This was the question I repeatedly asked as our bus steered its way through the winding paths of the High Atlas Mountains. Sometimes I asked this question sarcastically, my stomach churning with each twist and turn of our four-hour long journey. Sometimes I asked this question with genuine curiosity, as I pointed to isolated mud structures standing alone on their hilltops. Even after spending two nights in the remarkable village of Zawiyat Ahansal, I still haven’t stopped asking myself this question, but it has a distinctly different connotation now.
Zawiyat Ahansal seems like one of those places frozen in a time long since forgotten. It was founded by Sidi Said Ahansal in the 13th century and served as the natural nexus for local Amazigh tribes. Nestled in the sometimes frigid and harsh Atlas Mountains, Zawiyat Ahansal is an oasis of grazing lands and fresh water. Today, the village is slowly being open up to the outside world, with the introduction of electricity and tourism to their economy, but it very much retains its character and spectacular beauty.
That can be partially owed to the work of the Atlas Cultural Foundation, an NGO initially dedicated to the architectural preservation of Zawiyat Ahansal. It has since expanded to encompass education and public health programs in partnership with local NGOs. We got the opportunity to meet with its founder, Chloe Erickson, to discuss her work and what life is like in the High Atlas Mountains.
The village is overseen by man known simply as “the Sheikh.” He is the ultimate arbiter in all disputes, both tribal and communal. If necessary, he can refer a complex matter to the official Moroccan government, but very rarely does this actually occur. In a classically ambiguous Moroccan way, the sheikh is both chosen by the government and dependent on the support of the populace. It is a semi-hereditary position, with locals apparently being able to change the familial line if they are universally dissatisfied.
We got to spend time with the current Sheikh, eating Sunday dinner and attending a party at his house with village members. Amazigh drums kept the rhythm of the night, with most of us joining in the circular swaying and clapping dance. I got henna on my arm depicting the Amazigh letter “Z” shaped like a scorpion.
While there were some structured hikes and activities, I spent significant time exploring the village on my own. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking while traveling through Morocco. With so much to see and experience, it’s easy to get lost inside my head. In the Maghreb, Zawiya can mean a place of Islamic scholarly instruction. But it also means a place of retreat, where one can center their thoughts and connect with their spirituality.
While sitting at a café overlooking the pink-tinged souq, I asked my friend, Rachel, if she could picture herself living here. I don’t think she conclusively stated that she would be willing to stay there for the long-term, and I don’t think I gave a definitive answer either. I still don’t know if I could. It’s not just because I would have to give up the luxuries of the modern world (though, I would do my utmost to construct a personal sitting toilet as quickly as possible). I tried to let myself feel peaceful during my explorations and initially succeeded in doing so. But I am a naturally restless person. I don’t know if I am ready to let myself feel that peaceful yet.
So I continue to ask myself, why would somebody live here? And what does it take to do so? I don’t have the answer to that question, but if I ever do, I honestly might find myself back in the village of Zawiyat Ahansal someday.