We’ve had enough adventures for today, so just a few kilometers South of the reservoir, we stop at the top of a hill where there’s a flat car park and settle down for the night. There’s a spectacular view onto the snowcapped, High Atlas mountains to the north and all around us a deep brown mountainous landscape stretches as far as the eye can see.
At night, it is pitch black with no light pollution and a starlit sky to die for.
The next morning, we are woken by the click-clicking of Emma’s roof as it expands in the sunshine. A Dutch couple pull up with their cute looking retro campervan, and we get talking and end up sharing a lovely brunch. They are doing the circle around Morocco the other way round from us, and here we are, our paths crossing on a mountaintop in the beautiful sunshine, where we share stories of our journeys and our lives.
Mariel is a real fighter, having had a terrible car accident over a decade ago from which she has come back, every inch a fight for health, all the way to being able to cycle from Holland to Santiago de Compostela!
We exchange info about places along the way. They’ve had more problems than we have experienced with people hawking and hassling them. We agree that just giving is not a good option and we tell them how we’ve tried to find creative solutions to the initial demands, often engaging with people in conversation and diverting the standard plea for money, food or clothing into something more personal. I have to say, when I hear the stories from travellers who are coming from the regions by the sea, I am a bit concerned that we may not like it there very much. But we’ll see for ourselves in a little while.
We say good-bye to the lovely view of the High Atlas and move on South.
The next stretch of road takes us into the famous Saffron area of Morocco, a long high plateau from Tazenaght all the way to Taliouine.
We stop at one of the co-operatives along the way, in a little village called Tinfat.
A vivacious Berber woman is commanding a dreamy-looking young man into dealing with us. We don’t understand what she’s saying, but it sounds like come on, what did you do in school, you should be talking to them in French. And when he has some trouble adding up the sums for 5 grams of Saffron, Didn’t you pay any attention in your maths lessons, what, you need to use a calculator for that? Come on, get your act together! Although it’s all said in a jocular tone, the constant running commentary doesn’t increase the boy’s confidence, and we end up helping him with his sums.
We ask about the production of the saffron and, to our surprise, are given an open invitation to return next October and join them in the harvest. We buy a little bit of Argon oil too, just enough to try it out on our skins. It’s understandably very expensive, as you need to pick about 30kg of nuts from very prickly trees and then crack the nuts by hand and grind them to produce one litre of oil!
As we are leaving, the woman comes with handfuls of almonds and stuffs them in our pockets. I tell Frank to go and get a Marmalade. She thinks he’s going to get money and objects loudly, gesturing wildly no, no! Until I have calmed her down by saying la nukud (no cash), just a gift. Ahhh, she says. And she’s very happy to receive a pot of Frank s special. We show her our van and we get appreciative clicks from her (a sound in the back of the throat that Berbers make when they approve of something). Another woman comes along with a little baby lamb that follows her like a puppy dog. She picks it up and pushes it into my arms.
We drive on and then, as so often in Morocco, the earth opens up, the road drops down into a mountainous valley.
We stop off at a camping place called Toubkal, by the side of the road. It doesn’t have a very friendly feeling, but sometimes we are simply too tired to be looking around. We have a lot of admin work to do, so as long as the internet is working, we are fine here. We order a Tajine to have in our van, light the fire and settle in for an evening stint of writing the blog and catching up with emails.
For more photos of this chapter, click here
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Morocco really is a country of light and shadow. Just when our hearts are all open and our minds full of a wonderful exchange, we get thrown right into the opposite direction. The emaciated farmer who partook in our lunch turns out to be a bit of a chancer.
As we are about to leave, we ask him if he knows of anywhere we could buy wood. I can give you some wood. Ah, great, how much does it cost? No, no, it’s a gift, come with me to my house. So we drive the few hundred meters to his land and then walk across the hills to his house. On the way he tells us of his plans to make the house nice, to plant olives and almonds. How does the damming of the river affect him? It’s great, he says, I can have as much water as I like, it’s not creating any problem. It’s great that the Europeans and Chinese help us to build this dam. We prick up our ears – Europeans and Chinese? It turns out there’s been over 70% foreign investment, according to our farmer. We need you Europeans, he says. We try to tell him there’s no such thing as altruism on this kind of scale, what’s the hook? What do they want in return? Nothing, he says, just the Chinese want the rights to the mines nearby. There are a lot of minerals here that are needed for modern technology – Cobalt and Barratine among them… And the Europeans? We don’t get an answer on this question but a few days later, someone mentions the larger picture. Morocco has a great leverage over Europe by promising to police the tide of immigrants across the sea, or not, as the case may be. We don’t know whether the funds for a reservoir would be part of a barter on a grand scale, but what we do know is that all the Moroccans we have tried to barter with were highly skilled at negotiating a good deal for themselves.
