In the past five days, we’ve ventured outside of Rabat to the town of Beni Mellal in the Moroccan countryside, the village of Zawiyat-Ahansal in the High Atlas mountains, and the bustling city of Marrakech.
On our way from Rabat to the High Atlas mountains, we spent one night in the town of Beni Mellal, where we explored the Kasbah and waterfall gardens and met with local university students.
Many of the students at the local university are originally from Benni Millal or the surrounding area, and identify with rural life in Morocco. Our cultural dialogues centered on the differences between and perceptions of country-dwelling and urban-dwelling people, both in Morocco and in the United States. In Morocco, people from rural areas are sometimes called “balaadi,” while those from city are “romi.” We talked about the stereotypes surrounding each group in Morocco, and could see some of the overlaps with similar perceptions in America. It was also fun to hear about what students in Beni Mellal were most proud of — many of them really value the slower pace of life in the countryside, and the respect and familiarity they feel towards their community.
After our cultural dialogues, we all went out to a beautiful dinner of pastilla and tajine together. Since the Moroccan students that met with us were English students, it was interesting to hear what we all had in common in our educational experiences. One of the students I met told me about how much he loves reading Jack London and William Faulkner.
After a 5-hour twisty-turny drive through the Atlas Mountains the following day, we finally arrived at the tiny rural mountain village of Zawiyat-Ahansal.
The mountain landscape was absolutely breathtaking, the air was fresh, cool, and dry, and it was quiet except for the sounds of the wind and the river running through the mountain valley.
It was a new experience for most of us to get out of the urban areas of Morocco and to have to dress our most conservatively and assume that no one in our proximity knew French or English. It was also refreshing to be off the grid for some time and to be surrounded by such incredible natural beauty.
Our first morning in Zawiyat-Ahansal, we hiked to the neighboring village to tutor elementary students in English. We played games and sang songs, and were greeted by a fantastically eager, smiling, smart and slightly shy group of kids. It was striking and impressive to see all the young children wearing their backpacks and hiking for half-an-hour all along the mountainsides to get home from school at the end of the day.
Cloe Medina Erikson, the founder of the Atlas Cultural Foundation, hosted us and showed us the region. She first visited with her husband to go rock climbing on their honeymoon, and since then has made this tiny nestled community her whole life.
In addition to learning from her expertise, we also interviewed the Sheikh of Zawiyat-Ahansal, whose job is to mediate and resolve any conflicts that arise within the region. After a final day of hikes, we ended our stay in Zawiyat-Ahansal with a feast at the Sheikh’s house, where we were adorned with henna tattoos and invited to join a traditional Berber drumming and dance circle.
“Zawiya” literally means “corner” in Arabic, but there is also an expression in Morocco that says, “Take the corner,” meaning, take some time to step back, self-reflect, and re-examine (or in Chloe’s words, “take an adult time-out”).
Hundreds of pilgrims reach Zawiyat-Ahansal each year to visit the grave of the saint-like figure Sidi Said Ahansal (who founded the Zawiya in the 13th century), but they also come seeking peace and reflection. I felt incredibly lucky to have gained this different perspective on Morocco from this tight-knit and welcoming village, and to have had time for myself to “take the Zawiya” and be absorbed in my peaceful and isolated surroundings, away from the fast pace of daily life in the city.