Category Archives: Geography and environment

How does the remarkable geographical diversity of this country shape its culture? What are Morocco’s environmental challenges, strengths, and strategies?

Around Demnate

After our pottery mudslide and olive press visit, we made our way to Demnate, where we wanted to explore the Mellah, the historical Jewish section of the town.

Storks on top of the minaret at the central mosque in Demnate

The first Mellah to be established was in Fez, when a Marinid sultan persuaded the Jews living scattered through the old medina to move close to the royal palace.  (Many a Moroccan sultan saw himself as a protector of the Jews, those handy artisans and financiers.)  The word Mellah evidently came from the word for salt, milha: the Mellah was the place of salt, the place where salt-traders gathered, the place where the salt-trade was financed and organized and run.

Demnate historically had a large Jewish population; we had hoped to take a tour of the Mellah with a guide specializing in this history, but he was in Agadir for the few days of our visit.  We stopped by the veteran’s center, on the edge of the Mellah, to see if anyone there would talk to us a little about history, but everyone was deep into a game of backgammon or cards, so we wandered off on our own, dropping into a courtyard near the entrance.

This was something like a tailor’s souq, with many small shops braiding djellaba trim and sewing it onto djellabas.

One older man here knew a little about the Jewish community.  There was only one well-known Jew remaining–a cantor.  (Nancy was delighted to recognize the Arabic word by its resemblance to Hebrew.)  Everyone else had left for Israel, as Jews across Morocco had emigrated en masse within a brief span of time.

While James and Nancy chatted with the men surrounding this djellaba shop, Jeremy was making friends.  One man in the center of the courtyard let him run the braiding machine for a moment–
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–he didn’t even mind when Jeremy ran it backward by accident.  Another man hunted around in his shop for a present for our boy, finally emerging with an onion!

After a wander around the town, ducking in and out of bright sun, and dodging through dark and chilly corridors, we headed out of town again, looking for the Imni n’Ifri cave or bridge or geological formation.  We didn’t really know what we were looking for, but the guidebook said it was worth a stop.

In the end, it was both a cave and a bridge, with an interesting geological formation taking shape under the natural bridge.  Guides wanted to be paid to lead us through, so (as at the Cascades), they showed us the least appealing, apparently most difficult approach first.  We declined their help, thinking we might just walk down the easy steps on the other side, and look at the passage from the bottom.  One of the guides followed us down and again offered his help.  “We’d rather do it ourselves, thank you.”

In fact, James and I were the ones who really wanted to keep going, so Nancy volunteered to stay behind with the children.  At which point, Zoe, with a maturity beyond her years, noted that while she didn’t want to go, she would be mad at herself later for missing something interesting.  Of course then Jeremy was unwilling to be left behind.  So we all girded our metaphoric loins–prepared for wet feet–and kept going.
P1010118We were so glad we did!  The “map of Africa” is the formation’s claim to fame, P1010128

but we were most taken with the structure of the walls,

the water misting down in a beading curtain, capturing the light.
It was a magical space–these photos don’t really do it justice.



Driving south by the Cascades d’Ouzoud

My friend Nancy came to see us for the midwinter holiday, and after learning to make a traditional Moroccan bean soup (secrets: buckets of garlic plus paprika to keep the beans from clogging the pressure cooker),

we drove six or seven hours south to Demnate, stopping at the Cascades d’Ouzoud on the way.
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We were amazed by the massive water pipe snaking down the mountains near Beni Mellal,
by the fertile plains it irrigated,

and by the river and dam that fed it:
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I want to be a bee-keeper right here:

We were weary by the time we got to the Cascades d’Ouzoud.  It was cold and the insistence of the guides wanting to give us a tour made us a little cranky.  But the falls were beautiful.  We thought the rainbow appeared specially for us, but it’s actually a reliable feature of the cascade.P1010030

The intrepid father-son team went all the way to the bottom of the falls and we met them coming up on the other, calmer, less touristy side.
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Then James climbed out into the middle of the falls to take this kind of photo from “a perfectly safe place.”  All I can say is, it didn’t look that safe from where we were standing.

