At first glance, it’s hard to imagine that an empty-looking piece of land with little other than a few dry bushes and cracked soil is of any use to the native community. But ask locals, and you’ll hear a very different story...
What is now the site of a multimillion dollar development project was, not too long ago, a plot of land that used to belong to generations of families and members of the Amazigh community who settled along the Atlantic coastline. "People used to herd goats and camels there" says Elhassan, an Amazigh horseman, "our paths used to pass right through there" he adds as he points to the area where concrete buildings are being erected. "Before, all of this was nature. Now all they think about, are walls" he says.
Elhassan was not the first to tell me that Amazigh people were given little choice but to vacate their land to make room for the Taghazout Bay development project; a soon to be gated resort, with a golf course, fancy restaurants, luxurious boutiques, villas, and upscale hotels catering strictly to the wealthy. It will surely bring more income to the local economy, but those who have called this area home for generations say, they worry that it will do little to benefit the local community.
Like many others, Elhassan grew up on his family's farm, earning money by providing local transportation on the backs of his horses and dromedaries, something he can no longer do that in the area where he started. "They told us to get out, to move, because hotels didn't want to smell horses and animals" he said when I asked him about his hometown, Agadir, a developed city (about 20 kilometres south of Taghazout) attracting tourists from around the world. "They didn't want us there" he added.
Elhassan, like many other members of his community, was forced to relocate for little or no compensation at all he said. Some moved deep into the mountains, others like Elhassan, moved further up the coastline. But he fears, that what happen in the past, will happen again in the near future. "We had our farm there, with about 12 dromedaries and six horses" he says as he tells me about the farm he grew up on as a child.
"The King likes to ride his jet ski here" says a taxi driver in Taghazout, "he's very fond of the water." Mohammed VI is the current King of Morocco, and a much more vibrant and outgoing leader than his late father, I'm told by locals. Money has most certainly been invested in the region in recent years, with tall street lights and newly paved highways making for a smooth ride from the congested roads of Casablanca to the coast. With the breathtaking beauty of the Atlantic coastline and its sandy beaches, development appears to be thriving here.
But for many people living here, the question remains...what does that mean for the local community?
As a first time visitor to Morocco, I couldn't help being mesmerized by the calm, simple, and peaceful pace of life along the coastline. Where fishermen sail off into the horizon before sunrise, where brightly dressed men gather around freshly brewed glasses of mint tea, and where prayers from the local mosque echo through the city. Some people pray, others don't....but no one seems to mind. Morocco is considered to be one of the most religiously tolerant Muslim countries in the world, where one is free to practice religion at will.
"My wife is Jewish" exclaims Hassan, an outspoken shopkeeper who lives in the nearby mountains that lead to the breathtaking Paradise Valley. "Morocco, is country that welcomes everyone, and all thoughts" he says proudly. Unlike the general experience in most major cities, people open their doors to strangers here, welcoming passers-by for pastries and mint tea. Though I promised to conceal their identity (taking pictures for their eyes only), I spent much of my last day in Morocco with members of Fatima's family...
I met the 10-year-old girl during my final hike through the back hills of Taghazout as I wandered alone with my gear seeking to capture a few more images of Morocco's stunning scenery.
"Bonjour!" said Fatima. "Bonjour!" I replied to the smiling little girl. We chatted about the art of goat herding, her village, and school...and laughed about how I, unlike this polite and studious young girl, wasn't a fan of homework at her age. In her soft voice she then shyly asked if I would join her, her mother, sisters, cousins, and grandmother for tea. "Are you sure your mother would approve of you bringing home a stranger?" I asked, "of course" she said, "everyone is welcome at our house."
I couldn't have imagined a more beautiful ending to my journey...
Sitting around a table, with three generations of women, close and distant cousins, and later joined by the men of the household. We drank tea, ate, and talked for about two hours, exchanging smiles and stories about our lives. As my departure drew closer Fatima's father stood up..." Maggie, you are forever welcome here, you have a home in Morocco when you return" he said.
Holding back an overwhelming rush of emotions, I put my right hand on my chest and said "thank you for your kindness and hospitality Mohammed...I will never forget you and your family." Fatima then stood next to her Father, gesturing that I lower my shoulders a little. She then untied and removed a silver necklace from around her neck, and attached it carefully around mine.
One by one, we hugged, like family.
That moment in large part defined my journey and time spent with the Amazigh community. A strong, proud, beautiful, modest, welcoming and warm people who, when asked, will speak openly and gladly share a thought or a story. And it is moments like these that allowed me to learn more about a culture and people I had longed to meet. "L'argent ne fait pas le bonheur" ("Money does not buy happiness") said Hassan when I asked him about the construction taking place along the coastline...
The visions of those with money are, however, taking over - perhaps slowly, but surely. While many argue that development projects are needed to bring benefits to the local economy....I can't help but wonder what progress that alienates the people who have lived there throughout many chapters of human history, will mean for the native community.
I, for one, cannot imagine Morocco's coastline without the presence and authenticity of the Amazigh community, their hospitality, the tranquility and its welcoming and inviting spaces, and the smell of horses, dromedaries, and tantalizing herbs and local spices.
I will conclude with one last thought, a well-known story, told to me again by a travelling merchant when I asked about his perspective on life and the nature of his community...it's called "The Fisherman and the Executive" - I ask you to please google it, and read it.
HERE'S THEIR STORY:
"L'Argent ne fais pas le bonheur!"
Maggie Padlewska - From the Field / 2014