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Virtually Connected: Doing Research from Home (Part 1)

Updated: May 11, 2020

Coronavirus and virtual Moroccan Jewish-Muslim musical celebrations of the Mimouna

Vanessa Paloma Elbaz

The Mimouna is a Moroccan celebration on the night following the last day of Passover. It symbolizes the opening of one’s doors to all and everyone after a week of staying quasi-confined within one’s family home. The stringent dietary restrictions of Passover mean that many Jews in Morocco will not even drink a cup of coffee from a kitchen that is not kosher for Passover during that week. Traditionally this meant that Muslims and Jews would hardly see each other during the holiday, precluding any sort of social interactions that might lead to breaking the dietary restrictions.

One hour after the holiday is finished, as darkness arrives and three stars are visible in the sky, the doors to Jewish homes throughout Morocco would open up and Muslim and Jewish friends, family and neighbors are expected to arrive. There is a bowl of flour on the table, with five eggs (against the evil eye), five fava stalks (for fertility) and a cup of oil in the center. The table should have butter, honey, lettuce, sweet cookies, cakes, couscous, candied fruits, a raw fish, mofleta pancakes and stalks of wheat amongst other things. These are all symbols of spring, fertility and abundance. Live music plays a central role in the celebration. Families often hire small orchestras to animate the party, people drink, dance and eat until the early hours of the morning.

This year because of social distancing, Mimouna took a markedly different character, while preserving its festive and inclusive nature. I attended four of these and will describe their similarities and differences below.

The night of the Mimouna on April 16, The European Jewish Cultural and Academic Center (ECUJE) held a virtual Mimouna party on zoom entitled La Grande Mimouna starting at 11pm Paris time. The tile view showed over 900 people in attendance throughout the world in Israel, France, Morocco, New York and Montreal amongst others, they say that there were over 25,000 that connected throughout the evening. David Benaym was the MC, Enrico Macias sang a traditional Mimouna song from his kitchen, from Marseille and dressed in a kaftan, Françoise Atlan sang a cappella, Gilbert Montagné sang a pop song in French accompanying himself on his Yamaha piano from his bedroom. Later in the evening a violinist and percussionist played some chaabi music from their apartment in Paris. Serge Berdugo, head of the Council for Israelite Communities of Morocco spoke about the communal meaning behind the Mimouna. The MC was keen to see Mr. Berdugo’s table which is famous for having splendid dishes every year. This Mimouna was able to virtually create the feeling of crowd, cacophony, live music, copious food and overall festive atmosphere that is the backbone of Mimouna celebrations without social distancing.

Chama Mechtaly, a Moroccan visual artist that lives in Dubai hosted a Virtual Mimouna on Instagram live with a Gnawa musician in Essaouira and a Jazz Trumpeter in Brooklyn on April 18. Here the central aspect was the dialogue between a Muslim and a Jewish musician and the shared improvisation of Jazz and Gnawa musical traditions. Unfortunately, because of the time lag due to being in different time zones, they were not able to play together, but discussed their previous collaborations and each played solo then commenting on each other’s playing. There was an active chat going with questions from the attendees, which were close to 30 at its height. The Mimouna ended abruptly, as Instagram automatically cut it off at the 60-minute mark while he was playing the Jewish Gnawa song on Baba Musa. Appropriate.

On April 19 the American Sephardi Federation from New York and the Mimouna Foundation based in Rabat co-hosted another virtual Mimouna with Rabbis, academics, cultural activists and community leaders and had over 500 people in attendance throughout the world. As the Instagram live Mimouna, this was a curated event where the presenters could not see the audience nor the audience see who else was in attendance. I was one of the presenters, and spoke about the opening up of the private space into the public. This is the symbol of the night of the Mimouna. Musically, on this night private and public musics mingle in the homes of Jews as the doors are opened and the public world comes back into what has been a sealed domestic space. Quite appropriate for our current situation. It was a two-hour session with a pre-recorded presentation on Mimouna at the beginning, a recorded greeting by Enrico Macías and a live performance by Neta ElKayam and Amit Hai Cohen from Jerusalem and Salah Eddine Mansouri from Rabat. The large silent attendance gave quite a different feeling to the Grande Mimouna where one could see the other attendees, presenters or not.

