In France last week, I met Rabbi Sebag, who still has relatives in Essaouira (formerly known as Mogador). Only a handful of Jews still remain in Essaouira, but the Sebags and Ohayons are amongst the oldest of the Moroccan port city’s families.
The rabbi’s mother and two of his brothers still live in Essaouira. But their lives have not always been trouble-free. In 2002, during the Palestinian intifada, an enraged Moroccan lunged at one of Rabbi Sebag’s brothers with an axe. Thankfully, the brother ducked in the nick of time and sustained only a glancing blow to his face. He was airlifted to Toulouse for hospital treatment. His family in France pleaded with him to stay on, but he refused, and returned to Essaouira.
In 2005, the Jewish owner of the building where the rabbi’s mother had lived for 45 years announced he was leaving Morocco for good. Did Mrs Sebag want to buy the property? Mrs Sebag declined the offer, preferring to continue to pay a nominal rent.
The property was sold – to the man who used to sell gas cylinders to Mrs Sebag. Before long, he started legal proceedings to get Mrs Sebag out of her flat. Twice she went to court to fight her eviction. Twice she won her case. But the owner bribed the judge to insist that she leave. Mrs Sebag appealed to Mr Serge Berdugo, the head of the Moroccan Jewish community, to intervene – but to no avail.
Mrs Sebag duly left, and sent all her furniture and possessions into storage.
But that was not the end of the story. An English-speaking tourist walked into an antique dealer’s shop in Essaouira, run by another of Mrs Sebag’s sons. Could the antique dealer authenticate a ketubah (Jewish marriage certificate) the tourist had just bought? she asked.
The antique dealer proceeded to examine the document, and to his horror, recognised his own parents’ marriage certificate. All Mrs Sebag’s possessions, which she had imagined would be safely locked away in storage, had been stolen and sold off.
From time to time, the question comes up on this blog: why do these last Jews stay on in places where they are not wanted – and in spite of unpleasant personal experiences? Mrs Sebag told her son in Toulouse that she felt no less safe in Morocco than in France – and in view of the March 2012 shooting at a Jewish school in Toulouse where Rabbi Sebag’s children are pupils, she has a point. The son who was attacked in Essaouira with an axe wanted to go back to his home, his job, his family in Morocco. The situation could always get worse.
Perhaps the Sebags’ motto is the British wartime slogan – now fashionably revived on everything from T-shirts to mugs: ‘keep calm and carry on’.