What Am I Doing Here? What happened to Sefrou?

Vago Damitio. What am I doing here?

May 16, 2012
Sefrou, Morocco

For those who don’t know, Wednesday is the day when I give myself license to editorialize. The title of this weekly editorial is “What am I doing here?” and this week – I have to confess that I’m not at all certain. I should point out that the information in this article is based on oral histories and folk knowledge, not historical research or records. Any errors in accuracy are errors of ‘common knowledge’ in Sefrou itself.

Sefrou used to be called the ‘Garden of Morocco’ – it was the city with the highest concentration of Jews in North Africa. The city was renowned for it’s gardens, cherry orchards, artisans, earthenware, and metalwork. The architecture in the Sefrou medina is unique in Morocco as the narrow streets of the Mellah were intentionally made narrow so that the medina could easily be barricaded and defended. The wooden balconies of the Mellah are also distinctive as Arabs and Berbers had no desire to chat with neighbors across the alleyway the way the Jews did. Mellah, by the way is what Sefrouis and Fezzies call the Jewish Quarter – ‘mihl’ is Darrija for salt and it was the Jews who sold salt thus their neighborhood was called the Mellah – this is true in both Fez and Sefrou. I should point out that the architecture in the Fez Mellah is similar but the streets and derbs (alleys) are not so narrow as in Sefrou.


Sefrou has a fascinating history. It was where Moulay Idris lived while he had the city of Fez built to be his capital. Jewish people were in this area for as long as history records anyone being here. The biblical prophet Daniel was almost certainly a Berber and definitely a Jew. There is evidence to show that he came from this region. There is also a whitewashed cave filled with shepherd crap and broken wine bottles which is where legend has it that he had his visions of the apocalypse. (666 the number of the beast apparently comes from Sefrou, though I am sure that Iron Maiden has never performed here.)

Sefrou has an older medina than the more famous medina of Fez. The limestone hills around Sefrou were once filled with troglodyte families who lived in sprawling cave complexes which some say were nearly as extensive as those of Cappadocia. I find that hard to believe, but certainly it is a possibility. One can’t walk through the hills here for any distance without seeing blocked in cave houses, bulldozed caves or every now and then one that is still occupied by people or goats.

Many of the founding fathers of the first Christian church were Berbers and while there is no evidence that they came from Sefrou, certainly there was a blossoming of Christianity among the Berbers and the Jews of the region. The Romans were here as well. The once great city of Volubulis is not far away and it is certain that the Romans traded and perhaps even had countryside villas in the vast gardens and vineyards of Sefrou. I’ve hiked to remote hilltop ruins nearby which certainly could have been Roman ruins.

Sefrou was famous for it’s many rivers and streams which watered the fields and orchards as well as the bountiful cherry harvest that came each year. A stream which runs above the city near the marabut tomb of a sufi saint is said to cure mental illness. The saint himself is lost in history though his tomb is a much visited monument. Some people say that the tomb contains the bones of an ass. Others that the saint was actually a Jew. Either way, the tomb is a holy Muslim-Sufi spot now, regardless of who is (or isn’t) buried there.

The cascade of Sefrou’s Aggai River was once famous throughout North Africa. When the French came and made Morocco a protectorate, they came to Sefrou in droves. Bountiful olive and cherry orchards, a cooler climate than Fez, and a cultured and happy people lived and loved here. During evening walks along the river Aggai, it was hard to tell the Muslims from the Jews from the Christians because everyone dressed the same in djellabas and bright yellow slippers. During those years, Sefrou was known as the city of wonderful food. An aged Sefroui friend told me that when he was a boy, Sefrou had more restaurants than Fez. Chinese, Indian, French, Italian and more. Mountainsides were planted with orchards of pinion pine for making wonderful pesto and harvesting pine nuts. Sefrou had become more paradise than it already had been. And yet –

Today, Sefrou pretty much sucks. There are typical sandwich and snack places and one or two places that serve bad pizza, but that’s it for restaurants. The gardens are gone, the cherries are gone, the streams are filled with garbage and the people are no longer prosperous. What happened?

