Morocco is renowned for its hospitality, diversity and multiculturalism. Out of all the places where you can sense the existence of these concepts, we find them most easily in the facades, ancient corners and long past laid bricks of Morocco’s medinas. Medinas can be considered the ambassadors of diversity, inclusion and tradition throughout Morocco’s cities and regions. These ancient entities that hold the records of our past are now withstanding the adjustments of our present lifestyles, which is required in order for our medinas to survive the changing and evolving ways of the world. But when we say the old medinas, a lot of people, including me, often tend to think of Fez, Meknes, Tangier, Casablanca, Rabat, and Marrakech.
These cities are the most famous ones in Morocco, and thus a lot of attention is associated with them. But what we also need to remember is that besides these cities, many of which are small, there are other ambassadors of culture and tradition in other areas that hold a huge cultural significance and that have participated in cultivating the interculturalism and the coexistence in the hearts of Moroccans. The small city Sefrou is a living proof of that.
For those who don’t know much about the history and the cultural value of Sefrou, here is a small, yet very rich introduction given by the participants of the Of Multiple Shapes and Colors: Multiculturalism in the Region of Sefrou, What Potential Does It Have Today webinar held on November the 10, 2021, hosted by Dr. Sadik Rddad, President of the Sefrou Association of Multidisciplinary Arts (SAMA) and professor of English at Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University in Fez. Guest lecturers included Dr. Mohammed Chtatou, a lecturer and political analyst at the International University of Rabat and Dr. Becky Schulthies, a linguistic and cultural anthropologist and an associate professor at Rutgers University, in the Department of Anthropology, School of Arts and Sciences.
When asked about Sefrou, Dr. Chtatou said: “If we consider the Atlas Mountains as the parent and Sefrou as the child, we can see on the map that Sefrou is sitting in the lap of its parent and by that, it’s receiving all the love from it. Translating that metaphor to reality, we should know that Sefrou used to be the center of economic and social exchange in the Atlas Mountains. This role was even boosted by having the weekly souk that was and is still being held on Thursdays. The souk is like a celebration.”
When asked what was so special about the old medina of Sefrou, Dr. Chtatou replied “whenever I enter the old medina, I feel like I’m being lifted to a Sufi dimension where you are enjoying yourself with a cup of tea in a coffee shop that is full of people who are socializing and sharing their stories. Nobody is a stranger in the old medina of Sefrou. Once you enter it, you automatically become Sefrioui.”
Images from the medina during the weekly Thursday souk in Sefrou. Photos: Amal Mansouri
While introducing Sefrou, Dr. Chtatou retold a couple of impactful stories that made him realize the cultural value of the city. The first story took us back to 1986 when he was in elementary school. “One day when we were in the elementary school, it was pouring, and the ceiling of the classroom was falling. The principal of the Jewish school that was next to us offered that we move our classes to the Jewish school. This was my chance to make a lot of Jewish friends.” His second story took place in 1986, when he was invited to the United States to give a speech at the University of Oklahoma. While there, and much to his surprise, he saw a big map of Morocco with Sefrou as the only location highlighted on the map. It was at that moment that he realized the importance of Sefrou.
Dr. Chtatou also recalled the story of a cave that existed near the city, that was called Kahf Lmoumen. He said “Back in the time, people said that a saint used to live there, and to honor his soul, both Jewish and Moroccans took turns celebrating his memory.” When I heard Dr. Chtatou’s stories, especially this last one, I was truly inspired. I was amazed at how people choose peace instead of dispute. They could have argued that the saint was a Muslim or Jewish. They could have said that only one of them could celebrate his memory, but instead they chose togetherness.
Dr. Becky Schulthies, who is not Moroccan, got the chance to discover the ambiance of the old medina of Sefrou and explore the community’s rituals and traditions. She and Dr. Chtatout consider Sefrou a model of tolerance. To her, Sefrou is very intellectually diverse and has a rich history. In Dr. Schulthies words, “Morocco in general, and Sefrou in particular, is living proof of how a minority with a different religion could live in peace and harmony in a society that has a dominance.” She mentioned the trait of mixed mkhlet, Tamaghrabit that Moroccans use as a synonym for the word multiculturalism. Dr. Schulthies was so impressed by Sefrou that she thinks there should be a Sefrioui stamp because the Sefrioui people represent a model of how different people live together in harmony.
Non-Sefrioui items existing in the Fondouqs of the old medina of Sefrou. Photos by Amal Mansouri
Recently, Sefrou’s heritage has experienced a sort of neglect, and the stories behind its variety and history are starting to fade. Therefore, the USAID Religious and Ethnic Minorities Activity (REMA), implemented by the High Atlas Foundation HAF and partners in Morocco is dedicated to helping preserve Moroccan historical legacies. With the immersion of such programs and projects, reviving the magic in the city of Sefrou is becoming just a question of time.
Amal Mansouri is a Field Coordinator for the USAID Religious and Ethnic Minorities Activity (REMA) and is currently based in Sefrou. Read more REMA updates and stories on the HAF website, and browse REMA program photos on Flickr.
This article was completed with the support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the High Atlas Foundation is solely responsible for its content, which does not necessarily reflect the views of the USAID or the Government of the United States.