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Rebuilding the forgotten Amazigh villages of Morocco

Rebuilding the forgotten Amazigh villages of Morocco's Atlas Mountains
5 min read
26 September, 2023
In-depth: After the earthquake, how will Morocco rebuild villages in the Atlas Mountains? It is a question authorities have yet to answer, as they tackle issues of Amazigh identity, heritage, and the long-standing neglect of a forgotten region.

When the strongest earthquake in a century struck Morocco, it also destroyed one of its most vulnerable regions.

On 8 September, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake damaged 2,930 villages and killed more than 2,900 people across the country.

The epicentre was in the High Atlas Mountains, which for decades has borne the brand of 'forgotten Morocco'.

Nestled within a formidable, though harsh, natural environment, the hundreds of Amazigh villages there have long been neglected.

But following the natural disaster, the survivors now hope that maybe, this time, they will be remembered by the state's reconstruction plans and investor promises.

To help survivors, the Moroccan government has promised up to 140,000 dirhams (around $12,800) for each destroyed home. 

Last week, the palace said that 50,000 houses were known to have been damaged and that authorities would provide shelter and 30,000 dirhams ($3,000) to affected households.

A special account has also been set up to collect donations from individuals and contributions from the public and private sectors.

All these efforts, when combined, will likely be enough. However, the question now for many residents is whether reconstruction plans will take into account the region’s Amazigh culture, traditions, and long-ignored history.

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Atlas Mountains: A cultural centre

“As far as I am concerned the Atlas (High, Middle and Anti) is a world heritage cultural site. It is a vast region where different forms of human cultural and social adaptation took place over centuries,” explains Dr Aomar Boum, a Moroccan Amazigh historian and anthropologist, to The New Arab.

The Atlas Mountains chain stretches across North Africa through Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco and it is home mostly to the indigenous people of North Africa: Amazighs.

These mountains are home to a variety of ecosystems, from arid deserts on the southern slopes to cedar forests and alpine meadows in the higher elevations.

From the Roman Empire to French colonisation, the Atlas villagers have fought for their freedom, independence, and identity while holding dear their Amazigh, Islamic, and Jewish history.

A woman reacts standing in front of her earthquake-damaged house in the old city of Marrakesh on 9 September 2023. [Getty]

“Like the Sherpas Tibetan ethnic groups of the Himalayan Mountains, Amazigh communities adapted to life and its changing seasons by building ksours, kasbahs, and tents and maintaining household economies revolving around transhumance, herding, terrasse agriculture,” added Dr Aomar Boum, author of 'Memories of Absence: How Muslims Remember Jews in Morocco', in an interview with The New Arab.

Using mud, stones, and wood, and relying on Twiza, a tradition where the community come together to build a structure, Amazighs built Mosques and synagogues, Kasbhas and Agdals, forging a thousand-year-old eco-friendly architecture.

While for some the structural integrity of these mud walls was partly responsible for exacerbating the death toll, for others they are an age-old tradition and a heritage to be preserved and improved in respect of the region's customs.

Relocation or rebuilding?

Salima Naji, a Moroccan anthropologist and architect who has been on the ground for a week testing these theories with a group of earthquake experts, says putting the blame on a traditional building style is completely wrong.

“No, that's completely false. It is in fact a theory, I have been on site for five days and I have been in each zone with my colleagues for the field diagnosis: what has held up best is vernacular [local traditional architecture],” Naji told The New Arab.

She said that in recent decades, there have been so-called "improvements" with pieces of reinforced concrete, slabs, and poorly installed toilets that have actually weakened the traditional buildings in the region, or as she puts it, “a shoddy modernity" that has nothing modern about it.

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“Most of the houses on the ground or that collapsed (except in the epicentre where nothing resisted) were in this awful model which seems modern and which is third worldist. A lesson that people are beginning to understand,” Naji said.

But as the snow season looms, uncertainty remains for the devastated villages.

While the number of donations from wealthy benefactors to the earthquake account increases daily, the government has yet to introduce a tangible plan to rebuild the area. Judging from experience, villagers are worried that it may take years.

A plan to relocate the remote villages to urban areas is reportedly the government’s first choice. But for Aicha, an elderly Amazigh villager in Aghbar, near Taroudanet, that will be “worse than death”.

A man carries a blanket as he walks over the rubble of buildings destroyed in Morocco's earthquake on 9 September 2023 in Ouirgane. [Getty]

For the devastated villagers, their houses were also casualties; a loss of decades of memories they inherited from generation to generation. For a community that had to fight for its identity and language for decades, being displaced is like being uprooted.

“We live next to our lands, and we belong to our lands,” Aicha added.

Most communities in the Atlas Mountains rely on farming and agriculture, mostly almonds, walnuts, and saffron, so displacement will cause a disturbance to their sources of income.

Salima Naji argues that authorities should abandon their urban relocation plans and instead start immediately repairing and consolidating houses while incorporating a model that rejects substandard building structures.

“Contrary to popular belief, we build quickly with stone or earth and it is durable,” Naji said.

“And above all, we must support people, pamper them, take care of the children, give work to men and women, for example, for reconstruction in a mason cooperative. We must be careful not to leave them alone.”

Basma El Atti is The New Arab's correspondent in Morocco.

Follow her on Twitter: @elattibasma