Monthly Archives: October 2013


Minerals and fossils are big business in Morocco: tourist stops across the country present them for sale.  The aridity of the landscape works to preserve specimens, I’m told, but I think the broad expanse of land not being used for other purposes plus the availability of labor also contributes to the concentration on fossils.  Online, I see many warnings about “fake Moroccan trilobites” being shipped abroad, but the Tahiri fossil museum in Rissani is, as too many other shopkeepers have (over-enthusiastically) promised, “a feast for the eyes.”

The mounted dinosaur skeletons are satisfyingly predatory: don’t let yourself be swallowed,  stomped, or spiked!

Some of the fossils remind me a little to vividly that I’m looking at evidence of a world covered in bugs:

But other carefully prepared samples evoke a wonderful underwater world:

And the highly polished tablets of ammonite and orthoceratoid fossils somehow make me think of planets and shooting stars:

Or shoals of fish:

Back in the workshop, we watch as samples are cleaned using dental equipment to polish away fragments of dirt and sand.
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Members of staff here have contributed to the relatively recent discovery that trilobites could curve themselves into extravagant shapes–and that they were among the first creatures to develop complex eyes, some of them on stalks.SONY DSC

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It’s a weird and wonderful world.  Imagine having time enough to explore all these fossils, and the piles of geodes waiting on the tables out in the back, on the edge of the desert.


Sijilmassa’s rise and fall

Sijilmassa might have been founded by Kharijites and their supporters, but the rich city, repeatedly conquered by reforming dynasties such as the Almoravids (1055-1146 in Sijilmassa) and the Almohads (1146-1269), soon had the heterodoxy beaten out of it.  The Almoravids smashed musical instruments and closed down wine shops throughout the city; Almohads massacred many of the Jews of Sijilmassa.  Yet the city as a whole expanded after the Almoravid conquest (1054) and “retained its enlarged importance through the Almohad period” as a result of improved water resources: the redirection of Ziz to the center of the Tafilalt. [Lightfoot & Miller]

So what did Sijilmassa look like, back in the day?

Here’s Lightfoot and Miller’s conceptual map of the city, drawn from oral histories of the area as recorded in the mid-1990s:Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 2.33.43 PM

A long, thin city, bordered by a canal on one side, surrounded by a walled oasis.

Medieval historian Al-Bakri, drawing on the chronicles of Ibn Hawqal, records that in 814-5, an early ruler of Sijilmassa, Al-Yasa’, built a wall surrounding the town: the wall had twelve gates, eight built out of iron.  Under Al-Yasa’, Sijilmassa also acquired a royal palace, an “excellent” mosque, “lofty” mansions, “splendid” buildings, and many gardens.  Field and photo reconnaissance confirms that both the city and the oasis were once walled. [Lightfoot and Miller]

The famous traveller Ibn Battuta came to Sijilmassa in 1352-3 on his way to the Mali empire. Comparing Sijilmassa to cities in China, Ibn Battuta described Sijilmassa as including “orchards and fields and their houses in the middle,” making the city as a whole very large.  These houses were undoubtedly different from the fortress-villages of the qsour, but this description shows an established pattern that the later qsur may have built on.

Ibn Battuta spent four months in Sijilmassa, preparing for a two-month Saharan caravan crossing.  Camels were traditionally fattened for several months in the area around Sijilmassa to prepare them for the arduous journey.
Ibn Battuta also noted that the average trans-Saharan caravan included 1000 camels; large caravans might include as many as 12,000 camels.  Miles and miles of camels.
Mindboggling.  You wouldn’t want to be at the back of the queue.

According to medieval geographer Leo L’Africain, the city fell in 1393, when the inhabitants rebelled against the Marinid governor (renowned in oral tradition as the “Black Sultan,” as recorded by Lightfoot and Miller), broke down the walls of the city, quarreled among themselves, and distributed themselves amid the qsur (fortified villages) of the oasis.  Writing of his two visits between 1510 and 1515, L’Africain praised the ruins of the city:

The city was built in a plain, on the Ziz, and was encircled by a high wall of which one can still see some parts…. Sijilmassa had fine temples and colleges supplied with numerous fountains whose water came from the river.  Great wheels took this water from the Ziz and projected it into conduits bringing it into the city.

Mostly, though, L’Africain saw the fate of Sijilmassa as something like an object lesson in the importance of cooperation:

Back when the people were all agreed, they built…walls to stop the incursion of Arab horsemen.  While the people were united, with a common will, they remained free.  But factions arose, and they demolished these walls and each [group] called upon the Arabs to protect them.  So it is that these people have become the subjects and almost the slaves of the Arabs… always fighting each other, doing as much harm as they can, which is to say damaging the irrigation canals which come from the river, [or even cutting] off palm trees at their trunk and steal[ing] from each other, which the Arabs abet.

You could almost say that when, in the early twentieth century, the French and their Moroccan collaborators destroyed irrigation canals and sabotaged water resources, “manufacturing a fifteen-year-long drought, followed by the 1944-5 famine” (Ilahiane), they were following something of a time-honored tradition.

Now, the al-bayud fungus is one of the greatest threats to the palmerie.  Kind of a relief–or maybe not, depending on how seriously your palm tree is infected.

