A Monumental Test for Egypt
by Jason Guberman-Pfeffer
The first big test of how Egypt’s precarious new government is going to deal with Jews will take place at a little-noticed event next month, when pilgrims from around the world traditionally gather at the shrine of a Moroccan mystic buried in the Nile Delta.
A few crumbling sarcophagi—and a contingent of Egyptian security officers—surround the monument of Rabbi Ya’akov Abuhatzera, on the outskirts of the town of Damanhur. The structure is a renovated version of the original domed building, whose red stone may be seen through cracks in the yellow plaster overlay.
Within the shrine’s single room lies the rabbi’s tombstone with its Aramaic epitaph. The space is pervaded by the smell of hay hanging from the chandelier and scattered about the floor, suggesting that the shrine may at times be repurposed by local farmers.
The festival marking the anniversary of the rabbi’s death is the only commemoration dedicated to a Jewish figure in Egypt. For the past decade, a coalition of Islamists and leftists led a campaign to ban Jews from the shrine. In 2004, an Egyptian court revoked the site’s historical designation, and in 2009, the pilgrimage was restricted. Last year it was canceled, and 25 terrorists allegedly plotting to attack pilgrims were arrested.
Lost amidst the controversy over access are the monument’s occupant – and his famous grandson. Ya’akov Abuhatzera, known as Abir Ya’akov (“Prince Jacob”), was born in Morocco’s southeast Tafilalet region early in the 19th century. Abir Ya’akov is credited with building a following on the edge of the Sahara through his ascetic practices, communal leadership, and authorship of mystical texts. Apparently sensing his own mortality, he set out at an advanced age on a trek across the Maghreb towards Jerusalem.
En route, he reached Damanhur, south of Alexandria. The city’s embattled Jewish community had endured a succession of pogroms in the 1870s over false accusations of ritual murder, reverberations of the Damascus blood libel. During his stay, the rabbi emerged as a figure revered not only by Jews but also Muslims, who deemed him a wali, or holy man. After he died of illness on January 4, 1880, his shrine soon became a pilgrimage destination for Muslim as well as Jewish Egyptians.
Ya’akov’s grandson, Yisrael Abuhatzeira—known as the Baba Sali, or “Praying Father”—augmented his family’s spiritual patrimony with an austere piety that distinguished him even within the universe of Moroccan “saints.” With no publications to his name, he led an obscure existence in the labyrinthine Jewish quarter of Rissani, Morocco, until settling in the 1950s in the southern Israeli town of Netivot (until recently a regular target of rocket fire from Gaza). So great was the Baba Sali’s subsequent fame that today in many Jewish communities his visage vies for ubiquity with that of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe.
For decades, due to restrictions imposed under Gamal Abdel Nasser, the historic pilgrimage to Damanhur was blocked. Those seeking to celebrate the anniversary of Abir Ya’akov’s death had to do so remotely, often at his grandson’s compound in Netivot. Peace between Israel and Egypt re-opened the shrine to visitors. Suddenly, Jewish pilgrims to Damanhur were able to enter the actual place of burial to celebrate a festive meal, sing songs of praise, and light devotional candles. Kissing the tomb, some would place atop the gravestone a bottle of water in the belief that the rabbi’s sanctity might be transferred to whoever subsequently imbibed the liquid.
More recently, the shrine’s around-the-clock security detail has been known to subject visitors to intense scrutiny. Several years ago, photographer Joshua Shamsi went with a friend to document the site for Diarna, an online museum that digitally preserves Middle Eastern Jewish heritage sites. The pair was detoured to the local police station for hours of interrogation before being rushed back to the rabbi’s grave. Allowed inside for all of ten minutes (long enough to document the haunting setting in stark photos), they were then conveyed to Alexandria by military escort.
In the years before the 2011 cancellation, activists had organized mass demonstrations against the pilgrimage. They lodged court cases, called for stones to be thrown at pilgrims, and threatened to kill Jewish visitors. Indeed, though the shrine is one of the holiest sites for Moroccan and Egyptian Jews, many Egyptians view the pilgrimage as an unwelcome vestige of the Camp David Accords.
With the annual January pilgrimage just days away, the looming question is what Egypt’s new Islamist leadership will decide? On the one hand, the governing Freedom and Justice Party is, according to its election platform, pledged to support the “spread of moderation and renunciation of violence and sectarianism.” On the other hand, President Morsi’s recent “amen“ to a prayer for the destruction of the Jews augurs ill for freedom of religion in Egypt. The ruling Islamists are fighting to enshrine a controversial new constitution, which claims to recognize the religious freedom of Egyptian Jews. A decision to block the annual January pilgrimage to Damanhur will foreshadow the regime’s true sentiments.
All the while, the mystical Moroccan rabbi still lies buried in a small Nile Delta cemetery, denied visitors yet surrounded by armed guards. The only safe and sure way to visit him is a virtual pilgrimage via the Diarna online museum. There, visitors of all creeds are welcome any time.
Mr. Guberman-Pfeffer is a Tikvah Fellow, and curates Diarna.org, a geo-museum dedicated to Middle Eastern Jewish life.