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  • The Mellah of Marrakesh, Jewish and Muslim Space in Morocco's Red City
  • Raphael Israeli
The Mellah of Marrakesh, Jewish and Muslim Space in Morocco's Red City, by Emily Gottreich. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007. 201 pp. $24.95.

This admirably researched and written volume is a landmark in the growing historiography and ethnography of Moroccan Jewry in recent decades. From the outset, the author anchors the framework of her captivating story, which she collated from oral and written history and especially from her patient, long-term, inquisitive and penetrating field data-gathering, in the long and rather sorry history of the Muslims and the dhimmis who lived in their midst. It is significant that she chose to set the boundaries of that relationship in the anecdotal event of Sir Moses Montifiore's visit to Morocco in the 19th century, when the house he rented in the Muslim medina was sealed after he departure since it became "unclean and unfit to dwell for a true Believer" (p. 2).

One can easily generalize about Muslim cities as a rule, where while the mosque, the public bath, and the market place were typical and unavoidable, [End Page 194] non-Muslim institutions of any sort, including other religions' houses of prayer, were saliently absent. Therefore, when the author states that the Jews were "assimilated" in Moroccan cities like Marrakesh on the political and societal levels (p. 2), she must be more reserved about dates and places. For while the Jews of the littoral and the north of Morocco were in constant relations with foreigners, which to some extent mitigated their misery under the Muslim regime, the Jews of Marrakesh and the high mountains stayed more aloof, were reluctant even to welcome the beneficial influence of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, and were as a result much more acculturated to their Moroccan/ Berber environment.

Chapter One, which lays out the history and the setting of the mellahs in Morocco, beginning with the first one in Fes and then delving into the detail of the Marrakshi Jewish quarter, is perhaps the most informative and innovative, though there too one needs to go into more specifics. For example, Gottreich again generalizes about the Muslim principle of "tolerance" towards the Jews as incorporated in the Umar pact, in contrast with the systematic persecution and mass murders of Jews in medieval Europe. But one ought not be swept away by the notion of tolerance (pp. 12–13), which in Islam did not signify equality or acceptance of the non-Muslims for what they were, but their sufferance despite their innate inferiority. For not only were fanatics like the Muwahhidun no less murderous than European, but sometimes their cruelty even surpassed that of the Christians. Even the more open and less ardent fanatics, such as the Sa'dis (16th–17th centuries), under whose aegis Jews finally settled and were protected in their ghettos, Jews continued to buy their lives by increasing their taxes and "donations" to the sovereign. Extortions from them were particularly pressing in the inter-regnum between dynasties and between various rulers in the same dynasty.

When the author turns to "counting the Jews in Marrakesh" (Chapter Two, pp. 39–70) and calculating the respective Muslim and Jewish space in the Red City (Chapter Three, pp. 71–107), this is an extraordinarily detailed nitty-gritty of Jewish life in the mellah, where Jewish crafts, modes of life, demographic fluctuations, temptations/pressures to convert into Islam, and the mutual fears and suspicions from the others' space, mark the boundaries of uneasy and generally miserable coexistence between the host Muslim culture and the guest Jewish culture. Unlike other writers who either lent prominence to the Jewish existence under Islam or idealized the lot of the Jews under "tolerant" Islam in the maghrib, Gottreich produces an amazingly balanced study where both the rare moments of harmony and the extremes of abuses and humiliation can be comprehended in their context. Marrakesh was also the urban center of a vast rural hinterland, which meant that the mellah, together [End Page 195] with the rest of the city, became a focus of attraction to a medley of Arab, Berber...


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