Pursuing My Family’s Ghosts in Morocco
My great-grandmother Mimi lost her mind from too much memory and found it at the rabbi’s grave. To cure her, my grandfather, just a boy, carried her weight on his shoulders two hours each way in the desert.
This is the story my grandfather told us about his childhood in Morocco, though by then he ceased to be a child except in age. I would make him tell it to me again and again in the summers, when we came to Israel for languorous months, or the autumns he and my grandmother would spend in New York, where we had lived since I was a toddler. As a child, I was sometimes afraid of my grandfather, who was fierce and precise, who had a low and rumbling voice, whose edges my grandmother energetically smoothed.
So I would ask him to tell me about Morocco. Some stories he told with a twinkle in his eye: how his grandmother once asked him how many eggs he wanted in his omelet, and when the 7-year-old boldly said 12, she gamely obliged; how his grandfather was rare among the Jews because he was allowed to farm grapes, and they would stomp on the grapes with their feet to make wine.
There was a lot he said he had forgotten, which I later understood to be a choice. He had forgotten how to speak Arabic. He had deleted from his mind so much about his childhood in Agadir, where his parents had migrated from the city of Essaouira, known then as Mogador, seeking opportunity. It wasn’t such a bad thing, to forget; they had a new country to build, all the Jews from around the world together, and no one believed more fervently than Meir Abihasera, from the moment in 1944 his sister’s boyfriend showed him a postcard of Herzl and told him the Holy Land was to be a real country.
And then nature did its own forgetting for him: In 1960, 10 years after he left, an earthquake leveled Agadir, killing about 12,000 people in minutes, including his family members. There’s still a city called Agadir, but the one he remembers is a pile of rocks, a mass grave.
I tried to imagine this place where graves could cure memory sickness. It had to be a magic land. I had little desire to visit the grim landscapes conjured by my European grandparents, whose worlds had been erased through man-made violence. The mysteries lay in Morocco, which people who were not my grandfather said was a paradise for the Jews. How could such a practical man, a man with no use for religion or anything that didn’t clear the bar for rational, believe that a rabbi’s grave had cured his mother? And it was said that my great-grandmother was both a Berber and a Jew. How could that be?
When I got a little older and became a journalist, I begged him to take me there and let me tell the story. I had the crassness of a reporter on the hunt, the necessary obtuseness to probe for more pain. He refused. He wouldn’t go, he said—over and over. His city was gone. Only a few graves remained. “I was never a Moroccan Jew,” he would remind me. “I was a Jew in Morocco.”
I didn’t understand it. My parents had left Israel, the country of their birth, the country my grandfather had endured beatings and imprisonment to reach, though even today my mother will tell you she never really left. But we always came back. Why couldn’t he?
Last year, I decided to go to Morocco myself, while my grandfather could still tell me the stories and draw me maps on napkins. There was a part of me that thought he might change his mind about coming with me, but it turns out he isn’t one to change his mind. He did agree to let me come to his carefully arranged apartment in Rehovot, where he still dreams of my grandmother being alive and at his side again. There, he glanced sideways at my notebook. “You can record,” he said, “but you have to erase it.”
“This is not fiction; it’s a true story.”
As he pumps the gas pedal on his Citroen, he merrily shifts, sometimes midsentence, between French, Arabic, Hebrew, English, and Yiddish, the better to multitask arrangements for the tour groups he takes around much of the year. Avi from the Kabbalah Center is coming; rituals will be observed and a lamb for slaughter must be obtained. “And one more thing,” he bellows into the speakerphone. “We need LITTLE COOKIES! Yallah, bye.”
Larger groups require a Moroccan Muslim driver. “We can’t use the word Israel,” he explains, “so instead we use the word Texas.”
We’re on the way to see my great-grandfather’s grave, a stone that marks one of the few stakes in the ground my family still has here. Rafi says there are 30 Jews left in Agadir, one of whom owns a fancy fish restaurant called La Scala. (I recommend the squid.)
At dinner in Rehovot, my grandfather had drawn on the napkin what was left from the old city: a seating area with stairs from the lower city to the Talborj, the upper city. And the cemeteries—Jewish, Christian, and Muslim—which the earthquake didn’t touch. His father’s grave was left intact.
How did that happen? Everything crushed, but the cemeteries? He didn’t even crack a smile: “You can’t kill them twice.”
The king ordered tractors to flatten what rubble the earthquake left—an unburied mass grave of countless bodies, many Jewish. When he came here almost 20 years ago and saw it, my grandfather fell sick in a way he didn’t care to describe. It took his voice away. My mother remembers it. He rarely spoke for the rest of the trip, she tells me.
