When the Jewish quarter in Marrakech had its original name reinstated in 2017, it was seen as a gesture of good will from the Moroccan state towards its Jewish citizens. The order to rename the Essalam neighborhood with its traditional title of “El Mellah” was decided at the highest level, on the orders of King Mohammed VI.
The word “Mellah” is a variation of the Arabic and Hebrew words for “salt.” The name, which is used to refer to all Jewish quarters in Morocco, was likely chosen because early Jewish ghettos were built on top of salt marshes.
Now, the original names of the streets and town squares within the district have been restored, with the full renewal costing around $20 million. This project, mainly funded by the Ministry of Culture, is now almost complete and by all accounts has been a great success.
The restoration of the Mellah aims to “safeguard the civilizational heritage of the Kingdom as well as the cultural heritage of all the components of Moroccan society.”
According to the Moroccan State Press Agency (MAP), the decision to restore the Mellah was taken at the request of the Jewish community and, according to a statement by the Interior Ministry, aims to “safeguard the civilizational heritage of the Kingdom as well as the cultural heritage of all the components of Moroccan society.”
This sentiment has been echoed across the country in recent years, with several historical Jewish sites having been restored. The restoration of the Ettedgui Synagogue in Casablanca and the adjacent El Mellah Museum, for instance, were partly funded by the Moroccan government, to the tune of around $844,000. Serge Berdugo, secretary-general of the Council of Moroccan Jewish Communities, said the restoration shows King Mohammed VI’s commitment to conserving spaces of cultural dialogue and coexistence.
Jews have lived in the Mellah from the mid-16th century. Like most Jewish quarters in North Africa, the area was walled off until the French invasion of Morocco in 1912. This was done in order to protect the Jewish community from attacks and to enable the state to easily surveil and tax those who lived within the walls. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Mellah was a vibrant enclave full of synagogues, courtyards, and markets. Jews at that time typically had careers as bankers, tailors, and jewelers. The modern Mellah is smaller than it was in centuries gone by and is no longer fully walled-off.
Up until the 1940s, Marrakech boasted Morocco’s largest Jewish population, estimated at around 25,000. This number was greatly depleted by a mass exodus between 1948 and 1967, mostly to France, the United States, and the newly founded state of Israel. Today, most of the inhabitants of the Mellah are Muslims, with the Jewish population reduced to under 200. At the national level, Morocco’s Jewish population stands at around 3,000, compared to some quarter of a million in the late 1940s. Casablanca is the city with the largest Jewish population.
Morocco is one of the few Arab-majority countries that still has a noticeable Jewish population.
Despite this enormous reduction in numbers, Morocco is one of the few Arab-majority countries that still has a noticeable Jewish population. Many among the Jewish-Moroccan diaspora have fond memories of peaceful coexistence, as captured in Kamal Hachkar’s superb film Tinghir-Jerusalem.
Similar stories of tolerance are captured at the Slat El-Azama Synagogue in Marrakech, where one exhibition details the efforts of King Mohammed V (grandfather of the current monarch) to oppose antisemitism in Morocco. The former king made frequent references to the rich history of Jewry in the country.
While Morocco fairs better than many neighboring states in this regard, the country has not always lived up to the standards set by Mohammed V. Only this month, a holocaust memorial in Marrakech was removed under somewhat mysterious circumstances. Yet, by comparable standards, a visit to the restored Mellah of Marrakech fills one with far more optimism that pessimism.
Throughout the intervening years since the mass-emigration of Jews during the 1950s and 60s, there has been a concerted civil society effort throughout Morocco to erase the legacy of French rule. As a result, many streets and buildings have reverted back to their Arabic names. Following suit, campaigners in the Jewish community have tirelessly fought for the same privilege, with the restoration of the Mellah serving as a key example of this.
Foremost among Jewish campaigners in Morocco is Jacky Kadoch, president of Marrakech’s Jewish community. It is as a result of the work of Kadoch and the wider community he represents that the Moroccan government has begun to treat the preservation and renaming of historic Jewish sites as a priority.
“Almost everybody in the neighborhood is very happy about it, the non-Jews as well. These are the names they grew up with,” said Kadoch.
“Don’t hesitate to tell me the things you need for your community. I am here to serve my people; no difference if they are Muslims or Jews, they are all my people.”
Kadoch had campaigned on the issue of changing the names in the Mellah for several years, with little success. It was only in 2017, when King Mohammed VI toured the Jewish quarter, that the breakthrough came. According to Kadoch, the King told him—somewhat channeling his grandfather: “Don’t hesitate to tell me the things you need for your community. I am here to serve my people; no difference if they are Muslims or Jews, they are all my people.”
While there is a whiff of hyperbole to this statement, the efforts of successive Moroccan governments to safeguard Jewish culture are to be commended. The Mellah in Marrakech stands as a monument to the tolerance and coexistence that are possible if those in power believe in it.