“I am the last Jew of Essaouira!” says Josef Sebag amid his bric-a-brac shop stuffed with Nubian masks, priapic fetish objects, dog-eared volumes on African esoterica and exquisite antique amulets wrought by Moroccan Jewish silversmiths.
Sebag’s not going anywhere. He loves this Moroccan seaside town where he was born, as were generations of his family before him. Not that he’s spent all his life here.
A consummate cosmopolitan, he was educated in Casablanca before living for 15 years in New York City.
He even weirds me out by knowing Brixton, that gritty but rapidly-gentrifying south London suburb where I live.
“Brixton. Yeah, Brixton. It’s a flourishing area. It’s coming back.”
Speaking of areas that are rapidly gentrifying and flourishing, Essaouira is fast on its way to becoming a kind of Marrakech-on-Sea.
In the 20 years since he returned here and opened his eclectic emporium, Sebag has seen Essaouira become “reborn. It’s a hip city. It’s a cool city. It’s safe, it’s quiet, it’s tranquil. Writers and artists come here, they rent an apartment and they stay.”
“Hip” isn’t necessarily a word I expected to come from the mouth of this mid-50s antiquarian but, come to think of it, with his crisp white shirt and chunky amber pendant, he does exude a certain enduring Beat with-it-ness.
The same could be said of Essaouira. Like Marrakech, it may be becoming but thankfully it retains a laid-back quality that the better known Moroccan metropolis lacks.
One thing a keen Morocco hand notices immediately upon rocking up in Essaouira by bus or plane (easyJet’s been flying in directly from London Luton since last year; no stag or hen parties visible – yet) is the absence of those moustachioed, vaguely David Niven-ish salesmen of carpets and twirly-toed leather slippers who so, er, distinctly mark many a Moroccan city trip.
Essaouira seems to be blithely holding on to its character: very mellow for Morocco, fishy thanks to its still-busy port and windy as hell – gale-force gusts blow in straight from the Atlantic, tempering the sometimes fierce heat.
Oh, and cheap – did I mention cheap? Apart from the odd spruced-up riad and a five-star hotel, this is still a place where you can have yourself a spanking fresh fish supper for south of a fiver. Indeed , so characterful is the city that bits of Game of Thrones were recently shot here on the striking 18th-century fortifications – although, hilariously, no-one in town seems to have heard of the blood- and boob-heavy HBO hit.
But, hang on, something’s missing from that character profile… the Jews.
Essaouira didn’t used to be Essaouira. It was Jewish Mogador.
No sooner had the then-sultan built the young city in 1765 than, spicing-up the invitation with tax incentives, he invited Jewish merchants from far and wide to live here and make it prosper.
And so it did. And so did the Jews – to the point that, for much of its history, they outnumbered the Muslim population of the thriving city.
This was Timbuktu’s port, where multifarious goods arrived by camel from that desert trading post to be shipped throughout the known world.
There were 40 synagogues in town; Mogador was probably the quietest place in Morocco on a Saturday. And then: 1948. Shepherded by an ardent Zionist movement, Morocco’s Jews decamped en masse to Israel and beyond, shrinking the population within the country from 350,000 to 3,000 in a couple of decades.
No wonder now, in Essaouira – as the town latterly became known – Sebag feels as if he belongs (quite proudly, though, I’d guess) “to a private club of which I’m the only member”.
But the last Jew of Essaouira? Perhaps not quite. Fossicking about in the mellah – the town’s Jewish quarter, although in a sense Essaouira was one big mellah – I come across the half-restored Slat Lkahal synagogue and its tireless renovator, Haim Bitton.
Another son of the city, Bitton left with his family for Israel and then the US and had entirely forgotten about the building where, as a child in the 1950s, he would pray and listen to the Andalusian music that Spanish Jews fleeing the fall of Moorish Al Andalus brought with them in the 15th century.
A retired El Al exec, Bitton was on a return trip to Essaouira in 2011 when he again came upon this once-vibrant place of worship, which in the meantime had become a ruin.
With its roof caved in and stripped of most of its Jewish insignia, thieves and the elements had left it a target for the wrecking ball.
Since then, scraping together his own and a few old classmates’ funds, Bitton – a compact man with a thoughtful face that breaks into an almost cheeky grin when chatting about the synagogue – has been busy rewinding those years of neglect.
It’s a time machine now. Stepping through the low portal from the street, you’re very quickly back in Mogador.
The intricately-carved wooden Aron Kodesh – a gift from the Jews of far-away Livorno – has been restored; beautiful, repetitive rococo-like features throughout the synagogue are based on a single decoration that wasn’t nicked.
Bitton knows Essaouira will never be Jewish again, but he’s restoring Slat Lkahal partly as a reminder of what Jews gave the city – and this sure feels like one of the most tolerant spots in this part of the world, not to mention one of the hippest.
“They say here,” Bitton tells me, “we have learnt from the Jews. Islam has learnt from the Jews. You won’t hear that anywhere else.”
Simon Busch travelled to Essaouira with Lawrence of Morocco (01672 500 555).
The company can organise a three-night stay at historic Villa Maroc from £439pp (two sharing) including direct flights, breakfast and transfers.
A half-day Jewish-history tour costs £35, bookable through Lawrence of Morocco. For more about the restoration of the Slat Lkahal synagogue,
See the website at http://www.lawrenceofmorocco.com/accommodation/villa-maroc