Multicultural Cooperation for Fruit Tree Planting

by High Atlas Foundation
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Multicultural Cooperation for Fruit Tree Planting
Multicultural Cooperation for Fruit Tree Planting
Multicultural Cooperation for Fruit Tree Planting
Multicultural Cooperation for Fruit Tree Planting
Multicultural Cooperation for Fruit Tree Planting
Multicultural Cooperation for Fruit Tree Planting
Multicultural Cooperation for Fruit Tree Planting
Multicultural Cooperation for Fruit Tree Planting
Multicultural Cooperation for Fruit Tree Planting
Multicultural Cooperation for Fruit Tree Planting
Multicultural Cooperation for Fruit Tree Planting
Multicultural Cooperation for Fruit Tree Planting
Multicultural Cooperation for Fruit Tree Planting
Multicultural Cooperation for Fruit Tree Planting
Multicultural Cooperation for Fruit Tree Planting

What is an example of ‘home’? This question was asked numerous times during the Experience Dakira conference held from June 8, 2022 to June 10, 2022. With visitors from France, Africa, America, and other places of the world, each person attending Experience Dakira traveled to Marrakech to learn of Morocco’s heritage sustainability and multicultural preservation. This three-day conference, organized by the USAID Dakira program and held in Morocco, encouraged story-sharing and cultural outreach to promote intercultural dialogue and a remembrance of Morocco’s pluralistic past.

This question of what ‘home’ meant to people floated around the Palm Plaza Hotel’s conference room, yet it remained unanswered for a while. Because the word ‘home’ does not have a direct translation from English to Arabic, many individuals with Arabic as their first language struggled to find a perfect definition. Those attending the forum tended to find it difficult at first to find their own meaning for the word. After some consideration, answers to the question ranged from one’s birthplace to where one comes back to when in need. But once the conference began storytelling of Morocco’s past, examples of what home was and can be in Morocco were portrayed.

One of the conference’s many spotlighted speakers, Dr. Chtatou, captured the essence of the word ‘home,’ as well as Morocco’s history of pluralism. Illustrating the tolerance of diversity in Morocco, Chtatou cited the locality of Sefrou, which he referred to by its famous nickname: ‘Little Jerusalem.’ Speaking before some 150 people, all from various backgrounds and belief systems, Chtatou described Sefrou as a city near Fez, set directly next to the Atlas Mountains, and an area in which Muslims, Jewish people, and Christians lived with one another in harmony and acceptance. Chtatou argued that there is a distinction between occupying space side by side as opposed to the different ethnic and religious groups in ‘Little Jerusalem’ living with one another.

Founded in 682, Sefrou was a home for tolerance. Dr. Chtatou began his description of the locality by recounting how Jewish mothers breastfed Muslim children when needed – emphasizing the sense of community and trust that thrived in Sefrou. Among its many waterfalls and fruit trees, Sefrou inherited multiple languages as well, with Hebrew, French, and Arabic spoken -- each language valued and preserved. Near the Wad Lihoudi, meaning “The River of the Jew,” lay the heart of the city and the Jewish district, known as the mellah. Chtatou argued that the positioning of the mellah and its walled off fences further illustrated the cultural tolerance and brotherhood that marked ‘Little Jerusalem.’ Because of its significant positioning in the city, its formidable walls, and settlement within Muslim neighborhoods, those who lived in the Jewish district were given a sense of security.

A center for trade, Sefrou was considered both an economic hub and the home to one of the largest settlements of Moroccan Jewish people. Due to the locality’s close positioning to the Middle Atlas Mountain range and prior Saharan trade routes, people of various religious and ethnic backgrounds flocked to its locality. As the starting point of the caravan trade, salt and gold were often transported and traded interculturally.

The great Jewish presence of ‘Little Jerusalem,’ Dr. Chtatou explained, critically diminished during the reign of Idris II of Morocco, who enforced Jewish conversion to Islam. As a result, many Jewish people immigrated to Israel or France. Along with the 1960s war in the Middle East, the population of Jewish people dwindled more greatly in Morocco by 1967. Today, Sefrou is a reminder of the religious and cultural diversity only by the remaining architectural structures dedicated to the Jewish population and a yearly festival that honors its past diversity.

