Moroccos wonders demand a guide and deep pockets

FEZ, Morocco — Doorways in the Jewish Quarter here are riddled with oblong holes. The cavities once held mezuzot that advertised a Jewish population of 10,000. Now you can count the Jews on two hands.

As a band of Jewish journalists wends through narrow alleyways generously decorated with burro excrement, a tiny Arab ragamuffin sprints ahead and points to the next cavity. He then tugs poignantly at a writer's trouser leg and pleads for money.

Begging in Morocco is just slightly more common than historic Jewish sites.

To find those places, though, it's best to hire an informed guide: Many former Jewish structures hide on labyrinthine paths less traveled.

In Marrakesh, for example, only three Jewish families live in the mellah, or ghetto, where another 10,000 Jews thrived 200 years ago. Yeshu Corcos was one of them. He owned an entire alley, now called the "Street of the Rich Man." The house in which he lived, empty for the last eight years, had been used for a Jewish school and an old-age home. Not a single sign indicates what was.

Active synagogues throughout the country have no signage either.

To find Jewish sites — many of which are not in use but are being specifically refurbished for visitors — or the countless inlaid masterpieces of Moroccan architecture, all you need is deep pockets.

Edward Gabriel, U.S. ambassador to Morocco, says Morocco's biggest tourist problem is that hotels run five stars "and then fall off. There's nothing for the middle or upper-middle class."

It costs a mere $10, however, to tour Casablanca's $600 million Hassan II Mosque, second in size only to one in Mecca. Some 20,000 males can worship inside on the electrically heated floor while 5,000 women pray in the balcony. There's room for 80,000 more outside. The building, completed in 1993 after six years of construction, includes a retractable cedar roof and 41 mushroom-shaped fountains for ablutions, the washing of hands before prayer.

Jewish sites cost nothing to visit. But each seems to contain a pushke for visitors' donations.

Not only Jews peddle Jewish views and souvenirs, however. In the town of Essouria, close to an old Portuguese fortress, hang portraits from an antique synagogue next to artifacts from an Orson Welles' movie, "Othello," which was filmed there. The owner of a nearby book shop will hand you Jewish volumes such as "Words of the Rabbis," an 1870 Lemberg, Poland, commentary. "It is not for sale," he says. "It is only to show to Jewish friends from time to time."

Seconds later, he asks what you are willing to pay for it.

"Be ready to haggle everywhere — except in government stores and upscale shops, where the amounts are fixed," explains Mohammed B. Marrakshi, representative of the National Tourist Office.

So if you're looking to buy a djellaba, the traditional Moroccan robe with a KKK-like pointed cape, expect to spend a few minutes bargaining. "Be prepared, when you're finished talking, to pay 40 percent of the starting price," Marrakshi says.

You can also count on conducting business through an ever-present cloud: Many, many Moroccan men chain-smoke.

Women, in contrast, are more careful about their public appearance. In fact, a lot still wear veils so men will not fall in lust.

Overall, Morocco can be a visual wonderland. "A first view from a Royal Air Maroc plane is apt to be a brilliant sunrise, a beautiful red ball cutting through the haze like a hand of God," says an American visitor. "You can almost imagine Him whispering, 'Arabs and Jews, you are all my children, and there is beauty everywhere.'"

The year-old kosher Marrakesh restaurant Le Sepharade is a man-made beauty, an architectural work of art. Specializing in both Jewish and Moroccan cuisine, the eatery is tiled exquisitely.

About two millennia older, outside Meknes, is another enchanting site, the panoramic ruins at Volubilis. Romans lived there 400 years, from the time of Jesus. Now, a mangy dog walks alongside tourists. The dirt is parched and cracked. But marigolds grow throughout the acreage and a bird perches atop a tall column. It's a breathtaking photo op.

One more tourist attraction that's breathtaking in a different way is for early-morning risers only. A donkey patrol wanders through the maze-like medina, the marketplace of Fez's Old City, each day to collect garbage.

For those who prefer the artificiality of a Disneyland-like scenario, Marrakesh's Chez Ali Fantasia provides two rows of horsemen "guarding" the doors with long rifles. Inside a tent, a multicourse dinner accompanied by several lines of belly dancers is followed by a cornball but fun open-air pageant that ends with "Hava Negillah," several other familiar Hebrew songs and fireworks.

For anyone looking for more authentic Jewish tourism, a new museum has been built in Casablanca, where almost all 4,000 of Morocco's remaining Jews may live until the community leaves or dies off within a generation or two.

In the partially stocked structure are traditional Jewish garments, pottery, pieces of gravestones, glassware, hanging lamps, candleholders, chanukiot, Torahs and Torah-covers.

Serge Berdugo, secretary-general of Moroccan Jewry, is proud of the structure, which will cost $300,000. "One-third of that will come from the government, one-third from the Jewish community, and one-third from individuals," he says.

Another $300,000 already has been spent to renovate Shlomo Ibn Danan Synagogue in Fez, which also will be indexed as a museum by the World Monument Fund. The small, quaint structure was dedicated in late February.

In Marrakesh, Beit El, the Sephardic synagogue that Henri Kadoch built, includes a 300-year-old ark that reputedly took two brothers several years to make. That city's sole mikvah can be found there, too.

Also in Marrakesh is the Synagogue of the Original Settlers from Spain, which once had a Talmud Torah upstairs but now acts as a shelter for five aged Jewish families (and the gardener), and a 500-year-old cemetery with a huge monument to Kadoch that lights up at night along with the street lights outside the grounds.

In Fez, a visitor can see the country's first university, where Maimonides studied, and a tomb for grand rabbis that is being refaced for tourist sightings.

A rare Jewish institution, because it reportedly is used every day, is Synagogue Roben Bensadoun. Despite visitors finding mattresses piled several feet high in front of the ark, Sephardic services are conducted there.

A recent Friday night includes 33 local men and four boys in the men's section; behind a non-see-through curtain in a separate compartment are four women. A little girl darts back and forth between sections, squealing with delight as she is kissed frequently on both cheeks. Worshippers keep drifting in, as late as 10 minutes before services end.

Also rare is the ner tamid, eternal light, at Synagogue Rabbi Elezer Di Avila in Rabat, Morocco's capital and one of the country's five "imperial cities." It consists of two Ten Commandment tablets outlined by a blue neon light.

Other uncommon items are tucked away in Bouknadel in the nine-room Bel Ghazi Museum. On view, among other Moroccan artifacts, are huge, ornate wood doors from a 16th-century synagogue; a long coffin-like box that held a Torah for a synagogue south of Marrakesh; an 18th-century lamp in the shape of a Magen David, from Fez; and a Jewish hassira (carpet) and khdiya (cushion) from Zemmour.

In its newest room, entirely filled with Jewish memorabilia, are tallitot, Hebrew artwork, goblets, slippers, bracelets, shofars, costumes and wedding dresses, a Megillah, a ketubah — even a holder for foreskins after circumcision.

According to Hassan Sebbar, minister of tourism, 96,000 Americans are among the 2 million tourists who visit Morocco each year. Israeli visitors — who once numbered 40,000 annually but now hit only half that total — are considered too few to earn a separate listing; they're counted in the rubric "Others."

"We are hoping the peace process will be concluded soon. Then we can welcome more Israeli tourists — and investors," says Sebbar.