In the week where hostilities in between Israel and Palestine are in the news once again, a film about halcyon days of Muslim-Jewish coexistence was all the more poignant. And the film had all the more impact because it was made – not by a nostalgic Jew, but by a young historian and film-maker of many identities, none of which was Jewish or Israeli.
Kamal Hachkar was at the Alliance Franco-Marocaine in Essaouira last night to present his first documentary, Tinghir-Jerusalem: les échoes du Mellah. Like his Jewish subjects, Hachkar was born in Tinghir, a Berber town in the Atlas foothills in the region of Ouarzarzate. Although under different circumstances, he too left Morocco and established his home abroad. As a result, he is multi-lingual and feels he has multiple identities.
By the time Kamal was born, the Jews who had lived side-by-side with his family in Tinghir had all left. Although the two religious groups did not worship together, they worked together, they spoke the local Berber/Amazigh dialect together and their children played in the same dusty streets and alleyways. However, following the 1948 Arab-Israel war, the Berber Jews followed the call to repatriate the land of Israel and they live today in Jerusalem, many retaining the family and neighbourhood ties from Morocco as well as their knowledge of the Arabic and Berber languages.
The subject is an intriguing and fascinating one, quite aside from modern Arab-Israeli animosities. It is well-known that Morocco is the Arab-Muslim country with the largest Jewish population and that Jews are represented in political and social fora here, but the story of the Berber Jews is less familiar to most people. As a historian primarily, Hackar was driven by a curiosity to learn about the former friends and neighbours of his ancestors before those generations were lost and to bring this story of mutual respect and co-existence to a wider audience than an academic thesis would afford. To this end, he learned Hebrew and film-making and worked to build a team of practitioners and sponsors around him.
The film is a documentary, but like all good films is both a complete whole as well as leaving a lot of questions for further research and discussion. Hachkar does not seek to judge or to present a particular viewpoint. He also leaves politics out of the equation. Rather, he uses human testimonies, the recollections of family members and the natural respect and hospitality of people from the harsh environment of the Atlas mountains to tell a story which requires no narration: the living memory and the mementoes of a past life tell it all.
Put simply, it is a story of a community divided by historical and political circumstance and of great regret. It is one of developing a new identity while never shrugging off the old. And finally, against the backdrop of today’s headlines, it is one of deep sadness on the part of many that they left behind a co-existence with Arab Muslim friends, business contacts and neighbours, which seems impossible in Israel today.
Kamal Hachkar is currently touring the film in Morocco. It is also being shown at various film festivals in Europe and around the world. You can view a snippet here.