Saturday, May 16, 2009

Siham and the Fata Morgana of Europe

Siham is a young woman in her early twenties who lives in a Southeastern Moroccan city. She is the only daughter in a warm and friendly family that consists of her two parents and four brothers – some younger, some older. Siham is beautiful and kind; the first thing you will notice about her is her wide smile and luminous eyes. She is open and inviting, and her laughter and genuine interest in others are incredibly endearing.

In the few hours that I spent with her, I came to know Siham as a girl full of ambition. She talked of pursuing degrees and diploma’s, and of a brilliant career in business. Siham wants a future of freedom, opportunity, wealth, and love. But she has decided that the only means to such a future is migration to Europe – and she has decided that the only means to realize this plan is marriage to a European man.

She has undertaken action to pursue this goal: she is active in online chatting networks and makes clear in her profiles that she is looking for a husband. She seems to have success: she has gotten engaged to a resident of a Northwestern European country whom she has met online, has brought him to Morocco for an engagement ceremony, has studied the language spoken in this part of the world, and has applied for a visa in his country of residence. It seems, however, that he is not a strong enough candidate to figure as guarantor for another person’s residence permit,* and so the possibility of obtaining a visa through him seems to have become somewhat uncertain. She is thus continuing her online search, and is now engaged in conversations with other men who woo her with expressions of devotion, love, and promises – which she reciprocates.

I do not think Siham is an opportunist, and I do not think she should be condemned as an immoral and heartless individual. Siham is simply doing her best to secure a future for herself in the only way she thinks is possible. The real issue at hand – the real question – is why a girl like this sees no other way than this risky endeavor to secure a future for herself. How is it that she believes her prospects in Morocco to be so slim, or dim, that she is willing to literally put her life in the hands of men she hardly knows (because we all know how easy it is to be creative in your online self-presentation, and how dangerous it therefore can be to trust what you are told by people you meet in the virtual world. Her fiancé, for that matter, does not seem to have the best record of trustworthiness and respect for women) – to stake her future on a promise (on an image), the reliability of which she will not be able to verify until it is too late?

I think there are two issues behind this question. First of all, there is Siham’s unrealistic image of Europe. In this dream she has, Europe is a kind of promised land where everything she considers herself deprived of in Morocco is taken for granted as a regular part of daily life. Siham expects absolute freedom and opportunity. She realizes that the road to obtaining a visa is rife with obstacles, but once that hurdle has been crossed she pictures an open road and open arms ahead of her. From where did this dream emerge? I know that European Moroccans who return home for the summer with their cars and material goods often paint a somewhat one-sided picture of their new lives in the North. But aren’t there just as many stories about their hardships to match those images – stories about discrimination, poverty, and limits to freedom? And so I wonder – what are Siham’s sources? On what basis has she constructed her image of Europe? What has she read, and to whom has she talked? Her image is that of a dream-world. It is an ideal, a utopia – and it is bound to set her up for disappointment. She is staking her life not only on what is really no more than the idealized image of a man, but also on the idealized image of a place. It is such a gamble to choose these images over reality and to turn one’s back on the possibilities that the here and now may still hold – a gamble in which the stakes are too high, I think, to take the risk.

That brings me to the second issue: the perceived lack of opportunities in Morocco. I know that there are girls in this country who truly have very few options. There is great poverty in many parts of Morocco, and it is often women who bear the brunt of it. It can be difficult for men to build up a self-sustaining life, and even more so for women. So many people – and again, women more than men – have no voice in Morocco. They are politically disenfranchised, never heard and are powerless to change their circumstances. Marriage certainly still is the primary acceptable way for a girl to increase her social standing and ensure a better future for herself (though certain groups are pushing for this to change) – and yes, given the conditions in many dimensions of Moroccan society (see this, for instance) it seems more advantageous to marry a European than a Moroccan.

But for how many girls is it truly the case that there is no possibility for a good future in Morocco? Or better said, for how many girls is a future in Morocco so dim that it is worth staking their lives on no more than a tenuous promise for something better in Europe? And more concretely, is this truly the case for Siham? She comes from a middle class family that seems to be wanting in nothing. Her father has a stable job, and so does her older brother. Their house is of a good size, and the food on the table was rich and elaborate. Yes, as the only daughter it fell to her to set and clear the table at which we ate, but this is clearly a warm and good-natured family that loves its daughter and wants nothing but the best for her. She is surrounded by other individuals who seem successful: she talks frequently (and wistfully) of friends who have left her behind, who have moved to the coast to pursue a higher education in the big cities. Why did she not go with them to do the same? Why is it that she sees no opportunities for a future in Morocco? How is it that she sees only limits to her dreams, chains to keep her down on earth?

