According to UNESCO General-Secretary Audrey Azoulay, Beit Dakira is built “around a synagogue, one of the 37 synagogues that adorned the city until the 1950s.
Andre Azoulay, adviser to the Moroccan king, poses for a picture at the Bayt Dakira Jewish museum in Essaouira, Morocco, Dec. 14, 2019 / (photo credit: FADEL SENNA/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES/JTA)
Essaouira, Morocco’s Beit Dakira (“House of Memory”), a 19th-century home, received a new lease on life as a place for preserving Jewish heritage in Morocco, thanks to the extensive efforts of King Mohammed VI’s senior counselor André Azoulay and his Essaouira-Mogador Association. Beit Dakira will host cultural events, conferences, scholars-in-residence, and lively interfaith Shabbat dinners, bringing together local community members and Jewish visitors who increasingly flock to Essaouira from abroad.
King Mohammed VI inaugurated Beit Dakira on January 15 in a ceremony attended by Moroccan Jewish leaders and rabbis; UNESCO General-Secretary Audrey Azoulay; celebrities Gal Elmaleh and Raymonde Abecassis; European officials, including the German ambassador to Morocco and a Konrad Adenauer Foundation representative; participants of Moroccan Muslim-led interfaith efforts; as well as the executive director of the American Sephardi Federation, Jason Guberman.
Essaouira once had a Jewish majority. The Jewish community dwindled over time, but the spirit of mutual respect and genuine friendship has never left the port city. Each year, Essaouira hosts the traditional Moroccan Mimouna, a post-Passover holiday where Muslims and Jews jointly celebrate a special meal with sweets and music. Thanks to Azoulay, Essaouira, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been transformed from a quiet town to a cultural force as the host of 17 musical festivals throughout the year, ranging from classical and Islamic liturgical to Gnaoua (an indigenous “Moroccan Blues” repertoire) and Andalusian.
According to Azoulay, Beit Dakira is built “around a synagogue, one of the 37 synagogues that adorned the city until the 1950s. And it expresses this singularity of Essaouira, which is particularly dear to me. It was probably the only urban space from Morocco to Indonesia that for a very long time embodied for centuries this intimacy, this proximity, this porosity, or this capillarity that Islam and Judaism had in the land of Islam.”
More than just a distant memory of the rich cultural past, before the mass migration of Zionist Jews to Israel and waves of economic immigrants to Europe and North America, Essaouira is pointing in the direction of a bright new future filled with possibilities for the blossoming of Jewish culture in Morocco.
These prospects have the full backing of King Mohammed VI. Moroccan Jewish heritage is enshrined in the 2011 Moroccan Constitution, alongside African, Amazigh, Andalusian and Arab cultures. While to many young Moroccan Muslims, the Jewish history of the city exists only in their grandparents’ stories, the Essaouira-Mogador Association and Association Mimouna (a national and increasingly international initiative founded by ElMehdi Boudra) ensure that Jewish memory is realized in life through cultural events, humanitarian projects, and educational campaigns.
Still, skeptics point to the trend of young Moroccan Jews (and Moroccans in general) seeking opportunities overseas. Others discount Morocco’s exceptional integration and mutual respect for its diverse faith and ethnic communities by cynically citing antisemitic instances and claiming that all positive developments are PR moves.
Does this mean, then, that the “House of Memory” is nothing more than a nostalgic reminder of an illusory past and that the future of Morocco will resemble much the rest of the MENA region: monochromatic, clashing and without Jews? As someone who witnessed the vivacious scene during the inauguration, I would argue to the contrary that the Western notion of “nostalgia,” of longing for the past that cannot be, is not applicable here. Instead, the Japanese concept of “natsukashii” is much more relevant. A recent BBC coverage of the concept put it best:
“Natsukashii is a Japanese word used when something evokes a fond memory from your past. It’s a word you exclaim as a smile creeps across your face. For instance, when you hear a song you loved as a teenager, or when you come across an old train ticket stub in your pocket.
