The Earthquake of Al Haouz: The Difficult Reconstruction of a Tormented Area
Rabii El Gamrani 12 February 2024

Five months have passed since the earthquake that struck the provinces of Al Haouz, Marrakech, and Safi in Morocco on September 8, 2023. I know those areas well; I have been spending time there since childhood. The epicenter of the earthquake, the most devastating in the country’s history, was only 72 kilometers from Marrakech, in Ighil, a rural municipality of 5,000 inhabitants in the province of Al Haouz. Al Haouz lies in the heart of the High Atlas, with its 38 rural municipalities spread over a mountainous territory that is hard to access even under normal circumstances. It has always suffered from inadequate infrastructure and services, a marginalization that the earthquake has exacerbated and that risks continuing into the future despite the Moroccan government’s oft-repeated reconstruction promises.

I returned to those places on the hundredth day. I carry within me fragility and intimate memories linked to the earthquake. In 2004, during a stay in my country, while I was still a student in Siena, I happened to find myself in Al Hoceima on the very night when the city and the Rif region were struck by a tremendous earthquake that caused more than 700 victims and extensive damage. My family and I were amidst the destruction, in a state of shock, disbelief, and fear. Following that episode, my sister, who lived in the city, suffered from panic attacks for years and did everything to get a transfer. After an earthquake, life never stops trembling. The earthquake is an open wound deep within the earth and within our souls.

One hundred days was probably the amount of time I needed to process the mourning. I thought that the Al Hoceima earthquake would be an isolated episode in the course of my existence. One of those events that we remember for the rest of our life, and that sometimes we talk about not without a bit of pride and fake heroism. At 11:11 PM on September 8, 2023, this certainty crumbled.


The Earthquake Seen from Casablanca

That night I was at my parents’ house. The first tremor tore through the silence of my room. I immediately understood it was an earthquake. A tremor lasts only a few seconds, but for those in the midst of it, it feels like an eternity. The second tremor was even more terrifying; it caused the lights to go out. I rushed downstairs to where my parents were, awake and standing at the foot of the bed. Outside, the noise and the agitation of people pouring into the streets were starting to be heard. All the residents of the block were leaving their homes; all of Casablanca with its five million inhabitants, most of Morocco that night, were trying to find shelter and would spend the night in the streets.

In Morocco, one thing is for sure: thanks to the pleasant climate and a certain fatalism, we believe we live in a country protected from natural disasters. In the minds of Moroccans, earthquakes, cyclones, and tsunamis are phenomena linked to distant and exotic lands, but even this certainty has proven false. In just over 60 years, Moroccans have experienced three devastating earthquakes, numerous floods, and several seasons of drought. Furthermore, desertification and hydrological instability are present-day realities that we must come to terms with.

One million and six hundred thousand people were affected by the earthquake, which caused about 3,000 deaths and the destruction or damage to some 50,000 homes. 60,000 are still displaced. This meant the loss of a lifetime’s possessions, savings, documents, livelihood, work tools, jobs, landmarks, and the social fabric. It leaves behind orphans, widows, widowers, broken families, and others completely decimated. The survivors at times not only need basic necessities but support as well, in order to process the grief and rebuild their lives and identities.

Aid and the Role of the Influencers

In the first weeks after the catastrophe, we experienced an incredible moment of solidarity and mobilization in support of the earthquake victims. The outpouring of generosity from ordinary people preceded the intervention of the civil protection and the army. Already from the early hours of the morning, hundreds had gotten themselves organized with trucks, their own vehicles, and makeshift means to deliver aid. The decision of the Moroccan government not to accept offers of assistance from many countries around the world, notably France – whose popularity had declined due to political divergences that have impacted the relations between Rabat and Paris for years – strengthened this spontaneous generosity to the point of generating a strong sense of belonging. With the Al Haouz earthquake, we witnessed something different from all the previous difficult moments the country had gone through. The attention of the media itself was focused on the positive reaction of the Moroccan people and authorities.

