Travels in Morocco, by James Richardson

Chapter 6

Influence of French Consuls. — Arrival of the Governor of Mogador from the Capital; he brings an order to imprison the late Governor; his character, and mode of administering affairs. — Statue of a Negress at the bottom of a well. — Spanish Renegades. — Various Wedding Festivals of Jews. — Frequent Fetes and Feastings amongst the Jewish population of Morocco. — Scripture Illustration, “Behold the Bridegroom cometh!” — Jewish Renegades. — How far women have souls. — Infrequency of Suicides.

Notwithstanding the sarcasm of a French journalist that the French and other Europeans consuls are “consuls des jusifs, et pour la protection des jusifs,” the French consuls both here and at Tangier, have real power and influence with the Government.

The Governor of Mogador, Sidi Haj El–Arby, arrived from Morocco. His Excellency feared an attack from the Shedma and the Hhaha people, and was obliged to have a strong escort. Not long ago, the Sultan himself had a narrow escape from falling into the hands of a band of insurgents; their object was to make their lord-paramount a prisoner, and extort concessions as the price of his liberty. This will help us to form an opinion of the want of sympathy between potentate and subjects in Morocco.

His Excellency brought an order from the Imperial despot to imprison the late governor, if the balance of 6,000 dollars was not instantly forthcoming, he having only paid nine out of the 15,000 demanded. The late governor was confined in his house, instead of in the common prison. It was said he was worth 30,000 dollars, but that he was afraid to make too prompt a payment of the demand of the Emperor, lest he should be called upon for more. However, his furniture, horses, and mules were sold in the public streets; a melancholy spectacle was the degradation of a former governor of this city. 23

The Moors look upon these things as matters of course, or with indifference, quietly ejaculating, “It is destiny! who can resist?” but the Moor, nevertheless, can clearly discern that wealth is a crime in the eyes of their sovereign. I am not surprised at the present governor absolutely rejecting all presents, and making the people call him by the soubriquet of “the Governor of no presents,”

A short time after his appointment, a merchant having left his Excellency a present during his absence from home, was immediately summoned before him, when the following dialogue ensued:—

His Excellency. — “Sir, how dare you leave a present at my house?”

The Merchant. — “Other governors before your Excellency have received presents.”

His Excellency. — “I am a governor of no presents! How much do you owe the Sultan, my master?”

The Merchant. — “I— I— I— don’t know,” (hesitating and trembling)

His Excellency. — “Very well, when you owe the Sultan nothing, bring me a present, and take this away, and make known to everybody, that Haj El–Arby receives no presents.”

The fact is, the Governor knows what he is about. Were his Excellency to receive 16,000 dollars per annum as presents from the merchants of Mogador, the Sultan would demand of him 15,999; besides, there is not a merchant who makes a present that does not demand its value, a quid pro quo in the remission of custom-duties. Sidi–El-Arby is also a thorough diplomatist, so far as report goes; he promises anybody anything; he keeps all on the tiptoe of most blessed expectation, and so makes friends of everybody. “To his friend, Cohen,” he says, “I’ll take you back to my country with me, and make you rich; we are of the same country.” To Phillips, “You shall have a ship of your own soon.” To the merchants, “The Sultan shall lend you money whenever you want it.” To the Moors in general, “You shall have your taxes reduced.” In this way, his Excellency promises and flatters all, but takes very good care to compromise himself with none.

The frequented as well as the unfrequented spots are centres of superstition. In the Sahara, by a lonely well, in the midst of boundless sterility, where the curse on earth seems to have burnt blackest, a camel passes every night groaning piteously, and wandering about in search of its murdered master, so the tale was told me. Now, about two day’s journey from Mogador, there is also a well, containing within its dank and dark hollow a perpetual apparition. At its bottom is seen the motionless statue of a negress, with a variety of wearing materials placed beside her, all made of fine burnished gold, and so bright, that the dreary cavern of the deep well is illuminated. Whoever presumes to look down the well at her, and covets her shining property, is instantaneously seized with thirst and fever; and, if he does not expire at once, he never recovers from the fatal effects of his combined curiosity and avarice. People draw water daily from this well, but no one dare look down it.

