Morocco – the South

The land began to change after we left Midelt, the mid-point in our journey. We started to ascend into the Atlas Mountains, the domain of nomadic tribes who graze their flocks of goat and sheep between high altitudes and low in search of fodder. The Mid-Atlas is green and fertile compared to the more arid High Atlas, filed with juniper, pine and cedar. Shallow rivers, mineral mines, and the ruins of kasbahs that once protected caravans between Fes and the Sahara, accompanied us along the way.

We visited a Berber nomad family and took tea with them (well, we did, they were fasting but still offered us their hospitality). The wind was picking up at that point, but their sturdy hut stood strong out on the open plain; it even had a small solar panel outside to power up the cell phone and radio inside. The husband sets out each morning with his flock, returning in the evening (a 9-5 job of a different kind). The wife does the housework, including the fetching of water from a distant spring by donkey; she is in her mid-twenties, and her children are in school in the nearby town, visiting only on weekends. The couple see their generation as the last in the nomadic tradition, for their two girls want to be a doctor and a police officer respectively, and the parents are thrilled, for theirs has been a hard life. 

Drought is evident everywhere, a constant feature of the last eight years. Rivers formed by snowmelt and rain are marked by snaking lines of greenery that run along the valleys between the mountains. Agricultural fields (dates, olives, and fruit) on the river banks tap the water supply, and houses are built on the periphery of those fields, at the base of the mountains that hem the settlements in. Some rivers are already dry, and yet the green fields survive from underwater springs. An occasional solar panel beside a grove of trees reveals that pumps are being used to haul out spring water. Enroute, we stopped at a system of ancient wells built on the Ketettaras system borrowed from Iran that revealed how the water table was tapped as it receded deeper underground.

Despite the desolate appearance of the south, the towns enroute show lots of new housing construction to accommodate a growing populace, half under the age of 25. And military towns like Errachidia and Erfoud that sit close to the Algerian border (an angry neighbour, like Mauritania to the south) are well developed with infusions of state money. But these regional towns are spartan, comprised mostly of red and brown apartment blocks, with few civic facilities like parks, monuments, or fountains, and with broken or unbuilt sidewalks. And the wind was playing games with the refuse as we drove by – plastic bags were littered all over the place.

We stopped at a marble factory and were given a detailed explanation that the stone extracted from the hills nearby held embedded marine fossils dating back 350 million years. Soon thereafter, I started to see fossil sellers in roadside stalls everywhere. Other stops included a walk along a gorge with an almost-dry riverbed at the bottom and into a 400-year Berber adobe village where excited children followed us as if we were the evening’s entertainment. Stacks of firewood lay drying at various spots on the hillside beside the village, each pile belonging to a different family, and a communal oven served for baking bread.

Stepping off the highway we entered the desert, with the wind picking up strongly now. The residual green gave way to a steely grey moonscape all the way to the Sahara camp. The camps are managed by different tour/hotel companies, offering varying levels of comfort. Ours was a series of a dozen tents erected in two facing lines beside a main tent that held the communal toilets/showers and the dining room. Outside, camels and their keepers grazed, waiting for customers, and all around us was the yellow-orange desert, made even more vivid with a setting sun and a sandstorm that was reaching its zenith.

The camel ride in convoy was to die for (well, if you didn’t lean back each time the camel rested on its haunches or flexed its limbs in the sand, you could fall and break your neck). We went deep into this orange desert that seemed to be creeping steadily over human habitation—thanks to climate change—rested the camels, and tried to watch the sunset from a ridge. When the sandstorm obscured the view, we slid down the 12-foot-high ridge in the firm but nonabrasive sand, and walked in circles to get a feel for the dunes.

Dinner was sumptuous – signature tajine dishes with salad, couscous and fresh fruit – even entertainment by the staff on drums, replete in traditional Berber dress. We got to participate and add our urban beats to the mix.

With the sand blowing everywhere, we had to leave all doors and windows shuttered in the tent, and sleeping that night was spooky on hard pillows with silica crystals creeping into hair and nostrils; especially inconvenient for this old guy who needs two visits to the loo – but lo and behold, when I stepped out to head to the communal toilet, I didn’t need a flashlight: the moon was up and the wind had died down and the still desert was magical – truly out of a movie.

Leaving the Sahara, we travelled through “the valley of a thousand Kasbahs” (the Dades Valley) into the Rose (M’Goun) Valley (this valley turns pink in May with a profusion of Damascene Roses that grow everywhere; even the taxis in town are pink) where we stayed for two nights at a Gite – a sprawling three-storey, family-run hotel where everyone, including the children, are your hosts. The internet, was spotty, but who cared about that anyway! This was a place to get our clothes washed of the sand that had infiltrated everywhere and to learn how to make the famous tajine in the communal kitchen with a bunch of local cooks eager to teach us; in return, we had to peel the beans and dice the vegetables that formed a pyramid on top of the meat in the ceremonial tajine pot.

