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Narrative Remembrance: Close Encounters Between Muslims and Jews in Morocco's Atlas Mountains

  • Author(s): Levin, Sarah Frances
  • Advisor(s): Kronfeld, Chana
  • Briggs, Charles L.
  • et al.
Abstract

This dissertation examines twentieth-century Jewish-Muslim relations in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains through oral traditions (anecdotes, jokes, songs, poetry duels) as remembered by Muslims and Jews in the twenty-first century. Jews had lived in these predominantly Berber-speaking regions for over one thousand years; yet these rural Jewish communities had almost completely disappeared by the early 1960s, due to mass emigration, largely to Israel. Despite the totality of the rupture, Jews and Muslims retain vivid memories of their former neighbors. Drawing on my fieldwork with Muslims still living in Moroccan villages and with Jews in Israel who had emigrated from those same villages over half a century earlier, I use the anecdotes and songs that animate these reminiscences as my primary sources. My analysis is further informed by extensive research on Moroccan history and culture. My study reveals that Berber oral traditions functioned in the past—and continue to function in present-day reminiscences—as forms of creative acknowledgment of both difference and affinity between Jews and Muslims. Analyzing examples from this corpus illuminates aspects and nuances of the intricacies of daily life rarely addressed in other sources, facilitating a deeper understanding of the paradoxes and possibilities of Jewish/Muslim co-existence in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, and perhaps beyond.

Central to my theoretical concerns, therefore, are interreligious cultural production and boundaries. Berber cultural traditions in particular offer a unique framework (for both participants and researchers) for addressing issues of boundaries and difference, while simultaneously elucidating the shared cultural worlds of Jews and Muslims in which oral traditions played a crucial role, and out of which came creativity, humor, and community. It was the engagement with difference, rather than its erasure, that fostered community and a rich intercultural life.

I begin with an investigation of the phenomenon of Arabic-speaking Jews among Berber-speaking Muslims, which also illuminates Jewish participation in Berber oral—and other cultural—traditions. Rather than a unidirectional acculturation of the minority into the majority culture, Berber cultural forms engaged by Muslims and Jews reflect a dynamic interchange. I posit the idea of Muslim-Jewish “co-productions” for many of the shared Berber oral traditions, particularly for the poetic duels. In my analysis of the recounted anecdotes and poems, I explore how Muslims and Jews not only speak of each other but also through each other’s voices. Through adaptation of Bakhtin’s theoretical concepts of dialogism and polyphony, I show how speaking in one another’s voices allows Muslim and Jewish narrators to express multiple and often contradictory meanings simultaneously. Throughout my analysis, I investigate how boundaries did not always fall neatly or predictably into religious categories, nor did the complex socio-political stratification fit into a simplified majority-minority binary.

The nuanced views of Jewish-Muslim relation¬¬¬ships that my project presents serve as a model for exploring such intercommunal relations beyond the temporal and geographic focus of my dissertation. My study serves as a corrective to simplified and polarized views of Jewish-Muslim relations prevalent in public spheres, media, and still, though to a lesser degree, in academia, and leads to an appreciation of the complexity and diversity of such relationships.

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