Truth may be in this well! since there is a sad want of it on this, as on other parts of the world.

I was introduced to a Spanish renegade, a great many make their escape from the presidios of the North. On getting away from these convict establishments, they adopt the Mahometan religion, are pretty well received by the Maroquines, and generally pass the rest of their days tranquilly among the Moors. I imagine the better sort of them remain Christians at heart, notwithstanding their public assumption of Islamism. This renegade was a stonemason, whom I found at work, and he was not at all distinguishable by strangers from the Moors, being dressed precisely in the same fashion. I had some conversation with him, which was characteristic of conceit, feeling and honour.

Traveller — “How long have you escaped?”

Renegade. — “More than twenty years.”

Traveller. — “Do you like this country and the Moors?”

Renegade. — “Better is Marruécos than Spain.”

Traveller. — “Shall you ever attempt to return to Spain?”

Renegade. — “Why? here I have all I want. Besides, they would stretch my neck for sending a fellow out of the world without his previously having had an interview with his confessor.”

Traveller. — “Are you not conscience-stricken? having committed such a crime, how can you mention it?”

Renegade. — “Pooh, conscience! pooh, corazor!”

Many of those wretched men have indeed lost their corazor, or it is seared with a red-hot iron.

Some hundreds of these Spanish convicts are scattered over the country, but they soon lose their nationality. It is probable that, from some knowledge of them, the Emperor presumed lately to call the Spaniards “the vilest of nations,” and yet at various times, the Maroquines have shown great sympathy for the Spaniards. Some of these renegades were found at the Battle of Isly in charge of field-pieces, where, according to the French reports, they displayed great devotion to the cause of the Emperor.

When the governors of the convict settlements find too many on his hands, or the prisons too full, they let a number of their best conducted escape to the interior. The presence of those cut-throats in Morocco may have something to do with such broils as the following, of which I was a witness. Two fellows quarrelled violently, and were on the point of sticking one another with their knives, when up stepped a third party and cried out, “What! do you intend to act like Christians and kill one another?” At the talismanic word of Eusara (“Christians, or Nazareens,”) they instantly desisted and became friends. The term “Christian or Nazareen,” is one of the most oppobrious names with which the people of Mogador can abuse one another.

The weddings and attendant feasts of the Jews are the more remarkable, when we consider the circumstance of the social state of this oppressed race in Morocco, their precarious condition, and the numberless insults and oppressions inflicted on them by both the government and the people; I was present at several of these weddings, and shall give the readers a glimpse of them. I had read and heard a great deal about the persecution of the Jews in Morocco, and was, therefore, not a little surprised to meet with these continual feasts and festivals among a people so much talked about as victims of Mussulman oppression.

I find two sentences in my notes containing the pith of the whole. “The Jews continued their feasts; about a third of their time is spent in feasting.” Again — “Amidst all their degradation, the Jew we saw to-day recreating themselves to the utmost extent of their capacities of enjoyment.” It appears that during the time I was at Mogador there was an unusual number of weddings, and then followed the feast of the Passover. I think, whilst I was at Tangier, weddings or celebration of weddings were going on every night. It may be safely asserted, that no people in Barbary enjoy themselves more than the Jews, or more pamper and gratify their appetites. What with weddings, feasts, and obligatory festivals, their existence is one round of eating and drinking. These feasts, besides, do not take place in a corner, nor are they barricaded from public, or envious, or inquisitorial view, but are open to all, being attended by Christians, Moors and Arabs.

These wedding-feasts are substantial things. Here is the entry in my journal of an account of them: “A bullock was killed at the house of the bridegroom, tea and cakes and spirits were freely, nay universally distributed there. The company afterwards went off with the bridegroom to the house of the bride, where another distribution of the same kind took place, whilst half of the bullock was brought for the bride’s friends. Here the bridegroom, in true oriental style, mounted upon a couch of damask and gold. The bride, laden with bridal ornaments of gold and jewels, and covered with a gauze veil, was led out by the women and placed by his side. She was then left alone to sit in state as queen of the feast, whilst the company regaled themselves with every imaginable luxury of eating and drinking. Her future husband now produced, as a present for his bride, a splendid pair of jewelled ear-rings, which were held up amidst the screaming approbation of the guests. The Jewesses present, were weighed down under the dead weight of a profusion of jewels and gold, tiaras of pearls, necklaces of coral and gems, armlets, wristlets and legets of silver gold and jet, with gold and silver braided gowns, skirts and petticoats.

