On Saturday April 7, the American Islamic Congress sponsored a celebration of the Moroccan Jewish holiday known as Mimouna, which marks the end of Passover when North African Jews traditionally opened their homes and celebrated with their neighbours of all religious backgrounds. The festival was also the opening of an art exhibition featuring the work of Chama Mechtaly, a young artist who paints portraits of Amazigh Jewish women. Yet Mimouna is far more than an interfaith event; it also acts as the rejection of colonial religious impositions and the restoration of an African culture and heritage that has long been repressed by the colonial legacies of the region.

Chama Mechtaly
Chama Mechtaly

Arts and Amazigh
Chama herself has both Jewish and Muslim roots, and she seeks through her art to revive the memories and heritage of the indigenous and Jewish population of North Africa. However, she grew up believing that she was Arab and Muslim, and that North Africa was a part of the so-called “Arab world”. Now, after learning more about her family history, she considers herself Amazigh and African, and uses art to express her struggle with this new, reclaimed identity. A hidden history of North Africa is now brought to light, though it remains wrought with questions that emerge as the result of exploitation, colonialism, and pan-Arabist ideology.  Who are the North African Jews and how does that influence our conceptions of the region?  Why have these memories been repressed?

Stuck in between
Raised in Casablanca, Chama went to a public school in Morocco and was taught the Arab nationalist ideology that permeates the school system under state Arabization policies.  In high school, she began to consider questions of identity, which in turn led her to research her family’s genealogy.  After finding family documents in Tamazight – the indigenous language of North Africa – and Hebrew, Chama realized that she might not be Arab after all, that her very ethnicity and religious heritage were radically different from what she had been taught to believe.  The loss of this history from her family’s memory had happened gradually, like when her grandfather moved to the “Arab” urban center of Casablanca, married a Muslim woman, and became disconnected from his land and heritage. He repressed his Amazigh Jewish identity under state and societal pressures of Arabization and Islamization, which were imposed after Morocco gained “independence” from France and Spain.  Arabization policies discriminated heavily against Imazighen, and in particular against the Amazigh Jews who once were a substantial community in Morocco.

"Jewish Woman from Ait Hdidou." Oil painting by Chama Mechtaly.
“Jewish Woman from Ait Hdidou.” Oil painting by Chama Mechtaly.

African rather than Arab
Coming to accept that she was Amazigh rather than Arab, African rather than Middle Eastern, represented a crisis of identity for Chama, just as the same frictions and conflicting identities lead to crises in North Africa in general. In Morocco, Chama new self-discovery provoked strong reactions and drew fierce criticism, such as the one high school teacher who berated her for being “brainwashed by the West” and blamed French colonizers for “creating” Amazigh identity and “dividing” the population.  This reaction illustrates one of the ways in which religious and ethnic diversity are seen to threaten the hegemonic “unity” of the Moroccan state, and are thus silenced. In actuality, by discovering her Amazigh identity, Chama was undergoing an internal process of decolonization and discovering her own Africanité. In response, Chama started to paint portraits of Amazigh Jewish women from French colonial era photographs.  The paintings often prominently display distinctive symbols, such as characters from the Hebrew and Tifinagh scripts.

"Jewish Girl from Debdou," 2012. Oil painting by Chama Mechtaly. Behind the girl are gold Hebrew and Tifinagh letters against a dark background.
“Jewish Girl from Debdou,” 2012. Oil painting by Chama Mechtaly. Behind the girl are gold Hebrew and Tifinagh letters against a dark background.

Promoting religious pluralism
Chama describes the portraits as a ‘repetition,’ an artistic expression of her own process of coming to terms with her new identity and working through the shock of finding a denied and repressed ethnic and religious background. How would it feel to realize that the ethnicity and identity you were raised with are essentially a lie, an erasure of your own self? By addressing these issues through art, Chama seeks to promote a religious pluralism, restore stolen histories, and fight against the homogenous Arab-Islamic identity that has been imposed on North Africa.

