To greet the new academic year with an appropriate mix of fun and purpose, AUI’s Interfaith Alliance organized an excursion down the Tizguit valley from campus to the village of Zawiyat Sidi Abdesslam. The Interfaith Alliance is one of the university’s most active student clubs and is advised by Rev. Karen Smith, our interdenominational Christian chaplain. The club is very successful in introducing students to the spiritual wealth and diversity of the world’s great religions and in integrating new and visiting students to life on a diverse international university campus.
The walking excursion follows Oued Tizguit as it cuts a deep ravine through the limestone plateau on which Al Akhawayn University and the town of Ifrane sit. The hike takes about two and half hours, depending on the number of photo-snapshot-selfie stops we make. As the valley floor is relatively well watered, most of the walking occurs beneath a canopy of leaves. It is very refreshing this time of year as the dry plateau above gets scorching hot by mid-morning. The hike is just strenuous enough to challenge undergraduate students—most of whom are from large cities and don’t get out much—but not so strenuous as to exhaust middle-aged faculty. It is a good “beginners” option for those who want to do more serious hiking in the Middle Atlas.
This is the second year I have been asked to join the Interfaith Alliance’s Tizguit excursion. Last year’s theme was “caves,” an apt one given that caves are an important part of the karst land-forms and human settlements around us (Ifrane means “caves” in the regional Tamazight language).
The theme of this year’s excursion was the environment. While I pointed out a number of environmental issues (water resources, biodiversity, pollution) to students along the way, Rev. Smith invited us to reflect on how major organized religions explain the relationship between humans and the environment and invite us to respect and cherish all of creation we are a part of. She was aided in this by graduate student Abdelfattah Kadiri, who I last met up with in Tsukuba, Japan. Abdelfattah is earning a Master’s degree in Islamic and Religious Studies and is already effectively employed by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Rev. Smith invited students to further explore the theme of faith and the environment by visiting the greenfaith.org website.
The all-downstream hike culminated in the village of Zawiyat Sidi Abdesslam, where we were met by Imam Khanjari, Imam of AUI and Chair of the Ifrane Provincial Council of ‘Ulama. In the antechamber of the darîh (tomb-shrine) of Sîdî ‘Abd al-Salâm al-Ya’qûbî al-Wallalî, which stands in the village cemetery, Dr. Khanjari introduced the students to Sufism. The village elders present also recounted stories about this legendary saint.
After this discussion, our group visited Jamal Bekri’s cave sculpture gallery and was then hosted for a large couscous chez l’habitant.
Saturday morning’s excursion reminded me of just how fortunate I am to be living in such a beautiful place. But it also caused some foreboding about the environmental legacy my generation is leaving for these students.