame and disgrace should such an interfaith union takes place. Their opposition continues even after Eliane goes public with the news of her pregnancy, which only draws the wrath of her mother and Benchetrit (Christian Drillaud), the recruiter who scuffles with Eliane, threatening to teach her what her dead father, Moshé, would have were he still alive. Eliane and Mehdi still continue to defy the odds and see each other. In one of their last meetings, they realize the true colors of their parents; Mehdi suggests they run away to which Eliane responds: “It would be crazy… We could live with your parents meanwhile; have you considered this?” Mehdi responds: “No way. I have thought about it, but my parents have dashed all my hopes.” Eliane says: “I can’t get it; I thought they were kind of [a] bit cooler than my mum.” Mehdi responds: “They are all the same.” It was the last nail in the coffin. Although Eliane mends fences with her mother, she meets Mehdi discreetly one more time, and just before she leaves for good, she sets things straight by telling hopeful Mehdi who still, like Hassan, believes in the power of love: “Our love will overcome all these barriers” that “[o] ur son can’t grow up here.” The impossibility to give birth to and to raise a child born out of an interfaith union in post-independence Morocco reveals symbolically the end of an era and reminds us of the inevitability of the advent of an ominous ending to Jewish presence among Muslims. It also signals the beginning of a rift, fuelled by the violence in the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The impossibility of Jewish-Muslim rapprochement to which the film hints has also appeared in other films, such as in Laila Marrakchi’s 2005 Marock. We encounter again the same heartbreak, as Youri Benchekri (Matthieu Boujenah) and Rita Belguiti (Morjana Alaoui) face opposition to their love by individuals inimical to interfaith unions although, a marriage between two individuals of different faiths, is not forbidden in Islam. In the end, Youri purposely commits suicide by crashing his car, and Rita leaves to France.
For long, academic departments in North America, in particular, have been heavily focused on the works of Albert Memmi and his contribution to postcolonial studies at the expense of other writers who hold different views, such as Edmond Amran El Maleh who was very critical of Memmi and his monochrome opinion on Maghrebi Jewry. North African Jewish studies have yet to adequately integrate or explore new vistas coming from Maghrebi Jewish writers from the Diaspora, such as Maya Nahoum, Pol-Serge Kakon, Isaac Knafo, Gisèle Halimi, Hubbert Haddad, Ami Bouganim, and Daniel Sibony, to name only these. The same can be said about cinema related to North African Jewry. In the limited space I have, I presented a glimpse of some major feature films that came out in the past decade, showing how their plots repeat common themes: the circumstances surrounding the departure of North African Jews, the reconstitution of collective memory, nostalgia, the impossibility of repatriation, community relations, and the failed love affairs of interfaith unions. On purpose, I left out Kamal Hachkar’s successful documentary: Tinghir-Jerusalem: Les échos du Mellah/Tinghir-Jerusalem : Echos from the Mellah (2013), maybe for a future contribution.
Zakaria Fatih is Associate Professor of Francophone Literatures at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is also the review editor of the section: Society and Culture of The French Review.