There was a little girl who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead;
When she was good, she was very, very good,
And when she was bad she was horrid.
It’s with this English nursery rhymethat Professor Paul B Fenton* of the Sorbonne in Paris and author (with David Littman) of L’Exil du Maghreb, likes to describe ‘dhimmitude’ – the subjugated status of Jews under Islamic rule. There were times, under benevolent rulers, when ‘despised but indispensable’ Jews could thrive. In exchange for services to the Sultan they could enjoy all sorts of privileges. In an atmosphere of ‘cordial hatred’, Jewish usurers practising a trade forbidden to Muslims could grow extremely rich on the backs of their Muslim clients.
On the other hand, the great mass of Jews were desperately poor. There were times of great hardship and misery, when Jews were burdened with unbearable taxes. In the interval between two rulers, it was not unusual for Muslim mobs to raid the Jewish quarter and pillage what riches and property they could lay their hands on.
The pressure to convert to Islam to escape the vicissitudes of dhimmitude was always there. Muslims reserved a special greeting forJews and Christians, who were customarily entreated to ‘see the light’ and renounce their misguided ways. Many Jews succumbed: it is thought that a large percentage of Muslims in Fez, a stronghold of fundamentalism, have Jewish origins.Morocco in 1701 was one of those ‘horrid’ times: the Sultan wished to impose a crippling poll tax, or jizya, of 30 percent on the Jews to finance his next war. Jews trembled at the prospect of having to melt down their rimonim, silver Torah ornaments. They would not be able to afford meat for the festival of Pesah. A time for celebration would become a time for lamentation.
In the depths of despair, the Jews hit on a stratagem to improve their lot. They dug up an old Arabic document which has only just come to the notice of contemporary scholars. It purports to be a deed of privileges delivered by the Prophet Mohammed himself in 628 to the Jews of Khaybar in Arabia.Among the privileges the Jews claimed had been promised to them was ‘Allah’s protection’. For this they were not to pay more than four dirhams a month if they could afford it.
They also asked not to have to wear the dhimmi belt or zunnar, and the right to don the red or white turban – regal headgear reserved for Muslims. (Jews had to wear a black cap, the colour of mourning.)The Jews presented the document to the Grand Kadi of Fez, Muhammed ben Abdel -Qadr. Was it an act of naivety or monumental chutzpah?Although there are at least two similar documents in circulation, Abdel-Qadr threw the document out as a forgery.
The crestfallen Jews would have to wait over a century to be freed from the disabilities of the dhimmi. Redemption came in the form of the French conquest of Algeria in 1830. ‘Les juifs sont libres!’ the Jews chanted as they paraded through the streets of Algiers. And they wore red turbans.
*Professor Fenton was presenting a paper at the Jews of Morocco London conference, UCL, 20 – 22 June 2011.