Sahara, Souk & Atlas
Strapped to Africa’s northern shores, Morocco is a staggering land of harsh desert, high mountains and spellbound medinas. Sahara, Souk & Atlas recounts two journeys across this land. From spontaneous beginnings, these journeys become a passage to the heart of North Africa’s indigenous people. They know themselves as the Amazigh, ‘free people.’ For millennia, the Amazigh were the dominant force across North Africa. They were a seemingly unconquerable people, but today they are fighting for cultural recognition in the lands where their ancestors lived. This book tells their remarkable story of rebellion and resistance. From the souks of eccentric Marrakech, to the guilds of pious Fez, enclosed are tales that dig to the roots of Moroccan society. Brace for a gripping journey through a land of diversity, from the tribal High Atlas and lawless Rif, to campfire folklore beneath the stars with desert nomads, whose way of life is on the brink.
Extract from chapter 11 , ‘In the Shadow of Toubkal‘
Lahcen pours glasses of tea high in the air and serves a bowl of nuts, as the ailing among us take rest. I join Lahcen, who is watching the last embers of day fade away behind the mountains, as one final haze of evening orange smudges on the far horizon.
“It’s beautiful, your valley,” I say to him.
“Nowhere is more beautiful,” he says softly as we sip Berber whisky together. I sense that now business is secured, which must be hard to come by in these bleak winter months, he can relax. At last he seems at ease and his pride in this untamed valley can unfurl.
“This is the highest village in the Ait Mizane,” he tells me. “Fewer than 2,000 people live here.” At almost 2,000 metres above sea level, little Aroumd is also the deepest settlement in the valley. Further along the trail, only the small pagan shrine stands between us and the refuges on the higher flanks of Toubkal.
Lahcen points towards a silhouetted massif. “The highest peak,” he begins with a widening smile, “that is Toubkal!”
I have been eyeing four peaks that loom on the southern horizon all evening, but it is a thrill to know that the highest among them is, of course, Jebel Toubkal. Not only is Jebel Toubkal impressive in stature at 4,167 metres, its summit is also notable for having first been reached as late as 1923 – and this lateness does not owe to its challenge. Instead, it speaks volumes for the tribal fortress that was the High Atlas valleys until late last century. Indeed, it remains a relatively recent phenomenon that us infidel should walk these stony trails where today signs read ‘terrace views’ as opposed to ‘death to outsiders.’ In fact, until the end of World War II, it is believed that fewer than 1,000 foreign travellers had ever journeyed beyond Marrakech and Fez to penetrate the High Atlas valleys. Amazigh tribes have occupied these hostile mountains for millennia, where they long maintained a fierce independence and unwavering distrust of outsiders.
While those in the lowlands slowly adopted the tenets of the many conquerors, most notably the Arabs who brought Islam in their seventh century conquest, the isolated High Atlas tribes fiercely defended their territory, language, culture and identity. For centuries, it was warlords who ruled these valleys, rejecting the authority of the Arab sultans and French colonialists. In some regions of the kingdom today, such as the remote hills of the Rif where soon I shall journey, they still do. In fact, even under the French Protectorate, that lasted until independence in 1956, these remote High Atlas valleys were designated as tribal hinterlands, left to the de facto control of the local warlords. So remote and hostile were these mountains, the French simply kept away.
It would be decades until the High Atlas came under the control of central authorities, though in recent years hostile mountain tribes have become the most hospitable of entrepreneurs, who laud the enormous money-making potential of outsiders arriving in their isolated valleys. Marrakech is no longer a five-day journey from London, Europeans no longer need to disguise themselves in djellabas, and the village of Asni, which we passed through on our journey to Imlil, no longer marks the trailhead and the last real bastion of order and security. Today thousands flood to Imlil after the spring snowmelt to climb Jebel Toubkal or trek in its foothills during the late spring or early summer months.
Yet, as my eyes drift across Aroumd, which is comprised mostly of harsh grey buildings made from concrete, adobe and stone, it is difficult to imagine the colours that spring will bring to these mountains. In just a couple of months these bare foothills will be flanked with tiered fields of potato, barley and terraces of purple iris, while swarms of mosquitoes swirl in the dusk around the flowing rush of spring wadis. But now, as the snaking dirt road arcs around the bare, snow-brushed mountainside across the valley, I realise how vulnerable entire villages can be in these bleak winter months, that have rendered the land around us naked.
“Brothers, drink!” Lahcen orders as he thrusts the tea pot high into the air once more, the steam spiralling through the biting evening cold. “And eat, please – but not too much! I will phone my brother. He will prepare a tagine. You will eat like kings tonight!”
A smile runs loose across my face as Lahcen’s face is lit up too. He beams as his eyes drift to the flanks of Toubkal once more. At last, we are all at ease. Just decades ago, we would have been unwelcome outsiders here. Tonight, it is a privilege to share this rarefied air.