What business does an author have, six weeks away from her book release, taking two weeks to travel overseas? Beats me, but I did just that, and the magical experience is feeding my spirit in the demanding run-up to the April 7th publication date of Even in Darkness.
A major reason I chose to make this journey is that my amazing brother-in-law, Steven Stark-Lowenstein, who is a rabbi at Am Shalom synagogue in Glencoe IL, was leading a week’s tour of Jewish Morocco. My sister and nephews were going to join in and this felt like an opportunity not to be missed. Let’s just add a marker birthday to the equation; a birthday that could signal a long look at a rocking chair, and a longer look back at a full and complicated life already lived. Instead, the trip to North Africa and Andalusia turned into a confirmation that my new career as a writer signals the probability that with some luck and some health, the years ahead will fascinate and delight.
Casablanca: We arrive into the gorgeous late afternoon African light for a drive into Casablanca on a bus with 27 congregants of Steven’s including the cantor, Andrea Markowicz and wonderful singer/songwriter Craig Taubman, (but that’s another post), an Israeli guide named Ofer given to saying "you guys" and "are we good with that," and a surprising amount of green alongside the highway. First stop at the Museum of the Jews of Morocco; established by the Kingdom of Morocco to honor the rich and continuous presence of Jews (the remaining 2500 of them) who have been here for the last 2 thousand years. The preamble of Morocco's constitution states this government's conviction that Jews are citizens and have all the rights and protections of the 33 million Muslims who live here.
Something about the Berber history, the influx of Jews from Spain after the Inquisition and again when fleeing the Nazis has caused the reaction of these Allawai dynasty Muslims to depart majorly from that of other African and Arab countries. Still, there were 250,000 Jews here before the early 1950s and now there is only a shadow presence. The museum has beautiful wrought Hanukiahs, carved pulpits, photos of dozens of old synagogues and most ironically, a Muslim docent/administrator. Poignant.
For dinner, we go to a Jewish club, Cercle De L'Union and hear an impassioned defense of the vitality of the existing Jewish community and the equality of life here by a Joint Distribution Committee representative (the world’s leading humanitarian organization that assists Jews in poverty, helps to revitalize Jewish life around the world, assists in rescuing victims of global emergencies etc.) Our spokeswoman is a native Moroccan. Interesting notes; the communities that remain here are mostly religiously observant. There is virtually no intermarriage. They are very dependent on JDC funds for the Jewish school, senior housing, and a medical center. As will be true throughout this week; the food is delicious; mint verbena tea, rice steamed in rosewater with apricots and dates, beef with prunes. pastries (French influence!) We move on for a fling at Rick's café, created by Karen Krieger, who was a U.S. economic attache and decided to do a reincarnation of the cafe from the movie “Casablanca” ; antique lanterns, billowing fabrics, beautiful space. She's like a Diane Keaton character come to life. Interesting note: Humphrey Bogart’s cook had a son who played piano at the club for a month. He was 6 ft. 6. The things you can learn when you travel!
The Mosque of Hassan II, built between1986-1993, is the largest mosque in Africa. Built on a promontory in the Atlantic, and fortified by titanium posts, it has the world's tallest minaret (60 stories), a wall of handcrafted marble and a monstrous retractable roof. 100,000 worshipers can be in and around the mosque at one time. Everyone in the country was supposed to help in some way. "I want to build this
Next, it's on to the Jewish synagogue of Casablanca with its central pulpit and lovely stained glass windows and the quote that is also at Am Shalom in Glencoe, IL about how good it is to gather in the name of the Lord.
The afternoon is a long bus ride toward Fes, the spiritual and cultural center of Morocco, with fascinating explanations of the Berbers, the Berber Jews, the conversion of them all in the 7th century by Arabs from the Arabian peninsula..more explanations of how tolerant Moroccan Muslims have been of "their" Jews compared to other Muslim countries. The Ottomans never got north of Algeria, so didn't overrun the Berbers here. There are three dialects of Berber, which is a completely different language and alphabet from Arabic. Our Moroccan guide, Mustafa, speaks the southern Berber dialect of the desert (and maybe also Marrakesh.) The Berber language was only codified in 1997 in it written form. Arabic language is taught formally here, but more clan-based dialects are what are spoken in Morocco.