The French mostly left Sefrou (and the rest of Morocco) after Moroccan Independence. In some cases they kept their land and their homes but they became absentee landlords. Some of them remained for a while, but then came the troubles surrounding Israeli independence. I’ve heard several stories about this and any of them could be true. One is that after Moroccan independence, the Muslims began to persecute Jews for having collaborated with the French. Sounds possible – there was a reason the Mellah was built for defense. Another theory states that the new Israeli state offered to take all the Jews from North Africa but they didn’t want to go since they had a good life here (Morocco, by the way, harbored Jews when they were persecuted in Spain, in Italy, in the Middle East and even offered safe haven during Hitler’s genocide during World War II) – and since they didn’t want to go, the Israeli government (which needed them) started a campaign to drive them out of North Africa by inciting Muslims against them. This also sounds possible. Another is that they all just went and said “Hooray for Israel!” and abandoned their homes, their shops, their land, and their culture. There are others, but the bottom line is that Sefrou was pretty much evacuated as the entire Jewish population (2/3s of the people) emigrated to Israel.

This, left those French who had remained in an uncomfortable minority position and so the rest of them left soon after. The Berber people had been a fairly constant thorn in the side of the Arab/Muslim dynasties in Morocco and it was at this point that they began a process of Arabization of the Berber nomadic tribes. Berbers were forced to leave their camps and become sedentary Muslims. The Berber language was outlawed, Berber names were made illegal for newborns, and the Berber people were forced to move out of caves and camps and into cities. Newly abandoned cities like Sefrou were ideal candidates.

The Moroccan Army had maintained a beautiful base in Sefrou and they used the armed forces to round up the people from the countryside and make them into city people. Bulldozers filled in caves and destroyed villages. Guess what happens when you take people who have no idea about sedentary life and try to turn them into farmers? Guess what happens when 2/3 of the population of a city (most likely the most successful artisans, merchants, and farmers – not to mention the most educated) abandon it? Guess what happens when people who don’t want to be there in the first place and who don’t own the land are forced to occupy it? Guess what happens?

Sefrou happens. The cherry orchards have almost all been cut down. Cheap concrete buildings sprawl over what were once bountiful gardens. The rivers and streams became polluted because of the increased population density and so were either filled in or cemented over. The many restaurants closed and left. The army base became the number one industry and then when the King came to visit what he had remembered being a wonderful garden – he found a fetid slum. He condemned it and closed the army base and the people here say he put a curse on Sefrou for turning the most beautiful city into the ugliest.

Welcome to Sefrou. The ‘Jewish Pool’ closed last year because no one had repaired it. The camp ground has been turned into yet another cinder block development. The pine orchards are being cut and harvested for hammam wood. The hotel at the cascade turned into a place for drunken Muslims and was subsequently closed when someone was killed in a knife fight. The other hotel at the ‘monument’ on the hillside near the former army base was abandoned halfway through building. Every year for the annual Sefrou Cherry Festival – truckload after truckload of cherries have to be imported from places that still grow them. Most recently, the River Aggai was diverted and then concreted under before the water was restored. Medina residents still chuck their garbage into the stream. Wild dogs run around at night and after they attacked some people, the city officials went out during the day and shot all the dogs they could find. Including my father-in-laws two shepherd dogs. He, his wife and his daughters ran out to tell the shooters, but in a blood lust they killed every dog they could see. The wild dogs, by the way are still out there. I got attacked by five of them four nights ago– luckily dogs in North Africa think a man with a rock can kill them all so once I picked up a rock they were all off like wildfire.

Ah yes, Sefrou. What am I doing here?

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Damitio  (@vagodamitio) is the Editor-in-Chief for Vagobond. Life is good. You can also find him on Google+ and at Facebook