x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

For days, a village hoped for a miracle

For four days, as rescuers searched through silted waters for any trace of Sheikh Ahmed, Said Khadari and other farmers watched in the distance hoping for a miracle.

OUM AZZA, MOROCCO // For four days, as rescuers searched through silted waters for any trace of Sheikh Ahmed, Said Khadari and other farmers watched in the distance hoping for a miracle. But the search ended shortly before noon yesterday when about two dozen small boats gathered on the lake as a diver broke through the surface, grasping a body. "Once they got him up, they put him aboard the largest boat and headed for shore - only a hundred yards away," said Said Khadari, from the nearby village of Oum Azza.

Moroccan gendarmerie blocked access to the lake, while a stream of security vehicles and cars bearing diplomatic plates rolled through Oum Azza to the salutes and whistle blasts of the officers. Since he began visiting around seven years ago, Sheikh Ahmed had earned a reputation for generosity among the tiny farming community. "The accident has really startled people around here," said Ahmed, the waiter at Oum Azza's single cafe, leaning against the pool table as news played over the television that Sheikh Ahmed's body had been found.

Across the street, white vans, full of soldiers, and a pair of ambulances pulled up beside a government office as security officials paced to and fro, talking into mobile phones. "Like pretty much everyone around here, I received charity from the sheikh," Ahmed said. "Sometimes food, sometimes money, and sheep for al Eid." Morocco's economy has grown in recent decades as the government has opened the door to more foreign investment and begun lowering trade barriers with the European Union. But disparities remain between big cities and the countryside.

Mr Khadari has had a taste of both. Born and raised in Oum Azza, he worked as a car mechanic after his family moved to Rabat when he finished high school. "Then my eyes have started going bad and my father wanted to come home, so I became a farmer," he said, walking through his fields with his nephew, Youssef. "That's our house there, the white one." One day last year, Mr Khadari was sitting at home when a knock at the door revealed an unexpected visitor, bearing gifts. It was Sheikh Ahmed.

"Sheikh Ahmed? Very friendly, just a normal guy," said Mr Khadari, who received medicine, cigarettes and money from the Sheikh. "Talking to him was like talking to anybody."
jthorne@thenational.ae