This fiesta was kept up for seven days. Astonished at the profusion of jewels worn by the various guests, I received a solution by a question I asked, touching this mavellous circumstance. The greater part of the jewels, worn on these occasions, are borrowed from friends and neighbours; they must belong to some of the Jewish families, and their quantity shews the great wealth possessed by the Jews living under this despotic government,

I assisted at the celebration of the nuptials of a portion of the family of the feather merchants, a rich and powerful firm established in the south for the purchase of ostrich-feathers.

This was a wedding of great éclat; all the native Jewish aristocracy of Mogador being invited to it. The festivities, beginning at noon, I first entered the apartment where the bride was sitting in state. She was elevated on a radiant throne of gold and crimson cushions amidst a group of women, her hired flatterers, who kept singing and bawling out her praises. “As beautiful as the moon is Rachel!” said one. “Fairer than the jessamine!” exclaimed another. “Sweeter than honey in the honey-comb!” ejaculated a third. Her eyes were shut, it being deemed immodest to look on the company, and the features of her face motionless as death, which made her look like a painted corpse.

To describe the dresses of the bride would be tedious, as she was carried away every hour and redressed, going through and exhibiting to public view, with the greatest patience, the whole of her bridal wardrobe. Her face was artistically painted; cheeks vermillion; lips browned, with an odoriferous composition; eye-lashes blackened with antimony; and on the forehead and tips of the chin little blue stars. The palms of the hands and nails were stained with henna, or brown-red, and her feet were naked, with the toe-nails and soles henna-stained. She was very young, perhaps not more than thirteen, and hugely corpulent, having been fed on paste and oil these last six months for the occasion. The bridegroom, on the contrary, was a man of three times her age, tall, lank and bony, very thin, and of sinister aspect. The woman was a little lump of fat and flesh, apparently without intelligence, whilst the man was a Barbary type of Dickens’ Fagan.

The ladies had now arranged themselves in tiers, one above the other, and most gorgeous was the sight. Most of them wore tiaras, all flaming with gems and jewels. They were literally covered from head to foot with gold and precious stones. As each lady has but ten fingers, it was necessary to tie some scores of rings on their hair. The beauty of the female form, in these women, was quite destroyed by this excessive quantity of jewellery. These jewels were chiefly pearls, brilliants, rubies and emeralds.

They are amassed and descend as heir-looms in families, from mother to daughter. Some of the jewels being very ancient, they constitute the riches of many families. In reverses of fortune, they are pledged, or turned into money to relieve immediate necessity. The upper tiers of ladies were the youngest, and least adorned, and consequently the prettiest. The ancient dowagers sat below as so many queens enthroned, challenging scrutiny and admiration. They were mostly of enormous corpulency, spreading out their naked feet and trousered legs of an enormous expanse.

Several dowagers seemed scarcely to be able to breathe from heat, and the plethora of their own well-fed and pampered flesh. We had now music, and several attempts were made to get up the indecent Moorish dance, which, however, was forbidden as too vulgar for such fashionable Jews, and honoured by the presence of Europeans. Not much pleased with this spectacle, I looked out of the window into the patio, or court-yard, where I saw a couple of butchers’ boys slaughtering a bullock for the evening carousal. A number of boys were dipping their hands in the blood, and making with it the representation of an outspread hand on the doors, posts and walls, for the purpose of keeping off “the evil eye,” (el ojo maligno,) and so ensuring good luck to the new married couple.

I then mounted the house-top to see a game played by the young men. Here, on the flat roof, was assembled a court, with a sultan sitting in the midst. Various prisoners were tried and condemned. Two or three of the greatest culprits were then secured and dragged down to the ladies, the officers of justice informing them that, if no one stepped forward to rescue them, it was the sultan’s orders that they should be imprisoned. Several young Jewesses now clamourously demanded their release. It is understood that these compassionate maidens who, on such occasions, step forward to the rescue, and take one of the young men by the hand, are willing to accept of the same when it may hereafter be offered to them in marriage, so the contagion of wedding-feasts spreads, and one marriage makes many.