SONY DSCWhat remains of Sijilmassa today are actually the ruins of a mosque built in the 1600s and 1700s by the Alawite dynasty.  These are atmospheric if somewhat misleading: I spent ages imagining (incorrectly) thousands of camels parading through these walls.


For a Romanticist, of course, it’s also easy to think of Shelley’s “Ozymandias:”

“Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”

*****Quotes drawn from from Dale Lightfoot and James Miller, “Sijilmassa: The Rise and Fall of a Walled Oasis in Southern Morocco.”  Photos from Tafilalt visit with John Shoup and Eric Ross.

Sijilmassa, ethnic complexity, and the Haratine

Sijilmassas was founded by Kharijites and their followers in 757: so the story goes.  Sometimes I wonder about these founding claims, though.  Wasn’t there anyone living on the fertile banks of the Ziz river in 757?


“Sedentary peoples may have settled the oasis as early as fourth century BC, depending on irrigated agriculture and herding for a living.”[1]  Those sedentary people might (still speculatively) have been the ancestors of the Haratine: dark-skinned, African-featured inhabitants of the Tafilalt, hereditarily constrained to the status of indentured servants, tied to the land and working for Arab, Berber, or Jewish inhabitants of the oasis.

(both images–“Haratine girl in Morocco” and “Haratine” above–web caught)

Huh?  So the Haratine, potentially the “original” inhabitants of the Ziz region, lost control over the land to newer arrivals, and were themselves compelled to labor for their oppressors?  Doesn’t that all seem depressingly familiar and predictable?

Let’s try a different recap:

Arabs (the Kharijites) and Amazigh [Berbers] (Zenata) settle Sijilmassa on the labor of the Haratine; Jews and other merchants (like the Genoese in the 1300s) settle in Sijilmassa, both financing the salt trade and, at least in the case of the Jews, working as artisans.  Slaves, moving through Sijilmassa to the north, also constituted a significant portion of the population.

According  to Dumper and Stanley, Jewish networks “along the major North African and trans-Saharan routes [were] a crucial facilitator in building Sijilmassa’s monopoly.  They [Jews] were also important artisans, providing specialist skills as metalworkers, jewelers, tailors, cobblers, and carpenters.  Their community prospered, and the Tafilalt Abuhatzira family in particular became regionally known for their piety and rabbinic influence.”
Jewish-Women Jewish women in Tinghir

But only Arabs and the Berbers could own property–so the system was rigged to make race into a class issue.  Arabs and Berbers could own land; Jews could not, but they could amass wealth; Haratine were limited to sharecropping, subordinated to specific families; slaves lived with Arab, Berber, or Jewish families.  Comparisons are invidious, we know, but some would say that slaves–mostly domestic servants and concubines–were better off than the Haratine, who held a role not unlike that of a field slave in the antebellum American South.

The French attempted to leave tribal relations more or less intact (once the area was “pacified”), but their intervention in the region opened new possibilities.  Jews were the first Moroccans to adopt the French language; the large Moroccan-Jewish community emigrated to Israel en masse in the years after independence.  During the Protectorate, large numbers of Haratine migrated to southern Algeria or Morocco (later, to Europe) in search of work.  Unlike Arabs and Berbers, the Haratine had nothing to lose at home–and the money they sent back to the Tafilalt enabled Haratine families to purchase land and trees, acquire cultural capital, and earn at least a few places on village councils, much to the displeasure of prior power-holders.

(By contrast, the Haratine in Mauritania continue to suffer state-based discrimination.  Slavery was criminalized in 2007, but anti-slavery court cases are backlogged and slow to progress.  And in 2011, a new census, designed to systematize national identity documents, recognized only four ethnic groups (Moorish, Soninké, Fulani, Wolof), and failed to mention the Haratine, often considered “Black Moors,” who by some counts constitute roughly 40% of the population.  See

But if power relations in the Tafilalt and other Moroccan oases have shifted somewhat, ethnicities remain distinct, much as they do in the American “melting pot” where melding is more obvious in social claims than in reality.  And the oases themselves are threatened by ecological challenges, particularly the ever-deepening demand for irrigation.

1.  Michael Dumper and Bruce E. Stanley, eds., Cities of the Middle East and North Africa: A Historical Introduction, ABC-CLIO, 2007.

See also Hsain Ilahiane, Ethnicities, Community Making, and Agrarian Change: The Political Ecology of a Moroccan Oasis (University Press of America, 2004), and Anna Natividad Martinez, “Intertribal Conflicts and Customary Law Regimes in North Africa: A Comparison of Haratin and Ait ‘Atta Indigenous Legal Systems” (…omparison_of_haratin_and_ait_atta_indigenous_legal_systems/content.php).

The Kharijites and the founding of Sijilmassa

Before the Tafilalt became known as the Tafilalt in something like its current configuration, the oasis was the  ground of a glorious medieval city: Sijilmassa.

Sijilmassa was founded in 757 by people following the Kharijite vision of Islam: a vision of radical egalitarianism, in which any devout person could become the leader of the community, and all Kharijites were called to fight against unjust leaders.  Yet by 956, Sijilmassa was the epicenter of the Trans-Saharan trade: a trade based on the exchange of salt for gold and slaves.  Surely this central irony ranks right up there with the life of American founding father Thomas Jefferson .

