I’m writing this preface in tandem with the highlights of my recent trip to Morocco because I don’t want social media to portray a black and white picture of me living my best life. My world may be full of opportunities that I work for and take pride in sharing, but it is also colored with fears and struggles that make traveling (especially planes and new places) a reliable source of much fueled agitation for me. Social media doesn’t show that. It almost feels ostentatious to share pictures of my experiences when a 640px times 640px instagram picture doesn’t show the full scope of my thoughts. Am I hurting anyone’s feelings when I post my whereabouts? Is oversharing a form of vanity? My sensitivity towards oversharing is akin to a new mother who refrains from posting pictures of her newborn because some of her friends on social media are struggling with infertility. While I take these sensitivities into account, I still hold that sharing is the ultimate form of connectivity. And that we can gain so much more good than bad from opening ourselves up to others.
Traveling doesn’t come easy to me. Any drastic change in my daily routine sends my anxiety soaring through unprecedented heights. So, naturally, the act of leaving one place for another sparks a series of unwanted clutter orbiting my headspace. Growing up, I allowed my angst to shut me out of monumental trips. Some of the more significant ones include my 8th grade graduation trip to Washington, my senior ski trip, and countless camp trips. During the summer going into 8th grade, I missed almost every day of summer camp. In the weeks before my departure to Morocco I’d been dealing with a lot of chaos in my personal life. Coupled with the fact that my trip was soon approaching, I experienced an uptick in my overall mental health. But after missing so many other milestones in my life because of my anxiety, I made a promise to myself that I would never allow my apprehensions to stop me from doing anything I set my mind to. Ultimately, I would not only go to Morocco, fears and all, but I would have a damn good time too.
On that note, read on for my experiences in the Land of Color and Spice! Thank you JDC Entwine, our trip leaders, tour guides, and new friends for making this week the highlight of my year thus far.
A year ago I ask my Facebook friends if they know of any trips to Morocco. People often question if I’m Moroccan as my last name is a given testament to my family’s roots. The truth is, I don’t identify with being Moroccan at all. No family traditions like cultural foods or hennas or anything of that sort. “Are you related to so and so with the last name Azoulay?” people would ask. “I don’t know anyone with my last name except for my grandparents,” I would respond verbatim. All I knew was that my ancestors were executed from Spain during the inquisition and fled to Morocco. I was eager to learn more about my family’s background. A friend suggested I check out JDC Entwine and the rest is (literally) history.
I fly to Mohammed V International airport by myself with a big ass suitcase and a backpack with my belongings. I meet 19 new faces and try to memorize all their names in one sitting. We hop onto a van that would become home for the next 7 days and drive from Casablanca through Fez. En route, we stop in Meknes to visit the old Jewish Quarter where only four Jews remain. We depart Meknes for Fez and check into the Palais Medina Hotel. We have our first ‘Core Conversation’ where we set our intentions/kavannah for the trip and check in with ourselves. How are we feeling? What can we improve on? What did we learn today? This mindful approach set the tone for our entire stay.
We depart for the Synagogue and Jewish Community Center for dinner and learn that there are only 70 Jews living in Fez. We then meet Dorith, JDC’s Program Coordinator in Morocco who accompanied us throughout our weeklong journey and gave us insights into Jewish life there. It becomes apparent that the Jewish communities in Morocco are small but strong and vibrant. The only expectation I had before arriving was that at least a third of the country would be Jewish. We learned that with a population of 3 million, only 2500 Jews remain. I clearly did not do my research and for the first time in my life am culture shocked. I’d never been to a country where I didn’t speak the language or felt like a minority, until now.
We tour the Mellah (Jewish Quarter) in Fez, capturing the essence of Moroccan culture. From the visceral views of the leather tanneries to the smell of remedial spices and oils. The colorful rug shops, handmade tajines, and Moroccan bargaining added more authenticity to our experience.
There are no Jews left in the Mellah, yet the Ibn Danan Synagogue is restored for the sake of Jewish history. It is astounding to me that Jews once lived there and thrived there. At night we depart for dinner at Palais de la Medina where we watch Moroccan belly dancing, pseudo wedding, and magic show. We each get half a bottle of wine to ourselves (thank you JDC for the hook up) and by the end of the night are feeling all the feelz. I may or may not have invited myself on the stage and booty drop in front of a foreign crowd. That night I text my best friend and cry into my pillow because I'm still overwhelmed with the chaos manifesting in my life back home. I think about how strange it is to be both happy and sad at the same time. Above all I feel thankful for being able to feel and allow myself to lean in to those feelings with no self judgement.
Excursion to Rabat! We eat lunch at Al Marsa on a beautiful port overlooking the water with Heather Chase, a US Foreign Service Officer. We chat about politics like religious freedom and human rights in Morocco. More importantly we are served Moroccan tea for the umpteenth time that day. I don’t complain because tea quickly becomes the beverage I didn’t know I needed in my life. The bus pulls up to the Casablanca Hotel and we freshen up before eating dinner at La Scala Port. We end off the night at a swanky bar, whose name I can’t recall, and drink the night away like there is no tomorrow. (Which, turns our there is. Also turns out the bus leaves at 9am, but like YOLMO, you only live Morocco once.)
