Shalom Alaykoum - Salam Lekoulam
Translation by Roksi Levent
A friend of ours, who learned that we were going to Marrakesh, suggested insistently: “While you’re there, don’t come back without stopping by Suvayr.” When the cab driver who drove us from the airport to our hotel also told us, “You should definitely see Essaouira”, I looked it up on the internet and I found out that Suvayr and Essaouira were the same city.
There’s more: In the old times Essaouira- As-Sawira in Arabic- was previously known by Western countries as Mogoador. On the other hand, this pre-historic city, which is bounded on three sides by the Atlantic Ocean, is in UNESCO’s world heritage list and its name in Barbarian language was Amogdol that meant “the well-preserved city”. Since Suvayr has been really well-preserved since the pre-historic times, we might say that the Barbarians were indeed quite perceptive.
In fact, this ancient city has another name: ‘Red City’ Astapor, a name well known by the fans of cult TV series ‘Game of Thrones’. In the series this city is frequented by ships on route to Westeros continent. The city is the capital city for the relentless warriors. One episode in season three was filmed here.
However, before the producers of Game of Thrones discovered this historic port city, in 1949 the city’s natural decor was an inspiration to Orson Welles. Welles filmed important scenes of his feature film Othello, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play Othello that won grand prize at 5th Cannes Film Festival in 1952. I don’t know if Viktor Apalaci was going to Cannes at those years, but Palme D’or was not given as an award yet.
Even though there is no longer a Jewish Community in Essaouira, while wandering the narrow streets of the old city, it’s possible to come across traces of Judaism. Merchants who display all kinds of gadgetry in their shops are trying to capture the attention of customers by chanting “Made by Jews” to highlight the quality of their products especially when they are marketing silver jewelry. When you go inside an antique shop, you can instantly notice Kiddush goblets, hexagonal star pendants or seven-branched candelabra on the dusty shelves.
The friendly owner of the little Italian restaurant we went to eat pizza described the street his restaurant was on as “This was the main street where once rich Jews lived.” The street is a little wider than the other streets. I couldn’t help but ask him, “So where are those Jews, now?” It seems that in the ‘60’s following a couple of unpleasant incidents, despite the King’s efforts to prevent it, all the Jews left the country en masse, but every year most of them are visiting these lands they were born in. As a matter of fact, among those people is a very prominent author and poet: Ami Bouganim. He was born in Suvayr. He too had left the country in the ‘60’s and immigrated to Israel. However, in all his writings and poems, he mentions this city he was born and raised in.
There are three synagogues in the city. Rabbi Hayim Pinto’s house which used be a synagogue back in the day is now a small museum where old photos are displayed. The other synagogue ‘Slat Lkahal Mogador’ is open to visitors, but it looks miserable.
The owner of the Italian restaurant while seeing us off pointed at a narrow street not far away and said, “On that street there used to be a synagogue. It is now renovated and turned into a museum. You should definitely see it.”
We rang the bell at the gate a couple of times, but no one answered. The owner of the herbal store across the synagogue said, “If you bang on the door, they’ll open it.” And so, we did as he told us and banged on the door until our fists almost got bruised, but the result was the same. Yet, we were stubborn. The next morning, we were once again at the gate. This time, though, we didn’t need to bang on the door since it was ajar. There were two visitors leaving the building. They had made an appointment to visit the museum. The security guard allowed us to visit the museum with the condition that we wouldn’t take any photos. The female attendant inside the museum informed us that we could only visit the ground floor since the decoration was not yet complete. She also made sure that a security officer would be with us throughout our visit.
The building was originally designed to house the Slat Attia Synagogue which was a small place of worship built in the 19th century. The museum which is shaped like a courtyard with a folding roof system is surrounded by two-stories of balconies. The synagogue is located at the right corner on the ground floor. On the upper floors, there is a research center, a library and a living archive section. Since these sections were not yet open to visitors, it was not possible for us to visit, but when I satisfied the curiosity of the Muslim attendant with information about Bar-Mitzvah and the function of the Teva, all obstacles were removed. The attendant even took my photo!
Slat Attia Museum and Research Center was built with the efforts of André Azoulay who is one of King Muhammed VI’s consultants. Azoulay is also an important representative of the Jewish Community in Morroco, a community with a very low population. To renovate the place, he procured one million Euros. The purpose is obvious: to lure the children and grandchildren of approximately 300,000 Moroccan Jews who left the country in the ‘60’s, even if for touristic reasons. As I understand, the people of Suvayr do not oppose to this idea.