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For the first time in years, my beloved hometown made the news. Everyone has heard or read about the violent unrest recently in Sefrou over the Moroccan government’s latest increases in the price of basic food commodities. A march was called for and organized by the local chapter of the Moroccan Association of Human Rights. I was shocked to see protesters clashing with police, cars torched, buildings damaged, and people injured and being arrested. We are accustomed to seeing these kinds of demonstrations in the big cities like Casablanca, Rabat, or Fez, but not in my sleepy hometown.
The Town Of Sefrou
Sefrou is a walled town of about 80,000 inhabitants, nested in the slopes of the middle Atlas, about 28 kilometers south east of Fez in central Morocco. Agriculture is the main activity in the region. The mountainous terrain is the ideal place for fruit trees, especially cherries. Sefrou is well known for its cherry festival, which is considered one of Morocco’s oldest and most prominent regional celebrations. This annual event was introduced by the French in 1919 and takes place during the harvest of the cherries in early June. It gives the locals a chance to showcase the charming customs, traditions, arts, and crafts of the area to thousands of visitors. The festival reaches its pinnacle with the crowning of “Miss Cherry Festival” and a parade of beautiful and colorful floats on the third day of the festival.
Sefrou has an interesting history and culture, which years ago brought it to the attention of world-renowned American anthropologist Clifford Geertz and his students, who based a number of important scholarly books on their research there. The city began as a market town in the Roman era and as a stopping point for caravans of traders making their way from the Mediterranean to the Sahara desert, and became a major Moroccan town long before Fez was built in the 8th century. In fact, Mouly Idriss II lived in Sefrou while he was building Fez. The town was a melting pot of culture as Jewish Berber Moroccans and Algerians had been settling there for many centuries. Before most Jewish Moroccans left the country when the French departed during the sixties and seventies, a third of Sefrou’s population was Jewish. The elegant medina still has a charm much like that of Fez, although it is much smaller. Visitors will discover impressive historical sites with Arabic and Hebrew characters. Kef El Moumen cave, at the outskirts of town, is believed (according to legends) to be the resting place for the prophet Daniel. The Jewish quarter, called the Mellah, is worth investigation as well. The area is separated by the River Aggai and is now mostly inhabited by Muslims, although a few Jewish families remain as well. Despite being a treasure trove of history and culture, Sefrou has largely escaped the notice of local and foreign tourists and, unfortunately, of the central government and its recent reforms.
The Unrest Over Food Prices
Nothing justifies the recent violence in Sefrou. I still can not comprehend how a peaceful demonstration against the sudden rise in the price of basic commodities could turn into an Intifada. How in the world could what started as a sit in and a legal protest during Islam’s most sacred month get out of hand and end in acts of violence with incineration and destruction of private and public property?
Within two hours on this sunny Sunday, my beautiful quiet hometown became a war zone. Who is to blame for the chaos? Some say it was initiated by overzealous police that persist on provoking peaceful marchers. Others blame the governor’s stubborn refusal to meet with members of the march organizing committee. Some go even further to speculate that this unrest was a set up to implicate people from Sefrou and neighboring towns in illegal acts of violence, to justify arresting and jailing them.
Sefrou As A Part Of The Forgotten Morocco
What happened in Sefrou could take place anywhere in numerous areas of Morocco that possess a rich history and culture but are nonetheless marginalized and have been forgotten by the national authorities. The central government is taking big steps to implement programs to revive the national economy. Several cities look like a giant construction sites with major projects that aim to rebuild the aging infrastructure, create jobs, and improve people’s daily lives. But this revival is not generalized throughout the country. Every day, we see and read about the same areas getting the bulk of projects for building and restoring vital infrastructure. While some cities are getting tramways, fancy speedways, and double-decker and TGV trains, others do not have even decent roads. I do not mean paved, just decent roads. We have all heard and seen the tragic pictures from the high Atlas village of Anfgou where a dozen people, including children, perished because of the cold weather. The cause of death may technically have been the harsh winter conditions, but the victims could have been saved and rescued if there had been a decent road to get help. We remember images of this village community living almost in the dark ages, where small children with hacking coughs were playing in the snow and walking the icy ground barefoot. These people are not victims of the cold, but of neglect, which is unfortunately common in several areas of Morocco.
King Hassan II once said in a speech that Sefrou used to be the most beautiful town in Morocco, but, it has now turned into the ugliest, dirtiest thing. I agree with that assessment. I grew up in Sefrou during the seventies and eighties, and saw what neglect did to it. Sefrou used to be a picturesque mountain town with a beautiful medina shaped like a maze of shops leading to the town square at Bab Al Mrabaa. Thanks to the abundance of water in the river Aggai that makes it way through the center of town, lush gardens with all sorts of flowers were found all over the numerous green spaces of Sefrou. The waterfall up the mountain just a mile from the medina was major tourist attraction. Around town, vast orchards of olives, cherries, and other fruits trees were common. Beautiful pine and cider forests on the hills surrounding the town, and large lakes (like Aoua, Hashlef, Ifer, etc.) are just a few miles from the town center. With all these amazing natural and environmental resources, Sefrou could have been a Mecca for eco tourists. The lack of hotels, proper restaurants, and other elements of a basic hospitality infrastructure have limited Sefrou’s potential to a day visit stop from Fez. The few fashionable hotels and nice restaurants that the town used to have closed years ago due to neglect and an inability to compete with the big chains in Fez. Moreover, The river Aggai that made Sefrou an Eden, brought also destruction and misery when it flooded in 1950 and 1976. Unfortunately, it seems that Sefrou never recovered from flooding in 1976 and its infrastructure has not been maintained.
Sefriouis are known to be tolerant, easy-going, and peaceful, even during hard times -- which they have endured for many years. Poverty, unemployment, and deteriorating infrastructure dating from the era of the French protectorate are common phenomena throughout the town. For these people, the latest increase in the cost of basic necessities was the straw that broke the camel’s back. While I deplore and condemn the acts of violence and destruction that occurred, I hope that the local and central government will take a closer look at Sefrou and other neglected parts of Morocco to help them restore them to their glorious past and potential. The town and the people of Sefrou have a lot to offer to our country’s development and prosperity.