“In some cultures, nostalgia is often full of sadness. But natsukashii – which derives from the verb ‘natsuku,’ which means ‘to keep close and become fond of’ – indicates joy and gratitude for the past rather than a desire to return to it. In Japan, natsukashii is a reminder that you are fortunate to have had the experiences you’ve had in life.”
Nothing can ever be exactly as it once was, but it can certainly grow in a new direction and create a better future, taking into the account the legal, social and political mistakes that contributed to the need for rebirth. Some of these issues are already being addressed.
Essaouira was consecrated by King Mohammed VI as Morocco’s city of arts, culture and handicrafts, while the king’s inauguration of Beit Dakira affirms its pluralistic, multifaceted and multi-faith identity. A cultural complex – including a museum, library, tea house, 1,000-seat theater and an outdoor performance stage – are being built to reinforce Essaouira’s role as the vanguard of the Moroccan renaissance.
At the same time, the revival of its cultural identity will make it even more attractive to Moroccan Jews in other cities and abroad who are rediscovering their roots and traveling to Morocco in ever-growing numbers, including for pilgrimages.
King Mohammed VI dedicated part of a $300 million investment in Essaouira to the restoration of the city’s historic Medina, where the Jewish community had resided for centuries. This step comes after prior restorations of Jewish street signs in Marrakesh’s Mella, historic synagogues, and 167 Jewish cemeteries, for which the commander of the faithful took full responsibility.
Thanks to these developments, young Jews seeking to build families can increasingly find a welcoming Moroccan alternative to communities besieged in Europe, where antisemitism proliferates, synagogues require advance appointments even for Jews to visit, and Jews are wary of wearing kippot outside or attending mainstream educational institutions. What is needed now are opportunities for young Moroccan Jews to engage in communal life (the king has called for the Jewish community to hold elections).
Beit Dakira represents how Morocco’s present is progressively catalyzed toward achieving its full potential. In December 2018, young Moroccan Muslims (Maroune El Idrissi’s Moroccan millennium leaders) organized the first global energy school, a conference at Beit Dakira that featured business leaders, technical experts and talented young Moroccan Muslim engineers and entrepreneurs.
Azoulay delivered the keynote address and both ASF’s Jason Guberman and I spoke and conducted workshops. The next day Beit Dakira’s Haim and Célia Zafrani Research Center on the History of Relations between Judaism and Islam hosted the “Third Scientific Colloquium on Doctrine, Jurisprudence and Evolution of Hebraic Law in Morocco,” which was all the more extraordinary because the 30 senior scholars and graduate students participating were Moroccan Muslims.
This unheralded Moroccan reality was reflected in Azoulay’s remarks at the inauguration. “Allow me, your majesty, to express our immense pride, our infinite happiness, our gratitude to his majesty. This historic day bears the mark of our millennia-old, secular Morocco, which has always protected the great diversity that is the core resource of our country.”
Azoulay then presented King Mohammed VI with a Torah and a Koran, and conducted a tour of the exhibitions, including a collection of Arabic letters by Jewish merchants in Timbuktu (the Mali Jewish community hearkens back to the Sahara).
Asked afterward to comment on the inauguration, ASF’s Guberman invoked “Morocco’s culture of coexistence as embodied by the matrouz, in which ideas, languages and genres are combined and remixed. Beit Dakira, in a word, is matrouz.”
He also announced how “the Essaouira-Mogador Association and the American Sephardi Federation are working on a host of initiatives – festivals, conferences, lectures, workshops – including the 23rd New York Sephardi Jewish Film Festival, Festival des Andalousies Atlantiques, and (with Association Mimouna) the second Jewish Africa Conference and David Yulee Levy Fellowship.”
Beit Dakira is a house of memory wherein remembrance gives rise to new, present and future beginnings and limitless possibilities.
The writer is a member of Moroccan Americans in New York and has been working on relationship building with the Moroccan community for the past four years.