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Knowledge is power and such power is too narrowly distributed, according to Allae Hammioui, owner and founder of Djebli Club.
Djebli is a participatory hostel in northern Morocco, where guests pay their way by sharing skills. The aim is to mitigate perceived societal asymmetry through art and knowledge.
All pieces of furniture at Djebli Club are made from local material, by local hands – including these wonderful hanging bird cage-like chairs.
Allae describes his project as “an artistic residence and an idea-laboratory,” and with it, he hopes to develop the rural town of Moqrisset, where Djebli is located, using tourism as a motor for change. With a firm belief that by changing minds, you change the world, the anarchistic artist is pursuing his idea of a revolution against societal structures that keep people stuck in poverty:
“Revolution isn’t about screaming in the streets with placades – that doesn’t lead to any permanent change,” he says. “It’s about starting small, targeting young people and providing them with tools to solve their own problems. We’re not here to give them solutions, just encouragement and knowledge.”
Over the past five years, Allae — a newcomer to Moqrisset — has cultivated relationships with the directors of all schools in the local area. Together with them and the guests, Allae holds creative workshops for the local youths. Exposing children to creative outlets in academic settings goes against the norm in Morocco, making Djebli’s collaborations a promising sign of change.
“The type of change that will last starts from here,” Allae says, pointing at his head. “There’s still a lot that needs to happen around here, but it will come with time.” A wall-painting in Moqrisset’s town-centre, created by a Djebli guest four years ago, is proof of a shifting attitude towards art amongst locals:
“The fact that it is still there, untouched, is very special – normally it would’ve taken days and then it would’ve been painted over.”
With extremely high drop-out rates, the Moroccan educational system faces bigger challenges than that of an art infiltration, however. Fewer than 15% of first graders in the country are likely to graduate from high school, according to USAID Morocco. This is because of lack of access to schools, poverty, culture, and language barriers – the list goes on.
Rather than following someone else’s structure of a daily schedule, Allae has decided that tackling this list will be on his everyday agenda. And this daily battle happens with the help of his guests.
As a guest at Djebli, you have two options. The first is to devote two to three hours of your day in Moqrisset, sharing a skill with the local community. Be it language, music, theatre or tech, creativity is celebrated and experimentation encouraged. In exchange, you receive housing, home-grown, organic food, and a chance to experience the flexible, fluid pace of life in the ravishing Rif Mountains.
The second option is to spend some dirhams and receive all of the above – minus the cultural and social exchange of the workshops. And although secondary in Allae’s mind, it’s still a worthwhile experience judging by the growing number of visitors Moqrisset is seeing.
“For me, I will say I’ve reached my goal when people come to Moqrisset to take a selfie,” says Allae, who dreams of turning the sleepy village into a cultural hub.
“So far, we have hosted around 6,000 guests, from over 30 nationalities,” he says proudly. The initiative, which has won several awards for its innovative and rewarding nature, relies entirely on crowdfunding and philanthropy for its operations – many of which run without the exchange of cash.
“We do a lot without money here,” says Allae. “The concept is to share. To exchange time and energy instead of paper notes – and people seem to dig it!”
Life in this mountainous part of the earth offers an abundance of natural beauty, but little in the way of comfort. Its vividly green valleys are home to olive trees, waterfalls, and humans alike. The 11,000 people living across the drastic slopes of the region often lead harsh lives. Largely cut off from the outside world, they are completely dependent on agriculture for survival.
“You are essentially living for food here – that’s not life. It was life 300,000 years ago, but not now – we are in the 21st century, people here deserve an easier life,” says Allae.
This is where Djebli Club — the unique marriage of tourism, culture and social development — comes into the picture. It utilizes the ever-growing influx of tourists to Morocco pre-pandemic to broaden the minds of locals, whilst providing visitors an authentic gateway into the local community. A collaborative form of tourism that benefits host and visitor, it leaves a formidable footprint for future generations.
What lies at the core of this type of tourism is the lasting positive impact it has on all those involved. Sadly, this is a rarity, according to Allae. He believes that what is, by many, perceived as a sustainable approach to tourism in Morocco today, is little more than greenwashing.
“A tourist buying a local product — many see that as sustainable tourism — but it’s not. Through that you’re telling people to keep doing what their grandparents have been doing for centuries.”
Jobs created by tourism in Morocco are often seasonal and low-paid, offering little opportunity for career advancement. However, the promise of an income to someone living in poverty is often alluring enough for them to give up their education and other aspirations.