Perhaps she is stuck in a vicious cycle. Perhaps an initial set-back in her ambitions turned her gaze toward a future elsewhere, which in turn encouraged her to turn her back on any possibilities for enrichment in Morocco. With her lack of investment in the here and now, perhaps these possibilities come to seem ever dimmer and slimmer, fading into the background until they are no more than a mirage, even less tangible than that dream in which she invests so much of her energy. Perhaps this is how her dream comes to seem more real than her reality.

There is so much I want to say to Siham and so much I want to ask about her life, but I do not know what words to use. I felt uncomfortable as she spoke to me about all this, and was unsure how to react. I went back and forth – and even now as I write this I feel this alternation of feelings: between thinking on the one hand that someone must help her realize the risks of what she’s doing and encourage her to invest in her reality; and wondering on the other hand who I am to think that I’m a better judge of her dreams than she is – who am I to think I know better than she does about the possibilities that Morocco may still have in store for her? There is so much that I do not know about her life. Who am I to judge? Is Siham the problem, or is she simply a symptom of a malaise much greater? Does the cause of the problem lie with her, or with her society?

It’s a little of both, perhaps. But wherever the cause should be sought, it is important that girls like Siham be encouraged to see opportunities for themselves in Morocco. They must be given, and be encouraged to exercise, a sense of agency within their society. By this I do not mean an unlimited freedom to choose and act – that unlimited freedom exists nowhere and for no one, no matter what Siham may think about Europe. What I mean by agency is the perception of ‘meaning’ – a perception of belonging, of being a part of and thus having a stake in one’s environment, and of having a voice, of being a recognized and respected member of the social order. If a woman has such a sense of agency – if she feels that she has a stake in her surroundings and that she is a respected part of it, she will be encouraged to invest in it. I think this sense of agency can be encouraged (in part) by creating opportunities – for education, for a career, for political participation. It’s about the creation of ‘space’ or ‘room’ for individuals within the social order. If one is invited to take up ‘space’ in the social order, one is encouraged and inclined to invest in it?

Or is that itself a utopian thought?

* in many European countries, simply marrying a non-European foreigner does not guarantee that person a residence permit – it is not as ‘easy’ as obtaining a green card by marrying an American, for instance. In order to obtain a European residence permit, not only the immigrant but also the European spouse must meet a number of requirements. The spouse, for instance, may need to earn above a certain minimum salary, have a long-term employment contract, and be in good standing with the law.

Friday, May 15, 2009


As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have been meaning to write something about a particular leg of our road trip through the south. The longer I wait to do so, however, the more I wonder what it was, exactly, that I wanted to say about this piece of the trip, and why I wanted to say it.

The leg of the trip in question was the road from Foum Zguid to Zagora on a Saturday morning. Whereas we had expected about 60 kilometers of the same kind of road that we’d traversed from Tata to Foum Zguid before our coffee break that morning, we encountered instead a 130 kilometer piste, an unpaved road. But not only was it unpaved; it was a road really only meant for (and accessible to) a land rover or other vehicle with a four-wheel drive. We didn’t have such a vehicle, and so drove through riverbeds, over large boulders, pools of soft sand, and other obstacles in our little black four-door Chevy. Not expecting 130 kilometers, we hadn’t filled up our half-empty tank of gas – and not expecting to need five hours for this trajectory, we hadn’t brought any extra food or water.

Looking back, and even at the time, this trip was an adventure. A beautiful adventure, at that: how often do you get to travel through absolutely desolate desert landscape, surrounded by nothing but wild nature, and truly be in the middle of that vastness and feel that sense of solitude? In those five hours, we saw no more than two human beings. I have never been further into the middle of nowhere than during that trip, and have never quite thought about the beauty and power of the natural world (and the smallness of us as humans) as acutely as I did on that road.

