Thursday, June 09, 2011

Moroccan mosaics at Jerusalem heritage centre

Ha'aretz reports that the David Amar World Centre for North African Jewish Heritage in Jerusalem will be opened on Sunday in the presence of Israeli president, Shimon Peres. The renovation of the building has taken some years, and Moroccan artisans such as zelliji (mosaic artist) Abdulla Dara, have been recruited to work on the project.

When you ask Abdullah Dara his profession, he replies "soccer player." But for the last few months, the 24-year-old from Rabat, Morocco has been working in Jerusalem - in the family business. Dara is an expert in the art of zellij, the Moroccan mosaics that decorate walls and floors. His work involves preparing ceramic surfaces painted in various colors and breaking them with a delicate hammer into thousands of tiny, identical pieces. Then he and other workers arrange the miniature pieces into a giant puzzle to create a beautiful coloured surface. Dara did not hesitate to come to Israel. "We work all over the world," he says. "My brother has already worked in Spain, Dubai and France."

The building was constructed in the mid-19th century by Rabbi David Ben Shimon, founder of the community of North African Jews in Jerusalem who distinguished themselves from the general Sephardic Jewish community. It was used to house new immigrants from the community.

After four years of renovation and hundreds of thousands of stones, which Dara and his friends assembled into dozens of square meters of mosaic, the old building looks like a sultan's palace. It has definitely turned into the most colorful building in Jerusalem.

Authentic Moroccan style

The association of Jewish communities of North Africa, which has reconstructed the building, decided to build it in authentic Moroccan style - complete with an Andalusian-style garden, water fountains, carved and painted doors, ornamentation on the walls, and colored floor tiles.

Since there is not a single contractor in Israel who knows how to do this kind of work, the organisation recruited the help of contractors and artisans from Morocco. However, the Interior Ministry tried to prevent their entry. "They didn't understand that they aren't foreign workers, they're artists. Every time they went home for a two-week holiday, it took me half a year to bring them back," says Haim Cohen, chairman of the association. When the workers finally did arrive, they didn't keep to the schedule. The Israeli employers were so afraid that the mosaics would not be ready on time for the festive ceremony that they prepared an emergency plan: wooden boards with a photograph of the mosaic, meant to serve as a cheap substitute for the real thing.

The site is expected to become one of the city's leading tourist attractions. "The purpose of the center is to preserve the [North African Jewish] heritage through dress, music, vessels, piyyutim [liturgical poems] and prayers...and bring them to the general public," says Cohen. This will be done through exhibitions, a library and a computer center for studying the history of North African Jewish communities.

Photo by: Daniel Bar-On

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