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Jewish Social Studies 11.1 (2004) 118-146

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Rethinking the "Islamic City" from the Perspective of Jewish Space

In December 1863, Moses Montefiore, the prominent British philanthropist and self-styled defender of world Jewry, came to Morocco. As had been the case with several of his previous visits to the Muslim world, his trip was motivated by reports of the mistreatment of his coreligionists: three Jews from the coastal town of Saffi had been falsely accused of conspiring to murder a Spanish tax collector. By the time Sir Moses arrived on the scene, one of the men had already been publicly executed in the main marketplace of Tangier, and the remaining two awaited judgment under disastrous conditions in the city's Kasbah (the symbolic if not always actual residence of the sultan).1 Thanks no doubt to his great diplomatic skills, Montefiore secured the prisoners' freedom after just one brief meeting with the Spanish minister. He then headed south to Marrakesh to plead the case of Moroccan Jews more generally at the royal court. His efforts once again met with success: Sultan Muhammad IV was persuaded to enact a royal edict (dahir) promising that his Jewish subjects would henceforth be protected from oppression in accordance with Islamic law. A satisfied Sir Moses returned home to England.

The Montefiore visit is often seen as a watershed in Moroccan Jewish history, insofar as it set into motion a pattern of foreign diplomatic [End Page 118] pressure intertwined with European Jewish involvement that would serve as a backdrop to Jewish-Muslim relations in Morocco from that point onward. Aside from its broader ramifications, however, Montefiore's visit also left its mark—to some extent quite literally—on an altogether more local level. While in Marrakesh, Montefiore, despite being Jewish (not to mention of probable Moroccan descent),2 chose not to reside in the house in the city's Jewish quarter that had been prepared for him and the (Christian) physician accompanying him, as would have been customary for foreigners, especially a foreign Jew. Instead, the two men stayed in a much finer house in the medina, the Muslim residential and commercial area. And in so doing, they transgressed a fundamental rule of the so-called "Islamic city": the segregation of non-Muslims from the living spaces of the Muslim population. It is not surprising, then, that upon Montefiore's departure the house in question was immediately sealed up and "regarded as unclean and unfit for the dwelling of a true believer" thereafter.3

The "Islamic city," it may be recalled, is the model developed by colonial (mainly French) urbanists to describe the defining characteristics of cities in the Middle East and North Africa, implicitly if not explicitly in contrast to those of Europe.4 Among its central tenets is that Islam, which is understood as a fundamentally urban religion, gave rise to cities whose morphologies were determined primarily if not exclusively by the fulfillment of the religious obligations of Islam. Thus a "real" city is identified as such by the presence of institutions like a Friday mosque (jƒmi') for conducting prayers, a market complex or bazaar (s¡q), where the various "guilds" organized according to religious strictures were found, and communal baths (¬ammƒm) for maintaining ritual purity. No less critical to the model's coherence than the presence of the above institutions is the corresponding absence of any significant non-Muslim influence on the life, and hence topography, of the city. When it comes to Morocco, however, such an explanation for how the city looks and functions falters when confronted with the long and multi-valenced history of Moroccan Jewry. The only surviving indigenous religious minority in Morocco, Jews historically constituted up to 50 percent of the urban population and were by all accounts highly assimilated into Moroccan economic, social, and even political life. Nonetheless, in Morocco one institution existed to which the model's adherents could point in order to restore a degree of analytic integrity to the "Islamic city" and particularly its insistence on the...


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