Looking back, it was also a huge risk to take, of course. Not only was our car not built to deal with this kind of hardship; more fundamentally, we embarked on that trajectory without having prepared, and not knowing what to expect – a dangerous combination. We neither knew how much better or worse the road was going to get, nor how much longer it was going to be. There was no cell-phone reception, and neither human beings nor dwellings were anywhere in sight. What if we hit an insurmountable obstacle, 100 kilometers in? What if the car broke down, or what if we ran out of gas before we ran out of road? There would be no one to help us, no one to call, and nowhere to go.

These thoughts briefly got to me somewhere at what must have been the middle of our trip. We were driving over a patch of particularly large boulders at 2 kilometers per hour, when a wave of panic hit me. I am always a pessimist, in the sense that I always (and sometimes unnecessarily) prepare myself for the worst-case scenario. But in doing so, I always devise a B plan, an algorithm or two of solutions and ways to deal. I am used to calming myself by discovering that there is a way to solve any problem – but this was the first time I truly didn’t see a solution to the worst-case scenario. It halted my breath and made the world close in on me for a minute as I thought I was realizing there was no way out for us.

It didn’t last, and my spirits quickly lifted in a mood of pragmatism. A stony haze washed over me as we kept going, and the manual labor of pulling the car out of patches of sand that we encountered after those boulders helped keep my mind off panic. But it was the reminder of that brief moment of absolute desperation that caused me such incredible relief when we finally reached the paved road on the outskirts of Zagora. Its famous sign, “Tombouctou 52 jours” took on new meaning.

After arrival in Zagora, I expected the combination of the adventure’s majesty, the awareness of the immensity of the risk we had taken, and the relief of having safely arrived to result in an unprecedented and euphoric feeling of relief. I think it’s mostly this expectation of big emotions that made me want to write this post. I expected a new take on life, a sense of having been given a new chance to rededicate myself, to be reminded of what’s important and what is not worth worrying about.

But the truth is that those feelings didn’t really wash over me in the way I had expected or perhaps hoped. I did feel immense relief after arrival, but not the euphoric invincible sense of weightlessness that I always imagined one might feel at moments like these. Instead, I found myself almost a little hung over, haunted by the thought of the risk we’d taken – uncomfortably looking over my shoulder as though I’d narrowly escaped something that was now lurking in the shadows behind me. I slept restlessly that night, constantly waking up from vague and instantly forgotten dreams.

And soon enough, all those mundane worries of a day-to-day life came back, and my expectation of re-dedication seemed lost forever. Two weeks later, the experience seems so small, my panic so ridiculous, that I’m even wondering why I wanted to write about this in the first place. I think I’m a little disappointed at the lack of emotional weight that this event proved to carry, in the end – or disappointed in myself, for not having been as touched by this as I felt was appropriate. When in fact, of course, I should be grateful that our situation was not so dangerous as to leave a permanent emotional imprint.

But maybe – just maybe – it did leave a trace. I notice that I’ve been more grateful for things lately, and often hear myself whispering “hamdulillah” under my breath. I’m more optimistic than I know myself to be, and I seem to be more content with the way things are. I am more inclined these days to remind myself of how much I have to be thankful for (and it is a lot) – and this seems to alleviate my worries about an uncertain future.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Reflection on the South

During this road trip, and even now afterwards, I keep wondering what it is that makes the south so mesmerizing to me. Part of this has to do with the region’s obvious beauty, of course. It is the combination of colors – those shades of brown, interspersed by patches of intense green, traversed by sparkling rivers that send reflections of sunlight in all directions like winding prisms.

There is also the beauty of its difference: the difference of its pace of life, the daily concerns of its people, its architecture, its climate. This region is exposed to such different elements of nature than what I am accustomed to. I am used to dealing with rain and snow (I will not claim to be accustomed to the fear of earthquakes and wildfires after three years in southern California); this region is ruled by draught, wind, and heat. Instead of umbrellas, the people here don scarves to shield themselves from sand blown all around by strong desert winds. And instead of floods, these people worry that a lack of rain will ruin the year’s harvest and make for a difficult summer.

It is also simply the majesty of this natural environment. Being a city dweller I take it for granted that civilization trumps nature – but these regions prove the contrary. I am struck by these places where civilization has learned to work around the forces of nature, where people bow their heads to its power and know that any ground they’ve gained could be reclaimed at any moment. I am awed by these regions where natural cycles of rain and draught, light and dark dictate the pace of life and lifestyles prove that humans can be happy with much, much less than the things we we in cities depend on and take for granted.

