Kamal Hachkar visited his birthplace in the Atlas Mountains with his father when he was 18 years old; that was when he first discovered that Jews once lived in Morocco. Until then, he had always thought that all Jews were of Eastern European-Ashkenazi descent, like the Jews he had met in Paris where he grew up.
Hachkar, 36, a history teacher with a master’s degree in history from Sorbonne University in Paris, began to ask questions. He posed a lot of questions to his father, his grandfather and the elders of Tinghir village, where he was born and which he left in his infancy. Very quickly, a surprising picture emerged. A Jewish community of about 2,000 souls had lived in Tinghir, a village inhabited by Berbers — the most ancient residents of North Africa. The last of the Jews had left the town in the early 1960s, and today most of them live in Israel.
Although he lacked a background in cinema studies, Hachkar decided to make a film on the subject. He documented Tinghir elders talking wistfully about the Jews, and then he came to Israel. Together with photographer Philippe Bellaiche, Hachkar scoured the country looking for Jews from his village. He found them in the towns of Yavne, Or Akiva, Safed and in kibbutz Neve Ur — and it was if they had anticipated his visit, their lost brother from the mountains. The result was an 87-minute debut film, "Tinghir-Jerusalem: Echoes from the Mellah [Jewish Quarter]." Two years have passed since then, and the film continues to pull at the heartstrings of its viewers. It was screened in Israel, Morocco, New York, Paris and Barcelona, and broadcast on the Moroccan M2 television channel. Along the way it garnered five international prizes, headed by the Best First Film prize at the Tangier Film Festival in 2012, despite the fact that anti-Israeli activists demonstrated against it outside the theater.
"I knew about the Holocaust and the Nazi period, but I never thought of the Jews in the Moroccan context. I was sure that Morocco was completely Muslim,” Hachkar told Al-Monitor during a meeting in May. As someone who grew up in France, he often asked himself if he was French or Moroccan. The Jewish question helped him find the answer. “I am very proud of the film,” he says. “The fact that there are Moroccan Jews testifies to the pluralistic culture of Morocco. We have Arabs, Muslim Berbers and Jewish Berbers.”
"Tinghir-Jerusalem" is a history lesson but beyond that it is a funny, sad and mainly optimistic work. Many of the nostalgic monologues in the film are climactic moments. Tinghir’s children, who are filmed as they leave school, do not express even a hint of hatred for the Jews. And in Israel, when Hachkar, during his search, arrives at the home of Yakut Ben-Shimul from Yavne, Ben-Shimul says to him at the front door, “Are you Muslim? Good people. Where did you all disappear to?” Another Israeli, who came from Morocco as a child, admitted to the camera, “To this very day, I have two countries: Morocco and Israel.”
“The current generation in Morocco,” says Hachkar, “barely knows that such a large Jewish population lived there in the past. Moroccans were amazed to hear Shalom Iluz, an Israeli-born in Tinghir, speak on Skype to my father in Paris, in Berber jargon.”
Until the establishment of the state of Israel, about a quarter of a million Jews lived in Morocco. Emigration from there to Israel was Zionist in nature, almost messianic. Moroccan Jewry believed that by coming to Zion, they fulfilled the dream of the nation’s redemption. They did not anticipate the religious and societal disappointments that awaited them in the holy land. Today, from the perspective of many years, they all remember how painful it was to sever themselves from their homeland. “We cried, we cried terribly,” said Ben-Shimul.
Much has been written about the warm relationship between the Jews of Morocco and their country. Nevertheless, it is always surprising to hear stories about the residents of an Atlas Mountains village who, after hearing of the death of a Jew 40 years after he left the village for Israel, actually erected a mourners’ tent. Or about the residents of another village who still guard the closed homes of Jews, in anticipation of their return.
Claude Senouf, a Jewish-Moroccan journalist who divides his time between Israel, Paris and Morocco, says that the Moroccans are proud of having contributed to Israel’s growth. He claims that despite radical expressions against the state of Israel in the monarchy, many people actually take an interest in their joint roots and shared past.
“They say that Israelis of Moroccan descent are part of us. This (Israel) is a country built from scratch, and when they see the result, the freedoms, they feel that they also contributed something to this thriving enterprise.”
The Tinghir elders took Hachkar to buildings hewn in rock that had served as synagogues in the past. They showed him stores formerly owned by Jews and escorted him to the relics of the “mellah,” the Jewish neighborhood. One of them remembered that Jews never married off their daughters to Muslims. “At the end of their prayers, they used to say 'Aaaamen,'” he mimicked. Another elderly fellow stood on the ruins of the Jewish houses and lamented their condition. “That’s the way it is,” he explained to the camera. “You leave the house, and the soul escapes from it. A house that has been abandoned is in danger.”
The casual spectator is surprised to see the director wander around the streets of Israeli cities, talking Hebrew with his protagonists. “The first time I heard Hebrew, I fell in love with the language,” Hachkar says. “That was in 2007 when I watched Ronit Elkabetz in the movie 'To Take a Wife.' They spoke Arabic, Moroccan and Hebrew together in that movie, and it was marvelous to hear the mixture. Today, I feel that this is a language I was born with.”
Hachkar started studying Hebrew in Paris, and afterward came to Israel where he spent two months in the Hebrew language school of Haifa University. It was here in Israel that he met Bellaiche, and together they began working on the film. After their creation was screened in Morocco, Hachkar discovered that Hebrew is taught in several of the kingdom’s university programs.
Since then, Hachkar has been coming to Israel every few months, getting together with friends and running around with his movie to every corner of the country, from Haifa in the north to Sderot in the south. He is as familiar with the coffeehouses of Tel Aviv no less than the Tel Avivians themselves are. To Hachkar, walking down Allenby Street is like walking down Boulevard Saint-Michel in Paris. He runs into an acquaintance on every street corner.
Hachkar is careful to attend screenings of his movie and loves to conduct discussions with the members of the audience afterward. In a screening held recently in Tel Aviv’s Cinematheque, one young spectator said from her seat in the theater, “I am really overcome with emotion when I tell you the following: I always asked myself, who will write my [life] history for me and for my children. You did it for us. You have given us a gift.” Another viewer called out, “You have a home in Israel.”
Hachkar thanked the audience and said, “This film also tells my story. You Jews are part and parcel of the country of Morocco.”
Jacky Hugi is the Arab affairs analyst of the Israeli army radio Galie-Zahal, a columnist for the Israeli business newspaper Globes and the former Arab Affairs correspondent for Israel`s Maariv daily. On Twitter: @JackyHugi