I now proceed to the supper-table of the men, where the party ate and drank to gluttonous satiety. Several rabbis were hired to chant, over the supper-table, prayers composed of portions of Scripture, and legends of the Talmud.

The dinning noise of bad music, and horrible screaming, called singing, with the surfeit of the feast, laid me up for two days afterwards. The men supped by themselves, and the women of course were also apart.

My host, anxious that I should see all, insisted upon my going to have a peep at the ladies whilst they were supping. Unlike us men, who sat up round a table, because there were several Europeans among us, the women lay sprawling and rolling on carpets and couches.

In their own allotted apartments, these gorgeous daughters of Israel looked still more huge and enormous, feasting almost to repletion, like so many princesses of the royal orgies of Belshazzar. But this was a native wedding, and, of course, when we consider the education of these Barbary women, we must expect, when they have drink like the men, white spirits for protracted hours until midnight, the proprieties of society are easily dispensed with. Happily the class of women, who so kept up the feast, were all said to be married, the maidens having gone home with the bride.

Very different, indeed, was another distinguished wedding at which I had the honour of assisting, and which all the European consuls and their families attended, with the élite of the society of Mogador; this was the marriage of M. Bittern, of Gibraltar, with Miss Amram Melek. The bridegroom was the Portuguese Consul, the bride, the daughter of the greatest Jewish merchant of the south, and consequently the Emperor’s greatest and most honoured debtor. The celebration of this wedding lasted fourteen days.

On the grand day, a ball and supper were given. All the Moors of the town came to see the Christians and their ladies dance. Our musician, or fiddler, kept away from some petty pique, and we were accordingly reduced to the hard necessity of making use of a drum and whistling, both to keep up our spirits and serve up the quadrilles. We had, however, some good singing to make up for the disappointment. His Excellency the Governor intended to have honoured us with his presence, but he gave way to the remonstrance of an inflexible marabout, who declared it a deadly sin to attend the marriages of Jews and Christians.

The marriage guests were of three or four several sets and sorts. There was the European coterie, the choicest and most select, graced by the presence of the bride; then the native aristocrats, and here were the gorgeous sultanas and Fezan spouses; then the lesser stars, and the still more diminished.

Finally, the “blind, the lame, and the halt,” surrounded the doors of the house in which the marriage-feast was held, receiving a portion of the good things of this life. The whole number of guests was not more than two hundred. Plenty of European Jewesses shone as bewitching stars at this wedding; but all param to us poor Christians. Indeed, there is as little as no lovemaking, and match-making amongst the isolated Nazarenes; for, out of a population of some fifty European families, there are only two marriageable Christian ladies.

The bride is frequently fetched by the bridegroom at midnight, when there is a cry made, “behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye forth to meet him!” (Matt xxv — 6). This ancient custom prevails most among the Moors. Once, whilst at Nabal, in Tunis, I was roused from my sleep at the dead of the night by wild cries, and the discharging of fire-arms, attended with a blaze of torches. The bridegroom was conveying his bride to his home. A crowd of the friends of the newly-married couple, followed the camel which carried the precious burden; all were admitted to the feast in the court-yard, and the doors were shut for the night.

At the wedding of the lower classes of the Jews, after dancing and music, there is always a collection made for the bride, or the musicians. On these occasions, the master of the ceremonies calls out the names of the donors as they contribute to the support of the festivities. I was somewhat taken by surprise to hear my name called out, Bashador Inglez (English ambassador) when I attended one of the weddings. But the fellow, making the announcement, attracted my attention more than his flattering compliment. He was dressed in Moorish costume with an immense white turban folded round his head. I could not conceive the reason of a Moor taking such interest in feasts of the Jews.

The secret soon transpired. He was a renegade, who had apostatized for the sake of marrying a pretty girl. His heart is always with his brethren, and the authorities good-naturedly allow him to be master of the ceremonies at these and other feasts, to preserve order, or rather to prevent the Jews from being insulted by the Mahometans.