These dimensions of difference give this region such an air of remoteness. It has such a quality of otherworldliness that this cannot but be a very faraway place. And in a sense, it is. Not in the number of kilometers between here and there, perhaps, but most definitely in its lack of accessibility. These small towns are truly hard to reach. Some villages are connected to the rest of the world by no more than a single, one-lane winding mountain road that leads but to a slightly larger town from which one might catch a bus to a regional hub, from where transport to one of Morocco’s large cities may then be arranged. Often one can pick up no more than a single radio station in these regions; in Tata, the only radio emissions we could find were Polisario’s.* There are internet cafés in these towns, these days, but the connection is slow and the computers are old.

How is it then, I wonder, that the people of these regions relate to the rest of Morocco? What are their daily concerns, and are they aware, in any way, of their situatedness within (and membership of) a larger union whose identity is, at least in the cities, a great public preoccupation? How connected do they really feel to the politics of Rabat, and the economics of Casablanca?

That said, how connected are they to the goings on in the northwest? The remoteness of these regions is maintained to no small extent by a lack of interest in its involvement on the part of the powers that be in Rabat and Casa. Citizens in the large cities complain of a lack of connection between politics and the people – let alone the voicelessness of individuals in these marginal areas.

This seeming lack of centralization (for how centralized is a country whose different regions communicate so poorly with one another) rests on a long historical legacy. Morocco has always known a distinction between bled el-makhzen (the center) and bled as-siba (the margins): between the regions that various dynasties were able to submit under centralized rule, and those where Berber tribes agreed to respect a sultan’s religious power, but refused to succumb to his political rule. The only difference between then and now seems to be that in those times, such regions were permitted to remain largely self-sufficient. Now, however, centralization has been pushed through to such an extent that self-sufficiency is no longer an option – yet not far enough that the margins have equal access to the facilities and services they are no longer able to provide on their own.

It makes me wonder why. Why has centralization been pushed through in such a partial and insufficient way? Is it a sense of disregard on the part of the power in Rabat, an underestimation of the value and power of these margins? Or is it rather a fear of that power – a fear of their threat to national unity, and a sense that if involved too much, if given too much access, people in the margins could perhaps pose a threat to established power, or to unity?

Whichever is the motivation, one has to wonder what kind of national unity could ever exist with such a lack of connection between parts of the country, and such a lack of involvement among such a sizeable proportion of the population. True change and development are impossible, I think, if two-thirds of the country is systematically left behind. One sees it in things as simple as the statistics of healthcare: the lack of access to care suffered by these remote populations is enough to drive up mortality rates to third world levels – no matter how many private clinics in Rabat and Casa may boast the latest in medical technology.

Strangely enough it might just be tourism that will connect these regions more permanently to the central regions of Morocco, that will force a more permanent channel of access to and from these remote places. I say strange, because tourists are outsiders to all these issues of national unity and development; it is precisely the type of tourist that remains blind to these inequalities and disenfranchisements whose money may ultimately force a change.

It is only tourist interest in the exoticism and natural beauty of this region (and the consequent influx of foreign money) that may give rise to any national interest in the development of an infrastructure of more accessible roads, and more reliable channels of communication.**

This gives tourists a strange kind of power. Tourists not only have a hand in the direction of development (by way of their money, as well as by way of their wishes, catered to by others with money); their continued interest in the region also sustains much of the local population, who make a living from the tourist industry. Keeping travelers happy (giving them what they come here to seek) helps keep the region alive. And so tourists become holders of power whose decisions affect the region in deeper ways than these travelers themselves may be aware of.

I think it’s this kind of power that Yelins alerted me to after we went to inquire after prices for a trek into the desert at an agency in Amezrou. Did I notice, he asked me, that although the blue man-agent directed his detailed explanation of options and routes mostly to Yelins, he clearly regarded me as the ultimate decision maker, exemplified by the fact that as soon as he mentioned concrete prices and options, he switched from Arabic into English and looked at me?