The cemetery is ringed by a saffron wall and eucalyptus trees. Among the flat slabs of concrete, marble, and granite are, in one corner, the graves of 40 children who died in the earthquake. My great-grandfather’s grave is simple sand-colored stone, cracked down the side, with black letters. His children added recent upgrades: refurbished letters, additional panels of Carrara marble. Belatedly, we realize we came uncovered, and awkwardly drape our scarves on our head.
Mardoche Abehsera died on February 7, 1947. There is no birth date. Without intending it, we arrived within a couple of days of the 70th anniversary of his death. A rusted copper-green jar, left by my mother’s trip with her siblings in 2000, sat at the foot of the grave. Facing the outside was a photograph of my uncle and his family, now etched in a faded blue. In it, his sons, now grown-up military officers, are little boys; somewhere inside are notes that my siblings and I wrote, too.
“Half a year he was sick,” my grandfather had told me back in Israel. “No, he was sick for years. Two or three years of getting worse.” His eyes well up with tears.
When the typhoid took him, it took his mother Mimi’s mind too. “She had bad thoughts,” he said. “She could do nothing: no cooking, no housework. She said terrible nonsense. What nonsense? She saw in everything the spirit of my father. ‘You see that camel? It looks like a camel, but it is really your father.’”
It fell on my grandfather Meir, then 14, to be the man of the house, to his mother and his five sisters and younger brothers. To stand up straight, to be unflinching, to be unyielding in what he demanded of others, too. I wonder if this is why my mother is crying for a man she never knew, as I listen to her voice break reading the kaddish and the prayers corresponding to the letters of her grandfather’s name. She’s crying for that boy who had to carry everyone’s weight, for his crushed city. I feel dizzy, a flush rising to my face.
The cemetery is pristine, thanks to the care of the attendant, a polite young man with a shaved head and plaid pants, who knows the Hebrew word for earthquake. His salary is paid for by the Jewish communities here and abroad. Across Morocco, the restoration of Jewish cemeteries has become the kingdom’s method of showing its pluralistic bona fides. They also attract tourists like us.
There must be an older cemetery that was destroyed in the quake, Rafi told me. “Part of this cemetery is now underground—who knows what they would find if they dug.” He pointed west to an empty stretch: “That’s where the Jews lived.”
In my grandfather’s Agadir, a child could run across the tightly spaced roofs, a second city for the light-footed. One day, an Arab boy, bigger than him, ran after him and Meir, 12, retreated to the rooftops. He had two choices, to be beaten or to jump. He jumped, 6 or 7 meters. He had pains in his feet for a week.
The sand here, at the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, glows orange. For two hours, he carried his mother, trudging through the rocky desert until they reached the shrine at the grave of Rabbi David Ben-Barroukh. First he bore her weight on his shoulders, and then he carried her on his back.
There wasn’t much there: some unmarked graves, a ramshackle shed, an open sky. “We sat by the grave and she prayed and cried,” my grandfather told me. “Five or six hours. I didn’t know what would be. I waited for it to pass.” The guard pointed to the shed and said they could sleep there. They ate by candlelight.
Fifteen years before he arrived, a visitor to Rabbi Ben-Baroukh’s grave called it a letdown. “At the sight of the cemetery, I feel a great disappointment. I thought I would find a tall, tall tomb, a beautiful building like some saints who rest in the cemetery of Fez,” lamented Mathilde Bénozillo, whose husband ran the Jewish School in Taroudant, in a 1931 letter. “I found only a small mound made of some bricks. Not the slightest inscription that can reveal to the believing passerby the noble traces of the great man.”
By then, the Alliance Israélite Universelle, a French-Jewish organization, had opened schools across North Africa and the Mediterranean in a stated effort to “civilize” the Jews there. Bénozillo, a Jew educated in Paris, also wrote of her time in Taroudant, “I shudder every time my thoughts make me relive the painful and primitive life that I lived in this remote city.” As Alliance teachers spread across Morocco in the early 20th century, “a new elite group of Europeanized Jews began to separate themselves from the wider Jewish community,” as Rafi and George Ricketts described in their book, Jews Under Moroccan Skies. “They dressed in European-style clothes, refused to speak Arabic, and even abandoned their Jewish traditions. Worse still, this created a divide between Jews and the Muslim masses and led to resentment by the latter.” My grandfather, who married a Palestine-born German woman whose mother he impressed with his knowledge of European classical music, came out of such a school in Agadir. He used to stand outside the French church and raptly eavesdrop on their liturgical music.
