The cemetery in the old Jewish Quarter of Fez, Morocco, is sunny and serene. And it’s entirely what you would not expect in today’s environment of news about conflicts between Muslims and Jews.
The cemetery is like none I’ve seen. The area is all concrete, the graves marked by low, long mounds or larger monuments depending on the wealth of the person lying below. The whitewashed markers gleam in the morning sun as our guide talks about the history of the quarter, which rose near the 14th centrum year palace.
Jews came to Fez from Europe to live among the Berbers, and to convert them, more than 2,500 years ago. Well before Islam, which is about 1,400 years old. They settled in the Atlas Mountains, and lived there when Fez was founded in the 9th century, about 1,200 years ago.
Arab Jews came from the Middle East and settled in what is now the Jewish Quarter, near the medina, the old, original part of Fez. They lived side-by-side with Muslims, who by then were pretty much in control of Morocco. It was not necessarily a peaceful coexistence. Several times over the centuries there were attacks against and even massacres of Jews at the hands of Muslims, so that when the palace was built, the Jews collected next door hoping it would provide some protection. And it did. The Mellah, the Jewish Quarter, thrived. Their beliefs and religions were different, but little else. They all struggled to find a living.
Synagogues sprung up along with schools, and for centuries, there was mostly peace. But after World War II, changes began. It wasn’t violence that drew the Jewish population out of the Mellah, it was economic opportunity. A guide in the cemetery explained that some of the Jewish people left for Israel. Others stayed, but as their children became educated, they left for Casablanca, the business center of Morocco, for Europe, or for the United States, all in search of better jobs. Parents stayed behind, but over the past 70 years or so, as they have died, the Jewish population has almost disappeared. In 1946, there were an estimated 300,000 Jews in Morocco. Scholar and Morocco expert Willam Lawrence of George Washington University says about 150,000 of them immigrated to Israel, and the number of Moroccan Israelis now numbers about 1 million. Meanwhile, only about 2,500 Jews remain in Morocco.
Almost none of them remain in the Jewish Quarter. The mezuzahs that once adorned the doors of Jewish families have been removed, leaving long-forgotten scars on the jambs. Many young, single people live there, and the area is a lively place with music late into the night. Families move away as soon as they can to raise their children, but those too poor to afford anything else stay.
The old synagogues have been converted into homes. One which was converted decades ago has been restored — by the Muslim daughter of the man who lived there, as reminder of the quarter’s past. She sits inside the door and greets visitors as they enter — some of them Israeli Moroccans descended from those immigrants of an earlier generation.
And in the brilliantly white cemetery, two or three workers tend to the graves, sweeping away leaves, making sure the sacred ground is a respectful place of remembrance to the heritage Jews left to Fez, much of it a legacy of peaceful coexistence.
Each of them is Muslim.