Morocco Part 2 A Berber Tale

December 23, 2007 at 9:48 pm | Posted in Morocco | 1 Comment

(This is a sequel to Morocco Part 1)

Our next adventure was to ride the road along the foothills of the High Atlas mountains in a wide valley with our first stop being Todra Gorge. We passed sheep, goats, wild camels and scattered people simply walking in the middle of miles of terrain perhaps with a bundle of sticks on their back. Todra Gorge is known to be very scenic and we were lucky that its narrow road, which was mostly washed away durning floods last April was back in working order to carry us between the sheer red cliffs. We had no overnight reservations, again, so we just kept driving away from people until we found somewhere secluded. Our guidebook directed us to a small auberge which we had to drive over a stream to get to as it was built into the rocky hillside. It was across the road from a nomadic tent which we could faintly see up on the hanging rocks. The man was out tending his herds of goats while the woman was working over a steaming kettles and the children loitered around their small patch of flat land. Our innkeeper showed us to our room which was, surprisingly, a cave. A very nice cave. The room was literally carved into the rock and painted a lovely buttery yellow with enough beds for all and solar lights and candles. The boys thoroughly investigated all of the removables that can be toyed with and then ventured out into the streambed and hopped rocks until nightfall. Perfect. A herd of goats approached for the return home and surrounded the boys on all sides. They needed to wait patiently for the “locals” to pass. We went up to the main house for dinner and the entire room was swathed in candlelight while plates of salads and tagines were enthusiastically delivered. Both boys were worn down and fell asleep on the bench we were sitting at while Peter and I enjoyed another rare moment of “just us”. Up until now, the only private time we had was when the two boys sat in front of us on a bus and we sat behind them! We were able to finish more than 5 whole sentences uninterrupted by, “Mama, look how far back I can bend my finger!” or “Papa, what is the biggest thing in the world besides Mt. Everest?, or “What’s a jawbreaker?” The next day we left our cave, and hadn’t gotten more than 500 yards up the road when our adventure was to take a very interesting turn.

A group of Berber men were working to repair the washed out road and one slight, young man (about 25) with a fuscia-colored turban flagged us down with a smile wider than his thin face and asked if we could give him a ride so he could buy some cigarettes for his friends. We, feeling distrustful and generally not open to letting others into our car no matter how friendly-looking, offered instead to buy the cigarettes and drop them off on our return in a few hours. They considered this and decided to give us the money. This was very trusting on their part since they probably had very little money to risk. Then the discussion, in French, was about where to stop to buy them and what brand to get. Apparently you don’t buy packs, you buy individual cigarettes and he wanted 14. We cannot explain what changed our minds but a complete trust came over us and we decided to give him a lift instead. His skinny body easily fit between the boys carseats. Mustafa proceeded to tell us, in French, about himself and his family who ran a small inn up the mountain pass in the town we were headed for. He was down here visiting his friends who were repairing the damaged road. He also told us that there was excitement in the village because there was a wedding taking place in the hills between two Berber nomad families. We had read about Berber weddings and how they are a very unique experience and foreigners are lucky if they happened to come upon one as they would probably be enthusiastically invited to attend. He said that we should go to it. We were intrigued but didn’t know how to transition from picking up a total stranger to going to a wedding.

A few miles later as we wound through the spectacular mountain gorge, we arrived in the town of Tamtatouche. Mustafa led us to his “inn” which was on the side of the dusty road surrounded by fields, kasbah ruins and the red, rocky cliffs of the gorge. We pulled in, got out and looked around at the rustic surroundings and just followed him to his outdoor patio covered in a Berber tent as an awning. Then his brothers and sister came to greet us. Mohammed is the eldest at around 28 but looked 40, Abdou is 15 and Hassan, 13. Their sister, Fatima, about 27, waved from the kitchen. Without many words, it was just natural and assumed that we`d all relax and chat on the patio which is exactly what we did Mohammed brought tea and snacks as the siblings did their best to welcome us. We don`t know when it changed from simply giving Mustafa a lift to becoming their guests but we just went with it. Oliver and Henry played soccer with Abdou and became fast friends. Abdou only spoke Berber but Henry never left his side. Soon Abdou took Henry into the kitchen and showed him how to make french fries. Henry came leaping out of the kitchen in excitement when he realized that french fries are made from potatoes as he had just watched Abdou slice them and fry them up from scratch! Mustafa then invited us to go for a walk through the village. We walked through the fields towards the kasbah ruins and watched as women hauled tremendous bundles of corn stalks on their backs and Mustafa continued to tell us what people were doing and how they lived. The villagers literally gawked at us as we passed as though we were celebrities. A cluster of children gathered and were giddy at the chance to interact with us. We took their pictures and showed them the instant results which generated even more excitement. We went back to the inn and then the discussion about the wedding resumed. Mustafa explained that the wedding celebration takes place over 4 days with preparations tonight at the bride`s homestead and then at the groom`s homestead the next night when the actual ceremony would be held. Unlike weddings we know, folks in the surrounding towns simply go as it is a communal gathering and not an event with invitations. Everyone knows each other and even though the folks getting married were nomads who lived in tents in the hills, all the folks in the village know the nomads and they are all part of the same community. Now it was about 5:00pm and Mustafa’s friends came by in a van and decided they were all going to go to the wedding and that for only a few dirham, we could join them in the van instead of walking or taking donkeys. We still wanted to understand how we were going to be regarded, coming to this wedding uninvited and of course we didn’t want to detract from the event and cause a commotion. They tried to explain how the families would consider it an honor for visiting guests to attend. This was such a foreign concept to us to just show up, but we were intrigued and the boys were excited to go to a wedding even though they expected dancing, a large cake and a bride coming down an aisle. We agreed to go.

