Letter From - Autumn 2009

Letter from Morocco: The Living and the Dead

By Eric Calderwood | September 1, 2009


Eleven years after co-authoring the Communist Manifesto with Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels supposedly traveled to Tetouan, Morocco, to report on the progress of Spain’s War of Africa (1859–1860) for Horace Greeley’s New York Daily Tribune. Engels’s pieces on the War of Africa—he called it The Moorish War—read as if he wrote them from England based on reports sent from the field. Nevertheless, Muhammad Benaboud, the leading authority on Tetouani history, believes that Engels met with local Moroccan leaders in a certain café in Place El Ouessaa, a haven that Engels transformed into his makeshift office. The café is still there, now a place where unemployed young men spend long days bumming cigarettes off each other and nursing espressos. According to local lore, Engels also lived on the same square, in a house that is now a storefront cluttered with light bulbs, deodorant, and Ace bandages. I asked the shopkeeper if he knew that Engels lived and worked where we were standing, but he couldn’t distinguish the War of Africa from any other war, and Engels was unknown to him. In fact, the German socialist philosopher has been long forgotten in Place El Ouessaa.

The economic stagnation that drives Tetouan’s young men to the sad café has also driven some of their peers to jihadist violence. All of the terrorists behind the devastating Madrid train bombings in March 2004 were from one small area of this city of about 320,000 souls. Young men from this neighborhood have also fought as Islamic militants in Iraq. The few Western media outlets that cover Tetouan have emphasized the city’s connections with the Madrid train bombings and with international terrorism networks, but such coverage tends to diminish the city’s history of long-standing conflicts with Christian Europe.

A violent relationship with Spain is hardly a recent phenomenon. Stra­te­gically positioned near the mouth of the Mediterranean, Tetouan (pronounced Ti-TWAN) has been at the center of a clash between Christian Europe and Muslim North Africa for centuries. Around the time Columbus sailed west toward the New World, a band of exiles from the Muslim kingdom of Granada (which had just fallen to the Catholic monarchs of Spain) founded the city. As Spain and Portugal fought to control Morocco’s coast throughout the 16th century, piracy provided Tetouan with steady streams of Christian captives, who joined black Africans in the city’s bustling slave market.

Vestiges of the slave trade provided my first clues for understanding Tetouan’s buried history. I lived in Place El Ouessaa during the springs of 2008 and 2009, doing doctoral research on Hispano-Moroccan relations. Struggling to grasp the city’s history and make sense of its current malaise, I started looking underground and learned that the hidden remains of one of the most notorious prisons in Mediterranean history spread underneath a street that runs out of Place El Ouessaa. The street’s name, al-Mutamir, refers to the tunnels below. According to contemporaneous 16th-century accounts, as many as 5,000 Christians were held as slave laborers in these tunnels. Just up from Place El Ouessaa, past a juice stand and a coffee shop, a metal hatch covers barely a square meter of ground. Five meters below the hatch are the remains of an underground church where Spanish monks, who occasionally came to Tetouan to negotiate the Christian captives’ freedom, celebrated Mass for the prisoners. As such, Tetouan is perhaps the only place where you could visit a 16th-century church buried underneath the streets of a medieval Islamic city. But the site is closed to the public, and no one seems to know it is there. Like the shopkeeper in Engels’s old building, the owners of the adjacent juice and coffee shops are oblivious to this chapter in their history.

Soon I discovered that the prison wasn’t the only subterranean approach to Tetouan’s history. Tetouan’s three major cemeteries—the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian ruins of a forgotten past—serve as a silent synecdoche for this poor city and its uncertain future. Each cemetery evokes Tetouan’s violent past and illustrates its attempts to establish a vibrant multireligious identity in the face of this past. As metaphors for the struggles between cultural exchange and interfaith strife, the cemeteries highlight the current and future challenges that the city faces. Tetouan’s medina (old city) is a UNESCO World Heritage site, yet Tetouan barely figures in the major tourist guides to Morocco. Likewise, its burial grounds teeter between remembrance and oblivion.

The Muslim cemetery straddles a road out beyond Bab al-Maqabar, the gate through which a Spanish occupying force entered Tetouan on February 6, 1860. All Muslim cemeteries, like mosques, are considered ritually pure and thus are closed to non-Muslims. But Tetouan’s Muslim cemetery is effectively off limits to most Muslims as well. The municipal authorities have abandoned the place, allowing it to become the fiefdom of gangs, vagrants, stray dogs, and grazing flocks of sheep and goats. Most Tetouanis will tell you not to go there alone. The tombstones are supposed to face the qiblah, the direction (Mecca) Muslims face during prayer, but instead they are haphazardly positioned, like bodies thrown into a mass grave. Here and there, the homeless who inhabit the cemetery hang their wet laundry on tombstones to dry.

The most significant topographical feature of the Muslim cemetery is the large mausoleum built for al-Mandari, the city’s founder. Al-Mandari left his native Spain in 1485 with a band of 100 followers and settled in the valley where Tetouan is today. His original small tomb surrounded by low walls was replaced in the 1970s with a two-story mausoleum, one floor for al-Mandari’s tomb and another for the tomb of the 20th-century nationalist leader Abd al-Khalaq Torres. The monument is a palimpsest that weaves together the history of the Moroccan nationalist movement with the history of Tetouan’s foundation. In this version of Moroccan history, the long period of European domination is a mere parenthesis between the two.

The cemetery blankets a steep hill punctuated by smaller mausoleums made of porous gray stones. These cubical structures surmounted by cupolas were built for the Iberian mujahideen who accompanied al-Mandari across the Strait of Gibraltar, built the initial military core of the city, and fought off the occasional raids from the neighboring Berber tribes. The mausoleums once bore inscriptions detailing the names and feats of the dead, but time has effaced them, leaving the mausoleums as mute monuments of a celebrated but barely understood past. Unlike al-Mandari’s mausoleum, which is locked with a key, these are open in the front. Cemetery dwellers have converted them into makeshift shelters and trash receptacles. Inside, young men sleep amidst food wrappers, empty wine bottles, and discarded syringes. Here the unemployed, desperate young men of Tetouan’s present occupy the resting place of the warriors of Tetouan’s past.

Continue down the road from Bab al-Maqabar and you’ll come upon the large iron gate of Tetouan’s Jewish cemetery. Here in one square kilometer you can explore the life and death of a community. Tetouan’s Jewish population, one of the largest and most vibrant in North Africa, earned Tetouan the sobriquet Little Jerusalem among Sephardic Jews. This fame lasted until the Sephardic exodus, which began with the foundation of Israel (1948) and escalated after Moroccan independence (1956). A stroll in the cemetery illustrates this demographic decline.

Like the Muslims, Tetouan’s first Jews were the children of a violent exile. The oldest part of the cemetery is called the “Cementerio de Castilla,” where that generation of Tetouani Jews were buried after being thrown out of their native Sefarad (Spain) in 1492. Few of the tombs in this section—and, indeed, in the whole cemetery—have an epigraph. The Jews of Tetouan believed that the duty of remembering the dead and where they were buried fell to each succeeding generation, a custom that sowed the seeds for oblivion. Toward the end of the Spanish Protectorate (1912–1956), the Jews of Tetouan must have realized their mistake because most of the 20th-century tombs have inscriptions—in Spanish, Hebrew, or both.

The nascent state of Israel didn’t extend its generous immigrant assimilation policies to Jews too old to work, and so Moroccan Jews were stuck with a dilemma: leave their old behind and head for the Promised Land, or remain in a state of increasing isolation. Many decided to stay, but only until the older generation died off. The Jewish cemetery therefore has a concentration of tombs from the 1950s and 1960s, as the last generation of Jews to be born and make a life in Tetouan passed away. Only a handful of tombs date from the past 50 years, the most recent bearing a bilingual Hebrew-Spanish inscription from 2006: “Estrella Botbul Hachuel, daughter of Elias, died on the 9th day of Nissan, 5766 (April 7, 2006), at the age of 79 years.” Estrella came of age during the Spanish Civil War and lived to see the dawn of Moroccan independence and the slow fading of the Moroccan-Jewish experience. What compelled her to stay, when so many others had left? I couldn’t find any of her living relatives to ask them.

During its heyday, the Mellah (the Jewish neighborhood) had 16 synagogues. Today, Tetouan’s Jews number fewer than 50, and only one synagogue remains. Once a year, the members of the Jewish-Moroccan Cultural Patrimony Foundation, based in Casablanca, come to celebrate Shabbat services and visit the tomb of Rabbi Isaac Ben Walid, for whom the synagogue is named. For the rest of the year, it is a shining and empty building that serves mostly as a reminder that Jews were here. Meanwhile, the Mellah is inhabited by destitute peasant families who immigrated from the Rif Mountains in the mid-20th century. The adolescent boys who work at the tailor shops lining the synagogue’s street don’t know what the building is, but, for a tip, they can give you the cell phone number of a “Hebrew woman” who has the key. The impeccable synagogue and the gated Jewish cemetery provide a sharp contrast to the chaos of Tetouan’s Muslim cemetery.

The Christian cemetery is in the best condition of the three, and that’s courtesy of the Spanish Ministry of Defense, which paid to rehabilitate it in 1999. Unlike the Muslim and Jewish cemeteries, which lie outside the gates of the old city, the Christian cemetery stands high on a hill that overlooks the early-20th century Spanish-colonial annex (the Ensanche). The cemetery is adjacent to a state-run mental hospital called Mallorca (after the Balearic island), which the locals refer to as Maryoca. Since most Tetouanis no longer know where the Christian cemetery is, and there are hardly any Christians to visit it, it’s easiest to find by asking people where Maryoca is. En route to the cemetery, you see hospital patients bare their teeth and rattle their window frames, as if they were wild animals caught in a zoo. In contrast to the patients’ distressing confinement, the Christian cemetery spreads out in spacious, orderly rows lined with pruned cypress trees.

The Muslim cemetery rewrites local history as the triumphant marriage of the city’s Andalusian roots (al-Mandari) and its nationalist pride (Abd al-Khalaq Torres), but the Christian cemetery presents another narrative: the slow but inevitable triumph of Christian Spain over the Moors to the south. The inscription on a small, anonymous stone dedicates the entire cemetery to the memory of the soldiers “who gave their life for the fatherland in the campaigns of 1859–1860, 1913–1915, and 1915–1927.” Thus, the cemetery’s purview is, at first glance, local: devoted to Spain’s armed struggle to “pacify” northern Morocco. But the inscriptions on the tombs make it clear that the stakes of this local history transcend these three campaigns. Adopting the language of the Spanish Reconquest of Muslim Spain, the tombstones praise soldiers who died in combat contra los moros (against the Moors).

Paradoxically, the cemetery juxtaposes this language of interreligious strife with a more conciliatory tone of brotherhood. The massive tomb for General Felipe Alfau Mendoza, the first high commissioner of the Spanish Protectorate, illustrates this tension. Its inscription reads:

Here lies . . . don Felipe Alfau Mendoza, who, on 19 February 1913, made the glorious troops of Spain and the noble Moroccan people embrace each other with love in Tetouan. . . . His policies had as their foundation . . . the cordial embrace and fecund and amorous action of the two countries. He loved Morocco with the same love with which he loved Spain, and he died in Tetouan, on 26 September 1937, at the age of 89, with the same passion of his youth, spurred on by seeing it incarnated in the action of the Caudillo of Spain [i.e., Franco] in his glorious national uprising.

The inscription encapsulates the ambivalent relationship behind Spain’s “cordial embrace” of Morocco. Franco’s “national uprising,” which led to the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), began in Africa and relied on the significant participation of Moroccan soldiers. By the time Alfau Mendoza died in September 1937, more than 50,000 Moroccans had gone to Spain to fight alongside Franco’s nationalist troops.

The cemetery is a monument to Franco’s idea of a “Hispano-Moroccan brotherhood” and a stunning example of the idea’s hypocrisies. The Spanish and the Moroccans are “brothers” brought together in a cordial embrace, and yet there are no Moroccans buried in this cemetery. Furthermore, the cemetery’s location high on a hill exemplifies a larger policy to limit contact between the colonizer and the colonized. Under the guise of modernization, the Protectorate created a two-tier city: a ghettoized Old City for the Muslim “natives” and a modern annex for the Protectorate officials and the local aristocracy that worked with them.

Indeed, this Spanish Christian cemetery, visible and yet inaccessible, might remind Tetouanis of Spain itself, which is visible on a clear day from many points on the nearby coast. But the citizens of Tetouan don’t have to cross the Strait of Gibraltar to visit Spain. They have special permission to work in the nearby Spanish enclave of Ceuta without a visa. Every morning, hundreds of them board collective taxis, each tightly packed with seven passengers, to travel the 39 kilometers that separate Tetouan from this little piece of Spain on the African coast. The daily flux of workers supplies cheap labor for Ceuta’s service industry. Many young men also end up working as smugglers of goods, both legal and illegal, between Ceuta and Tetouan.

The smugglers display their wares on blankets and card tables that line Tetouan’s main pedestrian walkway until it reaches the palace gate in Place Hassan II, popularly known as al-Feddan. This square also features the mausoleum of Sidi Abd Allah al-Baqqal, which the Spanish army temporarily transformed into a church, Our Lady of the Victories, while occupying Tetouan after the War of Africa. Despite the fact that al-Feddan is officially named after Hassan II, the current king’s father, the eponymous monarch had a notorious contempt for the north of Morocco, and he never once visited Tetouan during his 38-year reign. Upon his father’s death, the current king, Muhammad VI, sought to remedy his father’s neglect of the north by turning the royal palace in Tetouan into his summer residence.

While Tetouanis appreciate the symbolism of this gesture, many grumble about the pressures the king’s presence has put on the center of the city. Al-Feddan Square is the meeting place of the medina, the Mellah, and the Ensanche. After independence and through the 1990s, the square was Tetouan’s beating heart, a place where Muslims and Christians, politicians and peddlers, tourists and locals came into contact. In the middle of al-Feddan, there was a gazebo where orchestras would play on Friday and Saturday nights for large crowds.

Since Muhammad VI reoccupied the palace, however, al-Feddan has been roped off from public use. The palace’s ring of security has left a narrow passageway, three meters across, for people to traverse the square. The adjacent cafés, which once enjoyed prime location over al-Feddan, eat up the sidewalk with their extended terrace seating. Smugglers sell their booty—backpacks, batteries, and blenders—amid the café chairs. At busy times of day, the resulting chaos creates a bottleneck that can keep a pedestrian at a standstill for minutes on end. As you stand there, stuck be­tween the unemployed young men reading newspapers in the cafés and the barely employed young men hawking smuggled goods from Ceuta, you look out at al-Feddan and imagine what the square must have looked like before Muhammad VI decided to grace Tetouan with his presence. You imagine the groups of families listening to Andalusian music on a Friday night. And then you consider the young men who crowd the passageway and think about how trapped they are: trapped in a city with few prospects, trapped in sight of a prosperous neighbor who only wants them for their cheap labor, trapped in the very streets of their forgotten city.

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