By Tara Fraiture
As the mosques slowly begin their daily call to prayer in the sleepy dawn hours of the morning in the tiny Northern Moroccan town of Chefchaouen (The blue City), Noura El Karrach is already stirring, preparing for her busy day as a working mother, wife and successful entrepreneur.
Noura is the strong force behind ‘Chez Sofia’, a thriving café and restaurant located in the center of the lively tourist square in front of the old medieval medina in Chaouen. But there is something entirely unique about Chez Sofia and its staff, as well as its one-of-a-kind owner. Everyone who works there, apart from Noura’s sons, is female.
"Chez Sofia" Restaurant
"Chez Sofia" incredible couscous
Chaouen, heavily Spanish-influenced and famously known for its doors and walls awash in blue, is traditional in history as a result of being tucked away in the depths of the Rif Mountain Range. Until the 1920’s, Christians could even be prosecuted with death for merely entering Chaouen; the town was this isolated until very recently. Chaouen is still a magical, mystical place today.
The traditional feel of Chaouen is also reflected in its gender relations; it is rare for a woman in the rural, agricultural terrain of Morocco to be educated, much less own a business.
Noura El Karrach goes against all of these embedded grains of history and customs. Born into a poor, mountain family, far from even the town of Chaouen, she never went to school. Not at all. The possibility of even a primary school education was out of the picture for Noura and her siblings. They were needed at home to work their small farm on the rugged, mountainous land.
But Noura had something within her; a fierce fire, a motivation, a vision, even when she was a child, to succeed. At a very young age, someone recognized this uniqueness and Noura was taken under the wing of Moroccan artisanal teachers to learn trade skills. She spent the next few years doing physical labor in the mornings (cleaning houses) and then in the afternoons, the adolescent girl would learn how to sew and embroider linens in an old abandoned Spanish church.
Noura learned basic French and mastered Spanish, which would motivate her in her future business aspirations interacting with tourists in Chaouen. She would later add Italian to her repertoire of languages as well.
Noura was successful in her endeavors; she was talented and driven and was able to sustain herself and her family, even at this young age.
Then, at just 19, Noura thought she had found her freedom from this difficult life of labor-she met and immediately married a young Berber man. As many women globally discover, this man was not whom he promised to be; he did not treat her well. But she found herself pregnant and like so many others, was stuck. Her son was born in 2000.
After four years, Noura, whose name perfectly translates to ‘light’ in Arabic, did the unthinkable in this strictly traditional society-she was able to prove to a judge that she provided the family income and her husband did not. She divorced her husband and was then awarded full custody of her son.
Again, this young woman was proving to be a trailblazer.
This was not, however, the happy ending for Noura and infant son, as this now single-mother had to completely start over. As she puts it, “I began from zero once again. I had nothing. Being a single mother in Morocco at the time, and particularly in my village, was taboo. But I had my confidence and I knew that I could make something of myself. I knew that even though I had not been to school, I was smart and hard-working. And I was persistent. I am still persistent,” she says with a laugh and a wide smile that reaches to her beautiful, kind eyes.
Noura started from scratch. She began a new life for her tiny family. She went back to cleaning houses and businesses. She never waivered in her dedication to creating a more desirable future for herself and her son. She always knew that better was just around the corner.
Noura continued to learn by working in a plant nursery. Ever-learning. She then moved on to working in a successful hotel where she met her current husband, who was in the hotel business. They married in 2003. This time, Sofia took the time and effort to protect herself. She was wiser. She saved money; she thought ahead for herself and her son.
In 2008, her daughter, Sofia was born. Fast-forward a few busy years and Noura found herself at home wondering one curious question: Why, when women actually end up doing more work than men, are they concealed from society here in Morocco, and particularly in Chaouen? Why hide?
By this time, Sofia was in school. Noura certainly had enough to do at home to keep busy-taking care of the house, cooking, cleaning, and the children-all typical things that mothers do from dawn to dusk and beyond. But she wanted more. She wanted to be earning a salary. She wanted validation. She wanted independence. She yearned to help other women as well.
Then, fate stepped in. Her husband became unable to work. Within a flash, she had a brilliant idea. In 2012, Noura opened up a sweets store and became the first female entrepreneur in Chaouen, selling simple Moroccan ‘pasteles’, or ‘cakes’ in Spanish.
However, this huge step for gender equality did not come without complications. People did not want to see a woman running a business in the conservative niche of Chaouen. Residents were self-conscious having their sisters, daughters, aunts and mothers openly working in the tiny sweets shop. Culturally, it was just not done.
But still, Noura did not lose hope. She did not give up. And her sweets were the best of quality. Crowds started to come; locals and tourists alike. Her sweet shop started to gain a reputation as being the most delicious in town.
