The Azrou– Ifrane Circuit

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One felt-need we have whenever we spend time in Morocco is to make a one day circuit to the Middle Atlas Mountain cities of Azrou and Ifrane. They are located about 12 miles apart, 50 miles or so from Fes, in some of the most impressive scenery in all of Morocco. We discovered these delightful locations during our first year in Morocco in 1971. The only time in our life we have ever tried skiing occurred in the ski resort village of Michlifen, technically a part of Ifrane.

Ifrane was built during the French colonial period as a “hill station” serving primarily as a summer resort due to its alpine climate. The early construction of the city, in an architectural style that reminded colonists of their European homes, occurred primarily in the two decades preceding 1950. Ifrane is also the location of Al Akhawayn University (AUI) where I taught in 1997-98. According to Wikipedia, “In 1995 Al Akhawayn University, an English-language, American-curriculum public university opened and has helped re-launch Ifrane as a desirable destination for domestic tourism. Consequently, Ifrane continues to develop as both a summer and winter resort.” I was surprised to learn that the population of the city is now about 75,000.

We made our tour for this trip on Friday, October 16 th. We normally rent a van for this excursion since it is sometimes difficult to make the transportation arrangements for the several stops we like to make. This year we invited Hassan and Houssine, the twin grandsons of Denise’s long time house-helper, Zoubida, to travel with us. I have mentioned these two young men in earlier Perspectives through the years. They are special to me in a number of ways. I had the privilege of transporting them from the hospital to their home less than 24 hours after their birth. That happened November 25, 1988. Denise and I have watched them grow up, visiting with them almost every year since 1991, usually in their grandmother’s home.

The campus of AUI is a pearl in the midst of a pristine garden that is the city of Ifrane. Though it has been 14 years since I last taught there, in summer school 2001, I always enjoy visiting with former colleagues and acquaintances that I have seen through the years. We have several American friends who work here. This year I spent an especially good time in conversation with Fouad Chaatit, a professor of mathematics and a PhD from the University of Texas. He demonstrated that famous Moroccan character trait of hospitality, serving us coffee and pastry as we talked in his office, even though we were there a very short time.

The university is thriving and has reached an enrollment of just over 2100 students. The instructional language is English in all courses except for courses in the departments of French and Arabic, and for Moroccan students, English is the third language in which they become proficient. Justifiably, the general populace feels an enormous sense of pride in the mere existence of such a university, and in the reputation it has earned in the past twenty years for the excellent education it provides.

Azrou is a genuine Berber town of about 100,000 people located in the province of Ifrane. One of Azrou’s claim to fame is that it was chosen as the location of the “College Berbere” under the French Protectorate. The school was to serve as a training school for Moroccan Berbers, especially in the military profession, and was founded on the premise that Arabs and Imazighen (Middle Atlas Berbers) were fundamentally different and should be educated and ruled as such. However, this divide and rule strategy of the French backfired as it was not in the interests of either group, as loyalty to Islam and the monarchy proved to be stronger than ethnic ties.

Our compelling reason for making this “circuit” each time we are here is to take advantage of spending some time among a group of the most dedicated and committed people we have ever met. In Azrou we visit The Haven, a home for children who for various reasons have been abandoned or never had the privilege of being a member of a family that would care for and protect them. With the approval and blessing of the Moroccan government, this home was established in the 1950’s and moved to its present location in 1959. One of the couples who served as house-parents during that move are still living there. This couple has raised more than 20 children in their home as well as four children of their own. The husband maintains his position as director of the institution, a role he has fulfilled for many years, while his wife is primarily responsible for the midday meal, served in a common dining room, at which all the children, house-parents, and staff are present.

I was particularly pleased to introduce Hassan and Houssine to The Haven. They were unaware that such an institution existed in Morocco and were quite impressed by the fact that volunteers would choose to spend their lives serving others, especially in a foreign country. We had lunch with the residents that day, and sat at the table with a couple who have two children of their own, and an additional 14 they have custody of at the present time. Denise is pictured with Nora, their youngest child, who is child number 101 of those who have grown up here. Her parents have been house-parents for about eight years now.

It was an incredibly moving experience to hear the sweet, resonant thanksgiving chorus being sung by all the residents, followed by a proper verbal expressions of “grace” as I heard the blessing referred to in my childhood in south Alabama. The director offered the prayer that day, an expression of gratitude by this surrogate grandfather, now overseeing the lives of more than 20 from among the 100 or so children who have benefitted from the commitment and compassion of all those who have served there.

As is always the case when we are there, a profound sense of hope emerges, recognizing the possibilities for the human condition to be improved, as at least some of the most vulnerable are being protected. Seeing these children eating together, and then all cooperating and performing their assigned chores after the meal as all the dishes were washed and put away, and the cafeteria cleaned and made ready for the next day affected us deeply.

The road over the mountain pass between the two cities provides magnificent scenery, some of the best in all of Morocco. We have taken pictures here for over forty years now, many of them appearing much the same as the first. Perhaps we are searching for the ability to see some small difference, a nuance of color or texture, something we had missed earlier in the inspirational panorama we observed. We are reminded that the circuit we travel each time we visit provides in what we see, in what we remember, and in the connections and relationships we have fostered and enjoyed over the years, the opportunity to reflect upon our great good fortune in what we have experienced.

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