The roots of Sijilmassa–and thus a large portion of Moroccan history–lie in both the success of and the fractures within the early Islamic empire.  Here’s the shortish version of the story: in the ten years after Mohammed moved to Medina, the entire Arabian peninsula became part of the early Islamic empire (622-32; brown on the map below); in the subsequent 30 years, under the Caliphate (the early successors to Mohammed), it spread both east and west (632-661; orange territory); under the Ummayid dynasty, it expanded through Morocco, Spain and Portugal (661-750; tan on the map).  That is an impressively rapid imperial expansion:
220px-Map_of_expansion_of_Caliphate-1.svg (image from Wikipedia)

As you may remember, the fourth caliph (successor) was Ali, Mohammed’s son-in-law, and his rule was marked by a struggle over power.  Those backing Ali and refusing to recognize the first three caliphs became known as Shi’a (the party of Ali); those backing the other three caliphs became the majority Sunni power.

The less-known part of this story takes place on a battlefield during Ali’s rule, when the opposing army tied copies of the Qur’an to their lances.  A significant portion of Ali’s troops (traditionally 12,000) refused to fight on these terms; negotiations ensued, in which Ali’s negotiator somehow agreed that Ali should abandon his claim to the caliphate altogether (!).  The dissenting troops withdrew in disgust from the battlefield and from Ali’s army, rejecting both the negotiations and the negotiators: they came to be known as kharijites (those who left).

Kharijites believed that any pious Muslim could be a leader of the Muslim community (membership in Mohammed’s tribe or family was not required); kharijites were also quick to name as unbelievers any leaders who acted against the principles of the Qur’an–such fallen leaders should be deposed or even killed.  Kharijites insisted more emphatically than other Muslims on the radical egalitarianism enshrined in the Qur’an; the Haruriyya, an early kharijite group, even believed women as well as men could serve as imams.  (It was also a Haruriyya who assassinated Ali, five years into his reign.)

By the 720s, small groups of Kharijite refugees, persecuted by the Abbasid caliphate of Baghdad and Kairouan, had arrived in the western Atlas mountains.  Imazighen (Berber) inhabitants of the area were themselves in search of religious legitimation—a way to practice Islam without acceding to the Arab elites controlling more established urban centers of the Maghreb. Kharijite insistence on egalitarianism, an Islam open to non-Arabs, was popular in this context.

By 740, Kharijite agitators were associated with a massive “Berber revolt” across the Maghreb; in 757, Kharijite-inspired Zenata Berbers founded the city of Sijilmassa by the banks of the river Ziz.  Benefiting from the support provided by the oasis there, Sijilmassa was also perfectly placed to profit from the West African gold trade: by 956, some sources said that Sijilmassa minted all the gold coming north from the Sudan.
Screen Shot 2014-01-08 at 1.07.03 PM  (Image from Lightfoot & Miller, 1996)

But of course the gold trade was never only a trade in gold and salt: according to some estimates, from the tenth century on, roughly 6000 slaves were sent north each year along the Trans-Saharan trade routes. So how did a city founded on a belief in radical egalitarianism come to be the center of a slave trade persisting for many centuries?

Introduction to an oasis (Tafilalt)

This is our first clear view of the Tafilalt—a palmerie we have been following for the past 40 minutes from Errachidia.  We look down over a sprawling river of green, stretching for miles to the north and south. This roadside stop hangs over the top of the oasis, which seems to fill in an immense crevasse opening up the surface of the desert.  The heat is oppressive: Jeremy tries to stand in the shade I cast.  Down below, the palmerie looks cool and lush.
Eric Ross, AUI geographer, is walking us through a brief introduction to the oasis. “First, I want you to forget everything you think you know about oases.  Forget Hollywood images of waving palm trees and limpid pools of water; forget the myth of effortless fertility.  An oasis is an agricultural system,” Eric announces, gesturing at the lush river of green below us.

“Water alone is not enough,” John Shoup adds.  “Add water to desert and you get a salt marsh, not an oasis.”
A student hand goes up.  “Why a salt marsh?  Is there salt in the sand?”
Eric shakes his head.  “Evaporation.”   John clarifies:  “There’s salt in the water.”

I’ve seen that salt, crusting on the red rocks, marking the dry riverbeds near Telouet.  There are salt mines in the area, too, so I’d guess the salt passes into the water from the rock in the mountains.
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But Eric is speaking, repeating his point for emphasis.  “An oasis is a complex system of irrigation and husbandry: incredibly labor intensive, but also highly productive.  In fact, a thriving oasis is the most productive agricultural system in the world in terms of output per hectare—more productive than the often-cited rice paddies of southeast Asia.”

Eric continues his explanation.  “A healthy oasis has three productive levels.  Palms go in first, because their roots are bulbs, like tulips, and they help hold water in the soil.  Their fronds also provide some small measure of shade, which is important for the crops that follow.  The middle layer consists of fruit trees: pomegranates and figs, olives and citrus.  The bottom level produces vegetables, onions, and also forage crops like alfalfa to feed donkeys, sheep, etc., since there is no open grazing land.

