By Gabe Roy
I’ve been thinking a lot about the things we leave behind. And since my arrival to Morocco, the question has wholly captivated my attention. It’s confronted me in the medina markets of Rabat, Fez, and Marrakech, where abandoned paraphernalia acquire new life: worn appliances, dysfunctional electronics, and forgotten toys are assiduously cleaned, repackaged, and sold, and discarded mannequins are unskillfully repainted to flaunt vendors’ faux designer clothing.
In their revivified form, even these discarded, worthless trinquets surprisingly have some utility. The mannequin, with its disheveled wig and deranged painted expression, models spurious Gucci t-shirts; the 30-year-old Vitamix, with blades blunter than a butter knife, will someday make lumpy, poorly-mixed smoothies.
For their ability to creatively repurpose the neglected and seemingly useless, the medina’s salesmen are true artisans.
Monsieur Edmond Gabbay, 84, is a different kind of craftsman — he’s a conservateur. And there’s no repurposing the abandoned objects he collects, for they function only as bleak memories of a distant time.
Upon my request, Gabbay’s caretaker unlocks the heavy wooden door of a former synagogue turned “museum:” a space which houses thousands of miscellaneous objects left behind by the Jews of Fez. Gabbay is the curator of this peculiar cemetery for things forgotten, which he’s managed since the Jews rapidly initiated a mass exodus for Israel and France around 1950.
For reasons he could hardly articulate, Gabbay’s never abandoned his post as guardian of the Jews’ belongings: to this day, Gabbay hobbles every morning to a chair in the studio adjoining his museum, from which point he looks wistfully out onto a Jewish cemetery.
I asked him if he’s held out hope for a resurgence of Morocco’s Jewish community. Ruefully, he turned to me and released a heavy sigh: “Ils ne reviennent pas.” They’re not coming back.
Gabbay’s museum offered me the most poignant expression of the way we often leave things behind: without a narrative. The anonymity of Gabbay’s artifacts and the careless, haphazard way with which they were displayed underscored this tendency for me: photos of nameless Jewish families were randomly arranged on the museum’s paint-flaking walls, and children’s comic books – their former owners’ names effaced by decades of sun bleaching – were stacked precariously in high towers. There was something beautifully fraught about the way these objects (which at some point must have meant something to someone) were discarded. Their paucity of identity evoked in me a keen desire to piece together the past: could I construct a history with that faded leather loafer, that newspaper clipping, and those busted television sets?
I left Gabbay’s ethereal, depressive realm of memories and stepped back into the medina; there, I pondered the juxtaposition between things abandoned and repurposed in the market, and things the Jews neglected – now banished to museum. It seemed unfair to me that Gabbay’s artifacts, collecting thick coats of dust, were to be enclosed in perpetuity in that cramped synagogue.
But perhaps we leave things behind in order to live.
Stacked high with the Sephardic community’s forgotten suitcases, the hallways of Gabbay’s museum affirm this aphorism. As evinced by the collection of luggages, Jews have always been an itinerant peoples, often chased by the force of intolerance, or migrating where better opportunity resided. While Morocco’s Jews generally did not meet egregious persecution, it seems they could not shake their migratory tradition — one which brought them to Morocco from Spain, and to Spain from Eastern Europe.
If this transience is life for the Jews, then so too is the act of leaving things behind. What the Jews couldn’t carry with them, they abandoned — perhaps to serve as a reminder of their imprint on the communities they inhabited or, more profoundly, of their beleaguered religious identity.
Gabe is a rising sophomore in TD. You can contact him at email@example.com.