I dip into memory: a photograph of Sol Hatchouel always graced my parent’s home, and my grandparents, and my extended families. I, too, treasure her photograph and her memory. Sol’s sanctified name and her horrific destiny were invariably on the lips of family members, cutting across generations. Details of her fate were passed down, like a cherished baton, with loving devotion.
Sol or (Solica) Hatchouel was born in Tangier in 1817. Background details leading up to her execution in Fez in 1834 were told at home and the marching song, bearing her name and written in her memory, was never far from our lips. I listened with gripped attention about Sol’s adamant refusal to convert to Islam and of her execution for apostasy. It is a chilling story of a chilling fate sadistically brought upon a young Jewess from Tangier.
Curiosity runs in my nature and pulsates in my veins. In 2007, following a disastrous knee operation, I felt the consuming urge to travel to Fez where Sol is buried in the ancient Hebrew cemetery in the Mellah (the old Jewish quarter of that city).
‘Mellah’ comes from the Hebrew and Arabic words for salt, due either to a saline water source in the area or the presence of a former salt warehouse (see for instance, ‘Quand Fes inventait le Mellah,” Rguig, Hicham (2014) or Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora: Origins, Experiences, and Culture, (volume 1)).
From the 15th century, Jewish communities in Morocco were constrained to live in Mellah districts. Often, the Jewish quarter would be found near the royal palace or the residence of the governor to offer protection from frequent riots to its Jewish inhabitants.
There had been a Jewish community in Fez since the city’s foundation by the Idrisids in the late eighth century. And in 2007, brandishing two clanking crutches, I embarked on the journey to Fez. The comfortless train ride, then, from Tangier took some six hours; fizzy drinks and crisps were the prized ‘goodies’ the cranking and sweltering first-class coach provided travelers.
In Fez, I checked in at one of that city’s riads. The next morning, aided by my two ubiquitous crutches, I noisily wobbled along the cobble-stoned lanes of the Mellah in search of the Hebrew cemetery. An elderly man, exhibiting a posy of exquisitely dyed Moroccan leather ‘babouches’, pointed me in the direction of the cemetery. I clanked further. The cemetery caretaker sat on a crippled wicker chair, swaying nonchalantly.
Sol was born in Tangier. Her parents, Haim and Simha Hatchouel, were of very modest means. Sol’s father would impart religious classes from home and Sol’s adherence to her Jewish upbringing was beyond reproach.
In her teen years, Sol befriended Tahra de Mesoodi, a devout Moslem neighbour who repeatedly tried to convince Sol to convert to Islam. Eventually, Tahra contacted the Governor of Tangier to whom she related that her friend, Sol, was ready to convert to Islam. When brought before the Governor, Sol disputed Tahra’s claim. As a result, Sol was thrown into a prison cell. She was expected to relent and convert.
But Sol insisted that she had been born a Jewess and would die a Jewess. The Governor accused Sol of apostasy, punishable by death. But Sol would not relent and refused to succumb to unremitting threats of violence.
Moroccan Jews, considered ‘dhimmis’ (protected persons), enjoyed little personal security. Though Sol’s parents doggedly sought to secure Sol’s release, the Governor of Tanger decided to send Sol to Fez so that the Sultan of that city would decide Sol’s ultimate fate. With tormenting malice, the Governor insisted that Sol’s transport expenses to Fez were to be paid by her parents.
Anguished, her family advised they could not raise the $40.00 demanded for Sol’s transportation. Mercifully, Don Jose Rico, the Spanish Vice Consul in Tangier, who unsuccessfully tried to obtain Sol’s release, advanced the $40.00.
The journey to Fez is said to have taken six days. Upon arrival in Fez, and bound with ropes to a mule, Sol was brought to the Sultan’s palace. The Sultan’s son took a fancy to Sol and demanded she convert to Islam and then marry him. Sol refused both demands.
The Sultan then ordered the rabbis of Fez to meet with Sol and convince her to convert and marry his son. The rabbis were forewarned that if they failed, Sol would be beheaded as an apostate and Morocco’s Jewish community would suffer greatly as a result of Sol’s disloyalty.