“This, unlike the oases we’ll see further south, is a thriving oasis, and it is the second largest oasis of the Sahara, second only to the Nile.  In the sites we’ll visit tomorrow, further downstream, the middle layer has vanished: fruit trees are no longer sustainable, given the greater scarcity of water.

“The oases in Morocco differ from those in western Egypt: in Egypt, the oases are produced through artesian wells, and the oasis is based on the distribution of water from the center to the periphery.  Moroccan oases are all based on surface water that flows down from the mountains: the sandstone of these mountains does not absorb water.

“The labor needed for an oasis to thrive is organized according to a complex social system.  There are four classes (not unlike the caste system of India), of which only two classes can own property.  All of the property in an oasis is privately owned, but the water rights are more commonly collective, and those rights are administered tribally.  The water rights of individual families are measured in terms of hours of irrigation per year, and those hours are defined in part by the amount of rain in a given year.  The man administering water rights has memorized the ancestry of each land-owner and the percentage of water from each irrigation channel that eventually leads to the calculation of irrigation hours due.


“If someone outside the landowner classes of the village attempts to buy land, both the seller and the buyer are fined by the community, and upon the buyer’s death, the land reverts to the seller’s family.  Buyers from outside the landowning class cannot acquire land to pass on to their descendants.

“Conversely, everyone from a landowning family inherits, leaving the land to be ever more finely parsed.  Eventually, one might inherit a single tree, leaving one’s children to inherit a portion of a tree, while one’s grandchildren inherit a still smaller fraction of a tree.  An entire family can live for a year on the proceeds from a single tree’s fruit, so even a fraction of a tree is not an inconsiderable inheritance—as long as one has the water needed for that tree to thrive.”
“The importance of water, along with its scarcity, means that oases have historically been sites of much social violence: raiding from one tribe to another, raiding herds, raiding grain reserves.  This can be seen in the architecture: each house is a little fortress, each village is a little fortress.  But we’ll see more of this tomorrow.”


The road to Sijilmassa

The road south from Ifrane to the Tafilalt oasis is marked by a beautiful stream that always lifts my heart,
more commonly by dry river washes,
(where water remains, somewhat surprisingly, just a foot or so below the surface), and perhaps most consistently by the evidence of remarkable geological forces at work:
If you’re six, however, the road is punctuated primarily by sandwiches and animated videos:
Thank heavens for well-equipped friends!  It’s a long road.

We’re tagging along on a trip with Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), the culmination of their 7-week sojourn in Morocco, doing an integrated field study project.  John Shoup, anthropologist, and Eric Ross, geographer, both of Al Akhawayn University (AUI) are leading the trip. (Both photos lifted from the internet: apologies.)
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We’re headed to the Tafilalt oasis and to the site of a powerful medieval city, Sijilmassa.

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Lightfoot and Miller, 2006.

Sijilmassa was once one of the most powerful urban centers of the Maghreb; one medieval chronicler [Mas`udi] claimed it took half a day to walk Sijilmassa’s long main street.  The eleventh-century writer Edrissi described it this way:

As for Sijilmassa, it is a big and populated city, visited by travelers, surrounded by beautiful gardens and fields inside and outside [the ramparts]; it does not have a citadel, but it consists of a series of palaces [ksur], houses and fields, cultivated along the banks of a river coming from the Western side of the Sahara; the floods of this river, during summer, resemble those of the Nile, and its waters are used for agriculture in the same manner as those of the Nile are exploited by the Egyptians. [qtd in Iliahane (2004), 40]

I’m a little obsessed with Sijilmassa.  It seems to me that the vicissitudes of this vanished city are somehow central to the aspects of Morocco I find most baffling: the nearly miraculous creation of a nation on the edge of a desert; the (disputed) segmentation of Maghrebi society, with Arabs, Berbers, Jews, “blacks” and other foreigners remaining quite distinct despite general insistence on social pluralism; the perhaps-related silence around race; the reverence accorded the king; the role of Islam in public understanding of the nation.

Bear with me, if you will, as I look into the history of the region and the city in a series of related posts, focusing (albeit not in any particular order) on (1) irrigation technologies (for building or maintaining oases in the desert), (2) Sijilmassa’s founding and social history, (3) agriculture or permaculture: the growing patterns of the palmeries, (4) the religious institution of the zawiya, (5) the architecture of a royal qsar in relation to local resistance to French colonialism.

Dale R Lightfoot & James Miller, “Sijilmassa: The Rise and Fall of a Walled Oasis in Medieval Morocco” in Annals of the Association of American Geographers 86:1 (Mar 1996), 78-101.

Hsain Ilahiane, “Ethnicities, Community-making, and Agrarian Change: the Political Ecology of A Moroccan Oasis” (University of America Press, 2004).


