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Moroccan Pilgrims, Pirates & Rabbis: the fashioning of an unexpected political center

Updated: May 1, 2019

The evening of February 7, 2019 I flew into the Rabat-Salé airport from Stansted, planning to arrive just in time for the evening celebration of the pilgrimage of Rabbi Eliezer Di Avila (1714-1761) in the Jewish cemetery of Salé . On that evening, three (deceased) Rabbis were announced to be honored: Rabbi Eliezer Di Avila, Rabbi Mickael Encaoua (1885-1972), and Rabbi Rahamim Mizrahi (n.d.).

Poster for the Pilgrimage

Salé is across the Bouregereg river from Rabat, the political capital of Morocco since the installment of the French Protectorate in 1912. Before the arrival of the French the center for the Sultan’s power was Fez. However, Rabat was kept as the political capital after independence in 1956. There have been no Jews living in Salé for the last forty years, but Rabat still has a community of about 40. Jews from Casablanca and Rabat as well as Moroccan Jews living in France were gathering for this celebration. The pilgrimage is an occasion to reiterate historical Jewish presence, and to invite members from the ruling families to celebrate and receive the Jewish Baraka (blessing).

Politically Salé was known together with Fez as a center for opposition to the French imposed Berber Dahir, to hard-core Arab nationalists and to various intellectuals from the left during the twentieth century. In 1930, Abdellatif Sbihi was one of the first to oppose the Berber Dahir citing it as a way to separate the Moroccan people. His descendant Mohammed Amine Sbihi, the most recent Minister of Culture under the Islamist PJD party, is an active member of the Socialist PPS party. Salé was also the city where the spiritual head of the sufi-inspired radical Islamist party Al Adl Wal Ihsane, Cheikh Yassine spent his house arrest during the ten years between 1990-2000. Currently, Salé is known as one of the few Moroccan cities with a large Islamist enclave, it also houses the Sbihi family library, as well as various associations for societal development led by artists which have created schools of circus arts, culinary arts and artistic embroidery. Quite an eclectic slice of Moroccan society.

For centuries Rabat and Salé housed a large Muslim and Jewish Andalusian population, who had been sent out of Spain after the Catholic victory of the Reconquista wars. These populations maintained a shared nostalgia for the lost days of al-Andalus keeping traditions, foods and most importantly Andalusian and Gharnati music alive. Salé’s history is checkered because it was known as the haven for “barbary” pirates from the seventeenth until the nineteenth century. Rabbi Raphael Encaoua (1848-1935) is the “star” of this Jewish cemetery, and it is said that George Lucas fashioned his Star Wars character Obi Wan Kenobi after this twentieth century Moroccan sage. His tomb takes center stage right across from the synagogue and party hall.

The Jewish cemetery of Salé is hard to find, ensconced in what used to be open fields, and is now messy urban sprawl. Upon arrival to the airport I asked the taxi to drive me take me there, expecting that he wouldn’t know where we were going or even that he might be surprised to hear there was a Jewish cemetery in Salé. However this time, the driver didn’t bat an eye and said, “You’re the third person today that I’ve taken there, Waha, mukbara dial Yehoud (ok, Jewish cemetery). I know exactly where we’re going.” The other two arrivals had been Moroccan Jews living in France that had flown in for the Thursday night hilloula and Friday night Shabbat.

In Morocco, communal pilgrimages to the sites of burial of holy men (and in rare cases women) are called hillulot, and are celebrated throughout the country in cities and far flung mountainous areas. These celebrations include a grand festive meal and live musical entertainment as well as speeches from Rabbis and descendants of the Rabbinic line being celebrated. During most hilloulot, blessings from the Jewish community to the King and the whole Royal family are entoned in a highly ritualized manner by Rabbis from the country’s Rabbinical Tribunal (See: from minute 2:51), while pilgrims from Casablanca, France, Israel and the Americas eat, pray and hope for blessings of health, marriage and livelihood. This night was slightly different, because there were three Rabbis being celebrated, and the whole event had been put on by former Slaouis (from Salé) living in France and Israel, and a core group still in Morocco. They had hired the singer Michel Abitan, the former director of Kinor David Maroc, the Jewish Andalusian choir, to entertain during the meal. The whole troupe of Kinor David Maroc, the last fully Jewish musical group in Morocco, had rented a minibus to travel from Casablanca to Rabat-Salé and I was slated to return to Casablanca with them late that night.