We don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing to have a reservoir, we are by no means informed enough to have the full picture.
But to return to our farmer – after having offered us semi-precious stones and firewood, he accompanies us back to the van where he charges us 50 Dh for the wood. I’m caught off-guard… I thought we’d had an equal exchange in friendship, and he’d been adamant that these things are gifts. We want to move on, so we pay the money and go, but this encounter rankles with us. We have no issue with paying for firewood, we understand very well that as there are hardly any trees around, it’s in high demand. I did initially offer to pay and he refused. Now that the wood is by the van, he wants money. It’s also obvious that he is really poor – the meal he had with us was probably his first good meal in a while. So it’s hard to refuse a payment that isn’t really that much in the grander scheme of things. But – it’s the retrospective changing of a relationship that is not good. It makes us mistrusting of the next person who seems to be making a generous gesture. If I’d had enough presence of mind, I would have started a conversation with him, explaining how this feels uncomfortable for us and ask him why he refused the money when I offered to pay. And last, but not least, I’d like to ask him if he really wants to change our relationship in this way.
He saw us giving Bassou our card with email and phone etc. so he asks if we can exchange phone numbers, but I refuse. He backs off. I think he has noticed that he’d pushed too hard and overstepped a boundary. Sadly, we both lose out in this kind of encounter.
Luckily, so far, we have met many more ‘Bassou’s on our journey than people on the make.
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On our way West and then South, a ditch appears on our right hand side, with pipes waiting to be lowered into it. This is a big project, and we wonder what’s going on. The answer reveals itself some 30km further down: there is a new reservoir, only noticeable by a tiny piece of a dam in an opening of the mountain range on our right:
Outside the nearby quarry enclosure we meet Bassou, a philosopher in the middle of nowhere, who can answer not only our questions re this water project, but gives us many more insights into things that have puzzled us in the last 7 weeks.
This is a new reservoir to collect water for Ouazarzate and the villages south of Ouazarzate. But Ouzarzate has its own reservoir? Yes, but the water is polluted and cannot be used for drinking water. This is a drinking water project. If this river here is dammed for a reservoir, doesn’t that create problems for the villages here? On the contrary, they are happy. The river used to be unpredictable, sometimes there would be droughts and then terribly destructive floods, with the water destroying the crops and villages but then just running off into the desert. Now this can be controlled and everyone can still have enough water. Wouldn’t it be more effective to resolve the problem of pollution in the already existing reservoir? Yes, Morocco has a lot of water problems to solve, but this here is an ambitious project, which they hope to finish in the next couple of years.
Bassou fascinates me, with deep set eyes which penetrate you straight away, but also envelop you with kindness. He is a wise man and, having spent a number of years in Europe, not only is he fluent in various languages but he also understands how we think and can ‘translate’ between the Moroccan and the European way of thinking (if there is such a thing). We seize on the opportunity to ask a whole number of questions: What is the situation on recycling here in Morocco? Yes, it does exist, but not in the same, institutionalised way as in Germany, for example. Here, first of all, people will give things another life. Plastic bottles are used for all sorts of things and old tyres, for example, may be turned into a bucket, and once that is broken, we might use it again to make soles for our shoes. There are also individuals who make it their business to collect plastic, glass, metal etc. and then transport it to Casablanca and sell it to the big factories. So, no there is no collection of recycling but if you ask around in a village, you will be able to locate a person to whom you can give your empty bottles etc.
Bassou also gives an interesting new perspective of the deeply engrained hospitality here, which we seem to have largely lost in Europe: here in Morocco, we’ve been invaded by so many cultures, starting from the Phoenicians. We are a big mix of cultures and for a long time we’ve been confronted with different ways of speaking, different points of view and different ways of doing things. We have a culture of wanting to find out about and understand the Other, to learn their language and understand their point of view. This is why we welcome strangers.
