Shortly after the death of Rabbi Hayyim Pinto in 1845 his former caretaker, a Muslim peasant, saw Pinto in a dream. The rabbi asked her to look after his grave, which is perched over wind-lashed cliffs a few hundred yards outside the walls of Essaouira, in southern Morocco. I’m poor, she replied. Who will look after me? Don’t worry, Pinto told her: His followers and pilgrims to his tomb would make sure she had more than enough to survive, and would see that her descendants were taken care of, too. A rabbi from New York told me this story as over 1,500 Jews from France, the United States, Israel, Canada, and Argentina gathered around the rabbi’s tomb, just after midnight on his yahrzeit this past August.
Rabbi Hayyim Pinto’s grave is in the middle of Essaouira’s Jewish cemetery, inside a domed chamber with polished marble floors and sweeping views of the Atlantic. The tomb is remarkably ornate, more beautiful than the graves of the Ari or the Rashbi or a dozen other arguably more important rabbis. From Pinto’s tomb the entire city looks like it’s emerging from clouds of sea mist.
There are between 2,000 and 3,000 Jews left in Morocco, down from a community of over a quarter-million at the beginning of the 20th century. Because Morocco’s Jews faced little in the way of organized persecution—because the country was often a safe haven from persecution—a mutual pride endures among non-Jewish Moroccans and the many Moroccan-descended Jews who now live outside the country’s borders. Jewish ghosts visit with Muslims in their dreams, and boys in the melah of Marrakesh offer directions to the Slat Al Azama synagogue in Hebrew. “Everyone here has gotten a miracle from Rav Hayyim Pinto,” a pilgrim beamed as crowds snaked toward the tomb, waves thundering in the darkness.
Earlier that day there had been Shabbat services under a large tent outside the old city walls; a few days before, Rabbi David Pinto recited the Birkat Hamelech with King Mohammed VI in attendance. These are public expressions of Judaism that would be unwelcome or even dangerous in just about any other Arab country and in a few European ones as well. For most of the day there hadn’t been a single metal detector or rifle-wielding commando in eyeshot.
Still, it’s often tough to assess the substance of Morocco’s welcoming attitude towards Jews, which buoys the state’s confident self-image of tolerance and benevolent autocracy. In as much as the notion of a Jewish-friendly and therefore liberal kingdom is a politically useful myth, few people have done more to construct that myth, and to create conditions under which it is compelling and plausible, than André Azoulay, the right hand of Mohammed VI, and a figure without parallel anywhere in the Jewish or Muslim world.
On an afternoon in late August, Azoulay addressed the 50-odd participants in the Muslim-Jewish Interfaith Coalition’s first-ever conference, a religiously and geographically diverse group of people under the age of 40. He stood in front of a portrait of Mohammed VI inside the stone-pillared central hall of the Dar Souiri, a cultural center in a 19th-century mansion. Like everything else in the old city, the Dar Souiri hides behind a featureless whitewashed outer wall.
The historic buildings in Essaouira have very little external ornamentation and look like they belong to a time hundreds of years after their construction, or perhaps to no time at all. They resemble blank rectangular building blocks, and the city streets are stark white corridors whose personalities change depending on the color of the sky and the ever-shifting shadows, which are as sharply angular as the structures casting them. Amber crenelated walls wind through the jagged cliffs along the shoreline.
Azoulay is officially an economic adviser to King Mohammed VI, although this title obscures the real nature of his job, which is far more expansive. He’s a shadow foreign minister, the all-around “right hand of the king,” along with the person responsible for whatever Jewish life and Jewish memory remains in his country.
Azoulay is a slight 77-year-old, with white hair and a thin mustache. He spoke softly, sometimes almost whispering into the microphone at a hypnotically unhurried pace. He was born in Essaouira, and the city, which he told us had a Jewish majority in the 19th century, remains a sort of spiritual fiefdom. In his address, he boasted of the town’s numerous music festivals, which have included Jewish performers and whose programming emphasizes the city’s diverse history: Essaouira’s rebirth as a cultural destination is a decades-long Azoulay project. Our group visited three synagogues, and his name is displayed somewhere inside each one of them.
