They Were Promised the Sea

The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) film fest screening in New Orleans of Kathy Wazana's beautiful documentary "They Were Promised the Sea" was my chance to see the film I had missed when it was shown at Tangier's 2012 Moroccan National Film Festival.  There, it was shown under its French title, "Pour Une Nouvelle Séville," which gives an excellent indication of the story line.

The Seville of the French title is that of Moorish Spain, when Muslim al-Andalus was the "Ornament of the World," and home to coexisting communities of Muslims, Christians, and Jews.  This convivencia ended when Jews and Muslims were expelled starting in the late 15th century.  For many Jews, Morocco provided refuge for centuries, and it is from this transplanted population that filmmaker Kathy Wazana hails, growing up in Casablanca and moving to Canada as a little girl.

Filmed in Morocco and Israel, Wazana interviews Jews and Muslims about their respective memories of each other.  We are used to imagining urban Jews from Casablanca and Tangier finding new homes from Tel Aviv to Toronto, but They Were Promised the Sea takes us to places like isolated, mountainous Illigh, whose mellah or deserted Jewish quarter is now in ruins.

From the wilds of the Atlas mountains to… the borderlands of Israel.  The sea that Moroccan Jews were promised was the Mediterranean, perhaps a new home in Haifa.  Instead, many were shunted off to communities exposed to hostile fire from neighboring Arab countries.

Many of the Moroccan Muslims interviewed express regret at the loss of their former neighbors.  The numbers are astounding: Morocco lost upwards of 300,000 of its people to Israel, France, Canada, Venezuela and a number of other destinations in the space of a few years.  Essaouira lost half of its population.

Some of the Moroccan Israelis talk about their departure in terms of "everybody is going," often prompted by the Jewish Agency's enticements.  These are not the sophisticated urban "palace Jews" that Ralph Toledano writes about in his recent novel "Un Prince à Casablanca," but people who provided Morocco with a range of skilled trades and occupations across the entire country.

Probably the most fascinating aspect of the film is the commitment of some of Israel's second and third generation Moroccan Jews to maintain links with their parents' and grandparents' homeland.  Moroccan cuisine and music have a home in Israel, and many of these young Israelis embrace their roots.  A visit to a windswept Jewish cemetery in Tetouan provides one of the most touching images, a young Israeli woman conversing with the Moroccan custodian whose care for his charges is evident.

The same young woman gets a political tongue-lashing from the late Simon Levy, then director of the Moroccan Jewish Museum in Casablanca.  Perhaps the only jarring moment in an otherwise elegiac film, Levy takes strong issue with Zionism, and includes the earnest young non-Zionist in with all Israelis in what he sees as the ending of what had been Jews' home for centuries.

Fortunately, the films closes with another great image, and with some lovely music featuring a Moroccan Andalusian orchestra – with a rabbi providing vocals.  Echoes of convivencia

The MESA screening, with filmmaker Kathy Wazana present, was sponsored by AIMS, the American Institute for Maghrib Studies, of which TALIM is the research center in Morocco.

Gerald Loftus

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