The Moroccan Kasbah du Toubkal & the Imazighen Who Live There

When I hear the name Morocco, what immediately jumps in my mind are the colorful mosaic art, amazing architecture and the exotic smells of Ginger, Turmeric and Paprika spices you find walking down the streets of its lovely capital. But there is much more to Morocco than what meets the eye. Morocco actually has extremely diverse touristic attractions of hidden gems scattered across the country.

Set in the small village of Imlil in the Atlas Mountains range in Morocco, Kasbah du Toubkal is a beautiful Eco-lodge that was restored in 1995 by British traveler Mike McHugo. The lodge has a long history, where it was initially the home of a former caïd (a local baron) in 1937. Since electricity did not reach Imlil till 197, the lodge was rebuilt using traditional tools and equipment, with mules carrying the needed construction material up the mountains.

What’s even more interesting for me is how Kasbah du Toubkal is operated in partnership with the local Berber community, where 5% of revenues are funneled back to the villagers.  To support local development efforts, an umbrella organization called “The Association of the Valleys of Imlil” was created in 1999 with representatives from all the villages in the Imlil valley, giving the region more credibility in implementing local projects and receiving much-needed funds from the domestic and international donation. 

Imazighen Woman

The Association’s first project attempted to resolve the transportation difficulty facing residents of the valley by starting an ambulance and driver service. Activities undertaken by the Association over the years included building a community bath (hammam), support of modern apprenticeships and craft training at the Imlil School, and reinforcement to the flood protection in the village, among others.

Imazighen Flag

The Berber community (or the Imazighen as they prefer being called, meaning free people), are considered the indigenous people of North Africa, who represent numerous heterogeneous ethnic groups sharing similar cultural, political and economic practices. And no, they are not nomadic people. Imazighen are actually village dwellers who survive on agriculture, herding, and trade. The Berber language, Tamazight includes more than thirty distinct languages and hundreds of different dialects.

When I first heard Tamazight music, I was entirely captivated by the moving, romantic sounding language of this culture. One of my favorites is this song by a band called Oudaden founded in 1978 in the Sous region of Morocco. Imazighen languages and culture were banned by the Moroccan government for an extended period. Thankfully this ban was lifted in 2003 when King Mohammed VI started integrating the language in the school system, in an attempt to combine the local community in modern day Morocco.

Morocco alone is home to numerous Imazighen tribes such as the Dades in the North East of the country, and the Mesgita, who live along the rivers in the North West. Shilha – the Arabic word for all Berber languages – includes three distinct groups of Shilha Berbers, the Northern (Rif) Berbers, the Southern (Sousi) Berbers, and the Central (Berber) Berbers.

The term Kabyle originally meant “the tribes,” referring to all groups of Berbers. Nowadays the term refers to two distinct groups, the those living in Al-Quabail Mountains, and the Sousi Berbers native to the beautiful village of Imlil, (with the fantastic lodge mentioned above) located in the Marrakesh Safi province – one of 12 regions in Morocco.

The Sousi or southern Shelha inhabit the high Western Atlas and Anti-Atlas mountains. They mainly work in herding and agriculture, planting only two crops a year as a result of the harsh winter climate. Many members of the tribes migrated to cities – such as Casablanca and Tangiers – where they established monopolies in the grocery business. The Soussi are argued to have strong political influence since their support for the independence from French.

The Untold Story of Syrian Refugees in Short Film

A sad part of our modern day and age is how assimilated we have become to news media stories on international conflict and war. When a conflict takes place over a long duration of time, the casualties become nothing more than figures across a screen. After all, Stalin put the matter best when he proclaimed that “the death of a person is a tragedy… the death of a million is a statistic.”

That is what the Syrian conflict has become to us. Not only that but with the vast number of people fleeing their homes, Syrian refugees have become an “international concern.” The 5.3 million refugees scattered across the globe are deemed a “logistical nightmare” due to the difficulties in setting up refugee camps and a nuisance to Western society’s. 