In addition to the generous nature of the population, it must be said that the magnitude-7 earthquake shook much of Morocco, including the metropolises of Casablanca, Rabat, and Marrakesh. It was no longer a distant event that we hear about but does not concern us. It shook the ground beneath our feet and made the walls of our homes and our certainties tremble. Furthermore, Moroccan society now lives in the digital age, where political parties, unions, or associations are no longer what capture the interest of Moroccans and shape public opinion. In an era of dwindling political activism, labor struggles, or civic volunteering, it is the live Facebook streams of popular and famous TikTokers and YouTubers, the Instagram blogs of various influencers or reporters armed with smartphones and simple, sensationalistic language that represent the primary source of opinion-making in the country. The Internet and social networks have been a decisive sounding board to attract a huge amount of aid from businesses, celebrities, associations, and ordinary Moroccans.

I watched all this with a mixture of pride and concern. On the one hand, I felt a certain relief because this cohesion was needed, and there were positive repercussions for the earthquake-affected populations at a time when they needed everything. On the other hand, I feared that, as the exhibitionism of some and voyeurism of others waned, everything would fade away. Once the attention shifted to something else, what would happen to the earthquake victims, especially during the winter season when temperatures drop to below zero?


Fund-raising and the Preparations for the Journey     

I found myself at the center of a fundraiser, responding to the invitation of my meditation teacher who gathered his followers for two spiritual vigils. The proceeds were used to purchase solar-powered lighting equipment and radios, as well as computer equipment. To deliver these gifts, we relied on Jood NGO, which had distinguished itself during the Covid-19 period in assisting the homeless.

Before returning to Al Haouz, I got in touch with Hind Laidi, the founder and president of Jood. She arranged to meet me at a warehouse on the outskirts of Marrakech. Behind her desk, I immediately noticed a large photograph of the Al Haouz area. Although I knew the area well, I discovered for the first time the names of some villages I had never heard of before. Hind Laidi told me that this earthquake had at least brought awareness to Moroccans of parts of their country previously unknown to them. Until that moment, Laidi had mainly operated in Casablanca.

I immediately felt a connection with this woman who had experienced pain in deciding to leave everything behind to dedicate her life to helping the homeless. She is direct and pragmatic, with determination visible in her large blue eyes. After one hundred days, Laidi says, Jood NGO is the only association still operating in the area with a fixed headquarters. After the military and civil protection took over rescue and assistance operations, and with the drop in attention, the pilgrimage of volunteers and the curious dwindled as well.

Jood continues to distribute food to tens of thousands of families, has managed to set up 138 prefabricated buildings to rehouse the most vulnerable families, and has provided a camping van equipped for showers and medical treatment that travels to villages. In addition to meeting people’s primary needs, the association facilitates recreational activities for children and therapeutic activities for survivors. She tells me firmly that her place is here, and she is arranging to move to Marrakech for the next three years at least.


The Journey to Al Haouz

I leave Hind Laidi and decide to venture into Al Haouz. I take provincial route 223 from Marrakech toward Ighil, passing through Tahanaout, Moulay Brahim, and Esni. Al Haouz is a Berber area, a people whose name derives from the Greek barbaros, meaning foreigner. Today, these first inhabitants of Morocco are reclaiming their ancient name: Amazigh, meaning free man. They have jealously guarded their language and identity for over 5,000 years. The earthquake left around 300,000 people homeless. In its aid program, the government allocated 140,000 Moroccan Dirhams (approximately 14,000 Euros) for totally damaged houses and 80,000 Moroccan Dirhams (approximately 8,000 Euros) for severely damaged houses. Additionally, they allocated 30,000 Moroccan Dirhams for each affected household.

In the weeks following the earthquake, technical committees composed of representatives from local authorities began inspecting homes to draw up lists of those eligible for compensation. These committees have sparked a lot of controversy: they are accused of lacking communication and transparency in a country where corruption is still rife, and in a region where the concept of private property is only recent. Even today, the land situation for many plots is ambiguous. Families in these parts could settle wherever they wanted, following family and tribal logic. Often, they have been here for generations, some for centuries, but they do not possess any property deeds. They are generally poor families who live by working small pieces of land, harvesting fruit trees, and breeding sheep.