The rabbis urged her to convert. Sol refused conversion and refused marriage. Both. Infuriated, the Sultan signed a warrant for Sol’s beheading. Sol spent her last hours fasting, deep in prayer.
Sol’s execution took place in a public square in the zoco of Fez in the presence of thousands who cheered, ululating while awaiting her death as an apostate. Helpless, Fez’s Jews watched in horror as Sol was dragged to the place of execution. There, the Sultan, in an act of extreme sadism ordered the executioner to make sharp but precise lacerations with his blade across Sol’s neck hoping she would relent and embrace Islam. Notwithstanding the executioner’s stark insistence:
“become a Moslem and save yourself,” Sol’s response was clear, “do not make me wait …. kill me … for I die innocent of any crime. The God of Abraham will avenge my death.” On hearing these words and Sol’s relentless refusal to convert to Islam, she was decapitated. Sol’s head was publicly exhibited on the walls of the Mellah to assuage the baying crowd and as a warning to the Moroccan Jewish community. Fez’s Jews paid ransom money to retrieve Sol’s torso and head for burial according to Jewish rites, including the bloodstained earth. Posthumously, Sol was given the title of ‘Sadeket’ (saintess). Muslims refer to her as ‘Lala Suleika’ (holy lady Suleika).
Following my first visit to Fez in 2007, I made this journey an annual pilgrimage to Sol’s grave to light candles and recite Psalms. On my first visit, perched between the crypt and adjacent steps, I wrote a poem in the Spanish language consisting of ten stanzas setting out in lyrical arrangements the chronicle of Sol’s misery and stoicism The beige-coloured plaque on Sol’s crypt always serves as reminder of the savagery of her wanton decapitation. My last visit to Fez was in 2019. The virus from China has since made international travel impossible.
The warrant of execution of Sol Hatchouel on grounds of apostasy issued by the Sultan of Fez did not go unnoticed beyond the walls of Fez. Jewish communities in Morocco mourned Sol’s hapless fate and the falsehood of the charge and the barbarity of the sentence. Across the Straits of Gibraltar, Sol’s tragic execution did not go unnoticed either. In Gibraltar, lived Sol’s family members. Passage of years notwithstanding, Sol’s gruesome fate, her staunch resolve and her nightmare of agony have remained alive in generational recollection.
On the 6th of May 1858, 24 years after Sol’s beheading, a five act play by Don Antonio Calle premiered at the ‘teatro de Gibraltar’. I have a copy of the full play, ‘El Martirio de la Joven Hachuel, La Heroina Hebrea’ (The Martyrdom of the Young Hachuel, The Hebrew Heroine).
The play received great acclamation. Written in prose and verse the play describes the horrible events surrounding Sol’s death. The script ends with the words attributed to Sol as she slowly bled to death: “Acabad de una vez, y no me hagais penar mas; pues muriendo como muero inocente, el Dios de Abraham me vengará” (finish once and for all, do not let me grieve more; dying as I die in innocence, the God of Abraham will avenge me).
Standing, as I yearly have from 2007 to 2019 by Sol’s gravesite, I have shut my eyelids and shuddered, transcending time to re-live the terrible events of 1834. In the deepest recess of my ears echo the chilling cries of the crowd baying for Sol’s blood; I have felt enveloped in the indescribable fear of Fez’s Jewish community; I have groped to feel the stoic valour, undying faith and exemplary bravery of a seventeen-year-old teenager whose death is etched on a plaque on an external wall of her crypt:
“lci Repose Mme Solica Hatchouel, nee a Tanger en 1817 refusánt de rentree dans la religion islamisme les arabes l’ont assessinee a Fez en 1834 arrachee de sa famille tout le monde regrette cette enfant sainte.” (Here lies Solica Hatchouel, born in Tangier in 1817, refused to be part of the religion of Islam the Arabs assassinated her in Fez in 1834 torn from her family, everyone mourned this saintly child). Sol died as a martyr, executed for her alleged apostasy from Islam, though she never converted to Islam.