Then we jumped back into the car to drive another hour to our eco-farm hotel in the hills above Demnate.  The rolling hills were beautiful in the early evening.

After we dropped our bags in our rooms, as Zoe and Nancy settled themselves in, Jeremy and I went to explore the farm and James came along to play with his new camera.
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I love my boys, both big and small.
One of the many facets of happiness.

Gouffre de Friouata

On the way back to Ifrane, we spent a night in the National Park of Tazekka, near Taza, northeast of Fez.  In the morning, we drove up and down the mountain in slippery snow (turning to rain) in order to reach the mouth of the Friouata cave.

The cave extends for about 3 kilometers underground: here is a map from the National Park’s website.

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We straggled through the rain into the welcome center, donned hard hats with head lamps, and followed our guide into the cave.  (I’m going to call the guide Abdelrachman for his kindness until I can remember his real name.) My favorite part was the opening, the massive sinkhole of this karst topography.


At the bottom of the sinkhole, we squeeze through a smaller opening into the cave itself:
Tempting to pet the bat as we go by:

The hike was like a dark, underground muddy rock scramble, with the occasional bridge over streams or standing water, and ladders to simplify the climb to higher or lower levels.
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There was an abundance of stalactites, stalagmites, and interesting formations of all kinds.  These formations grow at a rate of roughly 100 years per centimeter.  The cave counsels patience.
And impermanence: some of the stalactites have been broken by earthquakes and tremors.
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At the end of the cave system, Abdelrachman played the rock formation like a cross between a drum and an organ.  I’ll try to post a link to the video on vimeo.P1000669

But, as is often the case here, the most amazing display (in my eyes) was the kindness and care Jeremy received.  He was carried bodily through most of the cave by Abdelrachman and by our West Point friend, James.
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For my part, I was happy to have faced down my claustrophobia, and to have received this muddy badge of honor from Abdelrachman:
Indeed, a good time was had by all:

An Amazigh family in the sands

As we ride up on our tourist camels, an old woman is pulling dates off their orange stems in the shadow cast by a square Berber tent.
Young Lahcen, our guide, leads us near the encampment.  As the camels fold themselves down onto the sand, he pulls off the blankets that have served as saddles and hauls the food bag toward a separate tent that is clearly reserved for visitors.

Khalid, the father of the family, comes to greet us with a warm hand and a warm smile.  Two of his sons head off with a loaded mule, one riding, one leading.
There’s another smaller boy sitting beside the old woman, eating dates while pretending to help pull them off the stalks.  We approach the date pile, asking tentatively whether we can help.  The old woman gestures: feel free.  Zoe, Jeremy, and I sit down and start to work, while James wanders around the camp.

Khalid returns and we go through the introductions: our names, their names.  The boy is Hassan.  He insists he’s ten.  He’s smaller than Jeremy and he’s missing a lower front tooth, so I would guess five or six.  (His brother Mohamed later confirms that Hassan is 5; he himself is 6.)  The old woman is “Hajja” says Khalid, which is a term of respect.  Zoe and I are fascinated by the deep red of her fingernails and the base of her feet.  She grabs a stalk of the date and runs her hand down it so the dates fly off in all directions: much more efficient than pulling off a date at a time.  “Oh, and there’s Omar,” they say, gesturing at a small green scarf bundled on a rug in the shade of the next tent over.
Oh! we say, surprised.  We would never have known that was a baby.

James comes to tell us that there’s a woman baking bread and he feels intrusive as a single foreign man, so I go with him up the side of the dune to see a small oven built out of mud or cement in the windbreak of a small shrub and a kind of lean-to made of a rug and a stick.  Fatima, the mother of the family, pulls out a third loaf, wraps it in cloth with the other loaves of bread, feeds the fire, banks it, and heads down the slope into one of the family tents.