Rafi tells us there are 322 tzadikim buried in Morocco, but only 75 have marked graves. The others are unknown. “There are 54 Jewish rabbis that the Arabs took over from us,” he said. “If you lift the green cloth, you see Hebrew. The Berbers take their children to the Jewish graves and say, the Jews will take the evil eye out.”
The northern Moroccan Jews—the megurashim, or banished ones—who arrived reluctantly when Spain expelled them in 1492, never believed in any of this, he says. My grandfather’s name, Abihasera, or Abehsera, or in Israel, Avissara, marks him as one of the toshavim, the long ago settled Jews of the southern desert and the Atlas Mountains.
The toshavim are believed to have arrived in Morocco 2,000 years ago and, according to travelers’ accounts, inspired many among the indigenous tribes—you probably know them as Berber, but they call themselves Amazigh—to intermarry or convert to Judaism en masse.
Rafi, who for years has conducted interviews and cemetery inventories where Jews lived and live in Morocco, tells us he interviewed Berbers who were breastfed by Jewish women. “When the Jews left, they cried,” he says. They asked him when the Jews are coming back to the houses they left when they emigrated to Israel, France, and Canada. “They told me, ‘Welcome back. I don’t know why they left. I am living in the Jews’ house, waiting for them to return.’”
“I don’t think the Moroccan Muslims hate the Jews,” my mother volunteers.
I tilt my head toward Rafi. “What do you think?”
“Well,” he says, “Not all of them.”
We zoom through paved roads dappled by green brush and leafy argan trees. We’ve heard of the black goats who climb the trees, but in February they see no reason to, not when there’s so much to eat on the ground. Undeterred, some entrepreneurial goatherds plopped white goats in the trees to lure in visitors.
“Anyway, the white goats are more photogenic,” says Rafi—they offer more contrast. “All the tourists when they come, they give them gelt!”
When we arrive at Rabbi David Ben-Baroukh’s shrine, a woman in a turquoise djallabah opens the massive wooden doors to welcome us. Thanks to the rabbi’s descendants, what was once a brick mound in the desert has become an entire complex with brightly whitewashed accommodations surrounding the grave. Around where my grandfather once slept in a shed is now a paved plaza featuring a gigantic silver menorah, with Hebrew signs. The place is still recovering from Rabbi David Ben-Baroukh’s hilloula, the December celebration of his life on his day of death, which can draw up to 1,500 people. You can stay here for $120 a weekend and request a kosher butcher to slaughter goats.
The hilloula involves hours of feasting and dancing and singing and praying, when the shekinah, the presence of God, returns to the site of the rabbi’s grave and you can ask for anything you want.
I turn to Rafi. “Do you ask for anything?”
“I ask all the time,” he replies gamely. “But I don’t get.”
We walk across to the cemetery, where people whom the rabbi’s grave could not save from cholera and typhoid have whitewashed graves, chalky rectilinear beds. In the center is a marble pavilion that holds the shrine, now decked out in candy-colored neoclassical moldings of Stars of David. The graves of the rabbi and his equally holy offspring are waist high, wrapped in dove-gray velvet and stacked with prayer books.
In 2000, when my mother came here with her four siblings and her parents, they visited this grave. “When I touched it,” she said as we drove here, “I felt an electric shiver.”
She lays a hand on the grave. Since her last visit, the velvet has been encased in sheer plastic, like a sofa you aren’t meant to get too comfortable with. “No,” she declares helplessly. “I feel nothing.” She blames the plastic.
I don’t really feel anything either, except sick. In fact, nostalgia, which has its roots in the words for homecoming and pain, was first identified as a disease. This was the disease of which my great-grandmother was cured at the rabbi’s grave. What I have is almost certainly strep, but it seems only right for me to feel this return in my body.
Everyone was watching Mimi. Her eyes were clear when she asked, “Who wants tea?”
Here, my grandfather takes a paper napkin off the table and flips it over abruptly. “That’s what it was like,” he says. A total reversal.
“She was normal until she died at the age of 90,” my grandfather adds. My siblings and I called her “Mama Mimi.” In Haifa, where he brought her, she covered her head and covered her walls with the faces of rabbis. When we came for hand-rolled couscous, she would hoarsely murmur to my grandfather in Arabic. She was never comfortable speaking Hebrew.
I ask him if they ever talked about what happened, if he asked his mother what she had gone through in those days sleeping in the desert by the rabbi’s grave, what she remembered from the time of grief and madness, whether it was truly the rabbi’s spirit that had cured her. He shakes his head no. But why, I ask.
