All in the family: Discover Issaquah’s sister cities

February 15, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Issaquah sister-city bond fosters cross-cultural understanding in Morocco — and at home

The dominant color in Chefchaouen, Morocco — Issaquah’s sister city since April 2007 — is a dreamy shade of blue. Contributed

The grand and imposing door, set amid brick buildings and evergreens in downtown Issaquah, offers clues from a far-off place.

The door is as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar and built to endure for ages. The place is ancient.

The door is painted in the same soothing blue as a summer sky over the Mediterranean. The place is exotic.

The door is a gateway. The place is Chefchaouen, Morocco.

The door on the Issaquah City Hall grounds is a gift from Chefchaouen, a sister city almost 6,000 miles from the Cascade foothills.

The relationship is a study in contrasts.

Suburban Issaquah is perched on the outer rim of Greater Seattle. Chefchaouen is isolated in mountainous terrain, 100 miles from the nearest major city, Tangier. Chefchaouen is in Muslim-majority Morocco. Issaquah is in the secular United States.

Issaquah and Chefchaouen inked a sister-city agreement in 2007.

In the years since, a steady stream of dignitaries, students and tourists has traveled from one city to the other.

The effort has caused bridges to be built across the immense cultural and geographic gulfs separating the cities.

“It opens our minds and hearts to other cultures,” Mohamed Belali said. “Otherwise, it would be a missed opportunity on both sides.”

Issaquah and Chefchaouen possess special significance for the Moroccan immigrant. Belali spent summers in Chefchaouen as a child and later settled in Issaquah. Now, he serves on the Sister Cities Commission, the municipal board responsible for tending to the international bond.

Daughter Iman Belali formed the American Moroccan International Exchange in 2004.

Chefchaouen city leaders donated the Blue Door to Issaquah City Hall as a symbol of friendship. File

The then-12-year-old middle schooler set out to encourage person-to-person diplomacy in order to counteract unflattering stereotypes perpetuated in both nations after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“The way I see, there are good and bad people everywhere, no matter where you go,” she said. “Where you come from really doesn’t determine that.”

The search for common ground

The initial AMIE — the acronym is French for “friend” — exchanges included girls from Morocco and the United States. Soon, the adolescent ambassadors discovered common ground.

“Morocco is a Muslim country, but when the girls got here, we learned a lot of us were into the same music, the same American artists,” Iman Belali recalled. “We all liked the same clothes. We all liked to do the same things for fun.”

The early successes prompted Iman Belali to approach city leaders in Issaquah to suggest a sister-city relationship. The nascent effort to join Issaquah and Chefchaouen as sister cities received a cool reception.

Issaquah attempted a similar relationship more than a decade earlier, but the ties to sister city Sunndal, Norway, loosened as interest faded in both places.

“My belief is, sister-city relationships are not something that local governments can take on,” Mohamed Belali said. “No commission can make a relationship. It’s really the people. If you have people that care, they will make that connection.”

Citizens in both cities, a globe apart, nurtured the connection. Then, in April 2007, Issaquah Mayor Ava Frisinger and a delegation journeyed to Chefchaouen to sign the sister-cities agreement.

“People get to know one another as individuals, and it is difficult to see peoples and cultures as monolithic when you’ve sat at a table with people, and shared stories and eaten a meal,” she said.

The delegation encountered the same fact from proud Moroccans recounted at almost every stop: In 1777, Morocco, before any other nation, recognized the United States as a sovereign nation after the 13 colonies declared independence from Great Britain.

Travelers receive royal treatment

The mayor and other Issaquah leaders describe the trek in details fit for a travel magazine: postcard-perfect landscapes, kindhearted hosts, sumptuous feasts.

The delegation learned to count the number of tablecloths to estimate planned courses in a meal.

The dignitaries sampled couscous and tagines, a traditional stew named for the conical pots used to cook the meal, plus the Moroccan national dish, bisteeya, a layered meat pie.

The red-carpet-and-fine-china treatment led to some comic moments for the Issaquah delegation.

Frisinger recalled the bisteeya at a banquet for the delegation and other dignitaries.

The server offered a colossal slice to the Issaquah mayor. The diplomatic — and hungry — Frisinger ate the entire piece. The server noticed the empty plate and, unprompted, cut another chunk for the stuffed guest.

Morocco, ancient and up-to-date

The teeming souk is the hub in Chefchaouen — a labyrinth of shops and stalls, pile after pile of jewel-toned fruits and vegetables, and carpets by the mile.

Chaouen, as Moroccans call the city, is nestled in the Rif Mountain foothills. The city, like Issaquah, is a popular starting point for backpackers and hikers.

Inside the medina, or old city, ancient customs and modern amenities coexist. Craftsmen adhere to centuries-old techniques as donkeys haul big-screen TVs along alleyways as cramped as a college dorm room.

Issaquah Sister Cities Commission member Jennifer Jedda last stopped in Chefchaouen in October, during a trek across Africa and Europe.

“Morocco to me — I have friends there,” she said. “It’s not foreign to me anymore. It’s actually a place that I knew I would be taken care of.”

Travelers described some people dressed in Western jeans and T-shirts, and others clad in traditional garb on the cobblestone streets. The dress code is often separated on generational lines.