It is indeed true that in addition to the hospitality, people often want to practise their language skills and want to get engaged in conversations that help them understand how we see things, or for them to tell us about their culture. People just engage you in conversation, even if you only wanted to buy a fish sandwich at a market, and they ask you about where you are from, what your life is like, do you have children, how do you live? There often is the underlying question of ‘who are you’ in its essence, ‘how do you tick’, ‘what is your passion’, ‘how do you see the world’. And it invariably ends with ‘Bienvenue au Maroc’.
We share with Bassou our deep upset about the unwelcome that immigrants to Europe experience these days, and our shame at the contrast between that and what we experience here. There is a moment where we really connect on a deep heart level and he really listens and sees into us. We talk about the need for a more open and mutually sharing environment in this day and age, a meeting of cultures to rise to the challenges of climate change, pollution and peace together. Bassou has seen enough of Europe to know that it has plenty of problems, that Morocco could be an equal partner in the contribution of ideas on how to meet the challenges. There are many things working here that don’t work anymore in Europe, and often they are of a more hidden nature than meets the eye.
As we have lunch already cooked, we invite him to share a meal with us. A few telephone calls and he’s able to free himself from work to join us. Another man, hitching a lift to his home in the hills some 70km from here, is dropped off at this crossroads in the middle of nowhere and we invite him too, as well as a local farmer on his way home (he looks very emaciated, I think he needs the food most), plus three dogs who are attracted by the smell of cooked meat. There’s enough for everyone and it feels great to be sitting here, in the stony desert by a dusty crossroads and be talking about the deep stuff. When we leave, we feel deeply nourished.
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For a while now I’ve been fascinated by the construction materials of the traditional architecture. We’ve been talking about ksars and kasbahs, so here is a bit of an explanation of what they are:
A kasbah is a fortress building or a fortified part of a city, historically the home of regional rulers providing security from attack. Built with high walls and few exterior windows and often on hilltops to provide greater security, kasbahs house one or more buildings.
Kasbahs are found in many places across Morocco and date back several centuries – some having undergone significant repair but some now rather dilapidated – with a fascinating selection easily accessible in and around the High Atlas mountains.
A ksar is a Berber palace (or very large house), fort or castle (the term means “castle” in Arabic, although the European view of a typical castle may be misleading). The distinction between kasbah and ksar is marginal, both fortified structures containing one or more buildings, although ksars tend to be less grand than kasbahs. Good examples of ksars are the Batha Museum in Fez (the sultan’s palace in the late-19th century) and the Glaoui Palace in Ziat. (quote taken from Naturally Morocco)
When you come across the more dilapidated kasbahs or ksars, the first thought turns toward using more permanent building materials, and this is what often happened here: a lot of the modern houses are built with concrete blocks and steel re-inforcement. However, the feeling of being surrounded by walls of bricks made of mud and straw is entirely different to sitting in a concrete box.
Moreover, I’ve been amazed at seeing really tumbled down kasbahs practically melting back into nature. After a few years of neglect, they just crumble and disappear without much of a trace.
This is very ecolocigal. For a moment, I imagine a place like Totnes and what it would look like if some of the houses tumbled down. One would certainly not use the expression of ‘melting back into nature’ for many years, if ever! It seems strange to think at the building stage, of what a house would look like if it were to disintegrate, but maybe we have to shift our focus and give this aspect a higher priority when we construct buildings. Maybe its degradability, and its impact on the environment during this process, is more important than how long it will last. Thinking it through, of course this doesn’t just count for houses but for everything we create…
This is certainly a novel idea for a German mind!
For more photos, click here
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We’ve seen a great picture of Ait Ben Haddu at dawn in one of our books about Morrocco, so we’re up early to try and catch the sunrise on this famous Kasbah. We drive into town and park by the side of the road. Ait Ben Haddu has two parts; the ‘modern’ part by the side of the road, at this time of the morning a quiet village with dirt streets and mud-walled houses; and the old Kasbah which you can reach across a little pedestrian bridge or via stepping stones in the river.
We are early enough to have the Kasbah almost completely to ourselves. We climb through the narrow streets all the way to the top from where you have a fabulous 360degree view.
By the time we go back down, the village has woken up, some tourist shops have opened and the first groups of japanese or chinese tourists are coming up the narrow lanes.
We meet Mohamed who owns an old troglodyte house, which he has opened for tourists. Ait Ben Haddu has often been used as a filming location (there are some famous film studios just outside Ouzarzate too), and Mohamed has been an extra in quite a number of them. His house was also occasionally used – there is a cave-like room that was the filming location for a prison (can’t remember which film) as well as a wedding in Game of Thrones . Note the amount of items on the shelves, many of which have been film props!