The Mysteries of Fes
Our day in Fes began with a panoramic view of the Medina of Fes from Borj Sud- the old city, new city, green belts. The name Fes probably came from the name for Middle Atlas mountains near the city called Fazaz. Founded in 789 by the Idrisid dynasty (it’s all about dynasties here), Fes was the capital of Morocco until 1925.
There are two big medinas (city section with walled boundaries and narrow, maze-like streets.) Fes el ali, the larger of the two is one of the largest car free urban areas in world; Fes Medina is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
We were guided through the Mellah (Jewish quarter) of Fes and paid a visit to the Jewish Cemetery where Solica Hatchouel is buried (green monument- holy color of Islam)
Solica was executed in 1817 because she refused to convert to Islam from Judaism even when the sultan's son begged to marry her to save her.. she was beautiful and apparently quite a formidable young woman. She became known throughout the ages for her faithfulness and refusal.. a martyr. The cemetery reminded me of the Mt. of Olive in Jerusalem. We were shown the office of the one remaining Jew in the Mellah: a dentist.
On to the Iben Darian Synagogue. We had the unexpected opportunity with our 10-man minyan that allows the reading of the torah to take place, to join with the synagogue's caretaker, speaking in the only common language, Hebrew, to read the sacred scroll. It brought everyone to tears as Steven blessed him, and Craig and Andrea and the rest of us sang to him.
In the Medina, we saw Maimonides’ (the great Jewish physician, and scholar’s) house (now a restaurant) where he lived when he came to Morocco from Spain. We visited Madrasas; technically educational institutions- 2 are famous in Fes. University of Al Karaouine, founded 859, said to be oldest continuously running university in world. Bou Inania Madra, founded 1356 one of the few religious places in Moroco open to non-Islamic visitors. Then on to a weaver's shop with beautiful textiles, and metal worker,
Lunch at La Maison Bleue. Gorgeous spread of salads; particular great presentation of carrots, eggplant, cauliflower salads, followed by a vegetarian pastilla- viggie filled pastries; we've had them filled with seafood, cockerell, pigeon, etc. ..
Tannery- snaking through Medina to shop and up stairs to overlook vats of lime and pigeon droppings (acid) for dissolving hair from skins and bleaching, then to vats for dying.. allegedly all natural dyes.. primitive techniques. modern construction leather clothing.
Back to hotel and out to dinner at Riad Fes- fabulous food; vibrant conversation
Guided tour of Mekenes- former residence of the Crazy Sultan, Moulay Ismail, who according to our guide believed there were two ways for his reign to remain secure and maintain power: building and waging war. He reigned from 1672-1727. We toured the royal stables and granary; huge scale; beautiful arches and thick stone. He brought pillars from Volubilis to decorate.
Lunch (freezing at Palais Didi.) Again we enjoyed the typical delicious salads and a couscous with chickpeas, carmelized onions, stewed chicken.
Rabat;a gate, a Masoleum to King Mohammed the V and Hassan II built on the ruins of the mosque destroyed in the earthquake of 1752 and sitting on top of the hills overlooking the ocean. The weather is finally warmer. Then down to the Casbah, a walled city within a city. All the buildings are blue and white, a poor man's version of Costelo d' Vida in Spain.. The air is clearer today with less humidity and a bit warmer; fresher and we unwrap from our layers. The gravity and magnificence of the monument in the rarified air is counteracted by small children tottering on inline skates or chasing soccer balls on the plaza.