“It almost felt like you were stepping back in time, if you could ignore the automobiles,” Issaquah Sister Cities Commission member and AMIE representative Mike Pautz said.

Chefchaouen has a Spanish accent and a sapphire tinge. The medina is toothpaste-commercial white and gossamer blue.

Spain and France tussled to control Morocco from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. The result is a civilization as rich and seasoned as the trademark tagines.

Issaquah explorers described using a patois of languages to communicate: Arabic, French and Spanish. English is not a common tongue in Chefchaouen.

“Both the students and the residents find that while there may be some language barriers initially, the goodwill and good intent between everyone overcomes those and we’re able to communicate,” Pautz said.

The exotic — and the familiar

Issaquah travelers to Chefchaouen recall a history as colorful as the landscape and a hospitable people eager to share their rich culture.

“Even amongst all the differences — whether it be skin color or religion or location — we’re more similar than we are different,” Pautz said. “I know that’s a cliché, but it rang true for me.”

Mere minutes from the city, Barbary macaques, small primates, inhabit the cedars and cypress at Talassemtane National Park — a place Frisinger said “looks like a cross between Yellowstone and Yosemite” in the United States.

Colorful pottery is among the many offerings for sale in the souk, or market, in Chefchaouen’s old city, or medina. Contributed

Sister Cities Commission member Joan Probala imagined Chefchaouen as something lifted from the “Arabian Nights” tales.

Instead, modern Morocco offered a contrast in the ancient and the up-to-date.

“There are modern cities and people walk around with cell phones,” Probala said. “Even in the market areas, you see donkeys go through with big-screen televisions. They’re connected to the world and they want to be.”

The connection to the United States is linked to the iconic Salmon Days Festival, too.

Chefchaouen artisans demonstrate metalwork and other traditional techniques for Salmon Days crowds. The city also dispatches dignitaries to ride in the festival parade.

“I never expected the compassion and the friendship that they showed — and the eagerness to be part of our community,” Probala said.

Chefchaouen city fathers offered a gift to further solidify the sister-city relationship in April 2008: a 300-pound door set into a plaster, steel and wood frame. The dedication plaque offers tidings from Morocco.

The grand and imposing door, set amid brick buildings and evergreens in downtown Issaquah, offers clues from a far-off place.

The door is a symbol for friendship — and a call to celebrate common ground. The place is hospitable.

The door is a landmark for people in cities almost 6,000 miles apart, separated by continents and oceans. The place is familiar.

The door is a gateway. The place is Chefchaouen, Morocco.


The other side of the family

Issaquah seeks to defrost a dormant sister-city relationship in Norway

The shared enthusiasm for outdoor recreation and cultural significance attached to salmon — not to mention similar mountainous terrain — seemed like a smart match for cities separated by 4,300 miles and a polar ice cap.

So, Issaquah and Sunndal, Norway, leaders used the common ground to establish a sister-city relationship in 1991.

Sunndal, Norway — Issaquah’s other sister city — sits on a fjord amid rocky terrain. Contributed

The international bond sputtered after some early jaunts from officials and residents in Norway and the United States. The relationship more resembled long-lost kin than a sister-city bond in less than a decade.

Issaquah and Chefchaouen, Morocco, fostered a close bond in 2007 and maintained a connection in the years since leaders endorsed the sister-city relationship.

Chefchaouen leaders sent the landmark Blue Door for display on Issaquah City Hall grounds in early 2008.

For Issaquah and Sunndal, on the other hand, no monuments at Issaquah City Hall or frequent student exchanges celebrate the bond.

Though the relationship faded in recent years, unofficial exchanges continue to occur.

The effort to defrost the relationship started in November 2009, after Issaquah Sister Cities Commission member Joan Probala detoured to Sunndal on a trip to visit family in Norway.

Former Issaquah Mayor Rowan Hinds hosted travelers from Sunndal last summer. The group met city leaders to discuss the sister-city relationship.

Probala, perhaps the only Issaquah resident to call on both Chefchaouen and Sunndal, said Sunndal leaders seem eager to resume the relationship.

The side trip rekindled the enthusiasm for the relationship in Issaquah and Sunndal. The longtime Issaquah resident received a cheerful reception in the city not far from the Arctic Circle. Sunndal is more than 200 miles from Oslo, the capital and largest city in Norway.

Probala and other Sister Cities Commission members drafted a document last year to establish a formal agreement between Issaquah and Sunndal. That relationship had not been established under the Sister Cities International umbrella. (The organization tracks and manages the relationships across the globe.)

The commission then sent the draft proposal to a Sunndal sister cities board for discussion. Leaders in both cities hope to reignite the relationship in the months ahead.

Issaquah residents also expressed interest in traveling to Sunndal as part of a future official delegation.

The delegation could encounter some familiar features in Norway.

The meandering River Driva runs through the city to empty into a nearby fjord. The river and rugged terrain surrounding the city make Sunndal, like Issaquah, a popular spot for recreational fishermen and hikers.

The streetscapes resemble Pacific Northwest neighborhoods at a quick glance. The city includes a major aluminum plant and, also like Issaquah, a fish hatchery.

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