For the first time, the AMIDEAST Rabat cohort was allowed an intimate look at the small Atlas Mountain village, Zawiyat Ahnsal. The town is nestled between tall cliffs and surrounds the river that supports its inhabitants. Legend has it that it was founded by an Islamic saint who decided to build the original zawiya (an Islamic religious monastery of sorts) after his cat jumped off his donkey while trekking through the mountains. Having only established electricity two years ago, Zawiyat Ahnsal is still quite isolated and maintains much of its age-old character.
After a winding, two-hour drive from the city of Beni Mellal, we arrived in Zawiyat Ahnsal to a delicious chicken tajine lunch prepared by our hosts. All the men in our group ate together, whereas the women where provided separate accommodations (at the local sheikh’s house, nonetheless). After a brief nap, our local guides took us on a brief tour of the village’s main buildings. Chloe Erickson, American expatriate and director of a local non-profit, informed us about the rich past of Zawiyat Ahnsal’s original town center and the ways in which the region is governed by a combination of tribes, families, government magistrates, sheikhs, and mandates still in use from the French colonial era.
Before dinner on the first day, I had the opportunity to sit down with some of our guides and practice my Arabic. One, Ismail, was born and raised in Zawiyat Ahnsal. He recently graduated from university in Agadir (a city on the western coast of Morocco) with a degree in English. This was convenient because I was struggling to understand his Arabic, ultimately sliding back into English. After more conversation, Ismail informed me that he is Amazigh (or Berber), and thus he sometimes mixes the two languages when speaking. In fact, the entire village is of Amazigh origin, like many small towns in the Atlas. In the following days, Ismail taught me some Tamazight (Berber language), showed me his generations old family home, introduced me to a few cousins, and showed me how to find and eat almonds fresh from the tree. I certainly owe him a big thank you for his friendship and sincere generosity.
The next morning, we woke up early to beat the heat and go on a short hike to one of the recent projects the Ahnsal community has engaged in. In order to combat growing litter pollution in the region, the locals, in partnership with architecture students from Montana State University, built a stone refuse kiln for burning trash and other debris. According to Chloe, it costs far too much money to truck the refuse out of the community to distant Marrakech that the villagers had no choice but to dispose of their trash as they saw fit. Most burn their trash anyway, so a solution that responds effectively to the sanitation needs of Zawiyat Ahnsal and involves a locally based maintenance crew has been received positively by the village’s inhabitants.
During our time in the mountains, we were given the chance to teach English to some of the local children. The age group that I taught was about 3rd grade to 6th grade. We taught them things like numbers, the alphabet, some animals, and shapes. It was very interesting to see how the students helped one another out to answer questions. It was hard to get them to answer on their own without a comrade next to them whispering the answer in their ear. In the end, it was a good laugh for the students and me. I was able to see some of them at later points during the trip and say hello. In accordance with conservative ideals, all the girls wear hijabs (head scarves) and the boys never wear anything that reveals elbows or knees. With that, they, and the adults, were always surprised and flattered when the American students greeted them with an amiable “salaam, la bas?”
Our excursion to Zawiyat Ahnsal culminated with a feast at the sheikh’s house. Several of the women got henna tattoos and a local music group came and played traditional music into the night. Before bed, we went to the roof of our host’s house and watched the stars. Time certainly seemed to stand still. This place, the last region to fall to the French, where people shake your hand then kiss theirs saying bismallah (a way to invoke the name of Allah), where all the food is grown a few meters from the kitchen, will have a hard time leaving my memory. Although the idyllic mountain culture of Morocco is something that is fading and assimilating into modernity, parts of it are undeniably timeless and prompt one to take things slower and pay attention to the finer details.