Monday, May 17, 2010

A Moroccan 'marrano' comes 'home'

Said Sayagh (centre) with friends at the Western Wall

Ten days ago, slipping a prayer between the ancient stones of the Western wall in Jerusalem, Said Sayagh felt he had come home.

In his head Sayagh, 54, had long rehearsed his journey to Jerusalem - but the path had not been an easy one. A Moroccan writer and professor of Arabic from Meknes living in France, Sayagh put out his first timid feelers, inquiring into the origins of his surname on the Moroccan Jewish website Dafina in 2004. Yes, he was told, sayagh meant metalsmith in Arabic, an overwhelmingly Jewish profession. In some parts of Morocco it was considered demeaning for Muslims to deal in metalwork.

His grandmother Fatima on his father's side had been a Cohen. She had been converted to Islam, but how and why, Said could only speculate.

We will never know how many Jews converted to Islam over the centuries in Morocco, although this book may provide a few clues. Said Sayagh is one of the few 'Moroccan Marranos' to have 'come out'. He feels his Jewish identity has been forcibly torn asunder, just as the Jews in general have been torn from Morocco. How many more descendants of forced converts are there out there, frightened to reveal the lost component of their Jewish identity? Sayagh's mission, he feels, is to gather them together and reconnect them with their inheritance.

Sayagh's way of coming to terms with his identity has been to write a novel, L' Autre juive, dramatising the famous story of Sol Hachuel, the beautiful Jewess, who was executed on the sultan's orders in 1834 in Fez because she refused to convert to Islam.


"My Morocco without Judaism is not Morocco," Sayagh says. "
My Morocco without Jews is not Morocco. Not that I regret the Mellah. The Mellah is not a promised land or a paradise lost. "

For Sayagh, the Jews live on in the street names, in their accents, their ways of pronouncing Arabic words - a living link with the past.

Muslim-Jews lost in the no-man's-land of identity

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