Since leaving up my work in the UK civil service to move to Morocco, I have been very fortunate to find work as Project and Development Manager at the High Atlas Foundation. HAF is a Moroccan association and US 501(c)(3) non-profit organization committed to participatory development through local, national, and international partnerships. The HAF philosophy is to create an inclusive process for community development that relies on the participation of all local stakeholders, and especially the most marginalized groups.
Just as exciting as working with incredibly talented, dedicated colleagues on projects which really help people is the opportunity I have to meet local people and learn more about Essaouira, the town I have chosen to call home.
The main project I manage is one with cultural, social, environmental and heritage objectives initiated by HAF and its partners. The project is based around the cemeteries of the city. This might seem odd until one learns that Essaouira – today a small port city on Morocco’s Atlantic Coast – was once home to as many Jews as Muslims and many Christians besides. And that this phenomenon of social, cultural and philosophical intimacy – one might even say unity – despite religious diversity – pre-dates even the French colonial period. In fact, Essaouira, with its cemeteries of three faiths (Christian, Jewish and Muslim) epitomizes a uniquely Moroccan integration of distinct and shared identity, which HAF and its partners hope to promote amongst the younger generation locally. The cemeteries serve as reminders today of a rich multicultural heritage of Essaouira, which is today a popular tourist and watersports destination.
The key figure in Essaouira’s development was Sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdullah who, in 1765, founded the city with its walled medina which today has UNESCO World Heritage status. He invited Jews to trade and live here and Essaouira flourished under the name Mogador. It is said that the materials for one of Mogador’s 33 synagogues were imported directly from Manchester. Mogador served as the port for Timbuktu and saw the exchange of produce, valuables, and slaves. By the end of the 19th century, communities of Arabs, Amazigh, Africans, and Europeans were living, working, and trading together and all speaking the local Arabic dialect.
Today, many Europeans – many of whom would consider themselves Christians - live in Essaouira, but the Moroccan Jewish community has not been significant since the 1960s. This does not mean it is forgotten and there are many festivals and restoration projects which seek to revive and celebrate this important cultural influence.
One of the fascinating aspects of working with such a relatively recent past is that much of it is still within living memory and captured on film. I have had the pleasure of talking to many people about their recollections of the peaceful coexistence between communities and some have shared photos which we have collated into an album on Flickr, and some of which are featured here.
It is really important to record these memories and historical references before it is too late. If you are interested in following the progress of the project, please see the HAF website
The views in this article are my own, although they may coincide with those of HAF. If you would like to know more or to support HAF, you can do so via GlobalGiving. UK tax payers will receive gift aid on their donation. A wide range of projects (including the Essaouira one) can be seen on GlobalGiving UK
About the writer:
After 13 years as a grey civil servant, Lynn Sheppard has decided to live life in colour in Essaouira, Morocco. A redundancy payment goes a long way in Africa (she hopes) and while deciding how to spend it, she is working for the High Atlas Foundation (www.highatlasfoundation.org) as well as writing and taking photos for her blog (www.maroc-o-phile.com). The thing she really misses from her UK life is Afro-Cuban dancing, but she's working on that...