We wander back to the date work and a few minutes later, Fatima appears with a couple of bowls and a handful of vegetables.  She picks up the green bundle, wraps herself and the baby in the folds of her black scarf and proceeds to feed him.  A few minutes later, she reemerges, with the baby draped across her lap, at which point she begins scraping and chopping vegetables.
Moroccan women rarely bother with cutting boards and the good sense of this is forcibly born in on me in this context: with a cutting board, you’d inevitably get loads of sand in your food.  I go to sit near her and practice my little Darija.  A month old? I ask.  Aren’t you tired?  I was tired the first months after my kids were born.  Fatima and Hajja laugh at this, quite emphatically.

Fatima pulls back the green scarf—green for Islam?—to give me a better look at Omar’s face.  He has eyebrows drawn on in a thick black paste.
“Zween,” I say admiringly.  Handsome.  She hands him to me and I dandle him.  He’s tied up in a small package: white wrapping inside the green cloth.  His feet are tied together with a soft rope.  His hands are inside the white swaddling: also tied?.  Around his neck there’s a string with beads and a small square of folded paper taped up or wrapped in plastic.  It makes me think of an amulet, but when I ask, Fatima says it’s just decoration.
The swaddling seems to work: he’s a remarkably quiet and placid baby.  With his head uncovered, he peers dimly at me.  When I remember to take off my sunglasses, he smiles.

Khalid and his mother pick through the huge pile of dates, though I have a hard time telling whether they’re trying to sort out the half-eaten and rotten ones, or pick out the ripe ones.
I try handing Khalid bunches of each sort and he sets them aside together. Oh, for better language skills!  I ask where the dates come from and Khalid gestures over a dune: they’re from a nearby palm, shared with another Berber family. Khalid brings two large empty bags and we fill them with the dates we’ve plucked.  Half will be sold; half eaten by the family.
I think back to Aki or Karim telling us that his dates are premium dates—the best to be found.  They certainly seem more appealing than these—but I’m probably biased by the flies everywhere.  Why does no one talk about flies in the desert?  I point to what looks like mold covering the surface of many of the dates.  No problem, Lahcen says, and Khalid clarifies: a little cold will take care of that.  So first the dates are ripened with heat, then they’re cooled and cleaned to remove the mold.

Slowly, we see a little of the rhythm of the day.  The two older boys, Hamid and Mohamed, have taken a load of dates off to a little hut to ripen.  Hajja and Khalid are preparing another load of dates.  Khadija, the oldest of the children and the only girl, has been doing laundry: she lays the clothes out on the sand to dry.
Fatima has been baking bread and working on lunch and possibly dinner for her family.  Along with piles of finely grated carrot, onion, potato, there’s also a large joint—by which I mean a two gray bones attached by a tendon or ligament—which joins some more coarsely chopped vegetables in the ubiquitous and efficient pressure-cooker. There’s a cooking hut with a small solar panel on the sand outside.  Inside, there are multiple gas-fired burners.  I imagine that donkey earns his keep carrying gas canisters back and forth to Merzouga.
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Lahcen in the cooking hut, working on a veggie lunch for us.

Khadija comes to check on the baby and corrects me when I remark with wonder at his being only a month old.  Not yet! she insists.  Only twenty-six days.  As I’ve been holding him, he’s definitely done a poop, but no one seems very interested in changing him.  Still, there seems to be a pile of disposable diapers bagged and waiting for disposal near the dead tree.

We eat lunch in the guest tent.  Khalid has propped up the side wall, opposite the door, with a stick, to allow for some breeze, but it’s still oppressively hot.  There’s a nice cold salad assortment and “Berber pizza” or “sand pizza”—a traditional dish more conventionally known as medfouna (a word that means buried).  A tomato-onion mixture is “buried” in ours.  Hassan sits with us and plays at feeding Jeremy sections of hard-boiled egg; Jeremy reciprocates with medfouna, cucumber, and other sections of egg.  After lunch, we head back to the shady wall of the main tent, where the heat is a touch less oppressive.

James does card tricks to delight Khalid, Lahcen, and the boys.
The women have retreated with Omar to one of the straw-walled huts: cooler in this heat.
Hassan and Mohammed play Connect 4 with Jeremy, though it takes a while to get the concept of the game across.
Likewise with logic puzzles.

