Monthly Archives: November 2013

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.


Atlas movie studio

… is a great place for small children–at least it was for our small boy.  What’s not to love about a place where you can…

travel to Tibet…
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go back in time to ancient Rome…
visit an Egyptian street,
or imagine (in total safety) the life of a galley slave?

Jeremy decided he would come back here to star in a movie some day.
Small boy as intrepid adventurer…
perhaps becoming an Egyptian priest!

Such a bummer when your stones melt in the rain, though (see upper left corner of building).

And I wonder if the proliferation of films using Ouarzazate as a stand-in for ancient lands and far away places isn’t part of the tendency to look past this place and people on their own terms.


Oh, Mum, can’t you stop, just for today?
(OK, no more killjoy.  Ersatz pleasure, here we are!)

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.

Digital storytelling workshop: Ouarzazate

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I was so busy (and nervous and tired and sick) that I didn’t even think to take any photographs of this wonderful group of teachers.  I borrowed this photo from Sihem, who used it in her digital story.  Notice how intent everyone is on script-writing and image capture.

In the end, there were 13 teachers in the workshop, with Mariejo Deslandes from the French NGO sitting in (and helping me a lot!).  We scrabbled together just enough iPods for everyone, using several family iPods to flesh things out.

Major discoveries:
1.  Five hours is not enough time, especially if there’s no break between workshop sessions for people to gather images.
2.  Working on iPod apps is not as complicated as working with FinalCut, but it’s still plenty complicated, and there are plenty of places for things to go wrong.  More helping hands are really necessary, because people will not remember even simple steps reliably (I don’t, myself) and Things Will Go Wrong.
3.  People–this group in particular–have amazing stories and generous hearts and dedicate themselves impressively to their work and their stories.  Even having visited many of these schools, I had no real idea of what these teachers were facing.

Many thanks to Ahmed, Hassan, Mariejo, Hayat, Hanan, Sokina, Sihem, Noura, Latifa, Mohamed, Lahcen, Ismail, Abderrahman, Youssef, Raja, and Mohamed.  Check out their stories under the “Digital Stories from Morocco” tab.