Cultural Preservation & Coexistence in Essaouira

 
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Feb 19, 2014

A Jewish Perspective on HAF's Planting Event Jan16

Flowing naturally from its recently completed three cemeteries restoration project in Essaouira, the High Atlas Foundation plans to incorporate a Jewish strand into the One Million Tree Campaign celebrations scheduled for 16th January. On this day, HAF will plant its millionth tree simultaneously in eight provinces where currently participatory development projects are being implemented.

This decision reflects the longstanding Jewish heritage of Morocco and the recent involvement of the Jewish community of Marrakesh-Essaouira in the project by loaning land on which to build organic fruit tree nurseries. Accordingly, one of the many ceremonies planned across Morocco is set to take place at Akraich, a village just south of Marrakesh, where a High Atlas Foundation site adjoins a Jewish cemetery. While the event as a whole is planned as an inter-communal, international, inter-generational and yet essentially Moroccan occasion, the date coincides with Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish New Year for Trees.

Two things are said to happen, one external and the other hidden. Outdoors, most of the winter rain should have fallen - the festival always occurs in this season in the northern hemisphere - and the ground should be in an ideal state for newly-planted saplings to take root. Deep within the tree, the sap – the lifeblood – starts to rise, bringing nutrition to the whole tree and initiating a new cycle of growth in the coming year.

On this day of transition, it is common to hold celebratory meals, plant saplings - involving children and youth in particular in this activity - and raise environmental awareness, while in former times a detailed inventory of fruit-bearing trees was carried out. The Jewish festival thus resonates exceptionally well with the objectives of the One Million Tree Campaign.

There is further significance in linking the two that reaches far beyond a particular faith tradition (which addresses itself mainly to the Jewish community while engaging with universal concerns). The broad theme of the day is one of positive connection leading to growth. It infuses the work of the High Atlas Foundation. It informs our success to date and my hope and belief as a new volunteer is that we shall continue along this path as we move forward to new goals after 16th January.

Places of Growth

HAF planting with school childrenThere are several reasons why it seems appropriate to hold an inter-communal ceremony at Akraich. The parcel of land has significance in being the first to be loaned to the High Atlas Foundation by the Jewish community of Marrakesh-Essaouira for the benefit of local Muslim farmers, with a total of 80,000 saplings set to be grown here. (Recently four further contracts were finalised and finances are currently being raised for their implementation).

Secondly, here, as in the Essaouira project, the aim of the High Atlas Foundation to promote inter-cultural understanding is shown in practice. The backdrop to all of this is the unique, multi-faceted culture of coexistence that flourishes until today within modern Morocco and further afield and that is often seen as an exemplary model. Adjoining the fruit tree nursery is a sacred site that includes the grave of Rabbi Raphael Hacohen, dating from around 700 years ago. It is the subject of veneration by both the Amazigh and Moroccan Jewish communities owing to a shared custom of visiting graves of scholars and others in order to obtain help and relief.

The moving story goes that the land was originally given to the Jewish community then living nearby, after another rabbi saved the life of the local pasha. Here then, next to an old-established symbol of belief in another world, life and hope is envisaged for modern-day Moroccans. Crucially, on land offered in friendship by one faith community to another, a project is taking place that illustrates how successfully diverse groups can work together. More generally, an important aspect of traditional Moroccan culture – a sense of connection to particular places – is being highlighted and respected by a modern, international organisation - the High Atlas Foundation. Overall, the choice reflects very well our role, demonstrated in innumerable activities, to connect the as-yet-unconnected to opportunities for growth and development: to economic and communal participation, to clean drinking water, to education – and to each other.

Author Katherine Pérès recently began to volunteer for the High Atlas Foundation. She moved from Britain to Morocco six years ago and is a member of the Marrakesh Jewish community.

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Alex Stein

New York, New York United States

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