Khadija comes and draws patterns in henna on my hands and on Zoe’s.  In the morning, she had asked me if I’d like some henna, but she only starts on Zoe after I request it, confirming our assumption that no one in Morocco can quite tell whether Zoe is male or female.
Jeremy shows Mohamed how to fold a secret letter; the two communicate very well with no common language beside gesture.  Both Mohamed and Hassan use the crayons to draw on paper, but they look oddly at Jeremy’s (admittedly idiosyncratic) drawing of a camel and the accompanying narrative he spells out alongside.

The donkey comes back, driven by Hamid perhaps, and has had a feed before wandering off.  The camels, hobbled lightly, have disappeared over the dunes.  The boys head off to retrieve them.  Brought back to the blanket depot, the camels collapse onto the sand, rolling occasionally with high comic effect.
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A group of four sheep come scampering in for a meal, chased by one of the boys, before heading back to the slim shade of their scrubby bush.

By about 3:30, it’s time to head back to base camp.  There’s a lovely breeze.  Mohamed and Hassan claim a couple of half-empty water bottles as loot; given the rest of the family’s water supply, I’d snag fresh water, too.
The boys are playing on their swing set
and waving to us as we pass the four sheep huddled under a shrub.

Three minutes later, they are all hidden behind a dune; we might never know they were there.

A great big sandbox

It’s hard to say what’s so compelling about the Erg Chebbi dunes, other than the obvious.  The sand is so sensuous, the light and lines so abstract and evocative…IMG_1583 - Version 2

the invitation to play so irresistible.
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So we had to go back, this time to camp a couple of nights in the desert itself…
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and maybe catch another sunrise.

Unfortunately, James had such a bad cold that he, like Zoe’s beleagured camel, barely made it to the camp before collapsing and crawling into bed.
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but the rest of us climbed the massive dune behind the camp to watch the stars rise.  I haven’t seen the Milky Way since I was a child in the Adirondacks–or perhaps a college student in Vermont.  It’s a humbling, overwhelming sight.  No camera on hand–nor would any camera we had do it any justice.

We were cold, waiting for supper, but the food was good and the candlelight atmospheric.

Similarly, the beds were a little lumpy and sandy, but we enjoyed yet another attempt to catch that elusive sunrise…
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even if we knew were were being a little goofy about it.IMG_1199

We stopped by to see the camels, hobbled in a way that was new to us, before getting changed.
One hour past sunrise, and we’ve already shed about four layers.  We’re ready to demolish some breakfast!

And after a day of visiting an Amazigh family in the dunes (see next post), we had to do it all over again.

The view from the dune down over the camp (looking like a small bush below Jeremy) is close to vertiginous.

It’s an amazing thing, to run straight down that incline, sinking into sand half-way up your calf with every step.

And though the Erg Chebbi dunes are pretty small–only 22 km north to south and 5-10 km east to west–you wouldn’t know it when you’re out there.

Like the ocean, the dunes (and their visitors) have many colors and many moods…
IMG_1313 IMG_1315and we liked all of them.





Aziz and the Todgha palmerie

This is how Moroccans give directions: “Drive into town, then call me and I’ll tell you where to go from there.”  Really?  I have to call you from the roadside and then try to listen to “second left, next right, two roundabouts” in French with bad reception while scrabbling for paper and pencil to write it down?  You can’t give me a post code ahead of time and let me look it up on Google maps?

Actually, Google maps are not very satisfactory in Morocco.  The site is blanked out over the royal palaces to protect the king’s privacy, for instance, but in addition to that, most city maps include a variety of unlabeled streets along with various streets labeled in Arabic script.  Remember that I’m reading  at about a first or second grade level.  Picture us driving.
James: “What’s the next street we’re looking for?”
Betsy: “Uh, can you pull over and let me sound it out?”
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As instructed, we called Aziz once we reached the outskirts of Tinghir.  “OK, just drive through town; the last café on the way out of town will be called  mflmr.  I’ll meet you there.”  The name of the café is impossible to catch, even with three repetitions: James thinks it’s Ahmed’s café; I think it’s Mohamed’s.  We’re in the midst of rush hour traffic, so it’s hard to drive slowly enough to spot the names of shops or cafés in the gathering dusk.  We’re convinced that our plans for the night and the next day have just gone up in smoke.  Suddenly, Aziz is standing beside the car, in the middle of traffic, like a ghost appearing out of nowhere.  Moroccan magic.  (This is the kind of story that annoys me when I read them in books, but still…) Aziz jumps in the car and tells us to turn right and right again and suddenly we’re on a dirt track curving along the bottom of the town.  The noise and bustle drop away–we enter a courtyard with a Berber tent, incense rising, and dusk falling.