Today is the day I’d been looking forward to all week. We visit Neve Shalom Hatorah in Casablanca, a religious Sephardic Jewish school, and learn about the Jewish life growing up in an Arab Muslim world. We listen to the students pray in Hebrew from their siddurs, and play with them during recess. In the 1950’s Neve Shalom opened 35 schools. Now with 480 students, one school remains. The principal informs us that Israel is not taught in schools. The Moroccan monarchy was upset that Israel took many of its people in the 50’s. And the obvious reason why Israel is not a topic of debate is because living in a Muslim country can cause contention if Israeli politics are sparked.
Next stop: We visit Alliance, a modern Jewish school with a 60% muslim student body. Still, both Jews and Muslims are required to learn Torah studies in addition to english, hebrew, and arabic. The prestigious secular and Jewish education enables students to enter top universities abroad. I am astounded by the camaraderie between the Jewish and Muslim students. They hold hands, they’re friends, they are taught to love one another. If it weren’t for the cippahs worn by some of the Jewish boys, I could not tell the difference between a Jew and a Muslim. I think about my newfound respect for the Islam religion and how it’s not much different from Judaism. I love walking through the souk (marketplace) and hearing prayers reverberating from nearby mosques, the colorful garbs, and the exchange of kisses on both cheeks.
We eat lunch at the SOC Jewish club, visit the Jewish Museum (the only one in the islamic world), and dance with the Jewish elderly in La Maison Du Bel Age home. Two things that stood out for me: 1: At the museum, seeing and learning about a book called “Megillat Hitler.” During WWII, someone wrote this book and brought it to Morocco so that people can be privy to the horrid events happening in Eastern Europe. Now, King Mohammed the 6th requires that all schools learn about the holocaust. 2: The OSE medical clinic: They provide medical care for needy and elderly Jews. I found comfort in knowing our people are being taken care of.
Off to the Beth El Synagogue and kosher bakery! We end off the day with dinner at the Casablanca Jewish Club with members of the community. They voice their concerns about the dwindling Jewish population. In ten years, they say, there probably won’t be any Jews left living in Morocco.
En route to Marrakesh, we stop at the largest mosque in Morocco (and the third largest in the world.) It is absolutely divine. We take off our shoes and make our way into its corridors. We’re shown where people pray and where they cleanse their hands and feet before prayers. It reminds me of how we as Jews wash between meals and when we wake up in the morning.
We walk through the Mellah and visit the 500 year old Lakhzama Synagogue. Marrakesh becomes my favorite city thus far and I take in the smells and colors of the Medina. We buy souvenirs like oils, tajines, tea pots, straw bags, and leather garments. We check into hotel Radisson Blue and prep for Shabbat. The local synagogue is home to Sephardic Jews and I feel at home being surrounded by familiar prayers. Dinner is hosted by a couple from the Jewish community and I try to imagine what my life would be like living in such a small Jewish community when I come from one of the largest in the world.
A few of us walk to the Yves Saint Laurent museum-- a homage to the French fashion designer’s love for Morocco and an inspiration for his collections. We eat lunch poolside and tour the neighborhoods of Marrakech, specifically the luxurious Mamounia hotel with its heavenly gardens. When shabbat ends we get in a circle and sing Havdallah prayers. It makes me think about how different we all are in our Jewish identity and religion, and yet in some way we have a connection to our people. That we all feel the need to help preserve Jewish communities with a common goal for Tikkun Olam. Dinner is at Jad Mahal, a bachelorette-like scene filled with belly dancers, drinks, dim lighting, and performers. Then off to the club where things get LIT. (Half Jk, I was part of the second shift to leave because my grandma status is real.)
The trip comes to a close. We spend our last day visiting the Yves Saint Laurent Gardens (an absolute dream land), and drive through the Atlas Mountains. The berber villages await our visit; one family serves us homemade butter, bread, and honey. Overlooking the mountains, our group eats lunch at a place called La Kasbah. On our long bus ride back to Casablanca we learn that Ramadan is starting in a few days and that night life in Morocco basically shuts down for the month as Muslims can’t be served alcohol. I think about how I complain after fasting for one day while Muslims are essentially fasting for one month. In a closing dinner we say our goodbyes and express our gratitude for the people we’ve met along our journey. It dawns on me how much I’ve grown as a person since the first time I traveled by myself. I finally understand the trope that travel makes you find yourself, or at least in my case, it gave me better perspective on how I want to live my life moving forward.
The few of us who leave tomorrow night sit by the pool, get massages, and decompress. Because, like, our bodies effing hurt. Dorith, angel of a human, invites us over for dinner. We eat Couscous! Lots and lots of couscous. We talk about Morocco’s political climate! And how we can save the Jewish communities! And the youth! Then we’re off to catch some zzzz’s. Au revoir, until next time!