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?

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