For Azoulay, his work in the city has shown that Jews and Muslims have gotten along and can still get along. “Let [people] know that there is a place in the south of Morocco where they resist, where they are committed to resist amnesia, to resist the trends of the day and the daily impressions of the news,” he asked us, speaking in a thickly accented English that was often difficult to follow, and often too bland in its substance to even seem worth following. As he spoke, his expression remained almost meditatively blank. Even when he led our group out of the Dar Souiri and on a five-minute walk to the city’s soon-to-open Jewish Museum and research center—a legacy project of Azoulay’s, where his portrait appears alongside other notable Jewish Essaouirans, like the scholar and ethnographer Haim Zafrani, and the polymathic 18th-century Rabbi David Elkayam—there was no visible security.
When I got back to the United States, I told an acquaintance with decades of experience in North African affairs that I had been in Azoulay’s awesome and enigmatic presence but was struggling to remember anything interesting he had said. “That’s precisely the source of his power,” the expert replied.
Azoulay is the kingdom’s all-purpose fixer, a man who gets stuff done thanks to an endless list of high-profile contacts who wouldn’t dare to ignore his calls. “His main functioning in life is that when he sits down with you and talks with you you’re not gonna learn anything, but he will learn everything,” my acquaintance explained. Azoulay understands things that only a top adviser to one of the most successful autocrats on earth gets to understand. A listener can only guess at what these insights might be, because the Azoulays of the world would never dream of revealing them—even if they sometimes drop a hint or two.
Azoulay began his career in government as an adviser to King Hassan II, in 1990. At the time, Azoulay had lived in France for decades, and served as the executive vice president of Paribas Bank responsible for the Middle East and North Africa. He was also the head of the bank’s public affairs department. Meanwhile, King Hassan II was in the final decade of a history-making reign in Rabat—39 years on the throne in which he would survive multiple coup attempts—including one where mutinous air force pilots strafed the presidential jet with F-5s at cruising altitude, and another that involved a bloody assault on a party at his summer palace. He would also annex the former Spanish territory of Western Sahara, murder and make disappear several thousand of his critics, play a secretive and decisive role in Israeli-Arab diplomacy, and reform the Moroccan political system just enough to convince outsiders and a significant number of his subjects that the country was a modernizing exception to the region’s chaos and autocracy.
Hassan II, who died in 1999, is arguably no less a giant of history than his longtime enemy Muammar al-Qaddafi, and his relative obscurity in the modern day now seems like it was part of some brilliantly executed design. In the lobby of my hotel in Essaouira, there was a portrait of a young Mohammed VI sitting on a modest throne, behind which loomed a much larger throne that hogged the majority of the picture’s remaining space. The empty seat was enough to evoke the man meant to be sitting in it, a presence so gigantic that an actual physical image was unnecessary.
Hassan II’s legacy was pervasive enough that nobody needed to be reminded of whose legacy it really was. “His personal story is still not written,” Azoulay said of Hassan II during his talk, without elaboration.
What was the late king like? I asked Azoulay during the question and answer session that followed his talk. “He was a very quick decider,” Azoulay replied.
He then made a face that nearly suggested a grin: “I was arrested three times by him,” he continued. “I was young. At the age of 19, as a Marxist, I was probably wrong about some things.” He described meeting Hassan II in Paris, when Azoulay was still an executive with Paribas. The arrests came up during their conversation—Azoulay said he’d grown older and wiser; Hassan acknowledged that perhaps his government had been wrong to repeatedly detain the young man.
From this exchange the listener was intended to learn that recognizing the virtues of pragmatism and the capacity of your opponents to change are crucial to the prudent exercise of power. A wise king, and the people who can earn and maintain that king’s trust, keep past offenses in perspective. As a result of this shared quality, the relationship between the two men flourished, as did the kingdom itself: “I don’t remember a year where we didn’t change something,” Azoulay recalled.
But perhaps Hassan and Azoulay were joined by principles in addition to pragmatism. They were united by an idea of Morocco that the two men shared and built together, one in which ancient sources of authority, buffered and legitimized and in some sense indistinguishable from a shared ideal of Moroccan-ness, could put the country on a glide-path to modernity. “I am Moroccan, I am Berber, I am Jewish—and I am perhaps a little bit Muslim, too,” Azoulay said earlier in the talk. “It’s not a Jewish restoration,” he claimed of the rebuilding of the melah, and of the multimillion-dollar restorations of Jewish sites throughout the country, some of which Azoulay was personally overseeing. “It is Moroccan.”