The context is very dispersive, and the earthquake has highlighted the difficulties of accessing the douars (small villages) nestled atop the mountains, with narrow paths that do not allow the passage of vehicles. This situation makes it difficult to provide basic services (hospitals, schools, drinking water, etc.) to the 34,000 villages, each distant from one another and with a low population density reduced to a few nuclei. The buildings in most of these villages are built using traditional methods by hand, often using adobe, a mixture of clay mixed with straw and poured between two wooden planks. In other villages, dry stones are stacked on top of each other without cement. It is an ancestral art of building and dwelling, with houses that are thermo-physically efficient (warm in winter, cool in summer) and economical for a population that cannot afford cement and iron, but they are also very fragile. When families grow, additional floors are added without reinforcing the ground floor. The construction of a house in these parts is an occasion where all the men participate in laying the foundations, a sheep is sacrificed, and all the residents are invited to share a meal of couscous.

To build, it is necessary to obtain permits. However, the law requires at least one hectare of land, and few mountain inhabitants own so much, so constructions are often illegal, and authorities turn a blind eye with the payment of bribes. Sometimes families have been living for generations on land that does not belong to them. Since 2011, anti-seismic building regulations apply to all buildings except those using traditional techniques (wood, straw, palms, mud), and they do not apply to single-story buildings for professional or domestic use with a surface area not over 50 square meters.

I make a stop near Tahanaout and speak with people camped in tents on the roadside. I don’t feel much like evoking painful memories, but the conversation always turns to the earthquake and that fateful night of September 8th. Despite the tragedy, the people I talk to convey great dignity and a sense of resignation.

I continue driving toward Moulay Brahim; I have made a pilgrimage to the village’s patron saint many times. The traces of the earthquake begin to be evident as soon as you reach the ascent leading to the center. Here, almost all the houses are damaged. In the area called Zawyya, the houses have collapsed in various ways, as if crushed by a cruel and voracious giant. If one facade is intact, suffice it to go around the house to discover that the others have been affected. If there are no cracks on all four sides, then the earthquake has created a deep hole where the stairs used to be. The small mosque and the ancient sanctuary dating back to 1600, which are usually filled with the faithful and pilgrims seeking miracles or redemption, have been silenced by the earthquake. In the past I, too, lit candles there. In a corner of the sanctuary now reduced to rubble, I find half a candle. I light one for everyone.


In the Jewish ghetto of Marrakech

Nobel Prize-winner Elias Canetti and many others have written about this historic and mythical place. The Mellah (the Jewish quarter) of Marrakech was among the most damaged areas in the ochre city. Even here, my mind takes me back to childhood memories when I used to visit relatives who lived in the old medina during the summer. Marrakech is a world city, enveloping you in a fairytale and joyful atmosphere, virtually taking care of its visitors. The city of the seven saints, which never ceased to vibrate even at night, and whose Jamaa Lefna square was a destination for tourists from around the world, has been tormented in recent years. The city had already lost its vibrancy under Covid-19. The earthquake had now struck at its heart.

As I walk through the Mellah, I am approached by a local resident who offers to guide me. In normal times, I would have refused, but this time I accept gladly. The man is quite worn out, of an indefinable age; he tells me he used to work in tourism, but the tourists are slow to return now. We take a tour of the Simeone neighborhood, which was among the most damaged areas of the Mellah. Here, fifty families had to leave their homes and are still guests of a facility provided to them by the municipality. Every day they return to the neighborhood to reassure themselves that their houses are still standing. My sadness is mitigated somewhat when, after turning the corner, I find myself in front of the historic Salat Al Azama synagogue, with its doors wide open despite the rubble and the risk of collapse. To me, it is like a sign of resilience and hope for Marrakech and Al Haouz.


All the pictures are by Rabii El Gamrani, all rights are reserved.

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