The struggle to define North Africa continues, with opposing forces and identities of African/Arab, colonizer/colonized, and Muslim/Jewish.  In the last half-century, dominant Arab-Islamic impositions have worked to define the region according to their ideology, although now Amazigh activists are countering that and seeking to revive the indigenous African culture.

Although you won’t find this history formally taught in North Africa, Jewish and Christian communities were long established in the region before the Arab-Islamic invasions of the 7th century C.E. In addition, many Imazighen held polytheistic beliefs that were derided by the Arab conquerors, just as countless other traditional African religions and spiritualities were abused and repressed under European colonial rule.  Colonial religions that are foreign to most of the continent – Islam and Christianity – now dominate religious belief across Africa, while in many cases our own traditional beliefs are cast aside or have a social stigma attached to them as an ongoing consequence of colonialism and globalization.

The Ibn Danan Synagogue, Fez Morocco
The Ibn Danan Synagogue, Fez Morocco

Colonial legacies across Africa
Religion, like issues of ethnicity and language, has been affected by colonial legacies across Africa, and the North is no exception. Although the traditional polytheistic beliefs of Imazighen have largely been destroyed, there is a continual process of rejecting the religious pluralism and diversity which once characterized North Africa. Some form of this identity crisis is common in African and diasporic communities, where issues of hybridity and post-colonial identity abound. The dominant societal rejection of Jewish legacies in North Africa contributes to the erasure of diversity, although some Amazigh activists are now also working to restore their religious histories in a process of decolonization, as they are the cultural histories mentioned above. For example, in the Libyan Amazigh village of Yefren, Imazighen protect and maintain the old Jewish synagogue, now a relic of the former Jewish population. The Jewish Amazigh past and present are honored and fully accepted as a part of our history.

Kamal Hachkar’s documentary follows his journey from Tinghir to Jerusalem in a quest to uncover the lives and identities of Amazigh Jews. [With French subtitles.]

Moroccan-Amazigh filmmaker Kamal Hachkar grew up as a Muslim in France, believing as a child that all Imazighen were Muslim.  However, his family’s Amazigh hometown of Tinghir used to be the home of a substantial Jewish population.  Most left for Israel in the “post-independence” decades when Morocco began to pursue a pan-Arabist ideology, which doubly marginalized the community for being both Amazigh and Jewish.  Hachkar documented his journey to re-discover this history through film, which led to the making of the documentary Tinghir, Echoes from the Mellah: The Rediscovery of a Judeo-Berber Culture.

Ethiopian Jews
Amazigh Jews are not the only population of Africans living in Israel, or the only Jewish population indigenous to the African continent.  The ‘Beta Israel’ community refers to the Ethiopian Jews who migrated in large numbers to Israel after 1980. However, non-Jewish Africans who entered Israel as undocumented migrants and refugees have experienced far more racism, including violent xenophobic attacks. African Jewish populations force us to re-think our relationship with Judaism and more broadly, issues of religious diversity on the continent.

Ethiopian Jews sit on board an Israeli airplane during their transfer from Addis Ababa to Tel Aviv on May 25, 1991.
Ethiopian Jews sit on board an Israeli airplane during their transfer from Addis Ababa to Tel Aviv on May 25, 1991.

Decolonizing Africa
Recognizing and including indigenous Jewish populations in Africa is an important step in the decolonization of Africa, especially in the North where Imazighen have been fighting Arab-Islamic hegemony by emphasizing Amazighité and religious pluralism.  Doing so is a radically political act, but it also serves a more personal purpose of resolving the crisis of identity in North Africa by promoting and valuing historical diversity.  While the fight between competing identities continues across the African continent and diaspora, proud African artists and activists like Chama Mechtaly and Kamal Hachkar are making their contributions to this struggle by unapologetically expressing the Jewish influences in their homeland and personal lives.