Volume XII:2 July - December 2022

Once upon a Time,
there was a Monastery called Toumliline

Thus might well begin the story of the extraordinary history of this monastery located in the Moroccan foothills of the Middle Atlas. “Once upon a Time . . . “is also the title of a beautiful book of photos that Mr. Jamaâ Baïda,[1] historian and director of the National Archives of Morocco, has devoted to it.
In 1952 the Abbey of En Calcat sent 20 of its 120 monks to found Toumliline. The new monastery would soon find itself at the crossroads of the various currents that were agitating Morocco before and after it gained independence in 1956.
The Toumliline Encounters
In August 1955, a summer camp near Toumliline was closed by the French authorities on the pretext of alleged nationalist activities. Unexpectedly, those in charge of the camp asked the monastery to host them. The monks contributed to the activities of the camp by giving talks on the most diverse subjects, and this in turn gave birth to the idea of creating summer cultural sessions for youth. Unlike the great majority of French colonists,  Louis-François-Bienaimé-Amedée Lefèvre, O.F.M., Archbishop of Rabat, and the “liberal Christians” were in favor of the country’s independence and so greatly favored and encouraged the emergence of these sessions with the active collaboration of the monks and their energetic prior, Denis Martin.
During these International Summer Encounters, which were marked by a spirit of attentive listening and fraternity, the participants envisioned a response to contemporary challenges such as education and urban development.
According to the foundation “Memories for the Future” (FMA)
The organizers invited speakers from international organizations, universities, the political world, trade unions and civil society, Moroccans, Maghrebians, Arabs, Africans, Europeans, Asians, and North Americans. They also invited students from a wide range of nationalities.
Hundreds of students of all faiths and backgrounds gathered there every year. François Martinet  describe these sessions, which lasted for a decade, from 1956 to 1966, as “exceptional”.[2]
Prestigious professors came from European universities, from Harvard and Princeton, but also from Cairo, Baghdad, and Japan. Some of the more notable participants were Louis Massignon, Emmanuel Lévinas, Mehdi Ben Barka, Jacques Cotier, Jean Daniélou, James Kritzek, Olivier Lacombe, René Rémond or Germaine Tillon, and Fqih Mohammed Ben Larbi Alaoui, President of Al Qarawiyine University.
The “Years of Lead”
The nationalist movement that followed independence became more and more anti-French. French settlers left by the tens of thousands, and the monastery had to close in 1968. “Years of lead” now succeeded those bubbly years when everything could still be envisaged. If this dark period for the people of Morocco is finally to be overcome and the thread of their history recovered, Moroccans themselves will have to determine the causes for this period of national amnesia and examine its characteristics.
On May 16, 2003, a series of suicide bombings took place in Casablanca. The attacks were the deadliest terrorist attacks in the country’s history and had the effect of an earthquake in Morocco. Citizens were shocked to discover that completely uneducated children from impoverished parts of the country had joined the Islamist terrorist organization Al Qaeda. There was now a sense of urgency to awaken national memory of the trust that Muslims, Jews, and Christians had for one another when they lived as good  neighbors on this land.
Memories for the future
In 2006, during the reign of Mohammed VI, Morocco established the Royal Institute for Research on the History of Morocco and, in 2008, the Foundation “Memories for the Future” to promote research on national history. The National Archives of Morocco were created in 2007. These three institutions have laid the groundwork for the work of examining and disseminating the history of the country, and also that of Toumliline.
King Mohammed VI went so far as to mention Toumliline by name when he spoke to the participants of a Congress on “The Rights of Religious Minorities in the Land of Islam: The Legal Framework and the Call to Action,” held in 2016 in Marrakech. He said,
As a country, Morocco has been a precursor in terms of interreligious dialogue. . . . Indeed, in the aftermath of the independence obtained in 1956, there was held, every summer at the monastery of Toumliline—located on a mountain in the region of Fez and formerly occupied by Benedictine monks—gatherings of intellectuals and thinkers, especially Muslims and Christians. Individuals of great stature such, as the famous Christian thinker Louis Massignon, took part in these conferences.
André Azoulay, a close friend of and advisor to King Mohammed VI, added:
. . .  for Moroccans of my generation, Toumliline is the most emblematic example of what our society can dream of keeping active and alive. Moreover, in a well-structured and organized way, the example of Toumliline should be an even stronger inspiration for everyone in civil society. . . . Toumliline was not a one-time event. In these times when we are sounded by all kinds of archaisms and regressions—indeed, they are at our very doorstep—the spirit of Toumliline can serve as a source of inspiration.
To continue this work of memory, the fifth conference of a symposium to “reinvent Toumliline,” which this year was entitled “Preserving and transmitting Memory. Fostering Otherness“ was held from May 31 to June 1, 2022. The title indicated a determination to display continuity with the “International Summer Encounters” of Toumliline. The organizers of the conference were Rabita Mohammedia des Oulémas via its Ta’aruf Center and the Foundation “Memories for the Future,” as well as the Catholic Institute of Toulouse and the Foundation “Futur 21.” They wanted at least some of this meeting to take place on the site of the former monastery.
As a prelude to the conference, a moving ceremony took place at the tomb of all the deceased members of the Toumliline monastery in the Christian cemetery of Rabat. The ceremony was held in the presence of the Cardinal Archbishop of the Diocese of Rabat, Cristóbal López Romero.
At the conference, speakers from the Catholic Institute of Toulouse made excellent presentations, and Moroccan intellectuals introduced us into the mysteries of another culture, another way of thinking, obliging us to undergo an intellectual decentering. This beneficial exercise makes us aware of the degree to which Westerners, without realizing what they are doing, impose their culture on other cultures of the world.[3]
The monastery
My presence at the conference allowed me to discover with emotion the site of the monastery of Toumliline, which is now in the process of being restored.[4] Magnificently situated at an altitude of 1300 meters in a forest of holm oaks, not far from another forest of cedars, it dominates the city of Azrou and offers a panoramic view over a wide horizon. The poor state of conservation of the buildings is particularly distressing, but the speeches of the official representatives of various organizations charged with restoring the site was encouraging.
There are no plans for Toumliline to regain a Benedictine community, nor is it probable that it will again be the site of international meetings like those of the past. What was an exception cannot be repeated. But the warmth of the emotion of the participants, especially of the older ones who rediscovered a part of their memory that had long remained buried, gives us reason to believe that: “the spirit of Toumliline can still serve as a source of inspiration.”[5]

Translated by William Skudlarek


[1] Published in 2019 by La croisée des chemins (Casablanca). An English translation has also been published.
[2] François Martinet, Les Rencontres internationales de Toumliline - Une décennie d’exception  (Casablanca : Du Sirocco, 2019).
[3]A short video about this conference can be found on YouTube.
[4] A partnership agreement aimed at the restoration and development of the site of the former monastery of Toumliline, located within the perimeter of the National Park of Ifrane, was signed in March 2022, by the Department of Water and Forests and the foundation “Memories for the Future”. This agreement aims to establish a preliminary, join, and inclusive approach to the preservations of th4e environment and the development of cultural tourism that enhances the exceptional heritage of the site.
[5] For more information, see the article “How the inter-faith ‘spirit of Toumliline’ lives on 50 years after Moroccan monastery closed” by Julia Bicknell in the September 30, 2022, issue of The Tablet.



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