Part THREE in my series on photographing Orthodox Jewish Weddings. If you missed the previous posts, you can read one here and two here.
About a year after I photographed Dovie and Noi’s wedding, Steven and I took a trip to Morocco. We both had never been there before. It was a wonderful trip and in the second half we arrived in Fez. We arrived at night and it was not an easy arrival. We had been harassed getting out of our cab, we couldn’t find our hotel right away, we were tired. We started off on the wrong feet. The next morning we went out to explore and search for a place to eat. Now, finding a place to eat in a foreign country tends to be more difficult for me because I’m a vegetarian. So we had been wandering around a bit looking for a good place.
We came across an interesting building that caught our attention for the old iron grill work and the stone facade. An alleyway twisted down off the street next to it. We didn’t know what was down there but we tentatively meandered down. We went halfway and turned around figuring it won’t lead us to anything good when we saw a man in the alley near the entrance waving his hands at us, motioning us to follow him.
We don’t speak Arabic, he didn’t speak English. We made the universal gesture of “eat eat, food food” by bringing our fingers to our lips. He shook his head eagerly gesturing “yes yes” follow me.
OK we figured there must be a cafe upstairs where he is gesturing to us. He is very eager. Poor guy must need business.
And even though Steve and I are NY’ers I suppose we weren’t feeling a NY sense of distrust in following a complete stranger in a foreign land in an alleyway upstairs to who knows where.
Um. Yeah. This is probably where in reading this, our parents are probably rolling their eyes.
So back to the man in the alley.
We go upstairs. It’s a small place. Almost looks like an apartment. But hey… we nothing of Fez, and often in third world countries we’ve traveled to, the best meals have been in places that seem like someone’s home. One other person is there, a young girl, she comes out of the kitchen. We all shake our heads, smile, gesture for food with our words indicating a question mark behind the gesture.
He sits us down and says “couscous?” Sure. Yes. He disappears.
I turn to Steven and say “I think we are in his home?” He shakes his head, he doesn’t know.
The man returns and starts talking away and pointing around at the apartment. We shake our heads politely. Nice nice. We are doing really well at the polite thing by this point, even though we are starving.
The man comes over and hands us a pack of papers. We look down and see xeroxed papers with what appears to be Hebrew written on it.
We. Are. Thoroughly. Confused.
I turn it over and then I see…….. (goosebumps now as I write this)….
What the heck?
Then I see a photo of the Rebbe.
Steven and I look to each other and our smiles get bigger and our eyes show questions in them.
The man disappears to the kitchen.
I whisper to Steven, “What is this? Are we in a Lubavitch safe house??” “What is going on?”
A few months later I learn of Chabad houses, but I don’t know about that yet.
So we ask the man to eat with us, he politely takes a few bites of the huge plate of couscous that arrived. It’s delicious, though it’s got meat in it and it’s Good Friday and Steven had given up meat for the day. But we are realizing at this point we are in this guy’s home and this was probably their family meal the young woman had made so we eat as much as we can, Steven tucks some meat into his pocket for later. We don’t want to be rude.
Then Steven and the man commence trying to find a way to communicate with each other. Steven knows a few words of Arabic. Mostly it’s all gesturing and nodding and smiling and pretending we all understand each other. But one thing we were able to understand is “Water Tower.”
We left the place, I kept the papers to try to decipher in some way later. Our heads just wrapped up in what just happened and how did we stumble upon something connected to the Lubavitchers on our first day in Fez, a place we started in not enjoying, in a Moroccan man’s home who was speaking Arabic.
Back at the hotel we retrieved our guide book and we found a listing for the Water Tower. And then all the pieces fell together.
The Water Tower was where Maimonides had lived when he settled in Morocco.
I still have goosebumps when I tell this story. How small the world is, how close our connections are. And the ways we were led to this moment.
And here is a beautiful piece written by my dear friend Leigh Hershkovich, author of Shattered Illusions, about this experience and more. Keeping Kosher in Morocco
I can’t find the original papers, but here some of the quick photos I took and sent out to my new friends via email: