The South

July 11, 2007 at 1:48 pm Leave a comment


We rented a car on July 4 and drove south.  Our first stop was Tellouet, kasbah of the Glaoui Pashas, whose collaboration with the French first elevated then destroyed them.  The kasbah was pretty impressive.  It had been home to a very large household of guards, retainers, family, and servants.  The first structure, now in ruins, dated from the mid-18th century.  The custodian took us around the most recent building, completed only in the 1940s, with its spectacular zilij (mosaic) walls, carved moldings, and painted wooden ceilings.  We got to see the second building, finished shortly before World War I, with the kitchens and guest accommodations. The French occupiers wanted a ruler who could keep the trade routes and resistant tribes in the south under control; the Glawi leaders wanted to rule the region.  When the French gave them new kinds of weapons in the 18th century, both realized their desires.  For almost two hundred years the Glaoui Pashas ruled the region, putting down rebellions and securing the routes.  They built fantastic kasbahs, the latest of which was the one we visited at Tellouet.  But when the French were thrown out after World War II, the Glaouis were destroyed.  In the Middle East, collaborating with foreign occupiers brings rewards only as long as the occupation continues. 

From Telouet we drove through Ouarzazate, the Hollywood of Morocco.  As we turned around each bend in the hghway, it seemed, we saw a new scene straight out of the Orientalists’ fantasies: palm groves against desert backgrounds; kasbahs rising out of the mountainsides, nomads’ tents pitched in the rocky desert.  The movie industry has taken advantage of the scenery, filming blockbusters based out of Ourzazate.  Star Wars’ Tatouine seems to have been near Ourzazate, parts of Lawrence of Arabia were filmed here, Alexander the Great, Gladiator, and the list goes on.   We drove on to  Ait Benhaddou, where we checked into the hotel where David Lean had stayed while filming Lawrence of Arabia.  The hotel was right across the valley from the old village, restored for use as a film set.  The population of the village had moved down the road a bit to a new site with electricity and running water.  We would see this again: the old village site was abandoned as people moved into newer buildings close by, still near their fields, to take advantage of the amenities that make life so much easier.  The old buildings, made of mud bricks, gradually fall back into the ground. 


We were in Berber country, and spent the next few days driving, walking, and meeting people in villages set among spectacular mountains, perched over dramatic gorges, and overlooking miles of palm groves.   Berbers.  Daoud, who speaks at least five languages and leads tours in the desert in his new Toyota Land Cruiser, claims they make up the majority of the population of Morocco.  The children of his village learn Arabic when they begin school; within a few years, they will learn French and English at the secondary school in the town 27 kilometers away. (They come back to the village for weekends and holidays.)  Only in the past few years have the schools taught literacy in Berber, a result, he claims, of the new King’s mother’s ethnicity. I asked about this term, Berber, introduced by the French to indicate non-Arabs,  in order to try to divide the local people against each other during the colonial period.  Daoud explained that there are actually three distinct groups, which they distinguish among themselves.  For outsiders, though, they seem to have accepted the name Berber.  But the effort to divide Moroccans wasn’t successful.  This seems different than the Kurds, who claim to be “from Turkey,” .  “We are Berbers,” he told me (and we heard again and again), “and we are Moroccans.”   


Muhammad, a friendly man we met in Todru Gorge the next day with a bum foot and a bit of English, offered to  took us on a walking tour of the palm grove, and in the process explained a bit about how their town worked.  From above, the palmerie looks like a simple grove of palm trees along the river.  Inside, it is an extensive garden with a very complex organization.  Each family has a part of the property to farm.  Even if one sells his/her house in the village, the land stays within the family.  The irrigation system is extensive, long main channels flowing from the river, and subchannels into each field.  People are growing tomatoes, peppers, mint, alfalfa, potatoes, wheat (just harvested), cabbage.  We haven’t seen any of the parsley or cilantro so often in the food, but mint grows everywhere on terraces or in yards as well as fields.  Muhammad explained that the trees (almonds, walnuts, date palms, pomegranate, figs, peach, apricot) are available for anyone to come, pick, and eat, but you can’t take the fruit away.  The guy in charge (the chief or sheriff of the palmerie, William couldn’t figure it out and neither could I) would demand payment for things you take that aren’t from your own garden.  He would also fine you if you stepped on someone’s fields–we walked on the raised areas between farms.  I don’t know how he is appointed, but it seems he sees all.   It’s much cooler in the palmerie.  I was impressed with the number of people down there.  It was hardly a place to be alone, though it appears both hidden and private.  Many children were playing–a group of boys seemed quite excited about a snake they had caught in one of the irrigation channels.  People farm in what we have come to call French style; the double-dug gardens with partly raised beds are planted close together to discourage weeds.  The soil is so rocky, it must have been exhausting to create such an extensive farming system, especially when the main implement is a device that looks like a hoe, but with a head the size and shape of a shovel.   


We had arrived on threshing day. Katie, Ian and I, out for a walk in the afternoon, stopped to watch as men attached a mechanical thresher to the Massey Ferguson tractor.  Women carried wheat stacked along the road in hand-tied bundles to the thresher, and a man in his late 20s wearing a sunhat fed the bundles into the machine.  Two women at a time carried grain away in baskets, while more women put the next basket under the thresher.  The hay came out into a large sheet they had attached to the other end.  Women carried huge bundles of the straw attached to their backs in these sheets–I wondered whether more pack animals would be what they wanted most. 

We stood a bit away on the shadier side of the road to watch.  Other women were using short straw brooms to sweep the street from the previous threshing across the street, children and old men were watching, along with the men who brought the thresher and tractor.  One woman smiled and suggested we help, which, to their apparent surprise, all three of us did.  After a few armloads, they indicated we should stop and seemed amused and pleased.  Katie took a few photos of the threshing.   Daoud told us later that night that he had been helping his own family with their threshing earlier in the day–each family plants and harvests its own wheat and brings the bundles to the road.  Each family pays for the use of the thresher. 


The kids and I had talked earlier in the day about how much more difficult this process is without combines: in Kansas, the wheat stays in the field and the combine cuts it in place, separates the grain from the straw, throwing both into separate trucks to be driven off.  Here, the family has to cut the stalks, bundle them, carry them to the road, feed them to the thresher, carry off the grain in baskets and the straw in sheets.  But in the evening, Daoud talked about how easy the new process is!  His family used to have the donkey walk for hours on top of the cut wheat.  Then, he explained, you had to spend hours going like this, moving his arms together quickly over his head.  The thresher really made the work much easier.  Families sometimes had enough for their use all year, sometimes more and sometimes less.  The grain was milled into flour in a nearby village, and the flat, round bread people eat here is baked in the local hammam.   

When we left Todru Gorge for Zagora on Saturday, temperatures had climbed.  I thought we were just unaccustomed to the heat, but the hotel manager explained that the heat wave had begun three days earlier (about the same time we left Marrakesh), and would likely continue for three weeks.  The man who sold us water at a gas station as we headed out of town asked how we were tolerating the heat.  With that send-off, we headed south, toward Zagora in the Moroccan Sahara.

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Gardens and Squares Zagora

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