In Arabic, the word for corner is zaouiat, so when I arrived at the tiny Amazigh village Zaouia Ahansal in the High Atlas Mountains, it’s no surprise that I felt as though I had discovered a little corner of the world. The remoteness of the place that surrounded me, which takes over four hours by bus on narrow, winding passes through the mountains to reach, was something I had never before experienced in my lifetime. It was a place touched by so few that though every step I took kicked up a cloud of dirt and dust on the unpaved roads, it felt clean, vibrant, and refreshing.
AMIDEAST had brought us to this tiny mountain village for two days of learning about life in Morocco in a way that we, cosmopolitan city-dwellers, had never before experienced. Throughout the excursion, we lived in the sheikh’s (the political leader) house, explored the mountains and important religious sites of the region, and assisted with English activities at a local NGO. The slow-paced life of the village felt a universe away from the crowds of people pushing their way through the Rabat medina and the sound of petit taxi’s horns echoing throughout the city.
Zaouiat Ahansal is an Amazigh village first settled in the 12th or 13th century by Sidi Said Ahansal, an Islamic scholar. As legend goes, Sidi Said Ahansal was sent by his teacher to create a religious center wherever his cat jumped off his mule as they were travelling throughout the country. After his death, the village became an important religious pilgrimage site and grew as a result of the trade caravans that would stop in the village on their way to delivering goods in the north of Morocco. While the trade caravans no longer pass through the village, it remains an important pilgrimage site that Moroccans choose to visit during the months of August and September in order to honor the life of the scholar.
The village is small, hidden away in a valley surrounded by high peaks with snow still visible. A river runs through it, lush fields are staggered along the riverbed, and stone houses require some climbing to reach. It was only three years ago that electricity was brought to the village, and 3G networks became available last year. The people of Zaouiat Ahansal do not have much, but make do with what they have and are welcoming and hospitable to guests in spite of their lack of resources.
The experience of living in the village at the sheikh’s house and immersing myself in the Amazigh culture was one I will likely never again experience in my life. It provided me opportunity to learn more about the rich culture of diversity of Morocco, the daily life of people living in rural areas in Morocco, the challenges that they face, and a couple of words of Tamazight, the local Amazigh language.
Staying in Zaouiat Ahansal for two days, one thing shocked me most. Despite the lack of modern technology, events, and places to go, life had never felt fuller.