Two weeks ago now, I visited the village of Zaouiat (Zow-yee-at) Ahansal (A-hen-sal) in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. This trip was facilitated by Amideast, and everyone in my program, and some Moroccan friends, were loaded into a large van and taken up into the mountains. The trip took 8 hours, stopping at gas station rest areas. It is always interesting to see them in different countries, same modern concept of highways, but always slightly different depending on the culture. These have playgrounds for restless children on long car journeys, a huge empty cafe, a small shop and a separate building with bathrooms. We stopped at Beni Alli, the nearest small town before the valley. The colors of the buildings here were warmer than by the sea, as if to match the terrain on which they stand.
We were driven by someone hired by Atlas Cultural Adventures and guided by a mountain guide from one of the villages around Zaouiat. He was the guide when Alex Honnald came to the area to practice and film parts of Free Solo. I have to admit I was a little smitten star. Especially after the guide told me that they are currently building a Via Ferrata in the area, I felt like the world was small. Atlas Cultural Adventures was started by a Montana mountaineer and her architect husband. The organization helps with architectural restoration in the valley and runs ecotourism adventures – where everyone who comes on a trip learns about the community and gives service.
Arriving in the village, I remembered La Fage from my days of WWOOFing. The stacked stone houses, the dirt roads, the light of the valley and the mountains, the wandering animals. Living in Rabat is the first time I have lived in a big city, let alone a city abroad. The population is 650,000. Although I don’t really think I’m from the countryside – an island is hard to fit into that category – and although it’s a dream of mine to live in a big city after getting my graduation, I’m starting to realize how heartwarming a city more in nature is. I felt at home, at home in La Fage or at home in nature, I don’t know. It’s a weird feeling. We stayed at Seikhs guesthouse. We met the Seikh over the weekend. The Seikh is like a mediator in the city for conflicts and for filling out official documents. He is also a mediator between the city and the Moroccan government, allowing a system to operate in a more traditional and informal way in some areas like Zoauiat rather than trying to impose a more bureaucratic system. Zoauiat is originally an indigenous Amazigh village, then the teachings of Islam came. This is what a Zoauiat is, a school of Islamic teaching. Ahnsal is the name of the Saint who started this particular one. Legend has it that a saint received a donkey and a cat when he was ready to start his own Zoauiat. When the car jumped donkeys, that’s where the Zoauiat would be. The village is a conglomeration of Amazighs who were later brought into the world of Islam. Around the valley there are still many nomads and semi-nomads, who sometimes stop to sell their wares. As we boarded the bus, we saw a semi-nomadic woman leading a pack of goats up the mountainside. The goats have a deeper sound here than the goats I lived with in La Fage.
The weekend was busy, our days were long and busy, but it really felt good. We did a village tour, a hike to the next village, met local cooperatives and initiatives, ate and shared delicious meals, nightly Tamazight lessons (the Amazigh language) spent time together on the terraces , rooftops and courtyards, ate figs from the trees as we walked or village children waded in the river. We prepared English lessons to teach 5th graders in the inter-village area, then taught them the next morning. I taught them the colors and the vocabulary of nature with my pair and friend Alycia, by having them draw a picture of their village. I think I learned more Arabic to teach the lesson than they learned English, and they also taught me more words. Some of them were already experts.
The last night we were there, we had henna, a party with many people invited from the village, we wore traditional hairstyles and clothes, then we participated in traditional Amazigh dance and music until in the night. The men wear white jilabas and the girls fringed headdresses. Drums are played by the men, and a man in the center of the circle leads a song, everyone sings and marches in rhythm, shoulder to shoulder. I tried to drum and sing along to as many words as I could choose. We danced for a few hours.
All the members of the village who came to dinner sat at the edge of the yard and watched. Sometimes we would go to the middle of the circle like a conga line and dance, then come back to our circle. I was so grateful to them for sharing this experience with us, and literally dancing shoulder to shoulder with foreigners who speak another language (Tamazight) and sharing music together. We took breaks for water and tea and eventually everyone got tired and went home. Not us students though. I’m usually the one who always goes for the best first. I am exhausted and just need to sleep. It has always been so. But not that night. After they left, a few students in my group started teaching all of us how to dance the wings. My friend Ruben knew west coast swing, and this girl southern style from Sydney’s east coast. After acquiring the basics, we all danced together until midnight. I forgot to sleep or was tired, and I felt so present, I was rocking and spinning. These people I was dancing with, I met them only a few weeks ago and I will be spending a lot of time with them over the next three months. There are still awkward spaces between us, many silences, discomfort, but after this weekend I felt like I could sit quietly with them and just smile or watch. We spent the other nights lying on the roof, which is purposely made for hanging out like most buildings in Morocco, stargazing. It was so dark that we could clearly see the milky way. We tried to connect our own constellations. We laughed at confusing wat wats (bats) with shooting stars. After the swing dancing, my Moroccan friend from the trip, Fadel, started playing Taylor Swift and we sat on the step for another hour singing every word to each other. So far from home, and for only a few days, this space filled my heart immensely. It was once again reaffirming that I felt like I was where I needed to be.
At this point in life and my outlook and my studies, becoming an adult engaged in political society, etc., etc. all this formal stuff, I came to realize the importance of local in everything. Before college, community was a big word in my life – coming from a small, tight-knit community on the island, a high school that worked to create community. I looked for a college with a small community, I kept looking for this idea because I grew up learning it was important. After traveling, I saw that community can be made and seen everywhere. A few years later, this concept of community has evolved from the idea of a group or a name, something you belong to and where you feel good, to the action that goes with it. The action and commitment part of this is the local. Buy locally, vote locally, support local initiatives and organizations, uplift small local communities. The local is where I see change can happen, it’s less abstract, more concrete and in front of you. Often I’m in a classroom forming these ideas from academia and then I do my best to translate that into individual action of consuming locally and acting locally, but it’s difficult. Seeing these local initiatives and the way people live in Zaouiat Ahansal was a lesson in humility, rootedness and inspiration. The community knew each other’s name, like on the island, and it felt like an ecosystem between agriculture, the traditional roles of different people – like the henna artist, the mediator the Seikh, the children who go to school, people returning from university to the city to lead local water and environmental awareness initiatives. It is difficult not to idealize this life because it is difficult to live in the valley, there has been drought and the world is increasingly affected by the pull of globalization. However, whenever I leave places like this, like when I was doing WWOOF, I imagine those places beating like a heart, and the heart still beating after I leave. I leave and wonder what is then the coherence and the things that feel “local” in my life, still moving, studying, growing up and being in this time of constant transition.