close up shot of a woman in black hijab smiling

Magic Dust in the Mountains

It’s the end of January and fortunately it’s only now getting cold in Marrakech. The type of struggle I’m referring to is when it’s too warm to be in the sun with a coat on, but too cool in the shade to not have a coat on. Inside the struggle is real. My feet are blocks of ice and it’s very cold at night. However, last week I had the good fortune to travel south and into the mountains where it’s even colder and they have less heaters. But my heart was deeply warmed by the people we met along the way.

We were on an adventure, fresh out of the Sahara Desert and with two full days to get back to Marrakech. Only one of us in the car had any idea what lay ahead so my travel mate Paul and I were presented with two options. One was pretty simple and the other was “cold”.  We agreed right away – drivers choice.

We took three turns around the last traffic circle trying to choose. Just as I was about to throw up, a decision was reached and we branched off toward Imilchil. The cold option.

No sooner had we done that and we were pulled over by the police. After they saw the tourist van go around the roundabout two too many times. The officers were curious and friendly and instead of boring paperwork they received a handful of plump, meaty dates fresh from the desert. Smiles all around as we headed off towards the “broken road” and the promise of cold. 

Driving through the Atlas Mountains we were treated to something that few ever get to experience. We went straight through the very heart and soul of Amazigh (Berber) country. It left with me a lot of feelings. So many feelings in fact, that I am here a week later, unable to quite pinpoint them. I’m going to try.

I have always known that the Amazigh people are the magic dust of Morocco. The “thing” that you sense in your soul and can’t quite put words to. That “thing” that makes you sell everything and move here. The feeling that you must, absolutely have to, return to Morocco once you’ve been here. If you watched the Moroccan team in the World Cup, you started to get a sense of this magic. The majority of the team are Amazigh. The way they conducted themselves was different from other teams, right?

That’s the magic dust. It’s the Amazigh people. No doubt. According to Brittanica, “From about 2000 BCE, Berber (Amazigh) languages spread westward from the Nile valley across the northern Sahara into the Maghrib.” While they converted to Islam in the 7th century, their identity remains separate from their religion, and their tribal system is still strongly evident in every day life but especially in the mountains and the desert.

Every tourist who comes to Morocco will be touched by these gentle, kind hearted people. It is said that 3/5’s of the population are Berber descendants although a smaller number identify as Amazigh. I’ve spent 7 years trying to understand the feelings I get when I’m around a Berber family, both from a historical perspective but also culturally. From their historic roots to their current and very active struggle for identity and recognition.

They were indisputably here first, by many centuries. And yet today the Amazigh continue to be marginalized at every turn. Often forgotten in remote villages and desert communities, they receive little to no education, little help from the government and many live outside of a modern infrastructure. They survive by subsistence farming and the sale of handicrafts. In the cities they are almost always in the service industry or shop owners. The villages were they have a few shops and many cafes (for tea, of course).

They are fiercely connected to their language, tashelhit, which only recently became official in 2012. For many people living in Morocco today it was illegal for them to speak their native language for most of their lives. But its a complex alphabet and when the government made it an official language they used the alphabet, instead of roman characters, which only inhibits the spread of the spoken language. If you see Arret or Sortie on a sign, suddenly you speak French. But with the current state of affairs this is impossible.

Tashelhit poem

The Amazigh are deeply connected with the land. Land is everything. I don’t think ownership is the right word for it. I think its more like recognition. Recognition that this land is Amazigh land. For the good of the community, not the individual. Because they are pastoral nomads. They have a system amongst the tribe for who goes where and farms what, but for the most part, the land belongs to them all. It is part of a very symbiotic relationship.

To put some context around the attachment the Amazigh have to their land, “From the very beginning, Islam provided the ideological stimulus for the rise of fresh Berber dynasties. Between the 11th and 13th centuries, the greatest of those—the Almoravids and the Almohads, nomads of the Sahara and villagers of the High Atlas, respectively..” (Brittanica)

And here we were driving through those villages in the Atlas Mountains, connecting for brief seconds with these people who are still living there, in much the same manner as they have for centuries.