Teachers in Telouet

The day of visiting teachers in Telouet is a study in contrasts: the movie studios we pass on the road out of Ouarzazate both opposing and imitating the villages themselves; the teacher’s thumbdrive serving as an unexpected counterpoint to his improvised, plastic-covered blackboard, and so on.
Here are some highlights of the trip:

School 0: On the road into the first small village, we pass a gaggle of children on the road.  The tallest boy in the group runs to shake hands with Hassan out the driver’s side window.  “Hassan used to teach in this village,” Ahmed explains.  “That boy was one of his students.” Clearly, Hassan was a beloved teacher.  Still, I wonder why the children are not in school this morning.  At this first stop, we don’t even get out of the car.  There’s a small school on the left and a small residence up the hill on the right.  Hassan calls to the children in the school, but there doesn’t seem to be a teacher present.  One of the children runs up the steps to bang on the door.  After five extended poundings, Hassan calls him back, laughing.  Enough is enough: either the teacher is not present or he or she is not in a state to meet with us. Hassan restarts the car and we drive on.

School 1: As Ahmed asks the teacher, Lahcen, about the needs he would like to see addressed in the next training session, Hassan talks to some of the children, trying to help the little girl nearest me to see where she went wrong with the math problem in her notebook. What Lahcen most wants is a way to use the materials Hassan and Ahmed are bringing (a set of picture books and children’s magazines) to really develop a love of reading in his students.  It’s a central issue: how to make these materials come to life for the children?

School 2: We stop at a preschool where the teacher who’s been participating in training has now moved onto a new placement in Rabat; her replacement asks eagerly whether she could participate in the training instead.

School 3:  A husband-and-wife team divide the upper classes: Abdulrachman teaches French, and Hayat teaches Arabic.  Only during this visit do I realize that the school day starts around 8:00 and ends at about 12:30, with a break at 10-10:15; after the break, the children who have been studying with Hayat go to work with Abdelrachman and vice versa.  In most of the schools in this area, education continues to be split evenly between Arabic and French, with the students speaking Tamazight at home.  In this context, my limited Arabic and non-existent Tamazight make me feel like a slouch.

The walls of Hayat’s classroom have posters about H1N1 and others proclaiming Allahu akhbar: God is great.  I’m struck by the mix of state religion and hygiene.  Hayat is wearing a bathrobe, as are some of her students, for warmth; she’s just had a tooth pulled, and still suffers pain in that jaw.  But she’s sharply focused on the books and the discussion of pedagogical needs.  She is looking for activities that children can do independently for a sustained period of time, to enable her to intervene more directly and extensively with those children who are struggling.
As we are leaving, Hayat addresses me in a mixture of French and English, and we end up talking about family.  It turns out that the teachers have a four-year-old son and eighteen-month-old daughter.  The children sleep until 10, when Hayat runs home to make breakfast for them before coming back to teach the second half of the morning.  I hope there’s an adult home with the children as well, and I assume there is, but I don’t want to ask.  Still, I’m struck by the lack of margin in Hayat’s life, the pressure to be teacher and mother, even though I’m sure she also celebrates the opportunity to fill both roles as fully as she can.  I’m missing my children as well, as we climb back in the car for the next extended drive down the rough piste.

School 4: We wait for the teacher to come back from lunch.  The director of the school invites us to sit in his office, and eventually tea is produced.  Hassan and Ahmed take the opportunity to ask whether the teacher we’re waiting for has been sharing her new resources with other teachers at the school.  “Not really,” the director replies; pressed for detail, he specifies: she hasn’t shared software or library books or teaching techniques.  Ahmed recaps the conversation for me while the director goes off in response to a different teacher’s request.
“That’s not good,” I respond, somewhat indignantly.  “It’s a good thing you found out.  People shouldn’t hoard resources.”
“Yes, but perhaps she didn’t understand what we were asking of her,” Ahmed replies gently, and I stand reproved.  When will generosity come as my first response to other people’s actions?
When Sukhaina arrives, in fact, she is full of energy and ideas.  In the past training, she appreciated Lotto as a way of teaching students categories of French vocabulary.  What she most wants from this next training is a demonstration of different learning games: she wants her students to learn by doing.  Asked about what she’s done to share what she’s gained from the workshops, Sukhaina is quick to say that her fellow teachers haven’t been interested in learning what she’s been taught, and Ahmed quietly but firmly clarifies: even if the other teachers are not interested, you need to take books to them, you need to demonstrate the software or describe a new teaching strategy in staff meetings.  Work with your director: he’s keen to extend the read of the training.

School 5: We spend quite a while at the next school: Ahmed goes off to talk with the director of the school and Hassan and I hang out in the preschool class.  Some seventeen 3-4-year-olds sit at two long rows of tables; another 4 children sit on a rug at the side of the room.  The teacher is working on Arabic: she’s drawn a stick figure on the board, and the children repeat the fusHa (or modern standard Arabic) after her: femoon, nefoon, eienoon, oudnoon.  It’s odd to hear this formal-sounding language coming out of these tiny mouths.

Hassan focuses his attention on Leila, a three-year-old deaf girl.  She’s tiny, engaging, just on the almost-manageable side of hyperactive.  When it’s Leila’s turn to go to the board, the teacher has her point to the stick figure, then stroke the relevant part of her own body: modified signing.  Hassan calls a boarding school for the deaf in Ouarzazate: a school where he used to work.  The director there agrees to talk more with Hassan about Leila’s case, and the two try to set up an assessment for Leila.  Her best hope, Hassan thinks, is to go to the boarding school, even at age 3.  There’s no instruction for her, and almost no potential for communication, in her home village.  In the not too distant past, deaf people have been physically abused (Hassan’s word is “tortured”) in Morocco.

