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.