Experience Dakira called for attendees to remember past Moroccan stories and culture, like the history of ‘Little Jerusalem.’ Dr. Chtatou, like many of the speakers that brought light to Morocco’s often forgotten past, called for those attending to not only remember Morocco’s multicultural tolerance, but to emulate the same morals today.

So, what is ‘home’? An answer to that question can vary greatly depending on a person’s background and culture. But when asked about what ‘home’ meant to a room with some people not knowing what home truly is to them, Chtatou offered an answer. What once was ‘Little Jerusalem’ was a home to the mosaic of religions and ethnicities – it was safe, exercised brotherhood, and offered prosperity. Sefrou offered no judgment during its prime of diversity, and was a home to many. 

The USAID Dakira program, implemented by the High Atlas Foundation and its partners, aims to strengthen inter-religious and inter-ethnic solidarity through community efforts that preserve cultural heritage in Morocco.

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.

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From June 8-10, the High Atlas Foundation organized “Experience Dakira,” a conference of multiple organizations dedicated to enhancing religious and cultural preservation, learning, and social cohesion in Morocco as part of the USAID Dakira program. Immediately upon walking into the Palm Plaza Hotel, this year’s conference venue, I was awed. Intricate designs lined walls that seemed to continue endlessly upwards- a space fitting for a conference about preserving Morocco’s rich multicultural history. Cultural project showcases lined the hallways leading to the main conference room. There I was asked to put my name on a world map already mostly filled with the different hometowns of those in attendance. Based on the markings on the map, the room contained an international audience eager to learn about Moroccan culture.

Laaribi, HAF Women’s Empowerment Trainer, began the conference with the Beyond Women’s Empowerment presentation. She asked a prestigious panel consisting of Bouazza, Outoucki, Hadadi, and Naima questions relating to the Moroccan woman’s role in preserving their heritage and culture. They discussed the fact that Morocco has a multifaceted identity and women often serve a huge role in transmitting this identity to their children. Empowerment can help women to better find ways to pass on this heritage, enabling them to fully embrace their identities and express themselves better. Ms. Laaribi observed that we are all witnesses to stories told by the women in our lives, but she also said that empowerment should go beyond memories and focus on self-sufficiency for women. During the Growing Edge Activity, a process that women in every IMAGINE workshop complete, a man from the audience stated powerfully that a woman is the focal point of Moroccan culture. Mnouar, President of the Association Sais de Développement et Solidarité in Fes, continued this observation by stating that the biggest hindrance to the empowerment of women is the memory of man and she hopes to help change the way men think until all of Morocco believes that men and women are equal.

The next activity was the Heritage Travel and Pilgrimage presentation which discussed how the memory of Jewish Moroccan culture can and should be preserved through tourism. There are over 6,000 saints buried in Morocco and Jewish peoples from all over the world come to pay their respects on the day of death, or the Pessah. A big focus of this program was the targeting of Jewish youth, as it is generally only older people of the faith who come to Morocco on pilgrimage. This program has been training Hebrew speaking tour guides to be familiar with the Mellahs, or Jewish quarters, of the major Moroccan cities. One of the speakers who learned about many Jewish traditions through her work as a tour guide emphasized the importance of trust and finding similarities. Another speaker, a resident of her city’s Jewish quarter, learned Hebrew so that she could connect with a lost part of her identity, stating that one needs to know themselves before they can transmit anything to tourists. The presentation ended with a discussion of food, as a large part of Jewish Moroccan culture surrounds food, and the project promoted this importance through the 2022 Jewish Moroccan Food Festival, hosted by Mimouna Association, at the end of May.

After a quick coffee break, HAF Dakira Cultural Coordinator Omaima facilitated the Engaging Youth in Heritage Learning presentation. When Moroccan children from rural areas are asked what they have, they say nothing. However, there is a rich culture about which these children are not aware, and the Dakira program seeks to revive that culture amongst these youth. The Essaouira Mogador Association does this through music and arts, inviting children from the city and surrounding areas to join in a choir or theater club. Association ARGANIA provides youth with platforms to participate in dialogues regarding Moroccan culture, helping them to inherit and be ambassadors for the city. Association Mimouna helps children to connect to their heritage through sports and has previously hosted a large soccer tournament that gathers people from the Mellahs of many different cities. 

