A Moroccan Guide : From the Atlas Mountains to the Imperial Cities
My son, you don’t see what I see. And, I cannot see what you see.
By Olivia Lopes
This past weekend I met Lahoucein Loutar, one of our guides, to take a Marrakech tour of my own. Our medina tours are tailored to each client’s individual preference—ranging from monument and souk visits to daylong expert architecture and carpet adventures. Because the clients usually decide, I asked Lahoucein to let this day be about his favourite places.
We started by staring up the height of the Koutoubia Mosque and made our way through his medina highlights. I was curious to know more about the history of the city I am currently calling home and calling you all to visit. However, my real intention was to discover what winding, medina-like paths Lahoucein has taken in his own personal trajectory. Lahoucein’s tour certainly oriented me in the maze of the old city, but more important, he focused my attention on a traditional Moroccan ideal of accepting difference and being open to varying perspectives, an ideal passed to him from his father. Read on to hear from Lahoucein himself about how he feels revisiting this tradition could better his own country if applied in the here and now and how it could nurture a global citizenship that appreciates our shared humanity, even when we don’t see eye to eye.
I chose to have Lahoucein guide my Saturday and I always feel good when I book him for one of our clients because I know that people who tour with him have the opportunity to go beyond tourism, to really travel with him. He is incredibly open, curious and always dressed to impress with a serious yet kind demeanour. If you get the chance to meet him, feel free to initiate the discussion and to pose your curiosity against his. Our conversation on Saturday drifted from important historical dates to talking about our families’ history of adoption to laughing about the fact that it is possible the Koutoubia Mosque does not actually face Mecca. We finally landed at Terrasse des Epices, a cafe in the Marrakech medina, to get to the real meat of Lahoucein’s world- and medina-view.
I have honoured Lahoucein’s request by making small edits to his English in his responses below.
Why did you become a guide?
It’s by chance. I never planned to be a guide. I wanted only to be a teacher, an English teacher, at the University or high school. I was working as a representative of a company, as someone responsible for the transportation of the company, in Casablanca. And it is not what I wanted because I was blocked between four walls, dealing with people in a way that is not my way. It was not how I liked to treat people. My brother kept telling me about a school for guides in the mountains. Because I come from the mountains, I didn’t want to go back to the mountains. I wanted to change my life. But I realized later that it would be a good thing for me. Guiding suits me because it gives me the opportunity to see, to know Morocco–the real, authentic Morocco, as it is. And I now have no screen protection with foreigners when they come. I want to learn from them. And I also want to show them, to expose them to my background, for them to know my culture. So even if it took me a long time to decide, I went to guiding school, I did it and I enjoyed being there, being a mountain guide.
You were a mountain guide originally, but now we mostly meet you in the city. Why did you change?
I first was a mountain guide from 2001 until 2007. In 2007, I wanted to bring my children from the village [to Marrakech] because I am from the village, but I am always out of the village. I wanted to bring them to keep close, because I don’t want to put myself in a suitcase and move all the time, away from the family. And the kids, they need me, as well as I need them. I enjoyed being in the mountains. At the same time, I enjoy being a local guide in the town. I love what I am doing. The job, it gives me free time for me and for my family, as well as the opportunity to meet new people, you know.
What do you enjoy most about being a guide?
It’s meeting people. Meeting new identities. When you first go to a person, you never expect to meet him. I keep learning every day from others. You try because it is the only way to break those screen protections that some people may have when coming to Morocco. Mass media inculcates in their minds, positive and negative things, that they haven’t actually experienced themselves, you know. It’s just the mouth talking. But when they come to the real life, they are surprised. Once people visit they see it is something totally different than what they were told overseas. This is the only way via which people come to know the real country, the real background of the country. And this is so important because it is the only way that peace will reign, you know, everywhere. The way I will look at you is not the same way I will look at you if people have just told me about you. When I come closer to you, I come to know the essence of your person. The time when you go closer to the other is the way you know the sparkling essence of the person that comes through, you know, to stop the preconceptions. It is not only the individual, but the culture that they come to embrace via themselves, via coming to know you.
What is your background?
