Some years ago a colleague, a foreigner like myself, told me one of the reasons he liked working in Morocco was that any given weekend could be an exotic holiday in the sun–he is British, so an allusion to the Sex Pistols lyrics cannot be discounted. He was almost completely right. You really don’t need a whole weekend. A Saturday morning will do.
On Saturday 20 October I and several other AUI faculty members (and a couple of their children) had the pleasure of tagging along on John Shoup’s field trip to a women’s weaving cooperative in the village of Zawiyat Ifrane, about 60 km southwest of the university. Our colleague John is teaching a course on women and development this semester. He is an anthropologist and, like me, a firm believer in the pedagogical value of field trips. We take our students to the field as often as feasible and we often tag along on each other’s trips.
Last Saturday’s field trip was particularly enjoyable as the women’s cooperative is located in an absolutely charming village situated at the foot of a spectacular cliff with waterfalls.
After falling from the cliff, streams of water run through the village in open channels and fountains. Water from the cliff is also piped directly into homes.
The women of the village established the weaving cooperative within the framework of the National Human Development Initiative (INDH in French) launched in 2006. They weave a variety of woolen and cotton carpets, bedspreads and pillow cases, as well as embroider table linens and confection items of clothing and apparel. The association’s president, Fatima, showed us around the workshop. None of the women were working the looms at the time. Rather, they were preparing our breakfast in the facility’s kitchen (no sense keeping guests hungry). Attendant to the workshop is a daycare classroom (not in session this Saturday morning). A daycare close-by allows women the time to weave while keeping watch over little ones.
Watching village life unfold in the street through the workshop’s open door proved as entertaining for me as watching the shopping which ensued inside.
The class was taken to visit the cooperative in order to see some of the challenges of implementing local development and income generation projects aimed at women. In the case of the weaving association in Zawiyat Ifrane, the main problem is the distribution and marketing of the finished products. The village is isolated (though the winding track linking it to the national road was paved over 10 years ago). The nearest souk (weekly produce market) is nearly 20 kilometers away. The cost of transporting merchandise to tourist centers like Fez and Marrakech by taxi or rented truck would be prohibitive. The women thus rely heavily on visitors purchasing their products on-site. This is a problem the Zawiyat Ifrane cooperative shares with similar cooperatives all across rural Morocco. Luckily for this women’s weaving association though, Zawiyat Ifrane is a beautiful place and attracts more visitors and hikers than most other villages.
The Tisgdelt Plateau, above Zawiyat Ifrane, is a natural limestone formation. I am not sure exactly which geomorphological process is responsible for it, but it is spectacular. The plateau (alt. 1370 m.) is quite flat and juts out of the escarpment of an even higher and much vaster plateau, the Iguer Awragh (alt. 1600 m.). It is only a few hundred meters across yet it rises, precipitously, over 100 meters above the village. In the uppermost part of the Tisgdelt Plateau are a series of springs (‘Ain Tisgdelt). Cristal clear water gushes out of the Iguer Awragh escarpment and traverses the plateau through various channels that can be opened and closed. Where these little channels reach the outer edge of the plateau the water plunges down the cliff face. The channels are controlled by the villagers who use them to irrigate the plots on the plateau. Which waterfalls on the cliff face are active on any given day will depend on which of the channels are open.
The Tisgdelt Plateau is a natural fortress. The cliff face is easily defended from above and the plateau has an abundant source of fresh water. There is no doubt that the place was settled in the historic past. Pottery shards can be found on the ground and a section of stone masonry wall survives, guarding the top of the main footpath leading up the cliff from the village. Moreover, the plateau is riddled with caves which could easily have served a variety of purposes (storage, habitation, manufacturing). One viable hypothesis is that the Tisgdelt Plateau is the site of Qal’at al-Mahdi, the fortress where Al-Mu’tamid (d. 1095), the gay poet king of Seville, may have lived under house arrest after he was deposed by the Almoravids (there is at least one other site in the Middle Atlas which could be the site of historic Qal’at al-Mahdi). Whatever the case, the Tisgdelt Plateau is long overdue for a thorough archeological investigation.
On Saturday morning, after purchasing wares and breakfasting at the women’s workshop, our party of students, faculty and children hiked up the cliff to the plateau. The three-hour tour certainly opened our appetite for the copious catered lunch the coop women had waiting for us on our return (another revenue-generating activity for village women).
No-one lives on the Tisgdelt Plateau today. The only built structure is the mausoleum of Moulay Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahab. The small cubic building with a high-pitched red tile roof is surrounded by a little cemetery. This is the zâwiyah for which the village is named.
Zawiyat Ifrane, which shares its name with the college town I live in, is a gem! I am enamored with the intricate beauty of the place, the village architecture, the interaction of water and limestone… It makes for a great day out for students, family and friends. Knowledgeable young men from the village can be hired to guide first-time visitors and there are several B&Bs in the village should visitors want to spend the night. Hikers will be pleased to know that the Middle Atlas Mountains offers many other, often far more challenging hikes and excursions, all through equally stunning countryside (see this post on hiking in the Middle Atlas).
I have known the place for over a decade. It’s good to see a bit more money flowing into the village, whether through the cooperative or the B&Bs. It is a good case of grass-roots tourism as Middle Atlas villages try to find a place in Morocco’s tourism development strategy. In Zawiyat Ifrane the local population benefits directly from tourists’ visits, as opposed to cash flowing into the pockets of tour operators, outside guides and hotels owned by out-of-towners.
At the same time though, I know that tourism is not the panacea for rural poverty, and that the development of tourism infrastructure and businesses can destroy a beautiful site. This gem in the Middle Atlas is on the Ministry of Culture’s list of heritage sites. Crucially, both the charming architecture of village and the spectacular geomorphology which rises behind it are cherished by the villagers too, so Zawiyat Ifrane has excellent potential to channel tourism revenue into sustaining the heritage site. Certain tourist activities, like rock climbing, would be destructive while others, like solidarity tourism, could sustain the livelihoods of the people of Zawiyat Ifrane while help them maintain the unique beauty of the site for future generations.
And all this on a Saturday morning.