Tourists, then, become powerful decision-makers whose will ripples through the society and livelihood of the regions they visit. This power seems to be respected – and local industries cater to the images of exotic fantasy sought by these foreigners, but is this a real kind of power? How much control do tourists really exercise? Respecting the power of foreign money, I get the sense that local populations help create a particular, fantastical Moroccan ‘reality’ to cater to Western visitors’ wishes. Yet I also get the sense that foreigners will always be regarded as outsiders whose fantasies are humored, but never taken seriously. That the hegemony of their outlook is very partial – that a local man may cater to it in the sense that he puts on a blue gandoura and leads a camel to a ‘Berber’ camp in the desert, but that all this will not come to consume his view of reality – that it will, for him, always be a performance.

Then again, regardless of how ‘real’ the western view of Morocco is considered to be by locals, it seems to be powerful enough at times to push out any alternative realities. As I’ve noted about Ouarzazate and Marrakech, façades created by Western hands sometimes have the power to squash Moroccan realities, or force them to the margins. In that sense, can local peoples afford not to take these western fantasies seriously, not to see them as ‘real’ in their own, powerful way? Real in their power over whatever reality Moroccans live in, in any case?

Whatever the nature of this power, it’s something I’m uncomfortable with, as I always am uncomfortable in positions of power. I am always taken aback by the realization that I am expected to (somehow) determine or dictate the behavior of others. Especially in Morocco, this attribution of power creates discomfort – because I feel so incredibly powerless myself, most of the time. Though I feel that I am making headway, I still feel ignorant, unaccustomed, and childlike when it comes to the customs and norms that reign daily life. It is strange to then be treated as the decision-maker. As much as I hate to be the passive bystander, I am also constantly afraid of making the wrong decision.

Perhaps it is for this reason that I hate the thought of being labeled as a tourist – because I do not know what to do with the power that is then attributed to me. But I hate it also for the assumptions on which this attribution of power rests. The assumption that I am an outsider, that I am not interested in the ‘real’ Morocco, that I have money, that I do not speak the language. It’s because of all these thoughts – this unwillingness to be associated with the groups of travelers that shape the future of these regions – that I get frustrated when addressed in English, and that I felt so self-conscious atop that camel, literally taking the place of the tourists I had seen the day before. In a strange and childish sense of vanity, I want to be recognized for the not-quite-outsider I hope that I am. I want to be appreciated for my efforts, lauded perhaps even for my budding skills in darija – not pegged as the eternal foreigner.

* Polisario is the separatist movement in the Western Sahara, engaged in ongoing conflict with the Moroccan government.
** But then again, as Farid and I noted in Ouarzazate, until now most efforts at developing this southern region seem to come directly from Europe itself and cater to its own audience of travelers, rather than to any sustainable development for the local population.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Description of a Pilgrimage

Ever since Farid and I first set foot on the road from Ouarzazate to Zagora, we were hooked – mesmerized by the beauty of the south, taken in by its exoticism and remoteness. We never made it further than Agdz that day, but that evening, as we reminisced about our conversation with a group of local men in a dilapidated kasbah, we began to talk about coming back – and following the road all the way to its endpoint at M’Hamid, that remote little dot we saw on the map surrounded by all that desert, only 45 kilometers from the closed Algerian border.

Last week, we made true on that promise. A sequence of Dutch holidays (Queen’s day on the 30th, Memorial day on May 4th, and Liberation day on the 5th) closed the NIMAR’s doors for six days, and gave us our chance to undertake a mini-odyssey to M’Hamid.

On the eve of Queen’s Day, our caravan (Farid, me, our colleague and friend Yelins, and a rented black Chevy) set out for Marrakech, which was to be the starting point of our voyage. We enjoyed a late dinner on the Jemaa el Fna with a college friend of mine who had vacationed in Agadir, and then retired to our Kasbah-style hotel on the edge of town for an early night. We did not dwell in the pink city: early the next morning we hit the road and traversed the haut atlas on our way to Taroudant (with a brief stop in Imi-n-Tanoute for the most delicious tajine I have ever eaten).