In the heart of the house, we are astounded to find a tiny animal enclosure.
Mohamed entertains us royally, offering Berber tea and telling us many little details of his culture, for example the pegs on his keyring symbolising the members of the family, and how pegs get removed when someone dies.
We wend our way back through the streets of the Kasbah, past some very convincing sellers but we don’t have any money with us, so we are immune. When they suggest barter, we tell them about our bartering experience at the pottery in Tamegroute and explain that for us, bartering with a Morrocan is like a beginner trying to beat the master. We have no chance, even if the experience is educative. They laugh and let us go.
Frank gets sucked into an antiques shop where he gets offered an ancient compass, with various different metal discs full of star signs and other symbols. Apparently it will safely guide you through the desert and of course the vendor thinks it’s indispensable for us and much safer than GPS, which may fail you somewhere far away. A minor obstacle being not understanding any of the symbols on the instrument!
Many more pictures of Ait Ben Haddu are to be found here
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The Berber wedding has indeed knocked me for six. I think what really pushed me over the edge was witnessing the two young women being kept in this little room, wrapped from head to toe, sitting on a mattress, while their wedding took place outside with more than 300 people. It somehow gave a pupa-like feel to them – maybe this is what it is about, symbolically; a change from the girl/young woman to a married wife. Something dies and gets reborn in another shape. They are two sisters and at 19 and 21 years they are still quite young and somehow this upsets me, thinking back on how I was at that age, or how my children were, and I presume that a double wedding is held not because both of them have fallen in love at the same time but for economic reasons. It’s totally understandable – even done once, a wedding of this magnitude will challenge any family’s finances.
More upsetting is the feeling I get from the uncle who takes us to the brides. The proprietorial pride that emanates from him creeps me out. It somehow shifts the focus onto the subject of the girls’ virginity, and how this gets guarded by the family and then passed to the husband, as if it’s a property. I find it a very uncomfortable objectification of the woman.
The next day, fittingly, I’m ill in bed with cystitis. This gives me the space I need to reflect on my feelings, and I feel blessed to be in such a sweet campsite to heal myself and regain my centre. Frank goes off to the second and the third evening of the wedding, while I stay in bed, listening to the sound of the drums and reflecting on the preciousness of woman in our society, how it often gets owned by men, used and also abused. I feel the pain of all the women whose light gets dimmed or broken.
It takes me a few days to be ready to watch the video footage that Frank brings back from the wedding, but when I do, I also see how deeply uncomfortable the grooms are in their role, in this particular case they seem even more uncomfortable than the brides. I think of what it must mean for them, the full load of responsibility crashing down on their shoulders, and who knows, maybe they didn’t even personally know the woman they are now responsible for feeding. There is so much uncertainty in this country, so little paid work. Five years on from now they may not only have their wife to look after but also a bunch of children. Read back on our last few chapters and see how it can turn one way or another, there can be a happy family like in the case of Brahim or it can be a real struggle like in the case of Hakim.
The camping we are at has a special feel to it with its recycling facilities (the first time we’ve seen this here in Morocco) its garden and its animals. We stay for almost a week, becoming good friends with the cat. As Frank already mentioned, she moves into our van, nosily rooting about the place, climbing into all sorts of corners and we frequently have to tell her ‘safi!‘ (‘that’s enough’, or ‘stop’). One morning, Frank says if this cat were mine, I would call her Safi. It turns out that is actually her name!
I’m really quite weak and Frank is not at his best either, and since this is our third illness in the space of 4 weeks, we think it best to go to a hospital to eliminate our suspicion of having Bilharzia. (After our visit to a hot spring about a month ago, I did have a funny leech-type of animal attached to my upper thigh which kind of dissolved when we tried to take it out, leaving behind its head, which Frank removed – it had to be painfully ripped out! – with some tweezers.)
At the hospital in Ouazarzate, we learn that to test for Bilharzia, it’s not just a matter of simply taking a blood sample, it involves a whole range of tests, including a gut biopsy, and it takes time to get the results.
We don’t want to be confined to the same place for weeks on end, so we decide to forego the tests, especially as the doctor assures us that if we had Bilharzia, we’d be in a lot more gut pain, with distended bellies. When we walk out of the hospital, we already feel better. The power of imagination!
