top of page

Memory, Heritage, & Preservation in Moroccan Jewish and Amazigh Communities

Updated: Sep 5

By Amaya Dressler, HAF Intern

Marrakech, Morocco

This past week my friend and I traveled to Imlil, an Amazigh village at the base of North Africa’s highest peak, Mount Toubkal. In preparation to trek the mountain, we worked with a local guide who would assist us along its more treacherous inclines. We knew Toubkal would be challenging, but no one could have prepared for the challenges we faced along the way. We dealt with altitude sickness, frostbite, and most of our steep, uphill climb to the summit was done in the dark. Nothing was visible beyond our headlights and the patient navigation of our guide. There were several points along our descent where, had our guide not stood ready to grab my backpack whenever I began to slip, I easily would have fallen down the mountain.

I say all of this to show that, without our guide, neither of us ever would have been able to summit the mountain. Yet, at the same time, our most impactful memories may not have come from the summit at all, but the time we spent together during the lulls in our trek. It was here that our guide would teach us about the history of the mountain’s Amazigh communities. Beyond this, he would share with us his personal history with the mountain. During the lighter portions of the trek, he would play modern Amazigh music and, whenever we would reflexively respond in Darija, he diligently corrected us with the Tamazight translation. His guidance and generosity was what ensured that we returned safely with a story to tell, but our journey was about much more than merely reaching the summit. Because of our guide, we left Mount Toubkal with a new understanding of the Amazigh villages, language, and memories which sustained it.

Thinking through this, I could not help but be reminded of a lecture on memory I had attended a few weeks back with Professor Afaf Hamzaoui. Organized by the High Atlas Foundation (HAF), I had the opportunity to learn about Professor Hamzaoui’s extensive work on Moroccan Jewish heritage and the role of memory in sustaining it. By narrating the story of her own mother’s kinship with her Jewish neighbors in the multicultural town of Kasba Tadla, Professor Hamzaoui demonstrated the role of memory, mutual aid, and storytelling in preserving Morocco’s Jewish presence. Her mother recalled so many rich memories reliving the holidays, meals, and celebrations shared between Jews and Muslims in her town. From teaching her how to sew to caring for her after a devastating car accident, moments both large and small held equal prominence in her mother’s memory.

At the end of the presentation, Professor Hamzaoui shared with us a video she had saved of her mother recollecting her encounters with Kasba Tadla’s Jewish communities, thus ensuring that these memories would be documented and stored for centuries to come. Though Professor Hamzaoui herself was not around to experience such moments, their memory had and will always be preserved via her mothers’ story. I was particularly intrigued by how such small, intimate moments of generosity and aid become entwined with grander narratives of development and cultural transformation. This resonated with my own experience working alongside our guide up Mount Toubkal. His commitment to helping us through any danger established a sense of trust that was inextricable from our conversations about Amazigh culture.

By the end of our trip, I could not envision my new Tamazight vocabulary or hear Amazigh music without being reminded of our guide patiently leading us down Toubkal’s steepest inclines. Such trust enabled me to more intimately engage with Amazigh histories, ultimately forming a more personal understanding of how the Amazigh have and continue to benefit both Mount Toubkal and Morocco more generally. I may have learned about Amazigh culture and history through the memories of our guide, but their impact extends far beyond that of individual memory—it is enfolded within the very fabric of Moroccan society.

Like the Amazigh, Jewish histories are impactful on much more than an individual-scale. To acknowledge the Jewish community’s structural role in shaping Moroccan systems of care, organizations like HAF work alongside sacred spaces which combine cultural preservation with production. Early on in my work with HAF, I was fortunate enough to visit the Akrich Nursery, an organic fruit tree nursery adjacent to a Jewish cemetery and the burial site of the venerated Jewish Saint, Rabbi Raphael Hacohen. Founded more than a decade ago through HAF’s House of Life program, the Akrich Nursery brings together Muslim farmers and members of the Moroccan Jewish community through production of the figs, almonds, pomegranate, carob, and more which sustain and replenish Moroccan communities of all faiths. Through their mutual reliance on the land as both a site of worship and life-sustaining food production, Moroccan Jews and Muslims recognize their shared histories and the role of collaboration in cultivating mutual aid and benefit. The Nursery is one example where mutual aid and memorialization enables cultural preservation. How might such cases inform Morocco’s strides towards recognition and integration of Amazigh culture?

While Morocco’s Jewish population may be dwindling, its memories are inscribed within the very walls, trees, and soil of Moroccan land. In large part, such inscription is thanks to noble preservation efforts by both the state and organizations like HAF. The personal testimonies from those like Professor Hamzaoui, meanwhile, communicate these memories on a more intimate scale, enabling their transmission to be felt on a deeper level than could ever occur through monuments alone. At the end of the day, however, such testimonies are ultimately dependent upon documentation and preservation. How, then, do we preserve the stories of those like our guide through Mount Toubkal? Currently, his recount of Mount Toubkal’s Amazigh history is entirely dependent upon more or less random encounters with strangers. As Professor Hamazaoui demonstrated, memories achieve their capacity for mind-altering impact only once they have been inscribed through visual or structural means.

The role of memory becomes all the more pertinent in cases like those of Amazigh languages where, until very recently, there was no official written script. Can memory be preserved without the permanence of letters or formal documentation? If we are to value such memories as essential and influential contributions to Moroccan culture, we cannot solely rely on the local testimonies of individuals facing geographic and social marginalization. Amazigh and Jewish communities have long been written out of history books across the globe. Projects like Professor Hamzaoui’s or the Akrich Nursery ensure that Jewish memory remains an ongoing constituent of Moroccan history.

How can we do the same for Amazigh communities? Through what means—written, monumental, or otherwise—can we acknowledge the pinnacle role which Amazigh identities have played in shaping Moroccan culture, economy, and language? As Professor Hamzaoui described, Morocco’s signature multiculturalism makes a unique “space of intersection” with the potential to craft alternative narratives and establish new ways of being. Preservation catalyzes this generative potential. For both Amazigh and Jewish communities, extending our commitment beyond recognition and towards preservation will ensure that both groups remain active members of the diverse, multicultural community which defines Moroccan society.

Amaya Dressler is an undergraduate student at Princeton University and an Intern at the High Atlas Foundation in Marrakech. Morocco.

59 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page