School 6: Ahmed tries to call ahead, but when we arrive, the teacher is nowhere to be seen.  “Moroccan mobile phones!” Ahmed jokes.  “Even when you talk to the person, the phones don’t work.”

We sit in the director’s office and Hanan arrives, along with tea and little tea cookies.  I’m particularly impressed with the teaching books and materials Hanan has produced.  Talking about digital stories leads into a conversation about how much the children enjoy doing plays with home-made puppets.  She also shows us the story books her older children have produced–and the flip books she has made to help her students understand components of French words (syllables, prefixes, suffixes, etc.)
IMG_1190 IMG_1189

Bonus school: As we near the road back to Ouarzazate, we pass a new “community school” that has only just opened.  The idea here is that numerous small villages will send their children to this one larger community school.  The school is designed to hold some 80 boarding students and about 200 day students.  The whole place is spanking clean and new.  The students are practicing for an inaugural ceremony: they are singing the national anthem.  Hassan and Ahmed know everyone here, from the gardener to the director.  Everyone gives them a hero’s welcome.
I’m struck by the fact that Hassan and Ahmed vanish briefly (sequentially, leaving someone to keep an eye on me) to pray.  We started the day at 7:30 in the morning; we were given some bread, butter, olives and honey at about 10 a.m.; it’s now 5 p.m.  One of the phrases from the dawn call to prayer (or just before) is this: “It is better to pray than to sleep.”  I think of this now: for Ahmed and Hassan, it seems, it is better to pray than to eat.  I am terrifically impressed with their dedication, their good humor, their attentiveness, their focus.  When I try to tell them this, they laugh.  “We work harder than Americans!” they exclaim, wonderingly.  It becomes clear that they are trying, quietly, to transform their country, to compensate for their countrymen and women who are not working as hard as they might.  Education is the key to the transformation they desire: a world of possibility and hope for all.


Aazerf: the law underneath the law

At the start of our tour of Telouet schools, we stop for a breakfast break.  We three visitors (and later, the teacher Lahcen) traipse across the road to have some tea with a man I take to be the director of the school; Ahmed describes him as the chief of the village.
Tea turns out to be more elaborate than I had anticipated. The house is traditional pisé architecture (“Take a photo of the roof,” Ahmed and Hassan urge me: the traditional beams are palm trunks).
Our host, El Basheer, vanishes briefly; a woman greets us shyly then vanishes as well. When El Basheer returns, he brings with him traditional hand-washing equipment: Ahmed picks up the soap and washes his hands over the basin while El Basheer pours the warm water. We all take turns. Once you’ve washed and dried your hands, you pour for the person next to you in line; soap waits on the edge of the container catching the water.
Then comes the sweet tea, along with four loaves of fresh, hot bread, with honey and butter and olive oil and olives. The bread is particularly good—warm, thick, light, and crusty—but it’s all delicious, and we give it our full attention. I worry briefly that if each school visit is going to include this kind of food, I may not be able to keep up.

The Tamazight-and-Darija conversation washes over me, with periodic breaks for translation into French, mostly by Ahmed. We canvass my appearance as an American, and the three men discuss previous American NGOs active in the area, along with the much greater French activity at present. The obligatory family inquiries turn up an interesting detail: El Basheer’s nephew is going to university for Islamic studies, something of a scandal because El Basheer himself is an old lefty, a member of the Istiqlal (the nationalist party). El Basheer smiles at me: “I just can’t understand it!” That younger generation…” By process of association, conversation shifts to the city of Kelaa-M’Gouna, where Hassan is now inspector of schools. Kelaa-M’Gouna is known for its political polarization: it sends half of its graduates to university in Islamic studies, the other half to university for Amazigh or Berber studies. How do these opposites co-exist in one city?

Screen Shot 2013-12-23 at 9.55.56 PMThen the conversation turns to a recent announcement from the local minister of education: all female teachers will be assigned to schools in Ouarzazate itself; all male teachers will be sent out to the small villages. It’s a potentially gallant gesture, saving young women from harsh living conditions: no electricity or running water in some places. But no one thinks the announcement is a good idea. What happened to equality? “Il est fou!” El Basheer sums up for my benefit. The minister of education is crazy! “It would have been simple to achieve the same effect without making such a stupid announcement. Now he’s got everyone’s back up.”

As we walk back out to the car, I thank El Basheer for his hospitality and mention in passing Ahmed’s remark that El Basheer is the chief of the village. I mean only to extend the compliment. But El Basheer takes issue—serious issue—with this statement: “I am not the chief! I am an elected official—un élué. A chief is something from the past. I am elected, elected! I am no different from any other member of the village.”

OK, I get it: I’ve made a post-colonial blunder. I seem politically naïve. “You want me to know you’re not like the Glaoui.”

“No! I’m an elected official. Elected. A chief is for life.”

