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Jewish, Muslim and Christian mourners of El Maleh (2010)
I first heard of the passing of Edmond Amran El Maleh at the age of 93, via Twitter. Moroccan writer Laila Lalami reflected: “With the passing of Edmond Amran El Maleh, it feels as if a part of the literary, cultural (and yes, Jewish) history of Morocco has passed.” There was to be a tribute to this giant of Moroccan literature the next morning (Tuesday November 16, 2010) at the Jewish cemetery in Rabat, and then he would be brought to Essaouaira, his final resting place.
I wasn’t familiar with a Jewish cemetery in Rabat, so I turned to Google maps. I found two Jewish cemeteries in Rabat--one in between l’Océan and the Medina, and the other in Agdal. I emailed Chris Silver to ask him what he thought, having stumbled upon his blog while searching online for information on Jewish life in Morocco. My first instinct was that the older cemetery, the one near l’Océan and the medina, would be the spot for a tribute. In his email Chris reminded me “things in Morocco are never as they appear.” He also thought the medina would be the correct location. I asked IbnKafka on Twitter which he thought it would be. He was not aware of a Jewish cemetery in Agdal. I decided to ignore both of our first instincts, and head to Agdal. When I emailed Chris later on that day to tell him the cemetery was in Agdal he quipped, “Of course it was--I knew I should have trusted my opposite instinct.”
Exterior of Jewish cemetery in Agdal, Rabat (2010)
My taxi driver knew where the cemetery was, and asked me if I knew the word for cemetery in derija and fusha, which he promptly shared with me: (qbr) is a term in both derija and fusha that he said everyone would know, and (arodha) is specifically derija. He dropped me off at a semi-open gate, which turned out to be the cemetery for “the French”, according to the woman watching the door, with whom I exchanged some awkward derija, and which I later on found out is a Christian/European cemetery. She said that the Jewish cemetery was one door down.
There were around one hundred people there milling about and talking in small groups when I arrived at 10am, with more trickling in over the next half hour. I heard a woman ask her companion in French, “Is the body here?” The crowd was made up of Moroccans and non-Moroccans, Muslims, Jews, Christians, those visually presenting as religious people, and those who were not, men and women, young and old, and several people wearing kaffiyehs with bright Palestinian flags on the borders.
The body was brought out, draped in a Moroccan flag, and everyone gathered around as prayers were sung and tributes made. A cameraman showed up, filming the speakers and the body. In the cement enclosure the emotional words of the speakers were occasionally broken up by shuffling feet, sniffling, and ringing cellphones. One speaker highlighted the Moroccan Jewish
Interior of Jewish cemetery in Agdal, Rabat (2010)
community, which he said must continue to live on, as he cited El Maleh’s support of the Palestinian struggle, and his desire that Palestinians and Israelis should live in peace. El Maleh was described as a man rooted in his history, a history of Morocco. A man of conviction who had fought against the French occupation in Morocco. The speakers expressed gratitude for El Maleh’s compassion, his willingness to listen patiently to questions from others--even if they were not ‘good’ questions, or ‘intelligent’ questions. A man of grace who respected others. A man characterized by an incredible dynamism and honesty.
Scholars write about El Maleh as someone who constantly challenged idées reçus and official histories through his fiction and other writing. These remain a testament to the memory of his disappearance, while also serving as texts that bear witness to historical memory, and to a re-writing of official and unofficial Moroccan histories. This work of excavation was also one of re-layering: pointing at pluralisms that have existed in Moroccan society while looking towards a future with one finger on these historical sediments. His literature re-examined forgotten realities of Moroccan history, doing so in a polyphonic manner. Writing in Le Magazine littéraire in March 1999, El Maleh put forth:
« Écrivant en français, je savais que je n’écrivais pas en français. Il y avait cette singulière greffe d’une langue sur l’autre, ma langue maternelle l’arabe, ce feu intérieur. »
El Maleh was man who leaves us with his writing, a body of work that will be there for our children, and for their children. A man whose work speaks to all Moroccans, described by one speaker as Berber, Arab, Jewish, Muslim, francophone, arabophone. He was, according to one speaker, a man who knew how to laugh.
As is the case with premonitions that reveal themselves clearly in hindsight, it is fitting to end with the words of El Maleh’s friend Abdellah Baïda, writing just before his passing in Le Soir: “Ce cher Edmond a encore des cartouches dans sa besace; on entendra certainement reparler de lui.”
For El Maleh’s part, he felt: "Quand je quitte le Maroc, je me déplace sans me déplacer."
Megan MacDonald, a Fulbrighter scholar in Morocco focuses on the role that Francophone / Moroccan novels play in Morocco. She is completing her dissertation on comparative literature at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Article first published at Jewish Morocco