So, we only have our fleece pullovers and they advise us that it will be cool in the hills. Laura is given a traditional woolen blanket which is worn as a shawl and Mustafa gives Peter a woolen chelab, the traditional Moroccan hooded robe. We get in the old van with three men in front and four men in the back, all about 22-25, and the four of us in the middle seat. We drive about 1 mile up the road and then take a left literally off the road and over the landscape on what is called a piste, basically a dirt path often travelled on but in no way considered a road. We cannot believe the van will safely navigate this rocky terrain. It`s dark by now and there are no lights anywhere except for one distant twinkling light in the middle of the blackness as we`re heading into the High Atlas Mountains. Mustafa said that`s where we are heading. The young men seem genuinely excited for the celebration and they`re singing traditional Berber songs with a tamborine as we bump along wondering when the van will simply fall apart at the seams.

The chaotic thoughts running through our heads are so foreign to us. Are we really going to a wedding? We are in the middle of nowhere. We have two small children. These are complete strangers. We are so lucky to have met these people. We cannot believe we are part of this experience. This is not a tour so no one knows we`re here and we can`t send our family an e-mail at this point. Are these guys really this happy to be taking us to this celebration? Don’t they have something better to do? What are they singing? This is what our adventure is really all about.

About 45 minutes later, we stop at a ditch. The van cannot get passed it so we have to walk the rest of the way. The seven guys excitedly get out of the van and, without hesitation, one of them takes Oliver and another one takes Henry (who fell asleep 10 minutes after the van left the inn) onto their backs and carries them the short distance to the site. The blanket of stars in the sky are magical and seem ancient as does the muted landscape around us as we warily step over and around the rocks trying not to twist any ankles. We can hear distant rhythmic chanting and beating of instruments we`ve never heard before. Now we are thinking that perhaps we are the sacrificial family. Yet, we cannot explain why, we are also so excited to be here, in a scared, out-of-our-comfort-zone sort of way but also this-is-why-we-are-travelling-the-world kind of way. We are trying to read our instincts but none of our surroundings have ever been registered before and we don’t know what to make of this situation we are getting ourselves into. It is an incredible dilemma. However, the overriding instinct is trust. Throughout our day that we spent with Mustafa and his family and friends, the pure kindness, generosity, embracing nature and sweetness was permeating around us. We have very kind friends at home but this was something else. A kindness so pure and innocent and free of any evil, like the mind of a 2 year old child. You cannot get enough of it and you want to protect it and want to be a part of it and feel bad that you have bad thoughts. You want to desperately hope that this will not turn out bad – it is truly what it is – a wedding celebration and everyone is singing.

We arrive and we can make out a cluster of Berber tents and different activities going on. All of the local men are sitting around a bonfire in a circular stone pen normally reserved for the animals. There are about 60 men and everyone is wrapped in traditional blankets and huddled together in small friendly groups sipping tea. They all watch us carry our two little boys wrapped in a bundle as we plop down on the ground and find a place among them. A few smile back at us – most just watch. The men are in charge of the keeping the fire going and are boiling water in one kettle for the tea and in another bucket for rinsing glasses. The fire is fueled by either wood or animal dung which gave off a distinct peaty amoma. A turbaned man comes over and offers us warm tea which we eagerly accept. Not only is it appropriate but it also gives us something to do. Mustafa sits with us as does Joadd and we hope they don’t leave our side, which they don’t. We are told that the women are in the tent. Seems the women stick together and the men do the same. Laura is the only woman in the pen. We drink our tea and wait.

Then a group of men approach us carrying the biggest wooden shallow bowl we have ever seen. The bowl is filled with a cornmeal mash that is a community platter and we, as the visiting guests, are the first ones to be served. We`re relieved when one of the servers pulls out regular metal spoons and hands one to each of us as well as to Mustafa and Joadd. Again, the myriad of emotions goes through our minds. How does one eat appropriately from a communal bowl exactly? Do we take a big spoonful or a small one? Do we double-dip? We cannot believe we have just arrived and now are being given special treatment by having the bowl presented to us first. How many bites do we take? What is it? We can’t decline. We dip our spoons in and take a bite. It is warm and delicious and tastes like melted cornbread with a salty, buttery flavor and it is the consistency of farina. We want to eat the whole bowl. We were prepared for the worst and it was great. We follow Mustafa’s lead and learn that it`s fine to double-dip (glad we were first!) and we had a few bites. Whew. Now what happens?