When me and my taxi arrived to the cemetery gates, we were greeted by a team of police and security guards who checked who I was. David Toledano, the President of the Jewish Community of Rabat was standing outside and greeted me as I entered. This year, the French Moroccan Jews who were organizing had decided to put a mehitza, a separation between men and women right on top of the Tsaddik’s tomb. I wondered what a Moroccan sage from the early part of the 20th century would think about the sad state of affairs that brought a curtain on top of his final demeure so that men and women that were praying would not distract each other during their introspection.

Curtain covering Tsaddik's tomb

As I walked into the hall, I saw a continuation of the mehitza that was on the tomb, hiding the women from the musicians on the stage (see image below). The music was blaring so that one couldn’t hold a conversation with one’s neighbor. There were close to 400 people sitting at tables enjoying the dishes of traditional delicacies being passed around by the waiters. The remaining Jews from Rabat were present as were members from the Guedira family, cousins of the late Ahmed Reda Guedira, the previous Foreign Affairs Minister and an advisor of the previous King, Hassan II. The wives of the Kinor David Maroc singers invited me to sit at their table while Michel Abitan sang liturgical poems about Rabbi Rafael Encaoua from Salé, Rabbi Eliezer Di Avila from Rabat and Rabbi Yaakov Abehsera (1806-1880), from Tafilalet. Rabbi Abehsera is the “star” of Amazigh (Berber) Judaism in Morocco, known as the Master of the Carpet – as in he made miracles flying on his carpet (hatzira). In this way, the Kabbalist Rabbis Encaoua and Abehsera, Andalusian and Amazigh brought together the magic of Jewish mysticism, Lucas’ Star Wars and Arabist Moroccan politics around colonialism, the Amazigh and contemporary diasporic Moroccan Judaism to this evening.

The mehitza curtain running through the hall

These communal occasions are punctuated by pauses according to the different courses: appetizers, fish, couscous, meat and finally dessert. After the fish course, the great-great-grandson of Rabbi Eliezer Di Avila, who had come for the occasion from Israel stood up and took the microphone to explain his recent involvement with his ancestor’s intellectual legacy. Rabbi Eliezer had come to him in a dream and urged him to publish his works. This is why he was here tonight and he would continue to come to honor the memory and spiritual legacy of his ancestor, known as the Ner HaMaarab (The Light of the West).

After the Rabbi’s speech was over it was Michel Abitan’s turn to sing, this point in the evening is one of the musical climaxes. The recent silence ensures that the listeners will notice what comes next. Michel asked the musicians for a note and began singing a capella on the melody of the Massira al Khadra song about Morocco’s Green March to recuperate the Sahara from Spain in 1975. This nationalist song starts with the words Allah HuAkbar, Allah HuAkbar (God is great, God is great). Tonight Michel faltered as he tentatively entoned a Hebrew contrafactum text, in honor of the French-Moroccan-diasporic-mehitza-placing Jews who were organizing the event. He said in Hebrew: Hashem Hu Melech, Hashem Hu Malach (God is King, God Reigns) and followed it in an almost sung whisper, while sheepishly looking at his audience, with the original Allah HuAkbar, Allah HuAkbar – the musicians came in confidently with the instrumental refrain and he belted out the rest of the song in Arabic, having passed the embarrassing moment of singing Allah HuAkbar, Allah HuAkbar in front of Parisian Jews who albeit being Moroccan, are also French, and have recently equated that phrase with anti-Semitic terrorist attacks (see video below).

In this one symbolic musical moment the complexity of current Moroccan Jewish conflicting identities was encapsulated. A Jewish event served as a way to resist Salé’s current Islamist mood. This private event ensured a continued lived Jewish presence in the city limits. Members of Morocco’s ruling families were included and celebrated. French-Moroccan Diasporic Jews demonstrated their connection to their ancestral traditions by making the journey to Salé for this three-day celebration, albeit bringing with them religious practices that are not traditionally Moroccan. The sung reiteration of Jewish nationalism through the central performance of Massira AlKhadra ensured that Jewish Moroccans hold their allegiance with the Moroccan state, especially after the tensions surrounding 1967’s six-day war in the Middle east. The remaining Rbatis and Casaoui Jews looked around them, counting how many local Jews were there in comparison to the “imported” foreign Jews.

As we walked out to our mini bus right after the dessert, Michel continued singing Moroccan hits in Judeo-Arabic and Arabic. The audience sang along, the men danced and all hoped that their prayers and desires would be answered in the merit of these Rabbis’ holiness. At least that’s what everyone repeated to each other when walking out and passing in front of Rabbi Encaoua’s curtained tomb.

More videos related to this event can be found on the following links:

MARRAKESH community’s blessing to government:

ABUHATZIRA hilloula Massira AlKhadra song:



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