Though a job selling bracelets or fruit juices to tourists may provide food, it prevents any real social development from taking place. Allae sees Djebli as a means to help the local community break free from this restrictive system.
A dislike of societal systems is also what brought Allae to leave his fast-paced life in Paris for the Moroccan countryside. Having grown up near Rabat, he had known nothing but city life – but five years after his move to the French capital renowned for its cold culture, he knew it was not for him.
“Life in Paris completely revolved around working and waiting for the weekend, to rest from the work week. For me, that is not life,” say Allae, pointing out that whilst life in a developed country provides freedom of choice, life in Morocco provides the unparalleled freedom to enjoy yourself.
So with an incomplete concept and empty pockets, Allae left his Parisian life behind and rocked up in Moqrisset, on a piece of land he inherited from his father. Together with volunteers and visitors, he began constructing the houses that today make up Djebli Club.
Made by traditional techniques using mud, clay, and straw, these peculiar-looking houses seem like taken out of Hobbiton: though Allae can confirm this is not the case – he built them with his own hands.
All furniture is also made by hand; either Allae’s or a local handicrafter. “The table’s better like this,” he says, referring to the adjustment he made to it the day before. Deeming the steel legs too high for comfort, the crafty homeowner cut into them on the spot. “If I see something which needs doing, I do it,” he explains.
That is the mentality which created this place – and in turn the mentality that has enabled Djebli Club frequenter Ihssan Zekkaoui to pursue her childhood dream of becoming a pilot.
“Djebli is like a doorway into another world,” says Zekkaoui, who had a modest upbringing in Moqrisset with her widowed mother. Lacking funds to support them, the prospect of Zekkaoui achieving her dreams of soaring through the skies was minimal. Then she met Allae and the Djebli team.
Currently in her fourth year of a master’s degree in Aerodynamic Engineering at the Private University of Marrakech, Zekkaoui describes Allae as “a second brother. He made me believe in myself, assisted me to receive a scholarship for my studies and I am proud to say I know a person like him.”
Ihssan Zekkaoui believes Djebli has eased the conservative culture in Moqrisset. Credit: Ihssan Zekkaoui
In the early days of Djebli Club, Zekkaoui was a highschool student and would spend all her free time at the venue, participating in every workshop available.
“Sharing cultures and knowledge is the best way to learn – which is what happens at Djebli. It has brought so much change to the region and the minds of people in our town. I mean look at me: I’m just an ordinary girl, from a local village in Morocco – and I’m now studying to become a pilot in Marrakech. That is like a fairytale, this stuff isn’t normal here.”
In line with his heroes, Salvador Dali and Leonardo Da Vinci, normalizing the extraordinary is Allae’s way of expressing what he believes life to be about: a limitless exploration of what it means to be alive. And so far, this mission has had the local community perceive him as a long-haired lunatic.
“There are no problems in life, except ourselves and our egos,” says Allae, working to diminish his own to the best of his ability.
“People thought I was from the CIA, because I was in the bank here to open an account — and I didn’t have an identity card, just my passport — which contained a US visa: So they assumed I was a spy,” recalls Allae, who’s also been taken for a pirate searching for a long lost treasure on the lands.
Gradually, his selfless intentions of giving back to the land which fed his father and indirectly gave him life, is now becoming known. Local people actively participate in the music festivals set up by the Djebli team, join in on their open air cinema nights, and enjoy the organically grown food of the premises.
Learning to trust the process and to accept that changing minds is a slow but worthwhile cause, are two lessons Allae has gained from this experience. The third, and arguably most important skill he’s gained though, is acquiring the language of his feathered friends: “Now I can understand chicken-language. When you’re born in a city, a chicken just makes a noise and that’s the end of it. But it’s not the same scream every time – and each scream has a meaning!”
And the meaning of life is, according to Allae, to do whatever we set our minds to in unity with those around us, to make our shared time on earth as enjoyable as possible. In the near future, his pursuit of this involves the mounting of a web-radio at Mohamed Six, a local middle-school. In the long run, his aim is for this type of collaborative tourism to spread beyond Djebli’s borders:
“I think Moqrisset can set an example for how to run collaborative tourism across Morocco, or Africa – even the whole world,” says a confident Allae. And with the credentials of holding two TedXTalks, completing hundreds of workshops, and hosting thousands of guests, there’s evidence to back him up. Especially considering he started out with one piece of land and zero money.
All Djebli facilities were built by voluntary hands, with voluntary love. Credit: Aujourdhui.ma