The Sultan's Jew: Morocco and the Sephardi World

By Kramer, Robert S. | African Studies Review, April 2006 | Go to article overview

The Sultan's Jew: Morocco and the Sephardi World


Kramer, Robert S., African Studies Review


Daniel J. Schroeter. The Sultan's Jew: Morocco and the Sephardi World. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002. xxii + 240 pp. Maps. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $55.00. Cloth.

There is already a vast literature devoted to the Jewish experience in the Arab and Islamic worlds, including translated primary sources, scholarly studies of various communities, biographies and autobiographies, surveys of Jewish-Arab and Jewish-Muslim relations, literary and linguistic studies, gender studies, legal studies, studies of modernization and political development, memoirs of life before 1948, even memoirs-cum-cookbooks. More is certain to be written, given the vast paper trail left by Jewish communities as well as the politically charged nature of contemporary Jewish-Arab and Jewish-Muslim relations. Among this huge library a handful of remarkable books stand out, able to evoke time and place as well as highlighting the ambiguities, contradictions, and ironies of Jewish life. Daniel Schroeter's The Sultan's Jew is one such book. Focusing on the life of an important merchant, Meir Macnin (d.1835), Schroeter is able to reveal an enormous amount not only about a Jewish community, but also the worlds it inhabited: Moroccan, Mediterranean, and European. A model of historical interpretation, it is also a delight to read: compelling, concise, and utterly devoid of jargon.

The Sultan's Jew follows the author's earlier book, Merchants of Essaouira: Urban Society and Imperialism in Southwestern Morocco (Cambridge, 1988). Based substantially on Macnin family papers recently discovered in Paris, it forms the first part of a projected two-volume study of the transformation of the Moroccan Jewish community in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. With its emphasis on the complexities and paradoxes of Jewish life in an Islamic state (during a time, moreover, of growing European involvement), it is a welcome antidote to the more polemical arguments that cloud the subject. Accompanied by a detailed bibliography and substantial endnotes, it makes a useful resource for North African, Middle Eastern, and Sephardic studies in just over two hundred pages.

The author's task cannot have been easy. Abundant archival sources in Britain, France, and Morocco, as well as the aforementioned Macnin family papers, all shed light on the activities of Meir Macnin. However, there survives almost nothing from the perspective of Macnin himself: nothing to suggest his motivations or personality. Lacking memoirs or personal correspondence, the author must imagine his subject's voice. Schroeter writes: "Since he rarely speaks in the documents, he is my invented informant around whom I attempt to imagine the world in which he lived" (xv). If ultimately we can never know the accuracy of the Meir Macnin portrait that emerges, we are still left with a vivid and detailed study of his larger community and the political and social contexts in which it functioned.

The introductory chapter may be for some readers die most important. Beginning with a review of the literature on Muslim-Jewish relations, the author traces changes in historiography from nineteenth-century German scholarship, through S. D. Goitein's magisterial Geniza study, to later twentieth-century works, noting the effects upon the literature of such events as the Holocaust and the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (The endnotes here are especially useful.) Next, he turns to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Morocco by way of example, noting the mutual "reliance and tension" characterizing Muslim and Jewish communities that lived "at once both together and apart" (10). …

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