Morocco is stunning: red mud villages rise out of the scraggy desert, the sky always azur blue, majestic Atlas mountains in the background, cities like Casablanca, Marrakesh, Agadir resonating in the imagination. It’s God’s country. But which God, Yahweh or Allah? Or – is it possible – both?
Until the mid-twentieth century, Morocco was home to a largeJewish population. Much like the rest of the Middle East, from Yemen through the Levant and North Africa, Arab Jews, like the Christians, were always a significant minority in the region. Morocco, in particular, was home to as many as half a million by the 1940s. Today, only a few thousand remain.
The story goes that they were brutally driven out in 1948 upon the creation of the state of Israel. But was that really the case? Toronto-based Kathy Wazana, Moroccan-born herself, took a crew there recently to scratch the surface of myth, legend and memory.
Travelling to Morocco’s villages and cities, she finds significant (and often preserved) traces of not only the community but their still mourning neighbours. One man, showing her homes that were abandoned in 1963 when the village of Essaoui decamped to Israel, recalls, “They used to make beautiful meals every Saturday and share them with us.” He turns his head away from the camera when the emotion gets too much.
In another village, Illigh, an old man remembers his childhood friends’ names: “There was Haim, and there was Jacob, and Aaron, and there was Bougamin. The villagers didn’t want them to leave. The Jews who grew up here didn’t want to leave.”
So why did they go? And in the early 60s after all, a good fifteen years after 1948. Wazana speaks to a range of people, from a Jewish advisor to the King of Morocco, to the director of the only Jewish museum in the Arab world, to a musician who longs for his friends to return from Israel, to an Israeli-born woman who makes the pilgrimage to her parents’ village for the first time. For each of them, Morocco is a lesser country without its Jewish population.
It’s a painful story to unravel, to stand face to face with generations of longing, betrayal and even deception. Sami Shalom Chétrit, Moroccan poet who lives in New York says ruefully, “This is the equation that Ben Gurion made. He wanted to build a European state for Jews but he got stuck because demographically he had no Jews coming. So he turned to the Arab world and he did the math. He expelled some 700,000 Palestinians and he brought in some 700,000 Arab Jews. So, at least, his math was good.”
They Were Promised the Sea is exquisitely shot by Martin Duckworth, Ali Kazimi and Zoe Dirse, with a haunting soundtrack of original recordings of Andalusian and Sephardic music, performed in Arabic, Hebrew and Ladino.
Originally posted in Rover.