Elie Mamann was out walking with his family on Lincoln Road in Miami’s South Beach area when he thought he saw someone he knew.
There, in a clothing store, shopping with his wife and son, was a middle-aged guy wearing a jean shirt and denim pants. Mamann, a native of Toronto whose family immigrated from Morocco in 1963, recognized him immediately.
“That was the king of Morocco,” he blurted out to his wife, Sultana.
At first, she didn’t believe him. “Yeah, right,” she replied.
But Mamann was certain of it. In his household growing up, as in many of the homes of Moroccan Jewish emigrés, the king was held in high regard. So was his father, King Hassan II. And there, mingling with the commoners, in clothing as casual as you can get, was the king of Morocco, Mohammed VI, along with his wife, Princess Lalla Salma, and son, Crown Prince Moulay Hassan.
The royal trio might have been mistaken for just another family out shopping during a family vacation. Except, of course for the U.S. Secret Service agents strategically placed around them, in addition to members of the king’s own entourage.
Mamann walked up to one of the king’s assistants, a woman in charge of protocol, it appeared, and asked permission to approach the king.
As it turned out, the king is very approachable. Mamann was given the green light and soon was in conversation with the monarch.
“I said, ‘Your majesty, I’m born in Toronto, my parents were from Casablanca and I want to thank you for all you do for the Jewish people in Morocco and around the world. He said, ‘It is my honour,’” Mamann recounted.
“He was the nicest guy you can ever meet in your life,” Mamann stated on the phone from Florida, where his family was still enjoying their Passover vacation.
The men conversed in French. The wives spoke in Spanish. The king was particularly impressed that the royal family is held in esteem by former Moroccans and that even third-generation Moroccans, like Mamann’s children, Haim, 15, Joshua, 14, and Shira, 11, are taught about the Jews’ long history in that north African land.
King Mohammed was surprised that Haim, who attends Yeshivat Or Chaim, just completed a project on the king of Morocco, in which he explained how Jews were proud of their heritage.
“He couldn’t believe it,” Mamann recounted.
For many Jewish Canadians, it can be puzzling why Moroccans hold the monarch in such high regard, Mamann said. But Moroccan Jews know the monarchy has been good to its Jews.
“Jews are safe in Morocco,” even while that is generally not the case across the rest of the Arab world, he said.
Jews have served in the government, and the country maintains good relations with Israel. The graves of saintly rabbis are protected by Moroccan guards provided by the king, Mamann said.
Of course, Jewish history in Morocco was not always sunshine and rainbows. Where once there were 260,000 Jews in the country, today the number is down to around 2,500. Facing sporadic violence, most left in the decades following creation of the State of Israel, though the king is credited with offering protection to the country’s Jews.
The Mamanns spent about 40 minutes chatting with the royal family. The boys discussed basketball shoes and the king extended a personal invitation for the family to visit him in the royal palace.
“It was very nice for the king to be so hospitable,” Mamann said of the April 13 encounter. For his part, Mamann invited the king to visit Toronto.
And it wouldn’t be 2017 if the families didn’t pose for selfies before going their separate ways.
Coincidentally, the royal princess and Sultana crossed paths one day later, again in South Beach. “[The king’s] wife told Sultana that he never stops talking about you, that even if you’re not born in Morocco… and you’re a proud Canadian, that you still have connections to Morocco and teach your children our traditions,” Mamann recounted.
Back in Toronto, news of the encounter has spread and “everybody is flipping out,” Mamann said.
Mamann expects to take up the king’s offer and visit the royal palace, perhaps sometime next year.
In the meantime, the chance meeting certainly added an element of excitement to the family’s Passover getaway, one that may well join a lustrous tradition of Jewish Moroccan lore.