A Jew in a Muslim Land: The Narrative of Samuel Romanelli


, , , , , , ,

Samuel Romanelli’s Travail in an Arab Land stands out as a remarkable account among a large body of travel texts written on Morocco. Until it was translated from Hebrew into English in 1989, Travail in an Arab Land was hardly known to scholars of the Moroccan Jewish heritage. It is a little surprising that even Haim Zafarani who is one of the most prominent researchers in Moroccan Jewry makes no reference to Romanelli’s account and may not have been aware of its existence in the first place.

Romanelli’s narrative reflects a rich experience full of adventure in a country he knew almost nothing about. Indeed, the prevailing image of Morocco in contemporary accounts can be summed up as the antithesis of all that is European.

It is important to note that Romanelli (1757-1817), as his name indicates, is an Italian poet of Jewish origins, he spent a long period of his youth touring Europe and was able to learn several  languages ​​as he had also received a sound education in Jewish religious teachings and classical European letters. He was also influenced like many writers of his generation by Enlightenment ideas. In 1786 during his visit to London, he translated Alexander Pope’s famous poem, “Essay on Man” into Hebrew.

He then traveled from England to Gibraltar hoping to find a ship to carry him back to his native Italy. His situation was none too cheerful. He had lost his passport and spent all his money, and was literally stranded until an English merchant suggested he should accompany him to Morocco and seek his livelihood in this Muslim land. The merchant intended to reside in Larache and engage in the trade of wool and wax.

Romanelli’s sojourn in Morocco lasted for four years (1787-1790), a period that coincided with the end of the reign of Sultan Mohammed Ben Abdellah and the beginning of the rule of El Yazid. During these years, Romanelli learnt Moroccan Arabic and was able to explore the the specificity of Moroccan culture. He visited and lived among Jewish communities in Tangier, Tetouan, Meknes, Marrakesh, El Jadida, and Essaouira earning his living by preaching in synagogues  and serving as a scribe and translator for European consuls and as accountant for Jewish merchants. He underwent moments of peril and had to endure the machinations of some members of his Jewish community jealous of his knowledge.

In the fourteen chapters of his captivating narrative, Romanelli describes his journey from the river of Martil in Tetouan in the north of the country to the city of Essaouira on the Atlantic from which he fled  following the death of Sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdullah and the succession of his son Moulay Yazid, who bore a grudge against Jews, especially those who settled in Tetouan because they had refused to support him against his father.

From a purely historical perspective, Romanelli’s account, unknown to Moroccan scholars, contains a great deal of information on the social and political conditions during the last years of the reign of Sultan Mohammed Ben Abdellah. It is a remarkable addition to the existing accounts of celebrated European travelers and diplomats notably George Host (1760-1768), Louis Chenier (1767-1784) and William Lempriere (1791).

 It sheds particular light on the relationship between the Sultan and European consuls. We learn, for instance that Anglo-Moroccan relations during Romanelli’s visit were not particularly good following the refusal of the governor of Gibraltar, to receive three Moroccan ships in the port of Gibraltar for repairs. We are also told about the Sultan’s strained relationship with his son and presumed heir, Moulay El Yazid and the decree he had sent European consuls warning against providing support for his rebellious son.

Unlike contemporary accounts,   however, Romanelli ‘s narrative displays a particular interest  in the conditions of the Jewish communities of Morocco. There are profuse details about the Jews’ religious beliefs and rituals, their dress, food, social customs and festive ceremonies. Romanelli does not conceal his religious prejudices against Islam and often launches into tirades against the Islamic mode of worship and the teachings of the Prophet Mohamed (PBUH). Romanelli is also unequivocal in his indictment of the Moroccan society which appeared to him to be backward and immersed in superstition and bigotry. The condition of Jews themselves was anything but a felicitous one. They were by and large considered inferior subjects and were subjected to numerous injustices. There were always exceptions. Wealthy Jewish families had direct access to the Sultan and enjoyed the privileges denied to the majority of inhabitants. They dominated foreign trade and formed strong alliances with the ruling class — the Makhzen. However, their wealth and power were never shielded from the vagaries of time and envy of men. Romanelli tells us in the last chapter of his narrative of the harrowing stories of violence committed against the Jews of the country when El Yazid took power.  It was blind vengeance that defied morality and wisdom, and spared no one — Muslim or Jew. Romanelli makes no mention of how Muslims hid and protected Jews and how many paid with their lives. But El Yazid died soon later.

The Israeli repressive policies against Palestinians today have influenced our perceptions of Jews, and it is difficult to try to discuss the Jewish legacies in Arab countries without feeling both anger and contempt against the methodical oppression and dispossession meted out to a generation after generation of helpless civilians in Gaza, Al Quds, the West Bank and other occupied territories in the name of religion.

Despite its numerous irredeemable biases, Romanelli’s account needs to be read again with fresh eyes because it provides a profound and enlightening inside vision of the Moroccan society. It calls attention to the importance of trade and commerce in shaping the modern face of Morocco and the part played by Jewish merchants in the successive changes which the urban communities on the Atlantic and Mediterranean experienced from the late eighteenth century onwards. Daniel J. Schroeter ‘s study is an engaging expose of this important economic dimension and deserves to be read along with the accounts of Abdallah Laroui and and Louis Miege.