The day finished as it began: with a pondering of identity and Moroccanness. The consensus reached was that Moroccanness is not about politics, ethnicity, or money. To those in attendance, Moroccanness meant identity, peace, family, and hospitality. It was something that held so much meaning that it could never be fully defined. Due to the hard work of all of the organizations present at the Experience Dakira conference, the diverse heritage and history of Moroccanness will be preserved for many generations to come.

The USAID Dakira program, implemented by the High Atlas Foundation and its partners, aims to strengthen inter-religious and inter-ethnic solidarity through community efforts that preserve cultural heritage in Morocco.

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.

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When the High Atlas Foundation (HAF) team took the University of Virginia interns to Akrich, it was the first time we had left the red walls and palm trees and cool avenues of Marrakech since arriving four days previously. Compared to Charlottesville, it was a landscape enveloped in the wind and the sun. The hills rose and fell and the Atlas mountains towered in the distance, but it seemed there was nothing separating Akrich from the sky above.

After we got off the bus, the Muslim guardian of the Jewish cemetery met us and retold the story of the cemetery. It was here that  HaCohen, a Jewish saint, had died seven hundred years ago. A shrine was then erected in his honor, and a cemetery followed. Here, the guardian’s grandfather, and his father, and finally the guardian himself have maintained the shrine for the Moroccan community. While the cemetery is reserved for Jewish people, the shrine was not a site maintained just for them but anyone who came to visit and pay respects. But when many of the Jewish-Moroccans left for Israel in the 1950s, their sites began to be forgotten by the broader community. So this shrine, under the Muslim guardian’s care, was re-dedicated as a place of pride for Akrich when HAF partnered with the Moroccan Jewish Community to establish a tree nursery at the cemetery. From seed to sapling, the tree nursery grows commodity products such as figs, pomegranates, and carobs that will be delivered to farmers across Morocco. The guardian retold this inside the shrine, where Raphael Hacohen’s body still rests, visited by people of all kinds seeking blessings of health and healing. Meanwhile, the trees grown just outside the shrine will prevent soil erosion, return Carbon Coin investment, and enrich communities across Morocco. Thus, the shrine at Akrich heals in many ways.

Then HAF took the UVa interns to the women’s cooperative, who held an exhibition of their rugs. Art exhibitions always have a sanctified air—introspection and outrospection. We admired the rugs, and the women watched us admiring the rugs, and we watched the women watching us. We wondered what they thought of us. Maybe they wondered the same. Recursive forever like a hall of mirrors, you look outwardly at an art exhibition, but become compelled to study yourself just as much as you do the world around you. No one spoke here. No one needed to speak.

After a while, I climbed up a hill behind the shrine and sat and watched the landscape. Kestrels circled overhead on a vent; songbirds called to each other from olive branches; the wind blew softly over the town and towards the Atlas. While I sat here, a shepherd drove his flock up the hill. He stood proud and straight, as if reaching toward the sun, and I was crouching low to the earth. I raised my hand; he raised his. In this brief moment, we each wondered what the other was thinking, what the other was doing, what we wanted to do; and in this moment, we recognized each other in a mutual greeting that could perhaps be considered respect. Not a word was shared. Not a word was needed. He continued down the other side of the hill, and I remained among the kestrels and songbirds and shrubs. For just a moment, there was a thread, a yoke, a bridge that connected him and me in mutual introspection. It was a moment much like the rug exhibition of the women’s cooperative. It was a moment like kneeling before the shrine of an ancient and revered saint.

Since arriving in Morocco, I’ve often wondered why I came here, and what good I can even do. Besides buying a couple rugs from the cooperative, the UVa interns did nothing during our visit to Akrich. This troubled me at first. But I think that we were meant to learn what a Moroccan community can look like: a Jewish site, a women’s cooperative, a Muslim family, and village people working together to help themselves and each other. This type of community of plurality, while not completely alien, is not as well practiced in the States as in Morocco. I think the UVa interns touched the essence of this: certain moments in Akrich zapped me, like grazing an electric node, to introspection and awareness of myself. What constitutes me? What constitutes this shepherd? Though the threads of our lives are different, they can be woven together into one fabric. A community isn’t a perfect thing. Just because people work together doesn’t mean they’ll do good. But in order to tackle the looming challenges of the 21st century, being bound like a fabric with your neighbors is better than being a loose thread.

