The first stop on our ten day trip to Morocco was the Berber Museum in the famous Majorelle Garden in Casablanca; our last stop was at the recently opened Mohammed VI Modern and Contemporary Art Museum in Rabat. These were the bookends of our wonderful mission in early March. At one end, we studied about the ancient indigenous people, who pre-dated the Arab invasion in the 7th and 8th century. The Berbers made their homes in the rural and often steep regions of the Atlas and Rif mountains and the desert. Historians refer to several waves of Jewish immigration into North Africa after the siege on Solomon's Temple. By the time of the War of the Jews against the Romans, Jews fled to remote areas and lived side by side with the Berbers where history and culture often intertwined.
Situated in the heart of Rabat, present day capital of Morocco's 35 million people, the Museum is part of King Mohammed's plan to modernize the country and attract tourism. The exhibition consists of 400 fascinating pieces of abstract and figurative work by Moroccan artists in a architectural setting rich with arches and mosaics typical of the country. The young students from the American School of Casablanca who were on an excursion pronounced the museum to be "cool." We concurred.
Our enjoyment during the visit is diminished now after the recent terrorist attack at a museum in Tunis, which killed 23 people, mostly of them tourists like ourselves. It is a painful reminder that even in the most tolerant Arab countries, the vicious hand of terror can strike in a serene temple of art.
In every medina we visited - and we didn't skip a single one - opportunity to wander through the spice souks and craft shops that line the crowded turns and alleyways of the markets were a visual and sensory delight.
The dizzying array of mint, cardamom, coriander, saffron and brilliant red paprika, silver, textiles, argon oil and leather goods were a feast for the eyes and a temptation for the pocketbook. Bustling
and picturesque, the markets were a testament to the Moroccan Jewish past, openly displaying hamsas and plates with Jewish stars at antique shops and canopied balconies.
In almost every market, we found stores selling turtles. Turtles augur good luck, good fortune, stability and contentment for the Moroccan home. I pondered the symbolism of this little reptile: could it be that the turtle, slow and steady, who knows how to pull his head and appendages into his shell during times of attack is a metaphor for the Jews in Morocco.
Wary of danger, the Moroccan Jew is ready to protect himself and carry his portable home with him if forced to leave.
The first mellah or ghetto was established in 1438 with the influx of Jews from the Iberian peninsula fleeing from the Catholic Kings made their way into the countries of North Africa. The homes typically were close by the King's palace and, in principle, offered the Jews the benefit of greater protection from attack.
Fez, an historic city of scholars and universities, was a delight. Its blinding white tombs in the Jewish cemetery, including one of a beautiful young girl, Solica, who refused to convert in 1834 and accept the advances of the Governor of Tangier, and the tombs of venerated Jewish saints captured our imagination. Home to Maimonides for a short while before left to go to Egypt, Fez also boasts the oldest university in the world, founded by a woman, Fatima, in 859, to continuously generate academic degrees.
We were loathe to leave Fez, with all its charms, but Meknes was awaiting our visit. We stopped at the mausoleum of Moulay Ismail , where once 24,000 horses were stabled and made our way to an old Jewish synagogue, a UNESCO site, which had been refurbished by the King. Shlomo, the caretaker, told us of Meknes' former glories. Today, sadly, there are 4 families in the old city and 40 people in the newer area - the youngest of who is 62.
We entered Rabat, on the ocean, just as King Abdullah from Jordan arrived for a visit. Flags were unfurled and pomp and circumstance were ever present. It is the same hospitality that was extended to the formal visits of Shimon Peres in 1986 and in 1993 to Yitzhak Rabin.
We had the distinct impression that Morocco prided itself on being the most tolerant nation, had the best food, and were the nicest people in the Magreb. Like the famous line in Casablanca, one of the great classic films of all times, we shared the sentiment expressed by Humphrey Bogart's Rick: "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship".
On our last day, we toured Chellah, a fortified necropolis. Abandoned by the Romans, this crumbling old city was rebuilt in the 9th century, and is
surrounded by towers and a defensive wall. This city of the dead, with its fig, olive and orange trees, was an oasis of quiet in a busy city. On top of the columns, we saw nesting storks in mating season, with their clacking bills providing a soundtrack.
I think I speak for the whole group when I say that we fell in love with Morocco. I recommend that you take a trip there. But don't wait. Soon Morocco will become a necropolis for the Jews. There will be nostalgic history, tourists coming to see the sites like people flock to the Coliseum in Rome. What will remain is synagogues and cemeteries, the mellahs, and the tombs of the sages, all kept up with money from abroad or tourists on pilgrimage, with Moslem caretakers and guides who will point out the places on the walls were once there were mezuzahs. Jewish life, once 350,000 in 1948, is now 2,500 people. The 100 communities where once Jews lived are almost all gone and have retreated into history books. The rich evidence of 2000 years of Jewish life will be gone but for the stories we continue to tell.