By: Marwa Natsheh, HAF intern
A mere three days after my arrival at the High Atlas Foundation office in central Marrakesh, as an intern at the High Atlas Foundation (HAF) focusing on women’s empowerment, project manager Amina El Hajjami offered me the exciting opportunity of a brief field trip out of Marrakesh, which turned out to be more meaningful than I could have imagined.
We were to accompany an American visitor, Morton Strauss, to two locations – Akrich, where a HAF organic tree nursery was started in 2012 alongside an historic Jewish cemetery, and the Aboghlo Women’s Cooperative, a HAF partner in the Ourika valley.
On the following morning the four of us – Morton, our driver Hassan, Amina and myself – made our way some 25 kilometers along the flat road to Akrich, which is surrounded by agricultural land typical of much of rural areas of Al Haouz province. What I noticed, unfortunately, was not an abundance of trees and crops but rather of large expanses of water as a result of rain the day before. Then, when we turned left and ascended the hill into the village of Akrich, with its narrow roads winding their way between mud houses, the most amazing scent of olive oil – which I still recall – greeted us, with Amina confirming this was due to the many olive trees in the vicinity.
High up on a ridge, the final place you reach in the village is the Jewish cemetery, where we were welcomed by Abderrahim, the caretaker of both the burial site and the nursery. Stepping out of the car I looked around, observing whitewashed graves arranged in terraces on which were planted trees – olive, fig and pomegranate. Not yet knowing the story behind this location, Amina’s explanations and guided tour were educating me as well as Morton.
Amina led us to fig trees only planted by HAF in March this year, whose branches were, nevertheless, loaded with fruit. We picked and ate two figs, which were deliciously sweet! Abderrahim and Amina were smiling, appearing proud of this achievement in such a short space of time.
Meanwhile, I (like the other Moroccans present, a Muslim) was making a mental connection between the choice of species and this particular location, since I knew that they are specifically mentioned in the Torah (fundamental Jewish sacred text) and that the pomegranate is eaten symbolically during the celebratory meals for the Jewish new year, having commenced on October 2nd and coinciding on this occasion with the Islamic new year.
As a Palestinian from a country where conflict is experienced on a daily basis, I felt a range of emotions on visiting this place. Firstly, it felt familiar, in the sense of coming across Hebrew – one of my working languages. Secondly, I was really happy to see a Muslim man taking care of a Jewish cemetery and knowing its history perfectly, knowing well that in many places in the world – particularly Palestine / Israel – religious sanctuaries are generally looked after exclusively by members of the same faith.
Abderrahim said that members of both the Muslim and Jewish communities celebrate together at this place, particularly visiting the seven-hundred-year-old shrine of Rabbi Raphael Hacohen, who is venerated as a miracle worker as part of an ancient Moroccan tradition. Abderrahim showed us this shrine, a room in which appear different phrases from the Tanach (collected Jewish scriptures) and images of the Western / Al-Buraq Wall in Jerusalem.
The traditional breakfast offered by Abderrahim was an emotional occasion with Morton, who is American and Jewish, learning that I am Palestinian. He was surprised at first and then emotional, saying that his father fought in the war of 1948 and his son-in-law is a rabbi who visits Palestine / Israel frequently. Morton said that he too travels often to the region and wishes people there would put an end to the conflict and learn to coexist as in Morocco.
For me personally, the most amazing thing about this country, one I loved from the moment I landed, is that when I’m asked where I’m from, replying ‘Palestine’ evokes a particular emotional response followed immediately by “we in Morocco, live in peace, there’s no difference between religions here, it doesn’t matter, we are all brothers”. This is a perspective that I have heard voiced since in Morocco on many different occasions, and not just by a few isolated individuals.
Continuing our journey from lovely Akrich, we travelled for nearly an hour into the Ourika valley to meet members of the Aboghlo Women’s Cooperative. At the Youth Atlas Community Center some women were waiting to welcome us with the products of the cooperative. I was amazed by the various kinds of couscous of different flavours and colours – all handmade in the traditional manner – and the beautiful scents of the medicinal plants.
We were greeted enthusiastically and offered a full tajine, together with couscous, prepared in our honor. It was my first experience of this Moroccan speciality, and the best so far! Other women joined later for tea; in all we met around ten of the total of thirty-six members, the others being busy with duties in their homes and fields.
The women were not only generous but also brimming over with questions concerning their guests and the reason for the visit, along with some questions concerning Morocco particularly for Morton, who in turn offered precious advice to his hostesses. He urged them to talk, to fight for their rights and to strive to achieve their goals and ambitions. He gave an example from his family of women fighting successfully for their rights and needs, becoming emotional during this description, which showed how proud he was of them. Furthermore, he told the women of the cooperative that the most important thing was to stay united in the face of the highly likely disregard for the cooperative in society at large. Finally, he promised that he intended to return to Morocco frequently, as a single visit was not proving enough to uncover the wonders and secrets of the country.
As for me, with a particular interest in working with a community of rural women, it was my first chance to meet with members of the cooperative with which I am engaged. Over the coming months I intend to make an evaluation plan of their current agricultural projects, which will enable HAF to see if the project, in its plannning and implementation stages, is heading in the right direction towards expected outcomes which will improve the women’s socio-economic conditions. All of this will give me the opportunity to practice the theories I am learning in my Masters program and attempt to introduce them in the field. More than this, however, is the enjoyment and inspiration gained on a human level by meeting with these women, who are not only generous and kind but also, most importantly, know exactly what they want and need.
When we left Ourika mid-afternoon to return to Marrakesh, we were overwhelmed by our experiences in the two places we had visited. I still remember how, as we dropped Morton back at his hotel, he said to me ‘goodbye and peace be with you’ clasping my hand with tears in his eyes.
Marwa Natsheh is a Masters student enrolled in the Glocal Community Development program with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she gained her joint bachelor’s degree in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies and Latin American Studies.
She lives in East Jerusalem, where she was born and raised. Currently she is in Morocco – the choice of country was hers – on a four-month internship, mandatory to the program.
Her path to Glocal led her via post-graduate research in education and international relations, an internship with UNDP/Jerusalem and a move to work with UNIDO Palestine as a project assistant in one of their MENA regional projects. She chose Glocal in order to be more engaged in the field, citing the program as beneficial in bringing development theories to the field and leaving students well prepared in practical terms.
Marwa is passionate in her belief that all women – whether living in an urban or rural context – have the strength to change their future for the better. She is particularly interested in empowering less fortunate women and breaking the stereotypes holding them back in life.