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Khayzuran was an exceptional and extraordinary woman, who rose from the status of slave to that of queen mother. She was the power behind the throne of three caliphs and had a major, albeit hidden, impact on the politics of the caliphate as well as the private affairs of the court (Adam).  

The name Khayzuran means “bamboo“ and symbolizes “both beauty and suppleness, and also a deceptive fragility“ (Fatéma). Moreover, Khayzuran was known for her diligence and intelligence, and later for being the shadow ruler throughout three reigns.  

Khayzuran was born as a free Muslim in Yemen, and some sources even suggest that she was of Amazigh heritage. She was kidnapped from her home and then sold to become one of the favorite and most influential slaves of Al-Mahdi, the third Abbasid Caliph, who reigned from 775 to his death in 785. 

In former times, the so-called “jaryats” were slave girls and through their roles within the harem acquired a great knowledge of artistic skills and intellectual knowledge by which they could entertain a man. In a time of little social mobility for both men and women, jaryats were able to gain great influence politically but also economically. Some ran their own enterprises, and some rose to high positions at court.

Khayzuran was not the first jarya to have a great influence on a Caliph. The jarya Hababah was brought to the harem of the Caliph Yazid II. When she died choking on a pomegranate seed, the story goes that Yazid was so affected by her death that he refused to see anyone for a week. He neglected his duties and died not long after. His neglect of state affairs caused men to deem Hababah as “an enemy of God and a seductive demon.” However, in other texts, like The Book of Songs by al-Faraj, Hababah was described as a poet, musician and intelligent woman. 

Jaryats like Khayzuran rose to the top of the harem and amassed a great amount of wealth and power, only second to the caliphe, during a period when most women had little power. She had such an influence on him that she was able to convince him to name her sons, al-Hadi and al-Rashid, his heirs and make her his legitimate wife. Khayzuran also ran numerous enterprises and factories. On her pilgrimages to Mecca, she was generous and charitable with the poor, purchased the house of the Prophet (PBUH), turned it into a mosque, and dug drinking water wells. (Adam)

Although she had to exercise her will and power through men (her sons and husband) and could not seize the throne for herself, she remained a fundamental ruling party. There have been other forgotten female forces, for example, Umm al-Muqtadir (the mother of al-Muqtadir), who named her female assistant Thumal the head of justice. At first, the public did not want to acknowledge female authority, but finally they accepted her once she had put an end to corruption in justice and lowered court costs. (Mernissi, Sultanes oubliées)

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It was a pleasure meeting new people from different cultures and religions during Friday's event. 

Firstly, I did not have an idea what I would learn until I discovered that the event's larger purpose was to encourage cooperation between two countries, Morocco and Israel, and two religious peoples, Jewish and Muslims. I was very appreciative of this goal. 

Our trip started traveling from the High Atlas office in Marrakech to Tameslouht. We arrived there and then started by meeting with a mixed group of Moroccans and Israelis.

As usual, we did our introductory presentation, "names, ages, what we all do for a living...", and then we conducted a workshop where each group would write about their idea of the other's religion, both before and after.

For my group's idea, we decided to draw a tree expressing the purity of a human being when they are born and then we wrote words that explain what social media and illiterate people said when we were younger. We then drew a leaf inside the tree and wrote words that describe our relationship now and expressed our feelings.

During this workshop, we discussed and clarified many of the wrong ideas and stereotypes about Jewish and Muslim people, which made us feel that we are more than friends but mostly like sisters and brothers and that in the end, all religion is humanity. 

I want to thank Batel, Ronit, Ester, and Youssef for being my team partners and helpers, and a big thanks to the High Atlas Foundation, especially Dr. Ben-Meir, for these unforgettable efforts to cooperate with our friends".

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Organization Information

High Atlas Foundation

Location: New York, NY - USA
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @AtlasHigh
Project Leader:
Yossef Ben-Meir
President of the High Atlas Foundation
New York City and Marrakech, Morocco
$15,898 raised of $28,000 goal
304 donations
$12,102 to go
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