“There is no why,” he says. “My family is very practical. If there’s a good result, then you move on.”
It will be months before I learn one of the reasons that, for hundreds of years, the toshavim of Jewish Morocco honored rabbis as saints. It was not only because they worked miracles, but because so many of them had come from the Holy Land. Sent to trawl the Jewish enclaves that had sprung up over 2,000 years along the caravan routes of the Sahara to the northern coast, these shlichim raised money for yeshivas in Jerusalem and beyond. “Many died on the road,” writes Aomar Boum in Memories of Absence, “leading to the emergence of tombs and shrines for the veneration of rabbi-emissaries.” An interrupted pilgrimage is still sacred in its intent. In this way, visiting the graves was like visiting Jerusalem.
Boum is a black Muslim who grew up in a southern oasis town not far from Taroudant. He says the Jews of Southern Morocco were particularly primed for Zionism because they daily regarded themselves as momentarily exiled from Palestine and lived daily among symbols of it. Another way to say it is that the Jews of Morocco already believed in miracles, in magical thinking. Rafi and his co-author, George Ricketts, agree, though they have a more cynical interpretation. “The Zionists relied on the historical messianic sentiments of the rural classes,” they write in Jews Under Moroccan Skies, “to persuade them that the time to inherit the ‘Promised Land’ had come.” In Israel, they write, Moroccan Jews faced the cruel sting of discrimination, and in their telling, many wish they had never left a land where Jews and Arabs lived together happily.
My grandfather does not remember himself as a dupe. He remembers three beatings on the road to Israel.
The first beating came in 1948, when he would have been about 15, he went to buy a newspaper and saw that the Jews had occupied Jaffa. A boy his age, he tells me, saw him smiling, and demanded, “Tu es satisfait? De quoi?” Yes, I am satisfied, he replied, “Qu’est-ce que tu veux?” What do you want? My grandfather began backing into an alley.
The second beating occurred two years later, at the border between Morocco and Algeria. He had spent two weeks salary on laissez-passer papers to cross the border at Oujda, which was letting its Jews leave for what was by then the State of Israel. He was around 17. At the border, they told him to empty his pockets and turn around. He remembers the kick that knocked him to the floor and the 24 hours in jail for having what turned out to be false papers. A member of the Jewish community bailed him out as the ones before him had been, and put him on a train to Casablanca. There, he was taken in by relatives and wrote letters for illiterate laborers to earn his fare home.
The third beating was in Casablanca a few months later. By this time, he had begun to drive a sardine truck between Agadir and Casablanca, a well-paying job. The clandestine network was still the only way for the Jews to leave. He heard about a travel agency that was a front for the Mossad, run by a Madame T. Each time he came to the travel agency to ask for her by name, he was told no such woman worked there. For three mornings he stood outside and watched as the clerk went for coffee and went up to the second floor. On the fourth day, when the clerk left, he went inside and went upstairs. There a woman sat. “Are you Madame T?” he asked. “I want to go to Palestine.” Israel was a forbidden word.
“You have the wrong address,” she replied.
But then she relented. At 17, she said, he was too old for the youth aliyah and too young for the army. He could, however, do agricultural training in France. Anything to leave Morocco, he replied. “Come back in a few days,” she said. “I’ll tell him to let you up.”
When the day came, my grandfather put on his best suit and in the crowded streets of Casablanca, bumped shoulder to shoulder with a boy around his age. “Pardon,” my grandfather said, but the boy turned around and smacked him hard in the face. Blood seeped into his suit. When it became clear that the stony faced Meir was not going to fight back, the other boy became enraged and began to yell that the Jew had cursed Islam.
Unluckily for him, another Muslim who was sitting nearby had witnessed the entire encounter. Rising from his chair, the man slapped the boy in the face. “You’re a liar!”
My grandfather did not clean his suit or his face before he went to see Madame T. that day. “You see why I need to leave Morocco?” he grinned.
She did. Here were his instructions: At 4 p.m. he was to go to the Place de France and enter a horse-drawn carriage. The carriage took him to a bus that was already full of boys and girls. The bus took him to a house surrounded by trees and an orchard. At 2 in the morning they were awakened and taken to an abandoned port, where they sailed—at first, smuggled below deck—until Gibraltar. After 10 months in Toulouse and a month in Marseilles for agricultural training, he was on a ship to Israel.