The day begins with a long bus ride to Marrakech with a review of Berbers. Again this unusual explanation of Berbers absorbing the population of Jews, who maintained their own villages until the 1950s and have subsequently only become more marginalized in the culture, despite the protestations of everyone you meet in the tourist industry that Morocco loves its Jews and accepts all religions and cultures under the Moroccan flag. We started the afternoon in Marrakech with a visit to the Slat El Azama Synagogue and school; the only place to study Judaism and also the center of an effort to restore the Malach (Mellah) (Jewish section) of the Medina. Names of streets that had been renamed in Arabic have been restored to their Jewish names, and the remaining Jewish community is trying to brand the synagogue and the city as an interesting Jewish tourist destination because of its once-flourishing population (though I think Fes had more Jews). By chance, a newlywed couple from Toronto were also visiting and the inimitable Rabbi Steve surrounded all of us with his extraordinary capacity to invest a simple moment with an unforgettable sense of timeless meaning. He called the couple to the bima and blessed them and pointed out to them the importance of their being in just this place and time for all time; and that this was a blessing they shared with us all. Way to go Rabbi Steve!
The Berber presence in Marrakech is significantly stronger in feeling. Our guide Mustapha is visibly more energized as he talks about the tribe and dialect of this area which is his. The Berber Jews were Kamals in this area, but they extended in villages all the way down to the Sahara. After checking into the lavish Mamounia Hotel, we proceeded to the other synagogue in town, Bet-El Synagogue for a typical sephardic orthodox service followed by a classic chasidic home hospitality dinner at the home of Isaac Ohayon, the cantor of Bet-El who was only too happy to have our men to make a minyan. Isaac gave a detailed account of the history of Jews and his family in particular in Marrakech, including the fact that all of his six children have or will be leaving Morocco for better opportunities in France and Israel. His is a sad truth of the vanishing community that we have heard repeatedly.
Visit to Jemaa El Fna Square and the Souk..the shopping and people watching mecca for which Marrakech is famous occupies most of the day. Our wandering included a secluded little teatime at a lovely oasis of a restaurant. Then back for a wonderful swim at La Mamounia followed by dinner at the Red House- ever more couscous and tagine and entertainment of bellydancing. What a tourist day!
Mustapha takes us to the Majorelle Garden and then for a tour of a village in the beautiful
Ourika Valley with lunch at Nectarome. It is lush and beautiful, marred only by the aggression of the men trying to sell us jewelry. Even the children are in on the hard sell. It is our final day, and we bid goodbye to the tour; to new friends and co-adventurers as they head home and we move on to Spain.
Granada! So wonderful to be back. We meet with James, our guide for a walk in the Albaicin and Realljo (Muslim and Jewish quarters) with a climb to St. Nicholas square and a view of the Al Hambra. Brings back memories! Hard to imagine that the Jews were the first settlers on the hillside with their two towers, followed by the Moors and Christians (the Moors didn't force conversion but taxed them)
Then on to a Flamenco concert of Pepe Habichuela and Diego do Moroin.
Tuesday, Feb. 24
21 mile bike ride from Montefrio to Villanueva de Mesia, mostly gentle downhill with a few "bumps" giving time to savor the vistas of olive groves climbing hillsides, spring greening of farm fields and smattering of almond trees in blossom.
Magnificent lunch of asparagus and mayonnaise, grilled calamari, and a flan with a true Andalucian Cervessa. Afternoon walk to shop the streets and then the climb to St. Nicholas Place to see a spectacular sunset lighting the Alhambra and the snow covered Sierra Nevada as a backdrop. Finally, the consumate tasting at Restaurant de Trillo with course after delicious course of olives (2) cheeses (2), cured hams (2) - makes me think of my German Aunt Klare and her schinken. There is more; baby squid, and the piece d' resistance; a risoto style wild boar with mushrooms, currants, raspberries, strawberries, blueberries and parmesan! Dessert included raspberry glace and vanilla ice cream with some cake. Spanish white sherry, a dry white wine with a splash of moscato grapes, and a red wine with a mixture of 4 grapes that was smooth and light but had body without bite. Heaven. with a walk down the cobbled steps and narrow streets back to Hotel 1800.
