Hidden headstone, Figuig Cemetery
- Ifrane d’Anti-Atlas
At first glance, all visitors see is a field of stones that is reminiscent of the surface of Mars. But this lonely cemetery, perched above a wadi and below a mountain at the edge of the Sahara desert, contains hundreds of graves. Out of the initial disorder, the shape of tombs begins to emerge and bits of Hebrew writing poke out of the rubble. The ancient Jewish cemetery of Oufrane – 2,000 years old, according to legend – memorializes thousands of Berber Jews, including a group of 50 who were burned alive over 200 years ago and whose ashes are buried in a cave alongside the cemetery.
- Bou Denib
The Jews of this isolated, border town have long since left. But due primarily the efforts of one native family, the community’s cemetery has recently been restored.
This cemetery was lost to memory, and would have been physically lost, too, but for the efforts of an old Muslim Amazigh (Berber) woman. When a European company had sought to develop the land, she protested, asserting that the plot was a Jewish cemetery. As a result of her efforts, the cemetery remains, along with an olive press and farm lands that once served Jew and Amazigh alike.
In a city whose name means “without noise,” it too sits silently. Surrounded by a high mud wall capped with a barbed-wire crown, the Jewish cemetery of Ouarzazate appears mostly to be an earthen field, with clumps of stones and a few concrete slabs marking old graves. Outside the walls are film studios where Hollywood classics like Star Wars have been shot. Inside the cemetery, the only “blockbuster” is an elegant shrine with black marble columns protecting the 400-year-old graves of two rabbis.
The Jewish cemetery of Taznakht, an isolated town in the sparsely populated rocky landscape south of Ouarzazate, should have decayed into oblivion – like many of the remote cemeteries in southern Morocco. Indeed, after Taznakht’s Jewish community left in the 1950s, the cemetery walls began to crumble and tombs began to disintegrate from exposure to the elements and vandalism. But then, in 2005, Charly Bouskila, a Casablanca businessman with roots in Taznakht, decided he had to act to save the burial site of his ancestors and preserve it for future generations. Three years later he inaugurated a gleaming new cemetery complex, with sturdy new walls, dozens of restored tombs, a synagogue, and even a guesthouse. As a result, remote Taznakht today hosts one of the best maintained Jewish cemeteries in all of North Africa.
This cemetery outside the small town of Joarf does not have any markings to distinguish it as Jewish, and not much more to confirm it is a cemetery, as opposed to a scattering of rocks. As is common throughout southern Morocco, however, amidst the rocks are women’s undergarments and broken pottery — the tell-tale signs of Amazigh (Berber) women’s ritual ablutions that only occur at Jewish burial sites. This tradition is all that testifies to the Jews buried in this desolate landscape.
Raphy Elmaleh walks through the mellah (Jewish quarter) of Amizmiz. Located at the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, Amizmiz’s synagogue no longer exists, though the structures of many former homes and businesses remain. These places are described by members of the villages current inhabitants as “Jewish owned,” but most Jews left in the early 1960s.
In the middle of a lush, green oasis we find the Jewish cemetery of Skoura, a town known for two things: roses and casbahs (fortresses). Many tribes built casbahs, but in Skoura the Jews had their own, the “Casbah LiYahudi.”
Going off the main road, one finds (perhaps with the aid of local children) this small cemetery and its curious legend about one unfortunate pilgrim who is buried in its confines.
‘Ain Benimatthar, once known by its French name, Berguent, has a small Jewish cemetery, not far from a Vichy Camp where Jews were imprisoned during the Holocaust.
Perched on a small hilltop on the road from Marrakesh to Taroudant is a small terra cotta room with a locked door. It is the shrine of Yaakov Abudram and Sliman Aviav.
A silent walk through the abandoned Jewish cemetery of Ighil’n'Ogho reveals human bones, shattered graves, and one remarkably intact headstone in Hebrew. The village is located in the Talouine region of southern Morocco and once had a large Jewish population. Many of the local Jews were merchants and itinerant peddlers — often of saffron, a regional specialty.