Continuing to be inspired, Noura opened her restaurant, ‘Chez Sofia’, named after her daughter, who is now nine years old. But hiring women from outside to work inside the restaurant was still an issue for her. She needed and wanted women to work in the restaurant. She felt it was her obligation to support other women in their quest for independence. Once again, Noura came through with a brilliant plan. She hired all of the women in her own family. Moroccan families tend to be large in size, and the women in Noura’s family could benefit from the salary. They, like most other women, already had the skills and strong work ethic; they just needed the guidance. Noura provided the training and mentorship. She also created something unique for them-freedom and stability.
Currently, Chez Sofia employs four female members of Noura’s extended family. All of these hard-working ladies are either divorced or widowed. The need for a sustainable salary and autonomy was essential. And the result was a gift. Combined, these four incredible women have 17 children between them.
She also devised another genius plan to help other local women work for her. Instead of having them work in the restaurant, which could be seen as taboo by the families of these women, why not have them work in their own homes? This was an easy solution for everyone.
Today, Noura has four additional female employees who work from the comfort of their own houses-one who makes fresh daily bread, another who makes the Moroccan desserts, another who makes all of the embroidered linens for the restaurant and lastly, one who makes all of the fresh cheeses and Moroccan dairy delights.
Apart from her sons, Noura employs only women in her thriving restaurant. This is a monumental feat in this tiny, traditional tourist town.
Finally, persevering mothers are getting credit. And since it’s a family business, the children come and go freely before and after school; it’s a friendly setting where they can sit and do their homework, grab something to eat, and occasionally lend a hand with small tasks in the restaurant.
In a perfect way, ‘Chez Sofia’ is a co-op of women working together. Coordinated by Noura. Serving women. Helping women. Focusing on women. Proving that women can be effective, successful, professional leaders. Even in a small, traditional community.
Noura is not only a fearless leader and innovative entrepreneur. Her motivation and spirit come from a kindness and loving heart deep within her.
She quietly supports a 60+ year-old mountain lady whose husband, a merchant in the tourist souk, suddenly passed away. Noura pays her to go every day into the rugged hills overlooking Chaouen to collect fresh herbs for the restaurant. Without this means of support, this woman would be on the street begging for money.
Noura’s giving spirit goes way beyond supporting her staff and local women.
One cool mountain morning 15 years ago, Noura was told by her neighbors that there was a baby boy, not more than a few days old, who had been left on the steps of the local hospital. Her natural instinct immediately took over.
As she puts it, “This baby had no one in this world. I just had to take him. He came home with me that day and he never left.” She went on, “In Morocco, if a parent is still alive, that child cannot be adopted. But Moustafa, my son, was never proven to have anyone. So I adopted him. He is mine, like my blood children are. He is a part our family for life.”
It doesn’t stop there. In 2009, Noura came across a child of about five years old living on the street; a cold, tattered, hungry, little boy. She again did the only thing she knew to do-she took him home, too. Ayoub is now a thriving 13-year-old.
I met both Moustafa and Ayoub in the restaurant and their twinkling eyes, infectious smiles, and gentle demeanors immediately impressed me. I also saw the interaction with their mother; laughing with her. It reaffirmed my faith in humanity. It actually took me a moment to gather my thoughts, I was so incredibly touched by the three of them together.
Good has come to Noura in the success of her restaurant and the thriving health and happiness of her four children.
Chez Sofia, which has a simple, cozy setting, only serves dishes with local ingredients. All of the food is prepared on the spot. Noura is extremely proud of her staff and the quality of their dishes. She is an efficient machine when she is working and it shows in Chez Sofia’s incredible triumph. But Noura still manages to cook and serve with heart.
She is also the shining light of Chez Sofia, an engaging, enthusiastic presence with a clear passion for her beloved business. She tells me proudly that Chez Sofia is the number one restaurant on Trip Advisor for the second year in a row, in Chefchaouen. But she humbly says it’s a team effort. And there is a massive array of restaurants in this little tourist town.
Despite her business prosperity, Noura is as modest as one can imagine she would be. She refuses to take credit for being such a role model to these women. But one can immediately see the respect that her staff has for her if you happen to spend even five minutes in her presence.
I tell Noura after our interview (entirely in Spanish) that she inspires me. She laughs and her eyes smile at me, once again. She takes my hand and thanks me. She thanks me. These are the people, I am reminded, and I tell my children about them daily- there will always be more good people in the world than bad.
In fact, Noura and I have chatted several times on the phone since then. And now I have a friend in Noura El Karrach. An empowering community leader who inspires me. And positively influences women as well as humanity around the world.
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