Taroudant is a city less impressive than I had anticipated. Constructed in the same hues of terracotta as Marrakech (in fact, this color dominates much of the architecture in the south), it seems to be a smaller and less wealthy version of that city, left mostly untouched by European money and dreams of Orientalism. It has no great monuments to attract the foreign visitor, it is (thus?) lacking in high-class accommodation and haute cuisine restaurants – and thus seems to pull very modest amounts of tourism into its gates. Yet in its own way, it was precisely this that made the city more interesting to us – without the dominance of a tourist industry, the city had a quality of authenticity that I often miss in Marrakech. We certainly did see the occasional tourist traversing the city, but spent the evening at the hotel bar surrounded by local men, ate breakfast at a café where servers seemed completely un-jaded by the appearance of a blonde woman (and persistently and a bit confusedly kept speaking English despite my responses in Arabic), and witnessed a very lively May 1st protest march – the kind of thing no Moroccan hopeful of painting a flattering portrait of his country would want a tourist to see. In an interesting contrast with Marrakech, this town seemed, at last on Labor day, to be less interested in appearances than it is in social justice.

This May 1st activity resonated with Taroudant’s general identity as a rebellious little town. After figuring as Saadian capital* and thus base for resistance against Portuguese invasion during the 16th century, Taroudant supported a rebellion against sultan Moulay Ismail** in the 17th century (for which Moulay Ismail, after crushing this rebellion, made the city pay by slaughtering its population). Finally, Taroudant put up resistance against French colonizers during the early 20th century by harboring the son of a Saharan sheikh, Ahmed el-Hiba, who protested the creation of the Protectorate by proclaiming his own sultanate in Tiznit.

After an evening and morning in Taroudant, we hopped back in the car and drove to Tafraoute along a winding mountain road through small towns with names like Souq-tleta (“Tuesday market”) or Ait-Abdellah (“the tribe of Abdellah”) – names that bear witness to the way in which towns come into being. Admittedly the decision to visit Tafraoute led us on a de-tour away from the intended destination of our trip, but it was well worth the extra hours: this town lies in a valley surrounded by impressive rock formations and beautiful fields of almond trees.

We stayed in town only for a relaxing couscous lunch (it was Friday, after all – the day for ‘kseksou’) and brief stop at an internet café (where I received the happy news that I have finally been granted IRB approval!) – then drove back part of the way we came to get to Tata, our destination for the night. The sun set before we reached Tata, but not before our brief stop in Tagmoute, where we fell right into a local moussem, or festival. The theme of this moussem was unclear to me, but its epicenter was a series of tents where women sold herbs and oils. Groups of women sat on the ground around these tens, while other groups walked around, listening to the music that emanated from large loud speakers.*** The women wore a peculiar costume of simply constructed dresses in hues of blue or black, scarves in the same color worn on top of them; a few walked around in patterned fabrics. Each color was worn by a collection of women, which made me wonder if there is a meaning or categorization behind this choice of costume. I attempted some furtive picture-taking, but with the diminishing daylight, my moving around resulted in an unfocused mess.

Night began to fall as groups of girls walked away into the palm groves, and we got back in the car for the last stretch to Tata. We could not see much in the dark, but it was clear that the landscape was becoming flatter here. Early the next morning, as we got a head start on the next leg of our trip, Tata revealed itself as a desert outpost that reminded me strongly of small towns in Nevada – in the sense that Tata, too, is a desert town that stands tall on a flat plain of sand where the wind reigns supreme, and little other civilization beyond its edges helps to shield Tata from the elements.

That Saturday we drove from Tata to Zagora along a road that led us right through the desert. As sand swept across the tarmac and shrouded the road ahead in a mysterious mist, we delighted in seeing wild camels grazing in the distance (or not so far in the distance) by oases of palm trees, and small rivers running through this arid landscape – such a seeming contradiction of natural terms.

I will describe this particular leg of our trip in more detail in another post, but suffice it to say that we arrived in Zagora after a 300 km trip that took us about eight hours, exhausted and relieved, excited finally to have arrived in this town we were unable to reach on our last trip.

Zagora itself is uninteresting, but we spent the afternoon exploring the beautiful ‘palmeraie’ in nearby Amezrou, and retired early to gear up for our trip to the real desert, scheduled for the following day.

Zagora marks the beginning of the world of the blue men – men dressed in the deep-blue gandouras the south is famous for, heads wrapped in black scarves to protect against the sun. They are everywhere – they are the proprietors of souvenir shops selling similar garments for tourists, the men standing on corners waiting to show tourists the way, the individuals leading camels bearing tourists into the nearby sand dunes and back. We saw them in Tamegroute (site of a mesmerizing library of 13th century books of all varieties – Qur’ans, treatises on the medicinal uses of plants, dictionaries, scriptural exegesis), Tinfou, Tagounite, and finally in M’Hamid, where we approached them for a trek into the desert.

