Half an hour later, we are comfortably seating in Loubna and Hicham’s house around a cup of coffee, while the cat and the dog are playing their best tricks to take part in the discussion. We have so many questions to ask that we don’t even know where to start! Let’s keep things simple and pick up from the beginning…
How did this incredible adventure start?
Back to the roots
« I asked my mother, tell me where I’m from. She answered that first, she would need to know where she was from! » Loubna
« Many people have a vision, but very few have the willpower to implement it. Loubna and Hicham are one of those. » Mohamed told us when talking about them for the first time. They’re both airline pilots, a pretty impressive deed in it itself, and have a successful career, but this is far from being the only thing that defines them. For it is actually an opportunity to work on behalf of their vision, to engage their expertise in achieving something good.
Loubna explains that both of them were always involved in charities, principally with orphanages, but that everything changed three years ago when she felt the need to go back to her roots. That meant finding out about Ait Ben Haddou’s history, the village her family is coming from, and to which she is particularly attached even though she never lived there.
« I asked my mother, tell me where I’m from. She answered that first, she would need to know where she was from! » Loubna says. Thus started a pilgrimage in Ait Ben Haddou, first with her mother to meet with the elders, witnesses and carriers of an oral tradition as rich as it is fragile.
So on they went and met with a berber poetess, who recited the traditional poem used to welcome strangers. « It has been an eternity that I was waiting for you, that my salute longed for your salute » recalls Louna. A moment suspended in time, that made her heart sing and her soul shiver… The next day they found themselves immersed in Ait Ben Haddou’s history through the tales of a century-old man, who for an afternoon shared some memories, legends, stories and other anecdotes. An incredibly rich and relatively recent history that neither Loubna nor her mother new anything about. « This is when I realised that there had been a disruption in the oral transmission » explains Loubna.
« I don’t know how these walls can live again, but they must. » Loubna
A month later, Loubna goes back with her father, this time to meet with the ksar walls. The ancient berber fortress, though very touristic, is nevertheless neglected and falling apart. During the visit she was assailed with an intense flow of emotions and thought « I don’t know how these walls can live again, but they must. ». « It was a certainty, an obvious fact » she says.
A place rich in history of which the identity is still threatened by mass tourism
Ait Ben Haddou is a place steeped in a powerful history, of which the ksar reflects the memory. Built during the 11th century, it is a true berber fortress with defensive walls and corner towers, that was home to a 36 jewish and muslim families community. This inheritance offers a precious glimpse of ancestral building technics in southern Morocco, always tending towards the best possible integration in this very specific environnement, and nevertheless replaced little by little with more « modern » materials.
In 1937, following a severe drought episode, men and women started to leave their fields to find work in the mines, thus provoking the traditional subsistence agriculture’s progressive disappearance.
But the walls remain, somehow, and from the place radiates an energy that inspired numerous artists, like the painter Majorelle who captured his vision of the village in 1929. Starting from 1960, the cinema comes in and Ait Ben Haddou becomes the set for movies like Lawrence d’Arabie, Babel, Gladiator and even the Game of Thrones TV show more recently.
Ait Ben Haddou’s ksar, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987, welcomes ever since hundreds of visitors everyday. But so far the way tourism has expended doesn’t impact on local economy, since it is mainly based on a day formula, bringing tourists in buses from Marrakech or Ouarzazate to take them back just a few hours later. How then can they feel what is so special about this place? We had the exact same experience since we find all of this out from Loubna and Hicham when we were there just a few days ago… Lesson learned.
Also, how then can its inhabitants find their place in the village’s present life? It is Loubna’s father, Ahmed Mouna, who will give them back a voice, creating with them the non-profit Ait Aissa named after the oldest tribe who lived in the ksar. His goal, accompanying the villagers towards a sustainable and dignifying development. His means, working on electrification, clean water and care access, and creating a daycare and a school.
We Speak Citizen, the birth of a citizen collective
« We come from the city, from another world. We couldn’t just come in and say, here, we will give you a model and it will work. » Hicham
Loubna and Hicham are convinced of it, the development model must be rethought through and it is the villagers themselves that hold the solutions. « We come from the city, from another world. We couldn’t just come in and say, here, we will give you a model and it will work. » Hicham explains. And one question came up. How could they be supported in achieving what they wanted? For what Loubna and Hicham were trying to do was to offer them an opportunity to think about their own future, and that what makes this project so strong and coherent today!
The first step, and almost the biggest according to Hicham, was to lead them to express their yearnings. « We had to take our time, because we rapidly understood that there was a big difference between what they were saying and what they wanted to say » Hicham continues. Education, cultural heritage preservation and promotion, tourism, agriculture… Together, first with the non-profit Ait Aissa’s members and later with the entire village, they elaborated and assembled brick by brick the elements constituting a new basis for their future. « We didn’t bring any vision, we accompanied them to find their own » concludes Loubna.
« It is, somehow, a translation platform between the rural language and the one from the city. For we all speak the citizen language. » Hicham
And so the idea of We Speak Citizen was born, a citizen collective allowing to appeal to external know-how (urbanism, agroecology, marketing, etc) to rehabilitate Ait Ben Haddou, a rural area, in a vision setting the past and the future in the present. « It is, somehow, a translation platform between the rural language and the one from the city. For we all speak the citizen language. » says Hicham.
An admirable view for ambitious goals
« We gave ourselves ten years to set a fully functional and sustainable ecosystem up » Loubna
But Loubna and Hicham’s vision, through their commitment within the We Speak Citizen collective, goes way further. Because the goal, beyond Ait Ben Haddou’s rehabilitation, is to offer a duplicable concept, to envision a truly fair and sustainable development model for rural areas. Thus, Ait Ben Haddou is kind of an idea incubator, a pilot project that will facilitate new social patterns to emerge, hence giving each territory’s social and cultural heritage new prospects for the future.
« We gave ourselves ten years to set up a fully functional and sustainable ecosystem » Loubna explains us. After that, the ambition is to duplicate the process in other rural areas, in the southeastern Morocco first, then in other places in the country and why not even abroad.
« Let’s say that nowadays, it is during our free time that we are airline pilots! » Hicham
In their minds it is crystal clear, this project took an essential place in their lives, but also in their life as a couple. It is a commitment they took on with the most serious, aware of what was at stake and of the level of personal investment it would require. « Today it became our life project » confides Loubna, and Hicham to add with humour « Let’s say that nowadays, it is during our free time that we are airline pilots! ».
But what pushes them to go on, over all, is the change they witnessed in the people who are now leading the project, that’s to say everyone living in Ait Ben Haddou. For despite the resistance manifested at first, they took on the opportunity that was offered to make their voice matter to shape their own future…
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This courageous action from men and women who decided to take their fate and their lives into their own hands is making Loubna and Hicham particularly proud, and is giving them the will to share their experience. Which is a chance for us, because together they gave a whole new dimension to words like commitment, fair and sustainable and we are so grateful to have crossed their path.
« Talking about what we do can offer new prospectives to people, can tell them that it is possible » says Loubna. And we also believe that sharing is the key, a chance to highlight beautiful initiatives that give hope for our future…
Contact AIT AISSA
Contact WE SPEAK CITIZEN