I try to shift the focus a little by asking about the size and composition of the village. There are five families in the village—founding families, some of whom live further out now—and each of these five families sends a representative to a kind of village council. Total population: roughly 475 people. (Those are big families, I think to myself: multiple generations.)
There are disputes about land and sometimes about other resources, but most of these are easily resolved. As we drill down into the details, El Basheer tries to clarify for me: this is l’aazerf, the ancient, oral tradition of governance. It underlies the rule of law, and it rests a little uneasily under the government and the structure of modern law. The government accepts it, because it serves the interests of the government in resolving local conflicts and issues, but l’aazerf is neither the modern government nor the law.

Hassan and Ahmed are waiting for me by the car; we all say our goodbyes and then the three of us drive off.

“He didn’t like it when I called him the chief,” I say, partly to explain the length of the conversation I’d been having.

Ahmed smiles. “Nonetheless, El Basheer is the chief.” I look back at him in surprise. “Absolutely. Every person in that village would move the entire village a mile up or downriver at a gesture from his little finger.”

“He wanted me to know he was an elected official, not a chief.”

Ahmed’s smile deepens. “Oh, yes, he’s elected. He didn’t want to run for office, so each of the families in the village sent a representative to ask—or really to insist—that he accept the role. The elected chief.”

We turn a sharp corner to find a large truck barreling at us and conversation halts as Hassan slams on the breaks. The car stalls. We take a communal breath.

“I was protecting the car,” Hassan explains with a grin, starting up again.

“Thank you!”

“He was scared,” teases Ahmed from the backseat.

“I was scared too!”

“But not me,” says Ahmed, “because I’m further back.”

Ouarzazate and first impressions

I feel as if I’m on a blind date—I don’t know what or whom I’m looking for.  Will Hassan, my contact, be arriving by car, bike, motorcycle, petit taxi?  What will he be wearing? How will he recognize me?  I am standing at early dusk in the shadow cast by Kasbah Taourirt, the tourist attraction par excellence, waiting to see how and whether I will be seen.


No joy.  In the end, I have to go back to the car to find the phone I’ve left.  Hassan has left two messages.  Evidently, we are neither of us what the other expected.  Even once Hassan has told me that he is standing in front of the Marmara bus, I seem to drift right past him.  I’m about to phone again when he calls to me, coming from the direction I’ve just been.

We go to meet Ahmed at the Centre de Documentation Pedagogique (CDP—center for teaching documentation) and there’s another odd echo of a feeling—this time of a bargain waiting to be struck.  A weird benevolent-Godfather kind of vibe.  Would I work with students as well? at the end of November?  “Ah, yes, that is what we wanted to know.  Very good.  We invited you to work at this time with the French group, but we don’t need to be limited to that time.  There is a long history of Moroccan-American collaborations.  Very good.”


Ahmed tells me tomorrow we will go to Telouet, an area associated with the de facto ruler of this part of Morocco in the early twentieth century.  Glaoui? I venture.  “Yes.  All this area is known as Glaoua.  So you will learn a little history, a little geography.”

Thami el Glaoui: I’ve read a little about his immense power and wealth, and his lack of squeamishness when it came to extending either.

After this short meeting, I follow Hassan’s car over a narrow causeway to the newer section of Ouarzazate, to his family’s home.  I will be staying with them both nights I am in Ouarzazate.  Bleary from the eight-hour drive, I try to summon the mental energy to recall my small portion of Darija.

Hassan’s family doesn’t seem to eat much meat, and I don’t think that has anything to do with my visit.  The first night I stay with them, they eat semolina soup; the second night, rice pilaf.  Dinner is late, maybe 8:30, about the time I’m ready to crash; Hassan’s nephew stays up late, and as we drive through Ouarzazate, the streets are full of children out with their families.  Don’t they fall asleep in school, I wonder?

Just as my brain feels ready to explode, a friend and neighbor of Hassan’s stops by to meet me.  His name is also Hassane, though for reasons unclear to me the spelling conveniently includes a distinguishing E. I revive a little on discovering that Hassane speaks fluent English and is working on a PhD in cultural studies at the university in Fez.

“What did you think of the landscape on your way down?” Hassane asks me.

“Amazing! It was like driving through the Grand Canyon,” I say.

“Yes, this is what everyone says!” Hassane replies, underscoring my own sense of the predictability of my response.
We go on to talk about the books we have both read, enthusing together about the work of Brian Edwards in Morocco Bound: Disorienting America’s Maghrib.

Even on the drive down, I had been thinking about Edwards, and his chapter on how American soldiers in Morocco during the second World War responded to Morocco as a mixture of the Wild West and a kind of Biblical pastiche.

“Here I go,” I thought, looking out the window at that Grand Canyon landscape, “making that same old American translation of the unknown into the known.”  But is there really an alternative to this habitual recoding of the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar?

Can we just confront the unknown head on—or will we always duck aside at the last minute, giving up on the cultural game of chicken?

The problem with projection and transposition are the misrecognitions that come with them.  So…. focus on geology: seeing the angle of the stone, imagining the the pressures that must have thrust it up out of the ground.
Focus on specifics—the details of this particular teaching task, this context—to help separate reality from imaginary projections.

I have so much to learn.




Women’s weaving collective at Tarmilat

On the southern back road out of Ifrane, heading toward Azrou, there’s a kind of squatter’s community on the open ground to the right of the road.  This town is known as Tarmilat; it’s  home to a group of shepherds.  The original families came to this area some 50-60 years ago, right around independence.  Probably they looked after sheep for the French, or perhaps for wealthy Moroccans collaborating with the French.