After being aggressively courted by a trekking company that called itself ‘le Petit Prince’ (and who initially enchanted us with its quote from one of that book’s last pages on its outer wall), we made arrangements with another operator (Cherg expéditions) that seemed less eager to get us on board of their caravan. We enjoyed a lunch of tajine with camel meat on Cherg’s premises, relaxed on their sdari (Moroccan couches) and checked our email one more time at ‘desert net’ before packing ourselves into Cherg’s land rover and heading to the dunes.

Just outside of town, we traded the land rover for three camels. Bouncing along with the camel’s lazy tread, we were led by three blue men through small villages, past old abandoned qsour [plural of qsar, a palace/fortress typical for the south] to a permanent camp surrounded by a few dunes of sand. Incidentally this camp, too, had chosen ‘Le Petit Prince’ for its name – Antoine de St. Exupéry’s story of the small prince encountered in the North African desert is a popular source of inspiration for these tour operators, it seems (perhaps it is thought that this cultural reference will resonate with and thus attract European tourists?).

I felt a bit self-conscious atop my camel. Having watched caravans of camels bearing middle-aged, under-dressed and overly tanned tourists on their backs pass through Amezrou the day before, I had been struck by the sadness of that image. By the seeming disconnect between these tourists high atop these animals, and the blue men on the ground leading them by a rope. How aware are these tourists, I thought, of the reality of this world they have entered? Do they see beyond the blue costumes and the dunes of sand to the hardship and poverty of this region? And in turn, how much do these blue men really know about the world these tourists come from? Both sides see the other’s world in hues of stereotypes and images, and take comfort in the barrier of language that makes real communication impossible.

As we traversed small oasis-towns and passed by little boys greeting us with ‘bonjour’, I worried about being a similar kind of disconnected tourist. This feeling was reinforced by my mostly passive behavior, on that overnight trek, of my presence at but non-participation in the Arabic conversations Farid and Yelins had with the men who had led us to this camp. I sat with them that evening, listening to the exchange and trying to understand as much as I could, frustrated by what I was sure was an appearance of ignorance and disinterest. I perceived myself as being cast in a role I did not want, but felt unable to change anything about this.

Involved in conversations about Berber identity and the nature of ‘language’ we missed the desert sunset, but had a pleasant evening under candle light and a semi-clear night of stars. The wind picked up somewhere over the course of the night and we awoke underneath a layer of sand. ‘Le petit prince’ actually had a brick building with running water, but it didn’t seem like the place for a warm shower (and besides, the second half of our desert trip was still before us, why wash off the sand if more was to come?) – and so we hopped in a land rover and drove back to Zagora.

We hadn’t been able to witness much of the change in landscape on our way south – the sun had set soon after we passed Casablanca. But driving north along the eastern route that runs through er-Rachidia, the change is impressive and sudden. It occurs somewhere around Midelt, a borderline of sorts in the middle of the Atlas – where, all of a sudden, the terracotta kasbas and brown earth of the south is replaced by whitewashed concrete and pine trees. A little further north, around Azrou, slanted roofs reminiscent of Swiss postcards dominate the scenery (this is because of the snow, I learned).

A little further west, this Alpine landscape gave way to the rolling hills of Morocco’s northern Atlantic coast, and suddenly we found ourselves back home, back in the everyday world that suddenly seemed so mundane, after that excursion to the exotic south.

* the Saadians were a dynasty that arose in the south (around Zagora, actually) and ruled Morocco in the 16th century. They claim descent from the Prophet Mohammed and thus have a fair amount in common with the current ruling dynasty, the Alaouites.
** Moulay Ismail, the second ruler of the current (Alaouite) dynasty, ruled during the late 17th century. He established his capital at Meknes and was known for his bloodthirstiness. It is under this ruler, incidentally, that Morocco was able to permanently defy an Ottoman invasion.
*** Men were fewer in number, and kept themselves at a greater distance from the festivities. Was this moussem a women’s affair? If so, why would that be? Did that depend on the particular theme of this moussem?