The way he tells the story, he had to refuse the calls of sirens, women who sought his protection and who would tie him down. The family where he stayed in Casablanca had tried to trick him into marrying their daughter, such that his mother showed up all the way from Agadir to wish him well on his engagement. He was so furious he walked out on her then and there to begin sleeping on a park bench until they let him go to the promised land. Two weeks in Place de France. He still has a postcard of the bench. The woman on the boat from France who had asked for his protection; he told her she would get it on his terms only, which were cold and dutiful terms that demanded she keep her distance.
But he arrived in Israel reborn. “I became a child again only in Israel.”
He doesn’t say what he told Al Jazeera in a documentary that was widely cited in Morocco: about his Israeli cousins who came to visit and wept at the sight of the port and the cemetery. “When I asked what was wrong,” Sebag says in the documentary, “he said he didn’t understand how his parents could leave this magnificent city to live in a tent in Israel.”
André Azoulay, the Jewish adviser to the king who Rafi says will soon oversee the restoration of this very mellah, his home town, chooses his words carefully in the documentary. “The blame is shared. The French protectorate created division. The Jewish community experienced French colonization differently from the Muslim community. Jews were treated better,” he says. “Also, wars in the Middle East made Jews in Morocco uncomfortable. This created an opportunity for Israel to facilitate the emigration of large numbers of Moroccan Jews to Israel.” This documentary, according to Aomar Boum, was widely circulated in Morocco as proof that their country had been kind to the Jews, who had betrayed them by joining the deluded mission of colonizing Palestine, where they were themselves subjected to racism and marginalization.
A 90-year-old rural Moroccan man quotes to Boum the proverb that a shouk without Jews is like bread without salt: “When the Jews settled outside Morocco, the market lost its salt.” Essaouira has literally lost its salt, its mellah. There is less longing among the younger people Boum interviews, whom he writes prefer to “protest, ostracize, demonize, and resist Israelis and Jews in general, whom they see as their political and social enemies.”
In his Rego Park stint, Joseph Sebag acquired a U.S. passport, but he prefers Essaouira. Why did he come back? “I’ve made a choice,” he says, a little wearily. “I’m comfortable with it. This is my home.” To get by, he says, “I avoid talking politics.” He claps a hand on Rafi’s shoulder. “I am the majority of the minority,” he says.
“Do they call you the Jew?” I ask.
“I’m proud to be called the Jew,” he says evenly. “But more often they call me Yusef.”
As we leave, Rafi shouts, “Toujours a WhatsApp!”
My mother texts her father photographs of crumbling buildings, but none of these is the right one. So we stop to eat. A few steps away from Joseph’s store, the men selling sardines know how to say “al ha’esh.” We pick out freshly caught sardines and a few sea urchins that they split crosswise for us to eat raw. Rafi takes a paper plate and produces a can of tuna, which he empties onto the plate for his lunch. “I only eat this and gefilte fish,” he explains.
Through my haze, I can see a blank-faced young man who has been tailing us since we entered Essaouira. Clad in khaki and sunglasses, he is armed. Rafi elaborately asked him for directions, which he almost certainly did not need. “Secret police,” says Rafi pleasantly. “We don’t need it, but it is well-intentioned.” It’s not clear, no matter how many questions I ask Rafi, whether this is intended for the Jewish tourists’ protection or to protect the country from us. As we eat, the secret policeman tosses breadcrumbs into the water to feed the fish.
Rafi chews contemplatively. “Do you think Joseph is a happy man?” he asks us. “He is not a happy man. I would not want to be the last Jew.” My head is pounding and my eyes are clouding. “I am proud to be a Jew in this Arab country. Everybody knows Rafi,” he says. “I feel comfortable.” Then he pauses. “But always, in my mind, I have one foot somewhere else.”
By now my throat is closing up. Another way to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps. Anxious not to forget anything, I frantically write in my notebook words that don’t really make sense. I go off in search of medicine, and then, rest. As I slump, feverish, in Rafi’s car, my mother goes on one last pacing around what’s left of the mellah.
In my delirium, I wonder what the point of it all has been. Would the rocks tell us whether their vanished residents’ lives were more joy than pain, whether they felt at home in this country, well treated by their neighbors, or were just waiting it out to be restored to the Holy Land? If they could, would the ancestors wonder how it was that my grandfather made it out, built a country, only for us to leave, only for me to long to know this place he abandoned?
My mother bustles into the Citroen. “Found it,” she says triumphantly. Her great-grandparents’ home, a place we came from that will soon see another bulldozer. In the end, for all I wanted to go back, I never laid eyes on it.