In conversation with writer Hassan Aourid on Morocco’s earthquake

Intellectual says despite the scope of the tragedy, a strong government response and regional solidarity bring hope to Moroccans.

People walk through the wreckage caused by the earthquake, in the town of Amizmiz, near Marrakesh, Morocco, on Sunday, September 10, 2023 [Mosa'ab Elshamy/AP]

“This earthquake is not a mere incident, but a full-blown disaster of unprecedented magnitude for Morocco. It is a real tragedy,” Hassan Aourid, the Moroccan writer and academic, tells Al Jazeera, as he reflects on the devastating earthquake that hit the country on Friday, which he says left the nation reeling.

The former government official is one of Morocco’s most important intellectual figures, and is currently a professor at Mohammed V University in Rabat.

A general view shows the damage and destruction in the village of Tiksit, south of Adassil, on September 10, 2023, two days after a devastating 6.8-magnitude earthquake struck the country.
The damage and destruction in the village of Tiksit, south of Adassil, after a devastating 6.8-magnitude earthquake struck Morocco [File: Fethi Belaid/AFP]

For Aourid, the tremors of the 6.8-magnitude earthquake, with its epicentre in central Morocco near the historic city of Marrakesh, have shaken everyone across the country, leaving them horrified and deeply saddened.

The powerful earthquake is the biggest to hit the North African country in 120 years. It sent people racing from their beds into the streets and sent buildings toppling in mountainous villages and ancient cities with weak infrastructure.

More than 2,000 people have been killed, and the toll is expected to rise as rescuers struggle to reach hard-hit remote areas.

While Aourid’s immediate family was spared, he expressed a deep sense of shock, sorrow and fear, feelings shared by millions of Moroccans.

“In comparison to previous quakes, like the one that hit in 2004, wiping out a city, this disaster’s scope is even broader, leaving indelible scars on our people,” Aourid says.

In 1960, a 5.8-magnitude earthquake struck near the Moroccan city of Agadir and caused thousands of deaths. In 2004, a 6.4-magnitude quake near the Mediterranean coastal city of Al Hoceima left more than 600 dead.

While the government has declared three days of national mourning, Aourid says the pain and sorrow will linger far beyond that period, as the nation grapples with the scale of the disaster.

Ijjoukak, Morocco
Mohammed Elhmatif and his sons, Rayan, right, and Ali, left, stand amidst the rubble of their home, which was damaged by the earthquake, in Ijjoukak village, near Marrakech, Morocco [Mosa’ab Elshamy/AP]

Challenges, government response

Morocco faces numerous and long-term challenges in addressing this disaster, but the immediate priorities include rescuing survivors trapped under the rubble and providing shelter, food, and medical care to those who have lost their homes and livelihoods, says Aourid.

“The psychological impact on survivors must also be addressed. But beyond these immediate concerns, reconstruction efforts must encompass strengthening infrastructure to withstand future earthquakes – a valuable lesson to be learned from this tragedy,” he notes.

The 1960s quake prompted changes in construction rules in Morocco, but many buildings, especially rural homes, were not built to withstand such temblors.

Aourid says the royal palace’s response to the crisis has been swift and comprehensive, outlining a plan to rebuild homes and support those affected.

In a statement issued on Saturday, the palace laid out its steps to address the crisis, including the provision of drinking water, food and tents to areas affected by the quake, and the swift resumption of public services

Despite the swift national and international response, the final death toll and the scope of the devastation remain uncertain.

“The earthquake struck during the night, catching many families in their homes. As rescue missions continue, more casualties are likely to be discovered and the death toll will unfortunately rise,” says Aourid.

Similarly, the full extent of the destruction is still unknown, with some villages leveled to the ground and others partially damaged.

In addition to the loss of human life, important historical sites have been destroyed by the quake.

“One of our biggest losses is Tinmel Mosque. A friend who works on protecting historical sites of Marrakesh called me sobbing over its collapse. He offered his condolences as if Tinmel was a person who’d died,” says Aourid.

The 12th-century mosque was built by the Almohad dynasty, which ruled much of North Africa and Spain. The medieval dynasty established its first capital in the remote High Atlas Mountains before going on to seize Marrakesh.

Moroccan media reported that parts of the Tinmel Mosque had collapsed and photographs circulating online showed tumbled walls and large piles of debris.

Some buildings in Marrakesh’s old city, a UNESCO World Heritage site, suffered heavy damage, but some important sites, including the Jemaa el-Fnaa square and Kutubiyya Mosque, appeared to have remained intact.

INTERACTIVE Morocco earthquake 1555gmt-1694364622
(Al Jazeera)

Glimmer of hope

Although rebuilding efforts will be extensive and protracted, requiring significant resources and time, international response and support to the victims has brought a glimmer of hope to Aourid and many other Moroccans alike.

“The international support we’ve felt, especially from the Arab and Muslim world, is huge. I’ve received messages from people from many countries in the region – Qatar, Tunisia, Lebanon, Algeria, Mauritania, and more. This solidarity helps ease our pain,” says Aourid.

“The outpouring of support from countries like Algeria has also not gone unnoticed. Solidarity in times of tragedy transcends political differences, emphasising the deeply rooted human and cultural ties between us,” he adds.

Following the quake, neighbouring Algeria offered to open its airspace to allow humanitarian aid or medical evacuation flights to travel to and from Morocco. It has also offered to send emergency teams to help.

Algeria had closed its airspace to Moroccan planes after its government severed diplomatic ties with Morocco in 2021 over a series of issues, including a dispute over the territory of Western Sahara.

While responding to the crisis is the immediate priority, this tragic event has the potential to reshape and improve relations between nations in the long run, says Aourid, who adds that the crisis might also challenge misconceptions between the two countries.

“Some of the misconceptions among Algerians about Moroccans might change after this tragedy,” he explains.

Despite the unprecedented scope of this crisis and left wounds it has left behind, Aourid is certain it will bring out the best in people, demonstrating the strength of human solidarity in times of adversity.

“As Morocco grapples with the aftermath of this disaster, there is hope that it will emerge stronger and better prepared for the future,” he says.

Source: Al Jazeera