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The auberge seems to be an all-male operation, which may explain a certain degree of grubbiness, but I’m too tired and sick to care.  I crawl into bed; Aziz and his brother make me a verbena tisane to try to settle my stomach; James and Jeremy have a couscous from which Zoe abstains, then we all fall asleep.

November 5th: Guy Fawkes day in England: my birthday!  As a present, James has organized another tour of the Todgha palmerie (and the children are willing to go along with it).  Give Zoe enough sweet mint tea and she can cope with anything.

We bribe Jeremy by telling him Aziz will teach him to weave little camels out of palm fronds, but damn, that’s harder than it looks.  (In the palmerie, six-year-olds are already doing this with ease…)  Aziz is amused by our struggles with the simple task.

Those of you who know my passion for permaculture will understand my obsession with the palmeries: these are permaculture sites that have been operating abundantly for thousands of years.  Our brief earlier tour did nothing to slake my curiosity about the details of how these palmeries are structured and maintained.

We start again at the garden of the Sacred Fish (Poissons sacrées) café and restaurant: a fresh water spring inhabited by salt-water fish.  Don’t ask me how this works: that’s why they’re sacred.
They’re hard to see in this picture, but they’re a little scary when swarming (leaping) for bread tossed on the water.

We’re hardly into the palms when Aziz stops for a conversation with a man passing by.  The man is his uncle, and they’re discussing the harvesting of a shared family date palm.  Aziz noticed that the dates were close to ripe and he told his brother to harvest them.  Evidently, there is another branch of the family (cousins to Aziz) with whom this uncle has some issues.  “I thought they were harvesting the tree,” said the uncle, “and I was going to give them what for” (a gesture with the hand–coincidentally?–holding a knife) “but then I saw it was your brother, so I left him to it.”

“Are there many family issues about dividing the harvest?” I ask Aziz.  “Not really,” he answers.  “The best thing is for everyone to be present at the harvest and receive their share.  If you can’t be present, then you don’t really have the right to complain.”  I’m not quite sure how this statement of principle works out in the context of the family story he just told me, but I don’t press the issue.  My family wants to get moving.

“You want to understand dattel farming?” Aziz asks me.  “Well, to start with, the farmer has to keep the palm trees pruned properly, or they will not produce.  Here, this tree is very messy: many fronds, no dattels.”  (I’m not sure why Moroccans call dates dattels–it doesn’t seem to come from French or Arabic or English.)

We cross the river which makes this particular palmerie so productive,
looking as we pass at the rock-and-wire bulwarks that people hope will contain the floodwaters when they come, so that the floods don’t uproot plants and trees in the oasis, as they have done in the past.

One of the delights of the palmerie is the cool shade it provides, even in the midst of blazing sun:

The middle layer of the palmerie–fruit trees–is much more closely interwoven with the palms than I had expected: here’s a fig tree entwined with the base of a (badly pruned) palm, and a pomegranate very near by.

Aziz stops to greet an elderly man.  In his youth, he was called Karim (the word for generous), but his nickname now is simply Aki.

Aki is busy working his garden, located behind a head-high pisé wall.  He invites us in to take a look.  In fact, the first thing he does is climb a big palm to pick us a few lingering dates.  I hope I’m half as agile when I’m in my 80s.
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The date season is already mostly over by early November, but there are 26 varieties of dates in the oasis, and there are always a few somewhere that are slow to ripen.  These are premium dates, Aki tells us, and they are indeed the best tasting dates I’ve ever had: enormous and sweet and juicy.