Wed. Feb. 25
Birthday day; auspicious beginning to official senior status, yet it feels like a young person's birthday; full of anticipation of new challenges and experiences. A visit to the Alhambra turns into a lesson on the vagaries of memory and perception; the gardens still so carefully cultivated and beautifully designed with the waterworks system. Our guide Robert reviews how the Moors built this town of 3000 by diverting the river from higher up in the Sierra through underground aqueducts into a complex well-guarded irrigation and water supply system that still functions today. Compared to the effect it had on me in 2011 and especially after seeing the mosques in Morocco, everything looked smaller and less awe-inspiring, though still beautiful.(It's also still winter so the gardens are minus there full-bloom show).
New information (or newly remembered) 80 gardeners care for these grounds; the cypress trees trimmed and shaped are beautifully green and fragrant. The Sultans always wanted their gardens to have flowers,food and fragrance; what a great formula to adhere to! Nice to see again, and hear about Washington Irving's sojourn, thinking and writing in the ruined Alhambra, witness to the Christian's devastation of the Moorish complex in 1496 and occupation of what remained as convents, a church and storage facility, though by the early 1800s it stood mostly empty. After 2.5 hours of walking around, we went to the Parador for a light lunch after which we met our afternoon guide. Irvine's Tales of the Alhambra provided the basis for two paragraphs read to us by Nick, our leader during a walk in the Dehesa del Generalife which are woods and parkland above the Alhambra with spectacular views of the Sierra Nevada.
His knowledge of birds, plants, and his gentle demeanor belie his extreme sport penchants for Alpine skiing, paragliding, and mountain biking. From Australia, via France, he stays in Spain for the easygoing lifestyle, something we've heard over and over. He tries not to work too hard and has that wistful "life can end in a moment" attitude so prevalent in his generation. The three hours of hiking on top of the morning's walk through the Alhambra earned us our tasting supper at Al Sur de Granada, where the owner, Alba, gave us tasting of 3 local olive oils (who dreamed I would ever agree to drink straight oil!) two white wines (a sparkling and a dry oaky white) and two reds. All products were declared organic, with attention to each process being done "right" with natural ingredients, no preservatives or chemicals to enhance/speed the processes. Reminded me of Zingermans on a smaller scale but even better personal connections to all sources. What a story Alba had. Born in a small village on the south coast near Malaga, she always had a sense of gastronomy, and at 24, after trying university, she bought this failing business and has turned it into a thriving success, based on the singular mission of developing close relationships with boutique producers of wine and oils and foods that are organically and artisan produced. Each owner/producer has become like family to her. Just today she spent pruning grapevines with a vintner. F. Schatz is a German who came to start the southern entry into winemaiking on a commercail scale. She calls this concept "biodynamic" Meanwhile, she met her Cuban musician (trumpet) husband on Skype, went there to marry him, and now they live between London and Granada (It's only two hours travel back and forth!) Cosmopolitan meets slow-food/locavore. She will have to be a character in my novel-in-progress for sure. Alba means (soft?) in Spanish. She is soft-spoken but savy and smart.
On the move tomorrow to Seville!
Thursday, Feb. 26
Train to Seville- Susan Cain's book Quiet makes even more sense.. believing in your own style and pace; good hedge against mounting anxiety about returning to book release pressures!
Our guide Sam arrives at our hotel just as we do, barely giving us a moment to appreciate the beautiful Hotel Amadeus C/Farnesio 6. ThisE extensive family home was converted 14 years ago to a hotel with no effort spared, and all with classical music themes. Our room is Mendelsohn.. the walls are covered with violins and cellos and scores of great music. But off we go for a 3 hour bicycle tour of Seville, seeing all the sights and hearing this transplanted Hong Kong/London/Seville young man who just married a local girl talk about living in Spain and the history of this city.