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April 6: Jews in Timbuktu

April 6, 2014
imagesMoroccan-born Rabbi Mordechai Aby Serour, a merchant, explorer, and geographer who established a Jewish presence in Timbuktu, the ancient city in Mali, died at age 60 on this date in 1886. He spent his teen years in Jerusalem, studying to be a rabbi, and served in that role in Algeria from 1847 to 1858. In the 1860s he began running caravans to Timbuktu — an Islamic city that was in general off-limits to “infidels” — and even managed to establish a minyan of Jews there, despite opposition by Muslim merchants and political leaders. Serour was fluent in the text of the Qu’ran and argued that under sharia law, he and other Jews were permitted to remain and pay a special tax, the jizya. He became quite wealthy as a merchant, but he was attacked and robbed of his fortune several times, and ended his life as a synagogue teacher in Algiers. “Jews were unable . . . to settle in the Saharan interior because of the absence of a strong client-patron relationship that guaranteed their protection in times of political change and economic upheavals. . . . [Yet t]heir knowledge of local Arabic and Berber dialects also facilitated roles as economic mediators. In addition, the social status of Jews as dhimmi provided them with a special standing within the southern tribal Saharan settlements, which defined their position both as outsiders of the political system and as insiders of the marketplace.” -Aomar Boum, Memories of Absence: How Muslims Remember Jews in Morocco