ravelling through Morocco starting from Marrakech and driving by the High Atlas mountains, I was intrigued by the Imazighen, who are called ‘Berbers’ by Greeks and Romans, and stereotyped as uncivilised people. However, I found them to be very simple leading a rural or nomadic life. The Berbers of present day Morocco don’t have the brutal or war-like lifestyle they are perceived to have.
I had an insightful week exploring, rural Morocco where majority of the Berbers are settled. A group of us were bus-touring various villages, spending time talking to these simple, beautiful and creative tribals and getting an insight into their lives and trades – not to forget the many delicious meals of Tajine and photographing them in their everyday lives.
Berbers were Neolithic Caspians from 10,000 years ago, who settled along the coast of Northwestern Africa. They still follow a pastoral and tribal life; their tents and small, closely built mud and adobe houses and grazing herds are seen scattered all along the Atlas range. They wear loose, colourful robes with men in huge turbans and women wearing veils and headscarves.
Wherever I visited, I enjoyed endless cups of mint tea as part of the Berber hospitality, which reminded me of my trip to Qissa Khawani Bazaar in Peshawar, where everything begins with a cup of kahwa. All one needs to strike a conversation with any Berber is green tea and a generous handful of fresh spearmint and herbs served in a small glass.
While sipping this aromatic tea, and dipping pieces of crusty breads in argon butter and honey, I listened to Fatima. She is a single Berber mom of four children working at an argon oil cooperative at Lahsinate, a small rural community in Essaouira Province of the Marrakech. While working manually on her oil mill, she tells me how when pressed, the argon tree’s fruit produces a rich oil containing fatty acids, omega-6 and vitamin E. The argon oil cooperative in Morocco not only reformed the beauty industry globally but also provided jobs to thousands of women locally.
Continuing our journey along the foothills of the High Atlas, one of the stopsI made was on the southern slopes in Ouarzazate. Here, we visited several villages, explored trades and I got to speak to some tribals.
“An individual is nothing without the tribe,” said Abdullah, who owns and runs a huge carpet business in Ouarzazate with his brothers. He proudly displayed the carpets and rugs hand-knotted with sheep wool or camel hair. As my friends got busy purchasing carpets, I initiated a discussion with Abdullah. He explained the philosophy of motifs and patterns on carpets, their distinct colours, depth of patterns and weaving techniques which hail from different regions. Traditionally, the designs represent fertility, sensuality, survival and protection. For example, the big diamond shape at the centre of some carpets is a female symbol; an ‘X’ is seen as a person with their arms and legs spread out.
Happily holding rolls of rugs and carpets, we headed off to Ounilla Valley which was the next stop to explore the UNESCO world heritage site of Ait-Ben-Haddou. Scattered among the ksar [fortified walls] of closely-built 17th century earthen architecture, are many little shops and stores run by the natives of the valley. It included a lot of steep hiking, and at one point I almost fainted at the door of a shop.
As I signalled my group mates to keep ascending, I saw a smiling young man handing me a cup of cold water – what a pleasant sight it was. He was Mehdi, an artist, who hand paints with watercolour and crayons, and sells them to tourists. He never took art classes, and told me his family specialises in decoding and writing ancient scripture, and that he has inherited art from his family.
Tajine is one of my most favourite Moroccan dishes, which is a traditional slow-cooked stew, prepared in an earthenware pot covered with a conical lid.
On a nice cloudy afternoon, after having my usual lunch of Tajine at Toudgha a small community, I strolled out to a nearby village. What a pleasant sight awaited me there – a crystal clear lake running between the mountains. Growing on both the sides of the lake were lush green vegetable and fruit gardens, and date palm orchids.
I was surprised to see huge bunches of grapes on vines, and several girls holding the harvest. I could not help but test their generosity by asking them for some which was just the right thing to round off this Saharan adventure with.
I returned home with all the sweetness of Moroccan hospitality, along with the vivid memories of a rich and colourful Berber experience. •