Ait Iktel, Morocco, a village of about 150 families, lies in the High Atlas Mountain region some 100 kilometers south of Marrakech. I was there last September to cover an athletics event which featured appearances by several Olympic and world champion athletes, from Morocco and elsewhere.
It was a big event for the village, a major celebration. Not surprisingly, most of the locals turned out to watch and participate in the day-long proceedings. And to greet us with song and dance.
More on our reception shortly, but first: why the royal treatment?
Gratitude, for one. And simple, heartfelt genuine hospitality another.
The event was held under the auspices of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the international governing body for track and field. The connection?
Nawal El Moutawakel, the 1984 Olympic champion in the 400 meter hurdles, the first Moroccan, African and Muslim woman to win an Olympic gold medal. In 1998 El Moutawakel became a member of the IAAF’s governing Council; three years later she became the first Muslim woman elected to the International Olympic Committee, where she has served as a Vice President since 2012. El Moutawakel remains a strong, visible and respected role model and inspiration to women throughout the country and much of the Muslim world. Hers is a very familiar and admired presence. Particularly in Ait Iktel.
The visit was organized by the Moroccan Association for Sport and Development (AMSD) which is headed by El Moutawakel, and supported by the IAAF’s Athletics for a Better World concept, a new social responsibility program whose aim is to use the universality of athletics to make a positive difference in the world.
Few hold that concept closer to heart than El Moutawakel, a national heroine who is no stranger to this Berber village, quietly set in a ruggedly beautiful landscape among cactus, red rocks and sweeping mountain vistas.
Through her work with AMSD and other organizations she’s been or continues to be involved with, El Moutawakel has watched and helped Ait Aktel transform in under a generation from an impoverished community on the brink of survival to a role model for self-organization and sustainability.
Previous projects brought electricity, running water and a four-building school to the village, and more recently a sport facility where athletics, or track and field, takes pride of place. The latter was the setting for much of this particular celebration which attracted and involved nearly every village member from the moment the guests stepped off their bus. To say that the entire town turned out would not be much of an exaggeration.
A few of the faces.
So, back to the reception, which was quite likely unlike anything those visiting had previously experienced.
Villagers lined each side of a ridge leading to the school for an Ahwash, a traditional Berber folkloric song and dance performance unique to this corner of the country.
Colorfully dressed women lined the right side of the wide path, chanting, swaying and singing. An occasional ululation, the high-pitched trilling sound that typically accompanies celebrations, pierced the late morning sky. Opposite them men banged on drums and tambourines, singing and swaying as if in poetic conversation with the women.
“That was unbelievable,” said former 800 meter world record holder Wilson Kipketer, one of the IAAF Athlete Ambassadors who attended the event. “That welcome reception was amazing!”
After a formal welcome at the school by children who held signs in Arabic, French, English and Tifinar, a regional Berber script, a tea ceremony followed before the festivities moved to the sport grounds at the edge of the village.
At the athletic field, the guests were introduced. Kipketer was joined by fellow IAAF ambassadors Koji Murofushi of Japan, Monica Pyrek of Poland, Kenyan Benjamin Limo and Tunisian Olympic silver medallist Habiba Ghribi.
Moroccan athletes on hand included Brahim Boutayeb and Khalid Skah, the Olympic 10,000 meter champions in 1988 and 1992, respectively; 1992 and 2000 Olympic medallists Rachid Labsir and Lahlafi Brahim; and double Olympic champion and 1500 meter world record holder Hicham El Guerrouj. Nacer Ibn Abdeljali, the first Moroccan to scale Mt. Everest, was also a popular figure on hand.For that once-in-a-lifetime gathering, it was standing room only. A few scenes from the athletic field below.