That afternoon, we say good-bye to the lovely people of Camping la Palmeraie and we drive off into the sunset. We are heading for Ait Ben Haddu, about 30 minutes from Ouazarzate, and we stop at the top of the hill, which overlooks this amazing historic site, in the last of the fading light. This place is windy and exposed but we light a fire in Meme, our lovely little stove, and tuck ourselves in. By 8pm we are fast asleep.
For more pictures, click here
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Having missed the turning to ‘La Palmeraie’, we double back on ourselves and leave the main road. It’s very up and down and we have to skirt serious manholes, trenches and the usual va-et-vient of motorbikes and homeward-bound school children. The campsite is perfect – with very few other people, and the family and locals running it are very laid back and friendly. They have a number of animals in a shared pen – a young horse, goats, sheep and assorted poultry, and strutting about the campground yard a beautiful peackock. Later, we also come across a nursing dog with seven fluffy pups. Last but not least, an adorable young cat which after very little prompting settles into Emma as if she’s always lived there.
Having heard some traditional music drifting through the palm trees, we go in search of its source. Perhaps a restaurant, we think, with a live band. As we get closer, we join a number of others, mainly women, and after a series of turns of narrower and narrower backstreets, arrive at a Berber wedding in full flow. This is ‘Ladies Night’ of a 3-day event and Ruth is very quickly whisked off into a huge tent set up in a walled-off area between the houses. Some 200 women of all ages and in a vast array of different outfits, ranging from purely practical, multi-layered wraps to sparkling numbers with golden tassles, all head-scarved but none veiled, are seated around a group of drummers – from a deep goat-skin bass to lighter hand-held tambours. Amongst these are others singing and ululating, and out from that a linked circle of dancers. The sheer joy and energy is uplifting. I witness all this from the rough doorway – not much more than a hole in the wall – until I see Ruth being escorted out to be changed into something more appropriate as we’d both ventured out in our heavy woollen jellabahs.
I’m very grateful for mine as I’m stood still outside witnessing this extraordinary scene, with the wind whipping around the narrow streets. Before heading back in, we are both ushered into a tiny room where the brides (two sisters aged 19 and 21) are huddled. They’re covered head to toe, their faces hidden behind white lace veils – the only exposed flesh being their elaborately henna’ed hands. They are penned in by a number of other women friends and I have to say the atmosphere is somewhat creepy – virgin lambs to the slaughter? Their up-coming wedding is being celebrated without them. With these images, added to Ruth not feeling at her best, she is desperate to go home but sits out the next round of singing and dancing. She eventually makes her excuses and we head back to Emma, reeling from the intensity of the experience. Sadly, this takes its toll on Ruth and she spends a large part of the next few days laid up in bed with our woodburner for company. I shop, cook and wash clothes (one of the main reasons we use camperstops is for their facilities: reliable Wifi, washing machines and hot showers).
The next night is men only and I’ve been invited back, so I wrap up well in my jellabah, under which I’m sporting my only smart jacket – black with satin reveres and my black Tango trousers. As it turns out, I needn’t have bothered. The huge space is at most a third full with the men sat around tables of 9 or 10, swathed in jellabahs and scarves. The atmosphere is totally different. We sit for an age in the freezing cold, the wind lapping at the tent, with little or no conversation and certainly no singing or dancing to keep us warm, waiting for our food to arrive. I am put next to a french speaker and try to keep some sort of conversation going – the others at the table mostly only speak Berber and I think quite a lot is missed in translation. It is friendly enough but I miss the warm-heartedness I’d witnessed the night before. Eventually, Berber tea and little sweet biscuits are served, and after another long interval, a delicious chicken Tajine, followed by an unctuous beef dish. Bread is torn off the round loaves and distributed. No cutlery or plates and everyone eats from the one Tajine in the centre of the table. Finally a large bowl of tangerines and apples is delivered to the tables and no sooner than the last bites are taken the whole party rise as one and file out of the tent and disappear into the night.
Despite Ruth making the effort to find a more suitable outfit for the final evening,
she doesn’t feel up to it but insists that I go. It’s once again a hugely celebratory evening, but everything is delayed as the wind and rain have caused havoc, with the whole tent arrangement nearly coming down, in addition to a power-cut which plunges the entire village in darkness.