There are always a few Jewish renegades in large Moorish towns, just enough, I imagine, to convince the Mahometans of the superiority of their religion to that of other nations; for whilst they obtain converts from both Jews and Christians, and make proselytes of scores of Blacks, they never hear of apostates from Islamism. The manner, however, in which these renegades abandon their religion, is no very evident proof of the divine authority of the Prophet of Mecca. Here is an instance.

A boy of this town ran away from his father, and prostrated himself before the Governor, imploring him to make him a Mussulman. The Governor, actuated by the most rational and proper feeling, remarked to the boy, “You are a child, you have not arrived at years of discretion, you have not intellect enough to make a choice between two religions.” The boy was kept confined one night, then beaten, and sent home in the morning.

Another case happened like this when the boy was admitted within the pale of Islamism. Jewish boys will often cry out when their fathers are correcting them, “I will turn Mussulman!” A respectable Jew, who related this to me, observed, “were I to hear any of my sons cry out in this manner, I would immediately give them a dose of poison, and finish them; I could not bear to see my children formed into Mussulman devils.”

It really seems the vulgar opinion among the Jews and Moors of this place, that females have no souls. I asked many women themselves about the matter; they replied, “We don’t care, if we have no souls.” A Rabbi observed, “If women bear children, make good wives, and live virtuously and chastely, they will go to heaven and enjoy an immortal existence; if not, after death, they will suffer annihilation.”

This appears to be the opinion of all the well-educated. But a Jewish lady who heard my conversation with the Rabbi, retorted with spirit: “Whether I bear children or not, if my husband, or any man has a soul, I have one likewise, for are not all men born of us women?”

All, however, are well satisfied with this life, whatever may happen in the next; male and female Jews and Mussulmen hold on their mutual career with the greatest tenacity. I made inquiries about suicides, and was told there were never any persons so foolish as to kill themselves.

“We leave it to the Emperor to take away a man’s life, if such be the will of God!” and yet the Moors are habitually a grave, dreamy and melancholy people. No doubt the light, buoyant atmosphere keeps them from falling into such a state of mental prostration as to induce suicide.

I now found that many people looked upon me, in the language of the Jewish renegade, as an ambassador, and some went so far as to say, “I can make war with the Emperor if I like;” others persisted in saying “I am going in search of the murdered Davidson.” A man took the liberty of telling Mr. Elton. “A very mysterious Christian has arrived from the Sultan of the English. The Governor hearing that he had ordered a pair of Moorish shoes, sent word to the shoemaker to be as long about them as possible. This Nazarene is going to disguise himself as one of us, in order to spy out our country.”

The Moors are certainly a timid and suspicious race. They feel their weakness, and they are frightened of any Christian who does not come to their country on commercial pursuits, as a sportsman, or in some directly intelligible character.

23 Muley Abd Errahman is averse to treating his governors with extreme rigour. Mr. Hay gives an appalling account of private individuals arrested on suspicion of possessing great wealth — “The most horrible tortures are freely resorted to for forcing confessions of hidden wealth. The victim is put in a slow oven, or kept standing for weeks in a wooden dress; splinters are forced between the flesh and the nail of the fingers; two fierce cats are put alive into his wide trousers, and the breasts of his women are twisted with pincers. Young children have sometimes been squeezed to death under the arms of a powerful man, before the eyes of their parents.”

A wealthy merchant at Tangier, whose auri sacra fames had led him to resist for a long time the cruel tortures that had been, employed against him, yielded at length to the following trial. “He was placed in a corner of the room, wherein a hungry lion was chained in such a manner as to be able to reach him with his claws, unless he held himself in a most unnatural position.” This reads very much like a description of the torments of the Inquisition. The Moors may have imported this system of torture from Spain. Similar barbarities were said to have been inflicted by King Otho on prisoners in Greece, even on British Ionian subjects! I recollect particularly the sewing up of fierce cats in the petticoats of women. My experience in Morocco does not permit me to authenticate Mr. Hay’s horrible picture.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 15:33