I was born in the village, from Berber parents. Tagleft, it is the name of the village. It is 280 kilometres northeast of Marrakech. I studied there until the age of 12. Then I had to move to the next village 40 kilometres away because at that time we didn’t have, you know, secondary school. I was granted a scholarship from the government. I studied there for about 5 years. I managed to change the stream of my studies to literary studies because I wanted to learn another language, and I managed to get good marks to learn the English language. Then I got my baccalaureate degree, which was in the next town, another 80 kilometres away, and again, on scholarship from the government. After that, I went to the university to study English Literature–though my English is a bit wacky. It has a bit of French in it, but people manage to understand me, you know. And when I got my degree, I was not able to get a job from the government so that is why I had like a gap in my life when I did another job as a salesman, in the street. But I have never regretted having that time because it gave me more opportunity to meet people, to avoid any shyness or timidity. And I am happy because when I came to the tourism industry it helped me work with people.
You once told me a story about your father and a pivotal point in your life. Could you share it again?
Even with my education, you know, being at the university with my degree, I have always stuck to the values of the country. When I got my degrees, I reached a certain age and my father wanted to arrange my marriage. For you, as someone from a different culture, it is not clear why someone with education would stick to these values, but we are educated to do, “by hook or by crook,” what our parents order us to do. In the sense that, if you do not do it, you think that the curse of being disobedient to your parents will follow you. I was a bit rebellious in the family. I am the black sheep of the family. I didn’t want, at that time, my family to concern themselves with my private life, to interfere in it. But I had a discussion with my father and he said, “My son, you don’t see what I see. And, I cannot see what you see.” Which means that perspectives about things change depending on the person. The way my father used to see things is not the same way I am looking at them. And it’s a similar thing with my children. And with foreigners. The way I am looking at things is not the same way. And we should accept that difference. Even though we have to stick to certain values which are good for everybody. I respected my father’s perspective. I allowed him to arrange my marriage because I cannot see what he sees, but it does not mean it is not there.
How is life in the Moutains different to life in Marrakech?
It is simple, in the Berber areas. We don’t have the notion of time. People they are in relationship with the earth, with nature. They do small businesses. They keep themselves busy the whole day. In town it’s something else. You get into a town and it’s very busy. You become scheduled. You have to do this, and you have to do this, and you have to do that. But in the mountains it’s something else. You eat local food, which is good, healthy, whereas in town you can eat whatever you find, like chocolate and soda [pointing to our drinks at the cafe]. But Marrakech, if you asked me about another town in Morocco, I would tell you life is very different. But most people living in Marrakech are Berbers because they came from the mountains. They didn’t want to stay in the mountains anymore because they wanted to improve the lives of their children. They want to change the social background of their family by sending their children to school.
I know you have an association that addresses this migration, that focuses on bringing education to the mountains instead of children into the cities. Can you speak about how you began and what you do?
A friend of mine who is Swiss had given her kidney to someone she didn’t know. She gave the organ anonymously to someone else. It was like someone shook me. I saw this woman, who has given something of her own, you know, something she was born with and realized I cannot do it. I cannot do it to give to my own brother. I said, maybe I can help in another way. She was the one to inculcate in me the way of helping people, via bringing clothes, books and different things to help the students in the villages. Working in the tourism industry has given me the opportunity to meet people with similar tendencies toward helping others so I have done some projects in my village. First, it was cataract surgery for three widowed women, to regain their eyesight. 567 people were given eye screenings and the association has bought 167 pairs of glasses for people. An 11 year-old boy has an amputated leg so I took him to the French Embassy and they took charge of him. We helped three other widowed women undergo training to become mid-wives. Now, I am in partnership with a school in England. Students at the last level just before going to university come to do a project. Last year I had 40 students come to the village. They painted the rooms and murals of the school. They have given donations for the playground equipment. This year I have requested for them to help the school they worked on complete the rooms, painting them and making a library for the students. And if it is possible, computers no longer in use in their own school, they can give them to the school in my village. Hopefully it will help the next generation, because those kids, it is a way to teach them the way to help others when they are older. You know, the same school I am working with now in the village is the same school where I was first enrolled when I was 7 years old.
What is your favourite thing about your country?
The contrast is the charm of the country. It is an exotic country in the sense that if you want mountains you go to the mountains, hiking. You want luxury hotels and to stay near the pool, you can do it. You want to go to the beach, you can do it in Essaouira, or there are many different options. But people they are tending to do what we call ecotourism, going to the mountains and helping the locals. It is only by the locals that you get to know the real, the essence of things.
Loutar ended our conversation with a call to action:
Bring your children to the villages! It is a way to show them, without telling them directly, that there are children who are their same age that don’t have shoes, don’t have many things. It is via coming. Plus, there are things that children cannot use and they can gift those. There are many associations. Those students coming to visit the country, it will inspire in them the values of the work they will be doing in the future, the life they will have in the future. It is the only way to help in the long term.