Of Monks and Cedars

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Last week I was in Azrou, and spent a morning walking up to Tioumliline. It’s a fairly short walk, out of town along a new, rather raw, stretch of the Midelt road with trucks roaring past, until you take the turning to Ain Leuh, a narrow strip of frayed asphalt that snakes enticingly into the woods. Suddenly the heat of the sun disappears and there is a cool breeze through the cedars. To the right the wide and, in November, rather dry valley lies spread out, falling gently towards the town; to the left there is the beginning of the cedar forest that covers this part of the Middle Atlas. It’s no more than a kilometre and a half’s walk along this pretty lane to Tioumliline.

At Tioumliline there are the ruins of a Benedictine monastery, a crumbling complex above the road, still surrounded by solid walls. A mountain guide, M Boudaoud, was painting his house when we got there, an old monastery outbuilding on the road, and stopped to talk about the monks and to encourage us to explore the ruins. Tioumliline has been derelict since the last monks left in the mid-1990s after a stay of 40 years or so. Recently it came to life again for a few months when a French film-crew moved in and restored the buildings, in order to film Des Hommes et des Dieux, (Of Men and Gods), the Cannes prize-winning film about the small Trappist monastery of Notre Dame de l’Atlas across the border in Algeria at Tibhirine, whose last seven monks were murdered in 1996, about the time that Tioumliline finally closed.

I had seen the film a few months ago, and it came back to me as I stood in the Benedictine chapel, the long, plangent passages of chant, the voluminous white-cowled figures below the red stained-glass window, and the simple ceiling with its great five-pointed star at the centre. But it wasn’t quite clear what I was standing in – it was a Benedictine chapel in Morocco restored by French craftsmen to look like a Cistercian-Trappist chapel in Algeria, a chapel whose last monks had left under pressure 20 years ago, just as the last monks at Tibhirine were being marched out into the snow at gunpoint to be beheaded. Somehow the two stories seemed to have become inextricably braided together, a melancholy pictorial fable of the end of catholic monasticism in North Africa, a fable whose beginning goes right back to the first century AD. And somehow the Algerian story has imprinted itself on this place, where it really belongs only in the retelling.

But nothing is simple. The guidebook tells us that Tioumliline closed because of growing hostility amongst the local people to Christianity and Christians. But there doesn’t actually seem to be much evidence of this, indeed rather the opposite. Other accounts (like an article in Time magazine dating from soon after the monastery’s closure) suggest a more complex situation. The monks had certainly irritated the French colonial authorities with their open-minded championing of Moroccan rights, and an element of the favour the monks enjoyed after Independence was reputedly due to their defying a detachment of French soldiers and giving water to a labour gang of Moroccan political prisoners on a hot day in 1954. One of the prisoners was Driss M’hammedi, soon charged by Mohamed V with negotiating Morocco’s independence, Minister of State in the first government of independent Morocco, then Interior, and later Foreign, Minister until 1961. He was apparently a strong supporter of the Benedictines.

Tlioumliline became rather a remarkable institution, and one that over time came to irritate the Moroccan authorities just as much as it had the French. It was founded as a retreat for French clergy to recharge their spiritual strength, and drew heavily on the reputation and ideas of the legendary Père Peyriguère, whose hermit-cell at al-Kebab had been a beacon of non-proselytizing commitment to the local Berbers since the 1930s. “He set an example which profoundly changed the attitude of many Christians—he set a model for Tioumliline to the monks of which he taught the Berber language; long before the later awakening of a Catholic conscience with regard to Morocco he had given the perfect example of a missionary life perfectly adapted to the ways of the country.”

The Benedictines of Tioumliline did not proselytize (indeed the Prior, Prior Dom Denis Martin and his monks refused to play along with the French authorities who saw their function as converting Berbers and undermining the resistance of this never-quite-pacified area: “It would be criminal to convert Moslems,” said Dom Denis, very aware of the impact that conversion would have on Berber Muslims – of turning them into apostates and outlaws). Instead the monks lived their testimony and acted as friends and doctors to the local population. And they ran an increasingly famous series of international meetings and conferences on interfaith relations, which signalled to the world the spiritual openness that King Hassan liked to display. But their quietly truculent liberalism and their championing of Berber liberties were not fashionable causes. Both had got up the nose of the French Protectorat and got up the nose too of a monarchy that became less liberal in the late 1960s and less liberal still after the two coups attempts of the early 1970s. Gradually the pressure built up, the numbers of monks dwindled, their international conferences began to stay away, and in the mid 1990s, they were finally squeezed out, heading back to France, or south into French West Africa.

It was a kinder fate than that of their colleagues in Algeria; and the film Of Men and Gods is a very gentle, powerful examination of the dilemma that they all faced, Christians in a Muslim land, unwilling to convert their Muslim neighbours, content to serve and to live in a way that they felt to be exemplary – as they would perhaps have said, to bear witness through their lives. But this position was unstable, and in Tibhirine as in Tioumliline, proved unsustainable. The irony of being too liberal both for their French colonial compatriots and for the Moroccans and Algerians whose rights they had championed cannot have been lost on either.

In the film we watch the steering of a straight and narrow line, a path of deep understanding of the Algerians around them, with a growing understanding that their time at Tibhirine was measured out – that they would have to leave or risk the consequences of staying. And the film is, very simply, the story of that ‘or.’ The monks debate their future, some frightened, all anxious and most undecided, until at last they all decide to stay together. They pray, sing, say their daily offices and work at the manual tasks of the monastery. In the terse, spare conversation of men accustomed to silence, they discuss their options. They sustain each other, and then one night the delicately balanced ecology of violence that has protected them breaks down, and seven of them are marched away into the snow to be killed. It doesn’t matter who by – and that still isn’t clear – because this has long since become a struggle between these men and themselves, in which humble acceptance of consequences was the prize.

In the words of the psalmist from which the title is taken: “I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High. But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.”


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