الحي اليهودي بفاس المغرب سنة 1894

The Jewish quarter in Fez Morocco 1894



The next day we devote to the Jewish quarter, a distinct and separate city, called the “Mellah.”

We approach it through the Hebrew ‘burial ground, a place of whited sepulchres, dwellings for the dead, and dingy huts, temporary abodes for living men and women;

for there are two populations in the Jewish cemetery, a fixed population of the wealthy dead, a passing population of the living poor.

You must remember that in these Moorish cities the Jews are still compelled to dwell apart from true believers.

Their houses are confined in the restricted Mellah, where no provision was originally made for an increase of population.

Therefore the poorer and the weaker Jews have been squeezed out of its gates and have found refuge here in the city of the dead

where they have built crude huts and begun life anew. The streets or passageways are, however, far cleaner than those of the inner Mellah,

and we cannot but agree that residence in the freer atmosphere of the dead is preferable to living on the other side of yonder walls, where every inch of space is occupied,

where sunshine and fresh air are things almost unknown.

A poor old Jew, a man with a large dependent family, serves as our guide.

Black misery

He tells of the misery of his people, begs me to repeat in my own land the story of their woe.

It is not the Sultan of Morocco, he says, who is most cruel to them; it is the rich men, the elders and the rabbis of his own tribe whom accuses of injustice.

The right to build these shelters in the cemetery was granted by the Sultan to the poor, when the overcrowding of the Mellah proper became a menace to the public health.

Netherless, no poor man is permitted to take up his abode among these cast-out members of the tribe until paid certain fees to the headmen of the quarter.

He says that the oppression of Jew by Jew is harder than the much-talked-of oppression to which the Sons of Israel have been subjected by the Sons of Ishmael.

The statements of our pauper guide surprised us, but what he said was confirmed by every poor Jew with whom we talked.

They all declared that the rich elders and the rabbis of their own tribe were their hardest masters.

A wealthy man, with whom we discussed the question later, assured us that his class had almost impoverished itself with charities,

that the cause of all the evil lay in the decrease of commerce and the rapid increase of the Jewish population.

The poor, undoubtedly are very poor; and though the rich live in apparent luxury and comfort,

Hearts of Mercy

it cannot be true that Fez is the only city in the World where the rich Jews abandon their own people to starvation and distress.

The noble Jewish charities throughout the world argue the contrary, and even in Fez

the philanthropy of European Jews is manifest in the excellent school established here in this very Mellah by the French branch of the Israelite Alliance.

We can assure all those who have given pecuniary support to the alliance that the money is here spent conscientiously,

and that the work now doing among the Moorish Jews is nobly done and worthy the sympathy and encouragement of every lover of humanity

But in spite of the educational and civilizing Influences of the school, many reforms in customs remain to be effected,

and it is to be hoped that in the future, a daughter of the Mellah will not be given in marriage at the age of ten and, like one girl we saw,

be mother of a family at fourteen years of age, and become at twenty-five a hideous old woman.

Let us hope that in another generation girl-children who at fourteen are still unmarried will not be regarded, as they are to-day, in the light of hopeless spinsters.

As for the sanitary reforms demanded in the Mellah, you have but to enter the crowded streets to be convinced that they are numberless.

Bodies in Boxes

Here Jews are packed like live sardines in greasy boxes. Pierre loti describes the Mellah as :

“an airless huddle of houses squeezed together as if screwed in a compress, and emitting all sorts of stifling odors.”

Again he tells of finding here “moldy smells in varieties that are not known elsewhere.”

But how is it possible to expect cleanliness on the part of people who are denied a sufficiency of space and air and light and water, lest the Moorish scavenger should lose his fee;

people who are despised by their Moslem fellow ‘citizens, called “dogs,” and forced to walk barefooted through the streets of Moorish Fez?

As a crowning indignity, the Moors have decreed that the place of deposit for dead animals, from cats to camels,

shall be at the gate of the Mellah; and every night the jackals feast and sign their death chants beneath the walls of this unhappy Jewish city.

We are surprised, however, to find here and there a touch of color in the dress of these unfortunate, for black has always been the uniform imposed upon the Jew.

Black is to Moorish minds the color of disgrace; hence were the Jews compelled to wear black caps and gabardines.