First is the arrival of the husbands in a flotilla of honking cars and a live street band, with long horns, duduk, drums and calling singers, interspersed with women clapping and ululating. This is followed by the carrying of presents, which are laid around the double marriage ‘throne’. Then the two couples are individually ushered into the packed tent (again mainly women) by a live ensemble not dissimilar to a marching band – snare drums, trumpets, horns – then taken up by traditional songs from an exceptionally loud sound system.
A young girl notices my frustration at not being able to get close enough to the action to capture it on film and with no more than a simple mime takes my mobile and weaves her way to the front of the crowd. Here is one of her videos:
Each couple is, in turn, led through the throng of guests and while the grooms are settled somewhat bewildered and alone on a huge white throne, the brides are hoisted aloft by half a dozen pall bearers, and in an intricate compass-point dance are paraded before the guests.
This is followed by a great deal of mixed gender dancing (though mainly women). I’m encouraged to join in and by 3am I’ve shuffled myself to a standstill and slip away back to the campsite. The late nights, irregular eating and looking after Ruth finally takes its toll and I end up flat on my back too, but what an experience!
For more photos and videos of this chapter, click here
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The route from Brahim’s village to Ouazarzate takes us through an amazing landscape. Green slate hills changing to brown.
The earth buckles and folds up and we zigzag our way up to a high point with stunning views.
The next 20 km, we are speechless as we enter earth’s folds.
When we come out the other side, a magnificient view opens onto the Atlas mountains as we descend into the valley towards Ouazarzate. We are heading for a little camp site called la Palmeraie, on the Southern edge of the town, in a village called Tigami Ljdid.
For a series of beautiful photos, click here
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We’ve had enough of touristic places, so we decide to give the Desert in M’hamid a miss and turn northwards instead. We give Brahim a ring (the one we gave a lift to with a broken water pump, a few chapters ago) and arrange to meet up in his town that afternoon.
We breeze through Zagora, trying not to get trapped by hawkers. It’s not so easy, because we have to stop for fuel. We are so busy fending off offers for van repairs and camp sites that we don’t notice the pump attendant overfilling our tank. Suddenly there’s a big puddle underneath Emma! Frank takes handfuls of sand out of a box by the side of the pump, much to the dismay of the attendant who doesn’t want to have to sweep it up later, but we don’t want to run the danger of having greasy tyres .
Just North of Zagora, we leave the new road and turn right across the river following the old road instead. After a while we realise we turned off too early, but never mind, the road ambles through a number of villages. When we think we are lost, we ask for Brahim’s Village. We draw a few blank faces as we keep mispronouncing it, but generally people just keep waving us on northwards. It is Friday late afternoon and everyone is out on the road, Children are playing football, groups of women are sitting and chatting, enjoying the last bit of shunshine, men are lying in the typical Moroccan reclining posture just outside the Mosque, waiting for their turn with the local barber who squats with his back against the wall, shaving one beard or head after the other.
We arrive with German punctuality in Ouled Ayoub, Brahim’s village. He jumps up to greet us when we rumble in sight and leads us up some narrow stony roads to his home, a large compound with a number of houses connected by courtyards. The last courtyard is a farm yard where sheep, goats, a donkey and a number of rabbits all share the same space. It is well kept, with fresh straw and hay spread out. The animals seem happy and well fed.
We have noticed that in places where there is a well functioning Oasis, the people and animals seem to be more relaxed, happier and generally look like they don’t go hungry.
Brahim suggests that his oldest and his youngest son take us on a walk through the oasis, so we take off to catch the fading daylight. It is a balmy evening and we can hear the crickets chirping. We walk underneath palm trees and past fields of wheat and beans, sometimes interplanted. We are shown an old Kasbah that was destroyed by a flood about a decade ago.
Brahim’s older son has finished his studies to be an Arabic teacher, but there he hasn’t been assigned a school yet and he’s at a loss as to what to do next. Considering how many schools there are, it seems strange that there aren’t enough teaching posts.
Brahim’s family is a large, extended family. There are about 20 people living in the compound. When we have dinner, the women share the food too and there is much laughter and warmth. The whole house feels like it is filled with love. More people join throughout the evening. A cousin of Brahim’s, a young, open-faced woman in the last year of school, tells us she wants to study law, like her older brother. She smiles a lot, is full of energy, and seems to have a sharp mind. It looks like she knows her worth, she knows what she wants and is going for it.