The singing gets louder and Mustafa and Joadd invite us to move over to the tent so we can see what is going on. The boys are carried into the tent and we plop into a space where we can watch. The girls and women sit across from the boys and men and they sing and chat in rotation with the men singing and the women responding, over and over again. It is too loud to try to have Mustafa translate so we just listen. The women are all ages and are interesting to look at. They are equally interested in us and gawk at us without smiling. It`s not because they`re disturbed by us, they simply don’t greet with a smile. Some women look ancient with deep wrinkles yet they have long, thick grey hair and sit cross-legged on the ground. Some women look like a cross between Asian and Eskimo with almond-shaped eyes and black hair and high cheekbones. One woman looks 50 yet she has one baby tied to her back with a blanket, another one nursing and a toddler rolled up in a blanket on the floor. The nomadic life appears to be harsh on the skin but is a wonderfully simple and time-honored traditional way of life.

While the singing and chanting continues, we are once again the first to be approached with another huge bowl. This time it`s couscous and again, thankfully, delicious. We have our obligatory bites and watch as the bowl makes its way around the tent and the small groups dig in. We are told that the bride is in an adjacent tent undergoing traditional preparations which, we think, included having her hands and feet decorated with elaborate henna designs. While we sit in our little heap underneath the huge goat-hair tent, we enjoy it when the younger boys and girls scoot over to sit near these white strangers and look at our sleeping boys and look at us and the strange safari pants we`re wearing and our Keen sandals while they prance around in their colorful layers of smocks and robes and slippers. It is a profound moment when a young boy sits near us and I ask Mustafa how old the boy is. Mustafa asks the boy but he doesn`t know. He looks about 9. They don`t measure time by age. It is irrelevant in their lives. We thought knowing one’s age was a common denominator across the human race.

Now a group is gathering outside for dancing. We pick up the boys, who have slept through the entire experience, and move them to a new place on the ground outside. The men and women form a circle in the firelight under the stars and stand alternating man and woman and sing new chants while swaying, squatting, bowing and stomping feet. We are the only ones sitting and as the group gets larger, they begin to encircle us. Again, the sacrificial thoughts resurface. The experience starts to become reminiscent of Native American culture- dancing in a circle by the firelight with chants that sometimes sound like howls, moans and screeches within a rhythmic haunting melody. But, alas, they only encircle us because we haven`t budged from a little heap on the ground and not because we are about to be sacrificied to the gods. Soon a band of young girls sit with us and want to know our names and they giggle with embarrassment when they can`t pronounce our names as their tongues will simply not form the sounds of the American alphabet. Nor can we pronounce their names that include sounds unfamiliar to us. It`s a funny moment.

We next move to the tent to see what is happening with the bride-to-be who has not yet made an appearance outside her tent. She sits with her face and hair veiled in red and she is covered in layers of fabrics. Her mother and a plethora of other women are tending to all sorts of fabrics and traditional clothing that she is adding to her layers all the while chanting and chanting. Laura is offerred a scarf by one of the attending women as our hair is not to be visible. A woman who looks 150 approaches to lovingly fix Laura’s hair as it fell out of its place under the scarf. It is now close to midnight and it seems this celebration is going to go on all night. We catch sight of the men skewering a newly skinned goat back in the pen and decide it`s time to leave but it we`re very reluctant because we know this will never happen to us again. Once we tell Mustafa we are ready to leave, the six other men who came in the van and who we haven’t seen since arriving, suddenly appear and without being asked, hoist our boys on their backs and head towards the van. We didn’t know who to say goodbye to and who the hosts actually are but a small band of people follow us a bit to see the celebrities go and then trail off and became part of that dim single light in the blackness of the hills. We go back to the inn and sleep in one of the rooms. There are two double mattresses on the floor covered with layers of tribal handmade blankets made by Fatima over the years. We all stay dressed and just hop on the mattresses and contemplate whether or not we have already dreamed or not.

As strange as it was, it was very special and we feel as though the stars aligned for us to have ended up there. It all started out with a drive through the mountain and happenstance. Mustafa could have stopped another car or none at all and we would have driven up the road, looked around and headed back toward another area of the gorge but instead we were exposed to what`s behind the mud and straw walls and beyond the dirt pathways that meander from the road in the darkness.

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  1. This sounds like an amazing opportunity! I found your blog this morning on a google search for Moroccan costumes and I am still sitting at my computer reading your tales 2 hours later when I should be out grocery shopping. I can’t wait to read this out loud to my children and it is inspiring me to think about some global travels with them! Thanks so much for the fun read…


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