Even at 8 am, Marrakech is warm and the sun is beginning to heat up the city. But in the Medina (the old area) behind the large market place, is a maze of narrow streets where robed men and women leave their houses rushing to do their early morning chores and jobs, their figures casting shadows on the ochre-coloured buildings. Bakers are carrying huge trays of hot bread on their shoulders, donkeys are pulling carts. Only a few streets here in the Medina are wide enough for cars.
Our taxi stops at a high wall with large traditional colored cobalt blue doors. A man wearing a jalaba – long robe- peeks from behind one of the slightly opened doors. Fabianne, my Moroccan companion rushes across the narrow street to buy candles at a small stall, already opened. While I wait I see several women picking through garbage, the smell even at this early hour, is ‘high’. Fabianne and I are about to enter the Jewish Cemetery of Marrakech.
No one is here to give us the history of this Sephardic resting place. But immediately, the differences form the Askenaszy cemeteries are obvious and evident. Firstly, I’m told that the hundreds of small mounds which look like sand dunes are, in fact, unmarked plots of poor Jews who lived in Marrakech. I’m impressed that this cemetery is kept as well as it is. What ever grass there is in this dry, hot city, is maintained. There is no debris on the sandy pathways. “Walk quickly,” Fabianne tells me so that we can get to the area where her relatives are buried. Here there are large head stones, some dating back to the early 1800s, some with the writing barley legible because of age and weather. Fabianne stops at a grave, kneels and lights some candles. I wait to see what she will do with them since this is something I haven’t seen before. At the bottom of each headstone is a small alcove where there are round holders for the lighted candles.
“These are for the dead and for the health of the living,” she tells me as she hands several to me to place along side hers. We repeat this three times at different graves. As quickly as we arrived at this end of the cemetery, she says we must visit the new area where her daughter’s father-in-law is buried. This time it is an impressive shrine-like edifice. As we rushed to the other side, I saw names on the larger newer headstones..Dray, Ekaem, Ohaym.
A car passes us on the narrow path. When we get closer, I realize there is a funeral in progress. I count only 11 people. The Jewish population in Marrakech is only about 250, greatly reduces from the time where there were several hundred thousands who lived in peace in Morocco.
As we leave, there are three Arab caretakers sitting near the gates. They hold out their hands for dirhams. They seem happy with our small offering. Before we walk over the threshold, on a tiled wall next to the entrance, is a faucet and basin where we wash our hands. The high cobalt doors are opened then swiftly closed and once again we’re outside this peaceful area and into the dusty beauty of the colourful Medina in Marrakech.