Besides sharing laughter and stories, we exchange many things – food (we bring marmalade and pickled cherries, they offer us couscous and tea), we make birds and boats for the children and leave them with some drawing pads and pens. The little boy starts drawing straight away. We also get to buy some organic dates for a good price from a neighbour, arranged by Brahim. After a delicious breakfast next morning (which the women get up at 6am to prepare!), we bid an emotional good-bye. Just as I climb into Emma, Brahim turns to me and asks you won’t forget me, will you?
I don’t think we will.
For a few more photos, including a large toad we found on our stroll, click here
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Hakim had promised to meet us in the car park first thing in the morning, but he is nowhere to be seen, so we seize on the opportunity to find our own way to the library. In fact, it’s only 100m from the van, and we know exactly where it is, but in a town where poverty runs high, as a tourist you will usually find that a guide attaches himself to you, whether you like it our not. They have to live, it’s their only income, and they will insist on guiding you even if your destination is within sight, on the other side of the road.
Tamegroute’s library has indeed an impressive collection of ancient books, but they are kept in inaccessible shelves or dusty display cupboards in a dimly lit room. The librarian seems to be bored of his work, he rattles the facts out in whatever language you’d like, waiting for us to be ready to move onto the next book. I’m not sure he knows exactly what he’s saying though. At the end, he makes the ubiquitous demand for money. Somehow today this is the last straw that breaks the camel’s back. We’d been told that the library was free to visit, and when we came in there was no sign of an entrance fee. He insists they need money to maintain this amazing collection, and of course that makes sense, however, I’m not sure that the money we give him actually reaches its destination.
As we come out of the cold library into the dazzling sunshine, Hakim sits on the front step waiting for us. He apologises for having missed us in the morning. We vent our frustration to him, but soon the conversation turns to a deeper sharing. I want to find out what is the locals’ side of this dynamic. How do they feel about their town being sporadically swamped by tourists? How has the culture of giving changed to a culture of taking? What is our (the tourists’) part in the dynamic of this? What can be changed?
Hakim talks about the different sorts of tourists; those who don’t connect with him and snobbishly look down on him, where he has no qualms taking, and those who he can talk to and may not get any money from. We have a few things to do this morning, photocopying and post office, and he accompanies us. Then we do some work in the van until he collects us for lunch at his house.
The houses and families we have visited along our journey have been very varied. In this house, a very formal atmosphere prevails and I wonder if this has to do with a more strict variety of Islam. The women are quite shy and keep away from us. We are served tea and later food in a room with only Hakim as company. Some curious children poke their heads around the doorway and are sporadically told to back off, only for them to return a few minutes later. The only woman allowed into the room is one of his sisters, a young woman who I think might be slightly mentally handicapped. Maybe as a result of that she has a different status, which makes her not eligible for marriage, hence she doesn’t have to be hidden from strangers, especially men. She is smiley and relaxed. I wish I could communicate with her, but I don’t speak Berber, she doesn’t speak any of the languages I do, and resorting to hand gestures etc. doesn’t really work in this case either.
Hakim, pouring us Berber tea after lunch
We continue our conversation with Hakim. What would he like to do if he were free to choose? Would he choose to be a guide? No, he says, I’d like a regular job with a steady salary that would feed my family. Anything, a chauffeur, work in the field, work in a factory, look after a house, anything. As it is, sometimes I have no work for a month and my family has to eat other peoples’ leftovers.
We walk back from the town to Emma through the dusty bowl of a valley. This used to be a palm grove, with fields. Up there was where the stream came down. There was water, there were crops. We had to go round the outside, you couldn’t just walk here. The water disappeared, so we dug wells to feed the plants, but the ground water is too salty – all of the vegetables and many of the palm trees died. Sand storms came and carried away the earth and deposited sand.
We look around – there are still quite a few palm trees left but you can see where the gaps are, and those that have survived don’t look too healthy. When I grew up, I had something to see and something to look forward to. My children have nothing and they are asking for things which I can’t give them. There is so much despair and resignation in his words. I talk about the children begging from the tourists and that instead of just giving something, we tend to try and make a connection, engage with them. A flash of anger crosses his face when he says, yes, but other tourists give them things and that’s what’s created this situation. I feel for him. It pains him that he can’t provide for his children – them begging and being given stuff from foreigners rubs further salt into the wound, and yet he can’t afford to forbid it. It’s all out of kilter. We leave Tamegroute with heavy hearts, ever more determined to look for ideas that tackle the problems of water shortage.
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