By far the most incredible excursion I have made in my time in Morocco has been our group trip to Zaouiat Ahansal, a mountain village located in the Middle Atlas Mountain Range approximately eight hours by bus from Rabat. To reach the village, our bus struggled along a windy and steep mountain road that afforded the most incredible views of the valleys, crags, and wildlife in the rural mountain countryside. I was excited to see the village; I had never been to such a remote place before and I was curious about what it might be like.
What met us all in Zaouiat Ahansal was not exactly what I was expecting, but still I was blown away by what I experienced there. First, to set the scene: The village is located in a valley between two mountain peaks, and natural spring water flows through the valley from a source high up among the snowy summit. Sand colored homes crop up along the base of the mountain, with four castle-like structures that house the four holy families of the village. Donkeys, sheep, and goats slowly head back and forth to pasture or carrying the fruits of a hard day of labor back home. Dust sometimes rises up around you; the villagers are praying for some much needed rain. Every single person you pass in the street, from the tiny schoolgirls smaller than their backpacks to the wizened old gentleman guiding his donkey, stops to say hello. They shake your hand, and then touch their hand to their heart— saying you are in my heart, you are dear to me. This place, obviously, is nothing short of enchanting.
But Zaouiat is more than just a pretty picture. While we were there, we stayed in the home of the village’s Sheikh, who is a descendant of the village’s founder, an Islamic Saint from the 12th century. It was here in the Sheikh’s house that I felt as though I glimpsed the spirit of this little village. It was in the home of the most powerful man in the region that a beautiful, innocent, and seemingly unassuming friendship came to define what this place was all about.
A quick side note: The entire population of the village is Amazigh, or Berber . . . except for an American family who founded a local organization called the Atlas Cultural Foundation. The founder, her husband and their eight year old daughter have lived in the village for years, focusing on architectural preservation and recently expanding to include educational supplements and better public health projects. The organization’s founder is a fascinating, incredible woman; all of the AMIDEAST students picked her brain the entire duration of the trip trying to soak up some of her wisdom.
But as amazing as this woman is, I was more struck by her eight year old daughter, a precocious little girl named Noor. I met Noor in the sheikh’s house— she is a frequent visitor because she is his next-door neighbor and the best friend of the Sheikh’s daughter, Saadia. Saadia is six, but like Noor already speaks a combination of Tamazight, Arabic, French, and English. The two of them chase each other around all day and night, speaking their own language that combines all four of these languages with an ease only kids can pull off. Their friendship is deep and effortless, but symbolic of something important nonetheless.
In this village in the mountains of Morocco, a village that only received electricity and running water within the past five years, a deep bond has been forged between Americans and Amazigh Moroccans. That relationship is not tainted by colonialism or superiority; the Americans are not tourists or researchers. They are committed to long-term and community based development as well as respectful cultural exchange. Little Noor is growing up comfortable in two different cultures that to her are also entirely compatible; little Saadia is growing up in a similar way.
I believe that part of the reason I was so moved by the friendship of these little girls was because it was simultaneously unique and completely commonplace. I am excited for the future of these girls, for the way they see the world and what they will produce thanks to their unique outlooks. Additionally, I really saw my own future intentions in the work of Noor’s mom, who has dedicated her life to bettering the lives of others, not as their savior or some superior Westerner, but as a friend and facilitator, someone eager to learn from the community she serves and to help them achieve their own goals, not pursue a personal agenda.
My time in Zaouiat Ahansal was short but I will not forget it. And while the beauty of the place and the beauty of the people will always stick in my mind, my memories of the village will always be focused on the two little girls who are still unaware of all the power they hold, focused instead on telling knock-knock jokes and covering their arms with festive henna tattoos.