"L'Argent ne fais pas le bonheur!"
Maggie Padlewska - From the Field / FEBRUARY 2014
At first glance, it’s hard to imagine the value of an arid piece of land with little other than cracked soil and a few dry bushes. But ask its local residents, 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 in and around Taghazout, a small fishing village along the Kingdom's 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 person 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 exclusively to the wealthy. It will likely bring more income to the local economy , but the people I spoke to, who have called this area home for generations, say they worry that it will do little to benefit the local community.
Like many other locals here, 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 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 larger and developed city (about 20 kilometres south of Taghazout) attracting tourists from around the world. "They didn't want us there anymore" 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 back and up into the mountains, while others like Elhassan, moved further up the coastline. Now he fears, that what happened in the past, will repeat itself again in the very 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. 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. And with the breathtaking beauty of the Atlantic coastline and its sandy beaches, development here, appears to be thriving - rapidly.
But for many of the residents I spoke to here, the question remains...what does that mean for the region's native 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, and 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 I'm told.
"My wife is Jewish" exclaims Hassan, an outspoken shopkeeper who lives at the foot of 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. Asked to conceal their identity, 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 random and foreign stranger?" I asked. "Of course!" she enthusiastically replied. "Everyone is welcome in our home!"
Greeted with the warmest of welcomes, I again reminded that it is moments like these, precisely, those that continue to fuel my personal journey...
I am offered a seat at a beautiful table with three generations of women, close and distant cousins, and later joined by the men of the household. We drank tea, ate freshly prepared traditional dishes and talked for about two to three hours exchanging stories about our journeys' experiences and 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 beautiful family." Fatima then stood next to her father, gesturing that I lower my shoulders a little. Unexpected to me, she then untied and removed a silver necklace from around her neck, reached over my head and attached it carefully around mine. I tried to resist telling young Fatima that this moment, spent with her and family, was the greatest I gift I could have imagined - but she insisted, as tears came rolling out of my eyeballs.
One by one, we hugged, like family.
That beautiful moment, which I will cherish forever, marked the end of my visit and time spent with the Amazigh community. A strong, proud, beautiful, modest, welcoming and warm people who will welcome a stranger, speak openly and share a thought or a story with a lone nomadic messenger such as me. 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 of high end gated resorts along the coastline...how correct you are dear Hasssan.
As I leave this quaint and beautiful city, I can't help but worry about the future and the possibility of an increasing alienation of its kind and welcoming community as these upscale development projects continue to alter the natural landscape, traditional merchant routes and the gentle flow of life along coastline.
At that moment, the story of "The Fisherman and the Executive" pops into mind....please read it if you haven't already.