The day started with a field trip. Although there may have been a few alleyways we had not yet walked in the medina of Fes, we headed out of town to two interesting settlements. Bhalil is a small town with interesting troglodyte homes built into the hillsides. The Berbers have lived here for hundreds of years, and many (but not all) of the homes have a cave as a portion of the house. It never became clear to me whether these were enhanced natural formations or were completely carved out for dwellings. They offer the usual cave advantage of evening out hot and cold temperatures. The houses in this town are painted in various colors. Although I have read of a pottery industry here, the only current industry seems to be the production of jellaba buttons, which women saw by hand, sitting out in the sunlight. The semi-official town greeter is Mohammed Ashraibi, and a colorful character he is. He took us into his house cave and served us mint tea with a great show and multiple interruptions to pose (at his insistence) for pictures. He had us all laughing with his song he got us to sing: "One-two-three, Mo-ham-med, speak
little English, Mo-ham-med". After we saw Bhalil, he rode with us to Sefrou, a nearby town which was having a market day that day, and he was our guide there.
Sefrou was a charming little town with a more open medina with the usual sorts of shops, but much more emphasis on local produce and meats. It was an ancient Jewish settlement even before the introduction of Islam 1200 years ago. Many Jews came to Mauritania (including parts of Morocco) after the Roman conquest of Judea, and then further influxes occurred in the 7th century as Iberian Jews came to escape the Visigoths, and then in the late 14th century the Sephardic Jews from Iberia came to escape the persecutions in Portugal and Spain. The history of tolerance for the Jews in Morocco is somewhat spotty. Some of the most difficult times occurred when the Jews were pushed out of Spain and Portugal. This caused swelling of local populations in cities, which was resented both by local Arabs and by local Jews who were having a hard enough time of it trying to make a living. In addition, apparently some Jews helped Portugal in retaining some of its coastal
cities. Now, all faiths are protected under the law. No one can convert from Islam to another religion, but interfaith marriages are certainly allowed, but with the stipulation that all children where one of the parents is Muslim must be brought up Muslim. In Sefrou, we saw the balconies projecting from houses, a hallmark in Morocco of a Jewish house (as opposed to the Arab tradition of having nothing distinguishing on the outside of the house).
Upon our return to Fes, we toured the Mellah, the old Jewish Quarter that adjoins the Royal Palace, starting the the old Jewish Cemetery. As we had seen previously in Prague, visitors to graves had placed small pebbles on the grave markers. Nearby was Synagogue Abdn Danan, once one of the lesser synagogues in the area, but now one of the survivors with the help of outside funding for restoration and repairs. A large Torah ark occupies one wall, and through a hold in the floor you can see the old cistern where women would go for symbolic cleansing prior to marriage.
Back in the medina, we saw the house of Maimonides (now selling camel meat) and finally returned to our riad
where we had a wonderful group dinner by the small pool. The next morning, awaiting our departure, I photographed the play of light through stainless glass windows on the carvings in the riad.
If you want to see how they make the jellaba buttons, there is actually a Youtube video available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xlETpgikiHU
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