In the middle of all of that, we forgot to listen to the human voices behind those overwhelming statistics…

And that’s what Mohammad JD did in “No Place Like Hope,” a short movie about the lives of Syrian refugees. This moving video reminds us that life in a refugee camp is nothing short of a continuous struggle to survive both the physical and mental anguish that have plagued these communities, who often have to make – do with minimal resources.

The dire situation in refugee camps includes lack of access to basic human needs such as food, water, and proper shelter. Yet, this hardship only cements the strong neighborly, and humanitarian sense Syrian culture is known for. “They would split the apple they have and share it with you,” Mohamed says in his movie, showing how even the hunger-stricken individual understands the hardship incurred by his fellow refugee.

Mohamed Jamal El Din explains in further detail the motivation behind his activism in a TedEx talk titled “What If We Were Friends.” I was moved to tears by the inspiration for his journey when an impoverished woman with two dead kids and a sick child asked: “please make me a promise to help others in need.”

However, western societies view refugees as a burden on their communities. “We are worried if they come here we’ll end up babysitting them,” A New York friend of Mohamed said. People forget that refugees include Syrian citizens with degrees in medicine, engineering, humanities, and arts. They are not a burden, but a people who can effectively contribute to foreign societies and cultures by enriching them. Yes, Syria is a Middle Eastern country that belongs to the developing world, but consider for a second the possibility that a Syrian refugee doctor “could one day save your life.”

Nagiub Mahfouz Cafe and Restaurant – A Stroll into a Forgotten Past

Most people living in Cairo above the age of 30 have no need for an introduction about the famous Naguib Mahfouz Cafe. For others who have never heard about the place, they are in for a treat. Nestled in the small roads of Khan El Khalili, the restaurant has been in operation for nearly 30 years. The cafe’s reputation is mainly due to its unforgettable name of the Egyptian Nobel Literature Award Writer, whose signature adorns the first wooden poll you see as you enter the cafe. 

Egyptian Tarboosh

Coming up to the Cafe’ nothing on the exterior gives away the ambiance inside. A closed wooden door, with a modern placket and a security gate, gives the impression of entering a forbidden, high-security location. Once inside, you are greeted by male waiter’s in tarabeesh – a traditional Egyptian headdress outlawed by Gamal Abd El Nasser in the aftermath of the 1952 revolution – and the sound of an oriental live musical performance of anoon, mixed in with the loud bustle of a crowded cafe.

Egyptian Oud

For those of us who enjoy oriental music but are not overly fond of loud cafe’s, Naguib Mahfouz offers two secluded restaurant locations close enough for you to hear the music, but private enough to enjoy talking to your dinner companions, which is where I preferred to sit with my brother and his fiance’.  From the moment we sat down to our tables, we were hooked. The rustic Egyptian decor, coupled with the ambiance and the traditional Egyptian menu, transformed us to a time when women were referred to as hanem, (lady) and men were either a bey or pasha (lord).

Between the three of us, we ordered three different dishes, and none of us were disappointed by the food. We ordered the traditional Egyptian pigeons dish, mix grill with rice dish, and I sampled the grilled half chicken with pasta casserole or makaroona bashamel. The grilled chicken had just the right amount of herbs to create a savory but healthy taste, which was nicely complemented by the filling pasta casserole. The pasta had a small hint of cheese in the white sauce, giving a nice twist to a traditional taste. Every dish simply had the exact amount of herbs that complement the natural flavor of the meats.

To fully engage in the Egyptian spirit, you could follow the traditional wisdom to digest food, where Egyptians usually drink red tea with mint, and smoke hookah, both of which are offered in the cafe section of Naguib Mahfouz. There you can fully immerse yourself in the music and ambiance of a traditional crowded Egyptian cafe’.

If you ever find yourself in Cairo, and want to taste local cuisine in an unforgettable locale, Nagiub Mahfouz is definitely the place to go.