By Mohamed El Kadiri
The fascinating site we encountered is located in Erfoud, a small, quiet town in the south-eastern part of Morocco, about 70 km from Errachidia. Our visit was initially aimed at following the fruit trees distributed to farmers in the region as part of the 1 million trees campaign launched by the High Atlas Foundation (HAF) and its partners. But we were struck by the region’s rich, long history, filled with neighborhoods, Ksour (fortified villages) and cemeteries. Everything suggested that we had set foot in a unique city. We were at the heart of Moroccan Amazigh, Jewish and Arab history, as well as the African roots of Morocco.
Erfoud is an ancient town characterized by its natural diversity, teeming with palm trees that cover much of the region. Erfoud is also considered the largest oasis on the African continent. In addition to this, the city is known for its rich historical, cultural and religious diversity, which we witnessed during our visit. This diversity has long existed with humanity, helping us to remind ourselves that the hallmark of humanity is the acceptance of the differences that have given rise to multiculturalism and religious diversity.
The Jewish cemetery is what caught our attention the most. We were moved by the poor conditions of a cemetery considered to be part of the rich heritage of our country. We discovered the existence of this site thanks to our constant communication and collaboration with the inhabitants of the region. By discussing the programs that the High Atlas Foundation implements with its partners as well as its areas of competence, we learned of the existence of the old Jewish cemetery in the region dating from the pre-colonial period. Accompanied by members of the Ghaith Al-Khair cooperative, we headed to the two-hectare cemetery located next to Oued Ziz (Ziz River) and where Jews of all ages — men, women, children, as well as Sheikhs (Chiefs of tribes) —were buried.
A sage who joined our visit spoke about the graves, referring to the rich oral history of the Moroccan peoples. “The death of a sheikh in North Africa is like burning down an entire library.” Among the tombs we noticed Hebrew inscriptions on the tombstones. It was sad to see how neglected and abandoned the cemetery had resulted in areas of the cemetery where the remains of the deceased had resurfaced. It was like a total disrespect for the dead. We were really moved by the situation, knowing that all religions pay particular attention to respecting the remains of the deceased in general, the Jewish teachings in particular.
As a young Moroccan, I was struck by what I witnessed, and as a Muslim who respects all people regardless of their religious, cultural or intellectual and ideological backgrounds, I could not condone the situation. Considering the sanctity of the Jewish funeral tradition, it was an ethical and national duty to find ways to restore the sanctity of the dead with the aim of reviving Judeo-Moroccan culture, as well as historical and civilizational ties. In fact, I was not the only one who felt this; even residents and civil society actors were moved by the deteriorating conditions of this historic site.
Faced with this unfortunate situation, I started by deliberating with the civil associations in the region to obtain more information and data on the site. We were able to coordinate with the Ghaith Al-Khair cooperative and have a meeting with its president Zakaria Al Khmari. During our meeting we agreed on how the current situation poorly reflects the image of the culture and people of the region which is normally characterized by conviviality and coexistence.
After our discussion, it occurred to us the urgency of implementing the first phase, starting with the restoration of the ruined tombs while respecting their spiritual value and their sacred character. Thus, with the support of the High Atlas Foundation, a project to organize restoration workshops for the entire cemetery is being considered.
What Erfoud has witnessed over time is the reality of cohabitation and interfaith concepts in real life. These values were instilled in Moroccans a long time ago. We have inherited them from our ancestors and it is our duty to pass them on to future generations. Throughout this unique experience, I had the chance to understand the importance of these values.
In addition, we were very happy to see how young people in the area were engaged and working with the Ghait Al Kheir cooperative to help restore the graves. Once again, it made me realize the importance of solidarity. Working together to implement this activity will allow us, first of all, to preserve human dignity and to contribute to the preservation of our material heritage. Thus, we participate in the revitalization and maintenance of the diversity of Morocco in terms of languages, dialects, faiths, ethnicities and tribes. The ultimate objective is to shed light on the Moroccan heritage and to contribute to the preservation of the heritage of our country.
Moreover, the experience revealed the vulnerability and fragility of the structures in this region. It was truly a touching experience, through which I determined that much more needed to be done to preserve Morocco’s many identities. It has also occurred to me that religious and tribal affiliations are threatened if we do not come together to realize that as citizens it is our responsibility to preserve the heritage and history of our country as they all belong to us. .
Mohamed El Kadiri is a member of the Youth Conservation Corps Morocco pilot program, which is supported by the United States Forest Service and implemented by the High Atlas Foundation.
This article was produced with the support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Activity of religious and ethnic minorities, and the High Atlas Foundation is solely responsible for its content, which does not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States government.
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