Now there are some 50 families living here, in houses built from stone, roofed with large tin cans that have been cut open and flattened.
The contrast with the royal palace, whose entrance is across the road, a little ways back, is striking.
Karen Smith, Christian pastor at Al Akhawayn University (AUI), has brought a group of AUI affiliated folks–mostly students, a few faculty–out to Tarmilat to purchase rugs and bags and share a meal with the women weavers.

Half a dozen years ago, a group of high school students, working with an AUI-affiliated organization called Hand in Hand wanted to raise money to help the people of Tarmilat.  Karen, a member of Hand in Hand, insisted that they begin by meeting the women and finding out what the women themselves needed and wanted.  What they wanted most was to form themselves into a weaving cooperative, even though only a few had weaving skills.

Karen remembers driving one of the women and her baby up to Tangier to learn from a successful cooperative there about how to form such an organization.  Imazighen women don’t diaper their babies–something Karen hadn’t yet learned–so she had no sheets or towels to protect or clean the car or the mother.  “It was an experience!”

The Tarmilat weaving cooperative has been very successful, leading to other changes in the community.  To begin with, none of the women could read or keep track of numbers, so there was one man serving as treasurer for the collective.  “One man and twenty eight women: that was never going to last!” says Karen.  (Someone else told me later that the treasurer was accused of stealing the women’s money.)  Perhaps as a result of this experience, the women were very concerned that their children go to school.  But the nearest school was in Ifrane itself, some five kilometres away down a road not safe for pedestrians.

The community started trying to build more permanent structures, claiming Karen had told them this was necessary for their cooperative (not true).  These structures were impermissible and had to be taken down.  But when it came to a school, the women pulled every string they had access to: the biggest string was Hand in Hand, with the governor’s wife on board.  Wala! (Voilà!) The community now has a cement school and even a mosque–but the homes remain stone-and-recycled-can structures.

SONY DSC IMG_0907Inside most of the buildings, it’s dark and a little smokey–but the home-made bread, butter, and tea is delicious.  In the right-hand photo above, the blue-and-white thing in the upper right corner is a “churn” for making butter: it’s a kind of swing in which the cream is pushed back and forth to make it slosh around until it solidifies.  This cooking hut is warm with the fire, so many of us crowd in briefly to get out of the chilly wind.  To our right is one of the community’s looms, with a rug in process:

Our family buys two “lap rugs” (thick and small) against the coming winter, plus one small rug for the kitchen.  Each piece has a tag describing the weaver, in English geared toward the AUI community:
SONY DSC SONY DSCIto, pictured here, was one of the founders of the cooperative, and a major force in pushing for the school.  One day, a Moroccan friend came to tell Karen that Ito had died, since everyone knows that Karen has been closely involved in the Tarmilat community.  Karen and Fatima drove out to Tarmilat to attend something like a funeral.  They sat around with a group of women mourning Ito and they all told stories about her, describing how they had known her.  The next day, someone from Tarmilat came to town to tell Karen that in fact Ito was alive and well–it was a different Ito, from the same family, who had died.  Now there are jokes about Karen having attended Ito’s funeral prematurely.

Aisha is one of the wealthier members of the Tarmilat community, as this tag notes: her husband has a hired hand; her grown son works for the city and owns a truck.

Fatima, by contrast, is the second wife of a elderly deaf man whose first wife is disabled.  I can’t help but wonder about the internal dynamics of this family structure–or what Fatima’s earlier circumstances were, that made it sufficiently appealing to accept a marriage that seems mostly a formalization of caregiving responsibilities.  I love the simplicity of her rug.

As it gets dark, we gather inside Ito’s house, with a dim bulb powered by a solar panel bought with proceeds from the cooperative, and the community serves us a f’tur-style dinner: bread and msemmen and hard-boiled eggs and harira soup.  There’s a new baby in the community: a baby born to two 15-year-olds who were married last year.  Julie Reimer tells of attending the wedding and becoming the official photographer because she was the only one with a camera.  When she came back to the community to share the photographs later, the mother of the bride was (mildly) offended because Julie had not taken any pictures of her.  “She was wearing a bathrobe,” Julie explains, “so I thought maybe I shouldn’t take a picture.  Turns out, it was her very best bathrobe.”

I asked Karen if we could arrange for Zoe and me to have weaving lessons.  “Probably.  There was a student from Haverford who came and stayed at Tarmilat for three months a few years back (part of an anthropology thesis) and she learned to weave.  The gendarmes were not at all happy about it, though.”  Maybe once our Darija improves…

The mothers are not the only entrepreneurs here: the boys of the community build sleds out of old wooden pallets and (sometimes broken) skis.  When it snows, the boys stick their sleds in the drifts by the side of the road and hire them out to tourists who have come to see the snow.
James makes friends with some of the boys by video-taping their play and then showing them the results:

These hills are full of small communities like Tarmilat, though Tarmilat with its school and its mosque and its solar panels now ranks among the most prosperous.  What would extend the (relative) success of Tarmilat to other communities in the Middle Atlas?IMG_7930
(photo by AUI student)