To-day, however, this regulation is not so rigidly enforced, although the general tone of the men’s dress is very somber.

Jewish hospitality

In every street we see old men, who could, without a change of raiment, step on the theatrical stage and look the part of Shylock to the life. In tiny shops, like niches bordering these streets,

sit the gold and silver-smiths, the lawyers, scribes, and money-changers; there are few idlers here.

Jewish industry and thrift here rise superior to the discouraging surroundings. A few shops boast a supply of foreign merchandise.

The merchants greet us with a polite “Buenos dias, ” and converse in fluent Spanish; for besides Hebrew and Arabic,

these people speak the language of the land from which their fathers were cruelly cast out by Spanish kings.

The commerce of the land is largely in the hands of Moorish Jews, who are forbidden by law to leave the country try, lest a general exodusoccur,

and the trade of the entire empire, deprived of their fostering care, languish and ultimately die. Many large fortunes have been accumulated here, by usury and commerce.

We made a formal call one Sabbath afternoon at the home of one of the richest Jew in Fez, old Mr. Bensimon.

Magnificent, indeed, is the interior of the house, with its carved, painted doors, its stucco arabesques, immaculate tiled floors, and richly furnished rooms.

The Bensimons are of the old conservatives. They speak no Spanish and have no knowledge of anything away from their immediate surroundings. The Mellah is their world;

Holy Saturday

their house is one of the rare oases of elegance in the midst of a wilderness of squalor. But they are all very gracious to us; of the two pretty little girls, eleven and thirteen years of age, respectively,

the elder is already married, the younger is a fiancée.

A curious incident gave us an insight into the reality of their religion. To amuse our host we performed some tricks of sleight-of hand.

Producing a sliver dollar, I asked the aged father to assure himself that it was a real dollar, not tampered with in any way. He seemed reluctant to pick up the coin.

“you must not urge him,” said our guide. “it is the Jewish Sabbath, a Jew may not touch filthy lucre on the holy day.”

Before departing we were asked to take tea with the family, and were forthwith ushered into an apartment, furnished with that crude gaudiness that is the result of Oriental imitation of Occidental fashions.

Of their “European Room” they mirrors clocks, sofas, and chandeliers, imported from the continent, are they envy of their neighbours.

We find it most refreshing to meet a group of educated people, with whom to talk of all the teachers, sent from France, their wives and families,

and also a number of the most progressive Jews in Fez. The boys are students of the school, and a fate one is presented as the prize pupil of the institution,

the pride and admiration of his teachers who put him through his paces at a blackboard to convince us of his cleverness. He certainly did gallop through arithmetical puzzles with rapidity and ease,

Farewell in the Hope of Meeting

and answered the question that we propounded with a facility that put us quite to shame, for we could think of nothing difficult enough to stagger him for a moment.

Then, after another infliction of mint tea and some sweet-meats that seemed like sugar-coated sausages, we take our leave,

descend the narrow stairway, and pass out into the dingy little street. An avalanche of shouts and laughter overwhelms us,

and looking up we see the sky-line of the house adored with a border of kindly faces, smiling down a cheery “au revoir.”

For it has been arranged that we are all to meet again upon the morrow. These new-found friends have been invited to spend the day at our villa,

to attend a picnic in our garden, to forget, there in the leafy spaciousness of our temporary abode,

There are no private gardens in the Mellah, lack of space forbids; nor are there public gardens in the Moorish city.

Therefore the Jews must take their air and sunshine on the housetops, where level terraces, surrounded by ford them opportunities to bake themselves in torrid atmosphere of Africa.

Needless to say, our invitation was accepted, and next morning, shortly after breakfast, a caravan of white-robed guests makes its appearance at our garden door.

The women have ridden on mule-back across the city, for they are all protégés of France, and therefore are not compelled to go about on foot, like nearly all their co-religionists.

Our Hospitality For The Mellahists

Great preparation have been made by Haj our guide for their entertainment. He has adorned the house and,

court-yard with objects borrowed from unsuspecting owners. Let me explain that almost every evening when we return from rambles in the city,

we find awaiting us two or three dealers in curios, rugs, old brocades, and Moorish weapons;

heir goods spreads out in a most artistic, tempting fashion. Haj has induced the men who came the night before to leave

their goods on approval until the following evening; and thus it is that we are able to give our picninc a rich Oriental setting without incurring any great expense.