Each year, as a good farmer does, Aki prunes back a lower layer of palm “branches;” this means you can read the age of the tree by counting the rows of pruned branches up the trunk.  Some varieties of palm have tightly spaced branches; others are more loosely spaced.  As a result, the height of the palm doesn’t tell you the age of the tree: you need to count the pruning rings.

But date palms are only part of the picture here: there are fruit trees (including olives) around the edges of Aki’s garden,
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green fields of mint and (nitrogen-fixing) alfalfa (with some loose-leaf cabbage–this is the preferred variety of cabbage in the south),
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and beets and peppers and eggplant, oh my!
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Every time I admire a plant, Aki promptly harvests one and hands it to me: note the large bag of loot I am accumulating.  When he hears I’ve got a stomach bug, he finds a variety of celery that he says will help, along with more verbena.

Then he wants to show us the oven built into the side of a wall: he shows us how he hangs, say, a leg of lamb inside the oven, with the coals below, and then banks it to cook slowly for two days.  Then he grins at us: it’s a good photo here!  Aziz, take their picture!

Laden with food, we leave Aki surveying his garden (built on the space where a house once stood) and head back out into the more open spaces of the oasis.

Water is everywhere: this palmerie is incredibly rich in water, flowing under bridges made from palm trunks.

The al-bayud fungus threatening the palmerie is treated by cutting down infected palms and burning the surface : the fungus lives on the outer layers of the trunk, so the inner trunk can be used for construction purposes.

One of the things I envy most is the remarkable ease and simplicity of irrigation here: a few stones, a handful of mud, and gravity.  It certainly beats bucket and hose.
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Deep beds (rather than raised beds) allow for deep irrigation, flooding for a few hours at a time:
Even if the irrigation is easy, though, the labor is still hard.  I remember Eric Ross drilling it into us: an oasis or palmerie is an agricultural system, highly productive but incredibly labor intensive.  Aziz has been telling us that the older generation know how to work all day long without getting hot or tired; the younger generation has lost this knack.  Here, for instance, the older man is wearing a djellaba and long sleeves, while the younger man is stripped as far as is decent.
Pruned palm fronds make a fence defining a family’s plot.  Nothing is wasted here.  Even the date stems, stripped of the dates, can be used for brooms, as Jeremy demonstrates:

This half-harvested plot is also one of Aki’s fields, Aziz tells us.  He’s one of the most productive farmers in the oasis.  This is a field of mint, left perennial.  He harvests it to take the mint to market (for the essential Moroccan mint tea); by the time he’s reached the end of the field, the beginning is ready to harvest once again.  I’m amazed it rebounds so well and so quickly–but then, it is mint, liable to be invasive unless handled with tough love.P1000351

There’s an interesting mixture of the traditional and the new in the work of the oasis. Note the dangling earbud on the man driving the donkey.P1000359 P1000360

After touring the oasis, we went to visit the abandoned village above the fields.  The pisé buildings with the mountain behind are very evocative of the American Southwest, aren’t they?

Inside, we see more of the palm trunk floor/roofing, and also the upper layer of the house.  I’ve been wondering about why people have moved out of these traditional buildings in such droves, but Aziz’s explanation clarifies things for me: not only is there no running water, but the traditional mode of living included larger domesticated animals (donkeys, sheep) on the ground floor, then smaller animals (chickens, rabbits) on part of the upper floor where the family lived.

The village offers a lovely warm spot for baking in the sun during colder winter days: Zoë decided to clone herself so part of her could stay here.P1000394

We leave Aziz at the Poissons Sacrés cafe and drive out of the gorge toward the desert.  On the hill above the palmerie, you can see both the fertility of the oasis and the aridity of the  landscape surrounding it:
P1000399 P1000400The contrast underscores the near-miracle of oasis productivity–and the precariousness of this life in an erratically warming world.