A 4-hour walk in the M’goun Valley followed the next day, giving us a chance to see how land is allocated by the local tribe to villagers based on need. You may own your house, but the tribe owns the land in this burg. We also descended into the terraced agricultural plots, into those ribbons of green nestling in the valleys we passed by in our tour van earlier. We strolled past walnut, barley, clover, capers, figs, rosemary, thyme, oleander, almond and bamboo; and a thorny bush of yellow flowers called “mother-in-law’s seat” – I wondered why?

Driving on, we passed “Hollywood Morocco,” the town of Ourzazate, and stopped at a fancy kasbah called Ameridhl, the site of countless movies, and which is even featured on a Moroccan bank note. The internal architecture of these kasbahs is mind-boggling: rooms designed with irregular stairs and low entrances to impede invaders; kitchen ovens strategically situated to heat the whole house in winter; underground springs re-routed to power turbines that operated the ovens, and the garden in the middle that provided for nature in an arid desert.

The king’s attempts to emancipate women, especially single mothers and widows, is obvious in the number of women’s co-operatives in operation throughout the south. We visited a tearoom, a carpet factory, and an argan oil factory, all run by women who were pretty snazzy salespeople to boot. And yet I wondered why there were only men on the streets and sitting in restaurants at the breaking of the fast? Perhaps it will take another generation before full equality is achieved. As our female engineer-turned-tour guide in Fes had said rather dismissively, “Morocco is still a third-world country.”

And finally, after a climb up to our highest pass in the High Atlas Mountains, the Tichka Pass (altitude 2260 metres), amidst heavy road construction where additional lanes were being cut out of the mountainside, we swung back into fertile green valleys and descended to our last stop, Marakech

If Casablanca is a motorist’s nightmare, Marakech is a pedestrian’s stress test. You just put your hand out, take a deep breath, say a prayer, and step out onto the street, and hope like hell the maniacal traffic hurtling at you would stop – and it does, usually, except for the motor cyclists who continue to weave and bob around you! Founded by the Almoravid dynasty in the 11th century, this city is evolution itself – the mosques and buildings the founders built were destroyed and new ones built by the Almohads who replaced the Almoravids a century later. And when those structures were found to be misaligned towards Mecca, they were demolished and others were built instead. After a period of decline and ceding preeminence to Fes, Marakesh came roaring back in the 16th century under the Saadi dynasty, and has since been a prominent cultural, religious, and trading centre for the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa.

The medina is a confusing warren of streets that mislead. We ventured out the first evening without a guide (duh!) and couldn’t find our way out. Every sign saying “Exit” led to more shops or dead ends. Unlike Fes with its specialty streets, these shops all sold the same things – i.e. those commodities that were frequently bought – trash and trinkets. “Merchants here are greedy,” our guide told us later. Finally, the only way out was to retrace our steps and hope like hell we knew whence we had come from. At night, the main square, Jemaa el Fna, is a cacophony of drums. flutes, snake charmers, and story tellers. But the food here was the cheapest – competition, perhaps?

I heard of concubinage for the first time on this trip. The Bahia Palace was the home of the Grand Vizier who had four wives and 24 concubines, and is a showpiece reflecting all cultures – blue doors (Jewish), ceramic floors (Berber), calligraphy on walls and ceilings (Arab). I’ll grant him, he was more generous than the Chinese Emperor in the Forbidden City in Beijing– the vizier’s concubines had more spacious quarters even though they had to share rooms. Then I heard that the Pasha of Marakech who had lived just down the road in the more elaborate Dar El Bacha had over a hundred concubines, so off I went to visit his house, which had been turned into a museum – his concubines’ rooms were filled with artefacts comprised of Fes Crockery, Judeo-Moroccan torahs and candelabra, Berber jewellery, weapons, maps of the ancient world, Al Moravid and Al Mohad coinage and signage, and other rare objects d’art. On my return I even stumbled upon a fine-art gallery where the tired staff were reluctant to show me around as it was close to the breaking of the fast – but for the first time I got to see art work with full human figures, something frowned on in the Moslem world.

This account is but snapshot of what we saw and experienced over two weeks in Morocco. Each of the cities visited demand their own travelogue, but I hope I have managed to capture the essence of this country in these two articles, a country that sits defiant and at the “take off” stage, despite being beset by neighbours who are less than hospitable and would prefer Morocco did not exist. Morocco stands as a country that has absorbed many cultures over the centuries to produce an amalgam that is worthy of the title “a traveller’s mecca.”

As a young man, I had always wanted to cross the Maghreb, starting in Morocco and ending in Egypt. But the world became more hostile, and failed states now litter North Africa. Morocco remains the only safe place to visit. I am glad I took the plunge before that door too closed for personal or political reasons. 

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