In the picture of the merrymakers it may be interesting to identify my friend, who sites on the extreme left, robed in a white burnoose.

Then on the right is Haj, dressed in his best; near him there sits an old gray-bearded man. He is our only Moorish guest,

one of the few Moors who is free from the prejudices of his race, who does not fear to sit at meat with Jews and Christians; moreover, he speaks Spanish fluently.

But he is more of a good fellow than a good Mohammedan; to our knowledge he dares to disregard the rule of total abstinence imposed upon the nation,

for in his home there is a secret cellar filled with wine. And, curiously, this old bon vivant, who to-day makes merry with us in our Moorish garden,

Charming Fez

he sang the joys of the jug in a Persian garden long ago; his name, too, is Omar.

Our guests remain with us from morning until evening, departing just before the hour when great wooden gates

Of every district are closed secretly for the night. In Fez, the populace keeps early hours. After nine o’clock it is impossible to enter or to,leave the city

or even to pass from one quarter to another, be it adjacent or remote. The gates once closed,

each district is completely isolated, and all who are shut in must wait till morning to escape; all who are shut out must spend the night away from home,

unless they be men of influence, or carry written orders for the opening of the batteries. There is, of course, nothing to do at night; there are no theatres,

clubs, or evening parties; the city life dies out at sunset. The people go to their homes before the gates are closed.

There is by night no movement save the following of the waters. A river sings its way through the heart of Fez,

and swift canals are laughing in every quarter. There is everywhere in Fez the sound of running water, as in Rome, as Nikko in Japan,

as round the hill of the Alhambra. The sound is thus associated in my mind with four of the most fascinating places in the world.

The Civilized Fez

There is not in the entire city a building that is reminiscent of the cities of our world; there is no smoke,

And there are no chimneys; there are no vehicles of any kind in Fez, there is the state-coach given by Queen Victoria to the Sultan,

a curiosity that is exhibited on state occasion, but a turnout in which the Sultan never rides. There is no noise in Fez, --no noise as we understand the word;

there are sounds, pleasant and unpleasant, but the ceaseless roar of western cities is not there. Struggle for existence is almost a silent struggle.

Moreover, I believe that Fez is in a higher state of civilization, and that its people are less given to crime than are the dwellers in the poorer quarters of London, Paris, and New York.

But this city that appears so dim and so mysterious as we walk through the rootless dungeons that serve as streets, reveals to us a brilliant,

dazzling aspect, when, disregarding the unwritten law forbidding men to go upon housetops, we venture our upon the terrace of our villa.

The roof terraces are sacred to the women; there they may bare their faces in the light of day, there they may lay aside their shrouds, and, bathed in the soft evening light,

appear for a brief space as living women, --women with charms and personalities. The women shall be free from male observation, free to forget that they are practically slaves.

A sojourn of ten days in Fez has not dissipated; it has but deepened the sense of mystery. But we, to our surprise,

The Country OfTthe Setting Sun

have not yet suffered from that strange mental disease, the “longing to get away” that infallibly attacks ambassadors and representatives of foreign powers and is a political force upon which Moorish diplomats

may count to rid them of annoying visitors who have come to press vexing demands upon their government at last a sudden glow, like a great flood of fire,

overspreads the city; it is the glow of sunset, the last signal of the dying day, and for a moment it suffuses the entire heavens,

as if there were a distant world in conflagration Fez has assumed a shroud of black; it is resounding with the cries of the Muezzin,

those cities of intense faith, those wailing laments that seem to express the nothingness of all things earthly

The Moors speak of their country as “Moghreb-al-Aksa, the” Country of the Setting Sun.” How prophetic! –

for in very truth the sun of civilization has set forever upon this land, and though its past be brilliant as the heavenly sunset fires, its future is as dim as the soft-footed night that,

stealing in from the black, fierce surrounding country, broods like a pall of death above the sleeping city of the Moors.

The spell of mystery is still upon Morocco. The Moors are still the people of romance. Of the land we know comparatively little; of the race as it exists to-day we know still less.

Christendom assumes that the Moorish Empire expired with the last sign of Boabdil, leaving the Alhambra as its only legacy.