Visiting Brahim’s family in Tifoultoute

My friend and Swarthmore colleague Brahim el Guabli is in many ways the person who launched me into this Fulbright project, and he had urged me to visit his family during one of my visits to Ouarzazate.  (I’m probably going to mis-spell everyone’s name: apologies!) On the way down to Ouarzazate, I got a message from him with a phone number for his sister Jmia and the news that I could communicate with her in Darija. (Implication: the rest of his family will be speaking Tamazight.  Eeek.)

Now, I studied fusHa (or modern standard Arabic) for a semester with Brahim, but I was not the world’s best student and Brahim has a generous over-estimation of my Arabic skills.  My family drove down to meet me in Ouarzazate after the workshop; Ahmed and Hassan led us in convoy out to the small town Tifiltoute where Brahim’s family lives.  I had asked Sihem (one of the workshop participants) to call and let Jmia know that we were on our way.  Sihem was relieved to discover that Jmia did speak Darija so that the two of them could communicate.  (After we arrived at the family home, we discovered that Brahim had said we would be visiting but not when; also, he told them we would be staying for two weeks, and they repeatedly urged us wistfully to please stay more than a night.)

They also worked hard to find family members who could speak with us.  My brain was burnt out from teaching all day long in 30-year-old French, so my Darija was even more limp than usual.  Brahim’s niece Fadwa had third-grade French, so she tried to entertain us while Jmia and her mother cooked some (yummy!) supper.  Fadwa was a little shy, though, so conversation was halting.  I finally got her to teach us a few children’s songs.  Jeremy still sings “Bismillah, bismillah” (in the name of God) periodically.

Part way through the evening, Habiba, another of Brahim’s sisters, arrived with her two-year old.  Habiba (in the pink hajib) had very good French and did hard labor translating for everyone.  Her son loves loves loves his aunt Jmia (and, I’m told, his uncle Brahim).

Eventually, once the visitors were well well fed, Brahim’s mother sat down with the rest of her family; Fadwa’s mother (in the black and red) had arrived, as had Brahim’s cousin Mohamed, who speaks English! 

Impressive: to pull together multiple language speakers and different branches of the family on the spur of the moment!

After a good night’s sleep, and a breakfast of the very best milhui (rghaif, msemmen) I’ve had in Morocco, Mohamed and Jmia took us to visit the qasbah of Tifiltoute.

I was delighted to see a couple of storks’ nests up close: they made me appreciate Tahir Shah’s account (in The Caliph’s House) of his guardiens’ attempting to encourage storks to nest on the house by accumulating a pile of garbage:
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James has a thing for ruined qasbahs, but even I appreciate the way the nesting pigeons look like jewels set in the side of this crumbling wall:

We wandered around the back of the qasbah, to visit the place where the family’s house had once stood.  Jmia knew right where it was and could remember living there with Brahim.

The structure of the walls was easy to see here, and the views out from the site were amazing.
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We had seen Habiba on the way and stopped at her house after the qasbah for more mint tea and cookies.  In fact, everyone was so wonderful to us and we liked everyone so well that it felt almost too difficult to leave.  We compromised by deciding to visit the Atlas movie studio, bringing Mohamed with us.

Burping like a camel

Jeremy delivers this pronouncement solemnly, after looking around at me with surprise: “Mama, you’re burping like a camel.”
Camels have a remarkably resonant digestive system: we were all in giggles on our camel ride, listening to the sounds emerging from either end.

I have tried to keep quiet (!) on the topic of digestion, but in fact I’ve been variably ill since the week after we arrived: vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps that double me over in the daytime or wake me up at 3 a.m.  I’ve tried Smecta, a cocktail of Moroccan stomach-related prescriptions, Cipro, Zithromax, apple cider vinegar, Flagyl.  Nothing seems to work.  (In retrospect, I can say that it’ll take a total of four and a half months for my stomach to adapt to Maghrebi norms, and that I’ll spend the months of August through mid-December down 15 pounds and generally exhausted.)

All of this intensifies a certain mid-fall melancholy and homesickness.  The rest of the family (ironically, it seems to me) is doing fine, but I’ve had dreams of going home.  In one dream, we’re packing up to return to the States and I suddenly realize everyone else knew that we were always planning to return in November.  I’m the only one who thought we had to stick it out till June.  I wake, amused by the dream’s blatant wish-fulfilment.