Azoulay’s Morocco, which is Hassan’s, and Mohammed VI’s, is a place where pluralism, social cohesion, and soft power reinforce one another and are backed by hard power. The institutions of the state have sustained a Moroccan identity durable enough to bridge the country’s political and social contradictions, an identity in which a history of tolerance and philo-Semitism plays a subtle yet not insignificant part. Perhaps it is Azoulay’s hand in building this national myth that led the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy to write, “If there is a Lawrence among us—but a Lawrence without war, a Lawrence for times of peace, and, what’s more, a Jewish Lawrence, a double Lawrence in some sense, a forthright Lawrence—it’s him, André Azoulay.”
National myths only work if other countervailing narratives can be sufficiently ignored. During his talk, Azoulay motioned towards the idea that he understood Muslim Moroccans better than they understood him. One wonders what Moroccan subjects think of their king or the Jews a couple towns up the road from Essaouira, or even within Essaouira itself. One also wonders why hundreds of thousands of Jews would leave a country where they were apparently so appreciated, and what Morocco might have permanently lost when its Jews decided to leave.
These are questions Moroccans themselves have asked. Also present at the Muslim-Jewish Interfaith Coalition forum was El Mehdi Boudra, the founder and president of Mimouna, an organization dedicated to sustaining the memory of Morocco’s Jewish community. Like most of Mimouna’s officers, Boudra, who holds a master’s degree from Brandeis University’s Peace, Conflict, and Coexistence Studies program, is not Jewish, although he says he is “Jewish by culture—it’s part of the Moroccan plural identity.” The organization wasn’t founded by political operators in Rabat or Casablanca, but by students at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, a midsize town in the country’s interior. As one of its first events in 2007, Mimouna “turned the campus Jewish for a day,” Boudra said, bringing in exhibits from Casablanca’s Jewish museum, posting Hebrew signs, and holding performances of Moroccan Jewish music. Today, Mimouna has organized Arabic-language Holocaust education curricula, held numerous conferences, and helped send non-Jewish Moroccans to build ties with the sizable Moroccan Jewish community in Israel. “Our work is not preserving heritage but keeping memory,” says Boudra. “For me, preservation is not enough.”
When Azoulay dies, Jewish historical memory in Morocco will be the responsibility of young and motivated non-Jews like Boudra. He contrasted “the old generation that talked with nostalgia about Jews and a new generation that knows nothing.” Still, he believes that Arabs are curious about the Jews who left or were forced out of their societies. “We are the silent majority in the Arab world,” he said.
In Essaouira, the Jews are largely present through cultural events, the occasional interfaith forum, the annual Pinto pilgrimage, the rebuilt melah, and Azoulay’s existence. For the rest of the year, the Jews are names on memorial lamps in empty synagogues. There is no getting around the community’s near total absence, even if Morocco’s Jews self-deported under happier circumstances than their counterparts in Egypt or Spain.
For some Moroccan-descended Jews, the dissonance is impossible to avoid. Rachel Benaim, the young writer who started the Muslim-Jewish Interfaith Coalition, found her great grandfather’s name inscribed somewhere in the city’s Slat Lkahal shul, and she knows exactly where he’s buried in Essaouira’s Jewish cemetery. When she visited the cemetery for the first time a few months before the conference, she was “struck with this deep sense of there not being peace, that there was something that was waiting to happen here. I didn’t know what it meant. … I sat down in a corner and cried for a long time.”
The forum, and the process of organizing an intensive weeklong interfaith event in the city that her father’s family eventually left, answered certain questions for her while raising others that could never really be answered. “I think the unease is still there,” she said. “I don’t know if that discomfort is from stepping into somewhere so simultaneously familiar and foreign.”
Correction, Dec. 3: An earlier version of this article misspelled Haim Zafrani’s last name and misidentified the former caretaker Rabbi Hayyim Pinto’s tomb.
You can help support Tablet’s unique brand of Jewish journalism. Click here to donate today.