Enrico Macías on the left

That same day Brahim El Guabli, Professor of Arabic at Williams College hosted a Mimouna discussion for Reconstructionist synagogue Kol Tsedek in Philadelphia with a group of academics, the synagogue’s Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari and a variety of members. There were about 25 people in attendance. This discussion was an academic post-vernacular introduction to Mimouna to a community which does not celebrate it. Professor Abdellah Hammoudi, an anthropologist from Princeton University opened the discussion on the nature of yeast and the exchange of purity between Jews and Muslims before and after the week-long separation of Passover. Merav Rosenfeld-Hadad from the Woolf Institute in Cambridge presented on the rabbinic history of the discussion around the celebration of the Mimouna. Nadia Sabri, art historian from Rabat continued; Sarah Levin, folklorist in Berkley and myself led the rest of the discussion. This congregation is unique because the Rabbi is the first transgender Rabbi to be hired in the region of Philadelphia. They have had a long-standing relationship with Prof. El Guabli and various activities regarding Jewish-Muslim relations.

In all but the final event, where we discussed music but didn’t hear it, music played a central role in the virtual celebration. Musicians played with reduced forces, but much in the same informal and festive manner that is done when streams of people are coming in and out of households. However, with further analysis patterns emerge when one observes the varying levels of traditionalism, official community presence, rabbinic involvement, gender balance and inter-religious dialogue.

Excerpt from the Mimouna discussion hosted by Brahim ElGuabli

The two larger official events gave the impression of a real-time transnational celebration: joyful, musical, chaotic at times and with a never-ending stream of participants that came and went much as in the home. The two smaller events, both organised by Moroccan Muslims, moved beyond the celebratory aspects into a discussion and probing of the traditions and meanings of Mimouna. These were intimate and conversational and give a window to the ways in which Moroccan Jewish traditionalism has broken the barriers of place and moved into the post-vernacular.

Research from Home

Stephen Wilford

Since lockdown began I have been at home with my wife and two young children. Attempting to conduct research with a four month old baby and an energetic two year old in the house is proving challenging, but I am gradually finding ways of being productive.

My work combines historical research with contemporary ethnographic fieldwork, and the latter is proving particularly difficult in the current circumstances. I had just begun a new area of research, on music and sound in relation to the recent Hirak protests in Algeria, when the global pandemic hit the UK. Not only are these public protests currently suspended, but I was hoping to conduct fieldwork in Algeria later in the year, which is now in serious doubt. However, I have begun to explore online fieldwork methodologies and I am hopeful that these will prove fruitful in the short term.

I also realise how lucky I am to have the support of two fantastic institutions: the University of Cambridge and Wolfson College Cambridge. I’ve been able to access numerous resources through the library, and used funding from Wolfson to buy some important books just as lockdown was beginning. This has ensured that I’ve been able to remain fairly productive over the last few weeks.

In late March, myself and my colleague Vanessa were supposed to be speaking at a two-day colloquium at Maynooth University in Ireland. The event was entitled ‘Music/Sound/Decoloniality’ and I was preparing a paper on music and sound in public spaces during the Hirak protests. Unfortunately, the colloquium had to be cancelled but I am grateful that I will still be able to give the paper in a forthcoming webinar for Wolfson.

In the meantime, I am continuing to conduct research and write journal articles and book chapters, and just feel grateful that my family are all safe and healthy.

You can join a webinar Stephen is giving next week on Tuesday, May 12, at 6pm (UK time). For registration click here.

Wolfson College Humanities Society - Whose Bled? Music, Sound and Public Spaces in (Post-)Colonial Algeria

Presented by Dr Stephen Wilford, Research Associate, Faculty of Music, University of Music & Junior Research Fellow, Wolfson College Beginning in February 2019, widespread anti-government protests have taken place throughout towns and cities across Algeria. These have coalesced into Hirak, a political movement calling for democracy and greater social equality. Inevitably, singing and chanting have become integral to the protest, and in this presentation I explore the ways in which music and sound have helped to shape Hirak, with particular focus upon the negotiation of Algerian public and private space through sonic practices.

Stephen Wilford's webinar will focus on the Hirak movement in Algeria



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