Fortunately, the cedar forests around Ifrane are very beautiful, and I can counter the homesickness by taking a short walk each day in the Ras el Ma: the woods known as the head of the stream.

Even better, for the purposes of assuaging homesickness, is the creek that winds past the poplar grove on the back road to Azrou, a grove I suspect was planted by the French.  But the changing leaves answer my need for autumnal light and color.
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And the creek itself momentarily sates my craving for water.
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Unfortunately, after I had enthused about my woodland walks to some friends from the university, I was warned that a number of AUI faculty and students have been raped in the woods and that it’s not safe to walk there alone.


I’m glad I didn’t get that warning until I started feeling better.

October in the Middle Atlas

Life goes on.  It’s the end of October, but the world around us seems brimming over with life and fertility, from our neighbor’s hedge, full of bees and butterflies,SONY DSC

to the praying mantis on our bicycle wheel,

to the monkeys (Barbary apes) we see once we manage to get off on our bicycle ride up to the Ras el Ma (the head of the stream).

In the afternoon, we drive around the “lake circuit” near Ifrane and marvel at the color of the (sorry to say) scum lightly coating the nearby lake, Dayat Hachlaf,

the birds on the lake, undeterred by the odd coloration

and the cows and sheep grazing nearby, with boys playing football in amongst them.

Our favorite lake is the largest, Dayat Aaoua:

We climb the hill above the families picnicking with their impromptu barbecues and marvel at the wildflowers.  Who says there’s no second spring?  In Ifrane, with the September rains, the ground turns green and a multitude of flowers appear.
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Zoë and I go for a little extra wander.  In the upper left of the photo, you can see one of the many local orchards, with netting spread over the small trees to offer shelter from the blazing summer sun.

Meanwhile, James and Jeremy play peekaboo by the lakeside.

Back home, at dusk, a boy and his dad turn a plastic bag and a couple of sticks into a kite to fly into the sunset…


Erg Chebbi

The last day of the trip began with a sunrise camel trek into the Erg Chebbi dunes for those willing to get up early enough to go.  After the rich experiences we’d been having with John and Eric, I was a little reluctant to go on the unabashedly-touristy sunrise trip to the dunes of Erg Chebbi.  So here’s my confession: I had a blast.

I was not, for instance, looking forward to getting up at 4 to drive for an hour in a land-rover across the hammada (stony desert).  But the drive was less bumpy than I had feared, and it was undeniably atmospheric, to see loads of camels awaiting us, with the “blue men of the desert” costume adding a touch of color to the scene.
The blue outfits are pure window-dressing.  The Amazigh people of this region are not Tuareg (“blue men of the desert”): they just dress up for the tourists.  But they’re kind enough to help us dress up, too: arranging scarves into turbans and even bringing along a bag of extra outfits for any students who want to try them on.

Riding the camels through the dark, with the star-studded sky overhead was also intensely satisfying.  I thought it would be the best part of the morning, until the light started to work its magic:

Oh, the many shades of sunrise:

And then there’s all the delight of the world’s biggest sandbox:
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We were so taken with the sand and its subtle color changes that we almost missed the moment of the sunrise, which comes shockingly fast:
The guides had to call  to get our attention, and we shouted to the students, one of whom lifted Jeremy up in his own ritual greeting to the sun:


Even Zoë felt the pull of the dunes:

But I’m glad to report that she came back to us, eventually:

And yes, we were as taken with the camels as anyone is likely to be, despite our young friend Colm’s minute-by-minute warnings to Jeremy: “Does it hurt yet, Jeremy? It’s going to!”  (None of us found the ride as uncomfortable as we were warned it would be.)
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So, even if it seems a bit of a come-down, from the 12,000 camels of Ibn Battuta’s day to the  multiple camel caravans of the costumed and touristed sunrise,IMG_1379

the stars and the dunes were still far more exhilarating than we had dared to hope they could be.