As we drive along the half paved and bumpy roads, people were yelling at our driver, “Come in for tea.” “Next time,” he said, “we have a long way to go.” If you’ve ever had the pleasure of sipping tea with a nomad woman and her children, you know the quiet, peaceful energy they bring. The men are off tending the family herd or growing potatoes, or keeping bees. If they are lucky they have a job in tourism where they earn a small wage and work for tips. For those living in the cities, they are often much more fortunate, but still work solely for the benefit of the family unit.

The women are strong. Unbelievably strong. They care for the home and family. They do all the housework and raise the babies. (This is not news to many of you.) But they do it without benefit of simple conveniences like an oven or washing machine. They do it with their hands and their backs and my respect for them is infinite.

If you’ve had a meal prepared in a families home, you know the simple ingredient is love and generosity of spirit. You can’t help but feel very cared for as you climb back in the car. As if you have been held by something that is centuries old. It’s as if they have been here so long they have become the land personified. There is an invisible thread that extends between you, the traveller, and these amazing people that runs through untold generations and is rooted firmly in the land. You can see it in their smiles. On the rosy cheeks of the children.

Their family values are strong. Family is literally survival, both on a day to day basis for income and food, and on a historical basis for the continuity of the tribe. Tribes do not intermarry. Even today, if you have a perfect match from another tribe, the marriage will be forbidden. In fact it was two such star struck lovers that spurred the mythology that exists around the town of Imilchil, where a marriage festival happens every summer.

They also show nothing but pure reverence for their parents. Especially their mums. If you didn’t know that already, you found out during the World Cup.

My heart was so full as we drove past hundreds of people living in those remote villages, enduring cold and harsh conditions and yet thankful this year has been remarkably easy on them. I wondered later if any of those children will ever have a chance to travel another 6 hours down the road, to the see the gas stations with big waterslides. I doubt many will ever see as much of their homeland as I have had the privilege to enjoy. That makes my heart hurt.

We stopped all along the way and talked to the occasional shepherd. We asked a girl of around 18 for directions. Her manner was confident and assertive, which is unusual in an exchange between men and women. It was later explained that our driver introduced himself as Ait Atta, while she is from the Ait Hdidou tribe. The two tribes will never intermarry and are friendly enemies. There was an air of competition indeed.

In fact, our driver identified himself only by tribe with each person we met because in this part of the country, it is the only system that matters. Monarchy and government are abstract ideas. Here, the tribal system and religion is all there is. 

We travelled on for several slow and bumpy hours. Past juniper trees that must provide beautiful shade in the summer but in the dead of winter, they twinkled silver in the sunlight. Everywhere were short copper bushes against the sandy red landscape. The colours were outstanding. Chickens ran free and dogs barked as we went by. Sheep and goats were grazing here and there. We passed the occasional local taxi van. But not many other cars were afoot.

The road

I will always remember this day because of how it made me feel. The chance to make eye contact with young girls and women as we passed by. A wave and a smile between us. Exchanging a smile with another human is such a powerful act of connection. I love to hold a gaze and a smile at a passing stranger and I almost always get one in return. Tears rolled down my face as I tried to really see their faces. Some of the kids ran along side and offered a shy “Bonjour”, finally having a chance to use their French skills. One little boy of around 6 enthusiastically gave me the finger. He might be confused.

These smiles were some of the most wholesome, pure, rosy cheeked faces of love I have seen. I silently wished them each and everyone a good life. I wished the little girls to be strong and hope they marry a good man. One who will treat them well and be kind to them. I wished them some ease and some fortune in their future. I wished we were hauling a trailer full of warm clothes and games and soccer balls for them. 

We arrived to Imilchil late in the day and it was as cold as promised. We each had a large room, big enough for a double and two twins. Our hosts very thoughtfully plugged a small heater at the bed side, and turned on a large gas affair in the dining room. With the high ceilings and large spaces, it was best to just bundle up in the layers and go to bed early. It was bloody cold, but my heart was full. (Whoa. Cheesy ending.)