In the medina of Marrakesh stood an old Jewish quarter called ‘Mellah’. Centuries ago, turmoil brought the Jewish people to this part of Africa to form a once-swarming settlement.
The medina of Marrakesh is a gigantic maze. I got all sweaty under the scorching sun when I finally figured out the way to find the Jewish cemetery outside the ancient city walls, which had been there since the 17th century.
An old caretaker and a scrawny dog were the only living things I saw in sight. The caretaker looked surprised to see me, asking twice to make sure I was really looking for the Jewish cemetery. I nodded, and walked into the rows of earthy low-lying tombs. Now that the caretaker and the dog were not even close, I became the only living among the dead. A vast expanse of burial ground, the cemetery looked desolate and solitary in spite of the cheery blue sky above. The tombstones were shaped long and flat, as if rows of coffins lying bare above the ground. The stones were mostly identical – smooth-surfaced, free of any signs or inscriptions. Only some bore austere markings of the Star of David and some inscriptions. The Atlas Mountain Range, with its snowy top, contrasted with the barren foreground.
As early as in the Roman times, a branch of Jewish people made a long pilgrim to North Africa and settled in the High Atlas. People called them the Berber Jews. They looked and lived just like the original Berber tribes in the high mountains. Much later, a flock of Jews fled Spain and crossed the ocean in 1495 to escape from persecution. They and their descendants were buried in the soil under my feet. To them, was this piece of land intended to be a permanent home, or was it just a sojourn extended too long? I wondered if anyone still remembers the history of these people who had been buried in this corner of the Maghreb for a few centuries. To me, it is always depressing to think that people who had existed once would be forgotten one day, as if they had never existed at all; but it seems only inevitable.
As for the once-prosperous Mellah community in Marrakesh, it withers and fades in people’s memories too – only about 250 Jews are said to remain living in the decaying neighborhood.
In my last day in Marrakesh, I roamed round and round in the myriad alleys in the souks with the company of a local friend. I was looking for a piece of linen fabric to bring back home. There were hundreds of kiosks selling fabric, and choices were abundant. I wanted to find the colour I liked most, and the style that matched best my home. I kept haggling for the cheapest deal I could get from the sly sellers. After a busy few hours of rummaging the souk, still not getting what I wanted, my friend, gentle as always, asked me softly. ‘Is the fabric you want an important thing to you?’ I was stunned and felt utterly ashamed.
No! Not a bit. Indeed, I always know that no important things in life are material. If I have to give up my possessions one by one, I figure that there will not be anything that I cannot forsake at the end of the day. In any case, when I leave this world, I would not want the people I care to remember me just because of the things I own.
‘How would you like to be remembered?’ I found my answer when I reached the highest point of Père Lachaise.
‘Being kind and loving.’