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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

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Photo exhibit is a journey into Jewish Morocco

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This image taken at the Al Zama Synagogue is photographer Aaron Vincent Elkaim's favourite.

Aaron Vincent Elkaim’s upcoming photographic exhibit documents the history of Jewish Morocco.

His work will be displayed at the CONTACT Photography Festival for the month of May at the Pikto Gallery in the Distillery District in Toronto.

 “The title, A Co-Existence: Lost in the Wake of Zionism, refers to how Jews and Muslims lived alongside each other in relative peace in Morocco since, really, the beginning of Islam,” Elkaim said. “Although an Islamic country, the Jewish People were truly incorporated into the Moroccan identity and structure of the country.”

Although Elkaim said he doesn’t deny certain dark periods in the history, “on the whole, Jews were considered true Moroccans. They were part of the country’s identity, and the country was part of theirs. This is still evident in the nostalgia that exists in those who have left Morocco.”

Elkaim’s photographic project is “a journey into the remnants of a culture” that captures “an epoch of Judaism existing in peace with Islam.” Reviving memories of “a past forgotten in the wake of Zionism,” Elkaim said he aims to tell a story at odds with current perceptions of Jews and Arabs.

The Jewish People arrived in the land now known as Morocco more than 2,000 years ago. Protected since the seventh century by the Islamic principle of tolerance, they thrived, holding high positions in trade and government. The Star of David, which appeared on the currency and national flag, was a symbol all Moroccans shared.

During the Holocaust, when asked for a list of Jews, King Mohammed V declared, “We have no Jews in Morocco, only Moroccan citizens.” In 1940, Morocco had 300,000 Jews, the largest population in the Arab world. Following World War II, Israel’s expansion marked the beginning of an exodus. Today, less than 5,000 Jews remain, Elkaim said.

 “The underlying message is simply that coexistence did exist and it worked. I think this is something that is forgotten in today’s political climate, where walls are being built to keep people apart. I feel these walls are blocking the view of what once was and what could be again. I’m simply trying to find hope and truth in history, trying to keep that alive.”

Elkaim said his inspiration for his exhibit stems from his family’s history. “My father was born in the Mellah of Marrakech. He and most of my family immigrated to Canada in the 1960s. They were always very nostalgic of Morocco and kept the culture alive.”

He said the culture was always exotic, yet “normal” for him growing up. “I took it for granted. As I got older though, I began to realize that the culture could not last in the same way as the generations move forward. The Jewish traditions may stay strong, but the cultural tie to Morocco would fade.”

Before becoming a photographer, Elkaim studied cultural anthropology and film in university. He found photography as a passion after completing his degree, but it took a while for him to pursue it as a career.

 “For me the idea of exploring the world and its stories and cultures was captivating. When I began to realize that photography offered the ability to keep exploring and learning, I knew I had found something great, but more importantly, it also offered me direction and purpose for these desires. My explorations were no longer just for me – I now had the ability to communicate the things I was discovering. I could tell stories that I believe are important.”

Elkaim said he loves being part of life. “The work I do is a reflection of real life, realities that aren’t my own, but that I am privileged to experience and capture. It is the people and their stories and watching them unfold around me that truly captivate me. It’s less about a beautiful image than capturing what I am experiencing and conveying a feeling about it.”

This year marks the third time that Elkaim is showing his work at CONTACT. He is a founding member of the Boreal Collective, a group of Canadian documentary photographers who had a group show at last year’s festival.

His work from Morocco has also been shown internationally at the Reportage Festival in Australia, the New York Photo Festival, the Recconures des Arles festival in France and Fotographia Festival in Rome.

Elkaim said he hopes people will react positively to his images of Morocco. “I simply aim to shine a light on a history that might have been overlooked in the current framework surrounding both Judaism and Islam. I feel we often see things in black and white, but this story offers us shades of grey, and I believe that truth and hope usually resides somewhere in the middle.”

His favourite image from the collection is of the wind blowing through the curtains of the Al Zama Synagogue in Marrakech. “Everything is blue and so peaceful. You can just feel the presence of a sacred history being preserved within the space.”

To see more of Elkaim’s photography, visit www.avephoto.ca.

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