Friday, June 25, 2004

The Ziz Valley, Morocco

There are several different ways of travelling around Morocco. One is by train. Morocco has a decent rail system as far south as Marrakesh, with bright and well-equipped train stations in all the major cities. These rail connections make northern Morocco a lot smaller, and you can, for example, life in Sale, work in Fez, and still have a commute not much longer than that in rush hour in a major U.S. city. The trains are European-style, with a maximum of eight people to a compartment, and as they travel through the countryside you see Moroccan life off the highway - more hovels amidst fields than roadside cafes and restaurants, and young boys on bicycles who try to ride alongside and wave at all the passengers.

Another way, however, is by bus, and while it takes longer as you stop for longer periods of time and periodically get stuck behind a donkey or herd of animals on Morocco's two-lane highways, you can also see a great deal as you wind through more small cities and towns with their different building styles and levels of prosperity, getting a sense of the real life of the country in places unused to tourists. Here are the roadside cafes which cater to the bus travellers, vast fields of both food crops and flowers, presumably for export, and on occasional hillsides the slogan "God, Country, King," mowed into the grass or spelled out with huge stones as part of Morocco's version of the rulers' cult which serve the same purpose as pictures of the king, though these are not found nearly as frequently as in Jordan and Syria.

It was by bus that last weekend we travelled down the Ziz Valley to the Sahara Desert in a trip organized by ALIF that was easily one of the most incredible weekends of my entire life. In fact, the previously mentioned Bostonian professor, who in recent days had become visibly frazzled by frequent exposure to people of a different age group and was considering just skipping the trip altogether, was completely rejuvenated by it - in one place where he got to go in before us he reminded me of Dr. McCoy in Star Trek II, when he's being kind of crochety but then in the Genesis cave in Regula is like, "Jim! Have you ever seen the like?" It was also cool in that aside from the major destinations, we made frequent stops in the small cities along the way, thus getting to experience more of the country than we otherwise would.

One such place we stopped was Ifrane, built as a resort showpiece in the ski resort areas south of Fez. Ifrane is home to al-Akhawayn University, built with funding from Saudi Arabia to promote religious tolerance, and according to the guidebook has a mosque and a synagogue on its grounds. The city is watered by a cool river, and has a very Alpine feel - indeed some people left the cafe we were at to do some horseback riding around the copses of trees. I had met one person from this city in Rabat, who said it was more conservative than people realize, but by visually it has signs of being inhabited mainly by a westernized wealthy elite.

South of Ifrane, one sees a couple of ski resorts, though of course the lack of snow means not much was going on. On the road between there and Midelt, however, you saw tons of nomads grazing their flocks in the grasslands between the roads and the mountains. These were seasonal nomads who migrate for only part of the year, and slept in black tents visible all over the place. Men and women oversaw the flocks of sheep and sometimes goats and donkeys, with occasional horses off to one side, while children either helped with the chores or kicked a soccerball around under the watchful eye of an adult. There were also people who simply lived there, and kept their animals in stone pens for the night while watching them graze during the day.

After Midelt, located in almost the exact center of Morocco, one passes through the snow-capped Middle Atlas and onto more plains beyond. Shortly thereafter we came to the winding Oued Ziz (Ziz River), which consisted of a swift central current with sluggish muddy waters alongside. This we more or less followed into the High Atlas, the tallest mountains in Morocco. There, after passing through a tunnel, we emerged in the fabulous Ziz Gorges, where over the centuries the river has worn down its path through the mountains leaving huge rock cliffs. People who had been to the Grand Canyon said this was bigger. The valley below was sometimes wide enough for a small village, set of fields, or grove of palm trees, while far above atop the cliffs stood the occasional ruin of an Almohad kasbah, the once imposing fortress of an empire which stretched from northern Spain into sub-Saharan Africa now a mere feature of the imposing landscape created by the God in whose name they conquered. Indeed amidst the wonder and the sense of history all that was lacking was some Aragorn to tell us humble hobbits of the deeds which had been wrought in these lands and of what caused the ruin of those who dwelled herein.

Coming down out of the mountains we quickly arrived at the beginnings of a noticeable "desert light" similar to the country around Amman in Jordan, with the brown land being broken by frequent low-lying shrubbery. Here one finds a number of frontier towns, mostly built by the French when they were attempting to control this country, and built of stone in a sort of off-pink color. The language situation also changed noticeably, and Berber replaced Arabic as the native tongue of the people we spoke to. Because I don't even know how to count in Berber, I was reduced to picking up a snack by the point and have the guy hold out the right amount of money method.

Another town we passed through was Rissani, where the Alawite dynasty first originated, building power around their control of the trade routes across the Sahara. Despite the remote location, however, this area if fully integrated into the modern world's information flow, as there are frequent signs advertising internet cafes, and a satellite dish on almost every rooftop. This last is the real key, as it allows people to watch the satellite stations that are the key to the Arab media, where Gulf news stations such as al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya or the entertainment programming on Egyptian TV. Some Moroccans have said they consider a satellite dish more important than a refrigerator. In a small city called Erfoud the bus driver, a friend of mine and I went into a cafe where we learned that the American hostage had been executed in Saudi Arabia. The people in the cafe, though, we all talking about how the Saudis had killed the man believed to be heading the group carrying out those attacks, and they hoped that would bring an end to all of this, though the Arab media was allegedly speculating that the Saudis had been involved from the very beginning.

That night was spent in an expensive kasbah hotel on the edge of the desert and consisted mainly of sumptuous food, Berber music and dancing, and raging political discussion. The next day we began to push deeper into the desert. Deserts, of course, are not all endless miles of the same terrain. Most of Morocco's desert is what is known as hammada, hard-packed dirt and rock on which the sun beats down relentlessly. A layer of tiny black stones covered most of the land outside the bus windows as we travelled south, interrupted here and there by what I guess you could call sand rivers, where the wing blew small layers of sand through places where there was no rock. The desert floor was hot, and here and there small sand tornados formed where the hot air close to the ground met the cooler breeze of the atmosphere. These mainly came up to a person's waist, but it looked like there were huge ones off in the distance.

No road led to our final destination, not even a piste. They went out and checked the terrain in a four-wheel-drive, and the busses were able to get in fairly close, but we still had a 10-15 minute walk across the hammada before reaching the kasbah hotel where we would eat lunch and leave for our desert excursion. As we were leaving the bus, a number of people who had gotten Berber head gear as souvenirs (just think of the standard movie gear, with the cloth wrapped around your head and the lower part of the face) suddenly discovered a practical application for it, and ventured out suitably covered from the sun and sand.

There was a village nearby which we would have had to walk to by following some power lines, and some of us were originally thinking of going there just because it sounded cool to say we'd been somewhere no road led to. Our brief experience of the hammada, however, had convinced us that it would't be cool at all, and we basically stayed in and spent the afternoon relaxing over the ubiquitous Moroccan mint tea, made with green tea and flavored with leaves of spearmint still floating in it when they give you the cup. We did venture out from time to time, and that's when I truly discovered how hot it was. I didn't bring water or anything since I was fairly well-fortified, yet after twenty minutes I was feeling the early signs of some sort of heat sickness. The sun is your enemy out there as much as the heat. When I got back, it was decided I needed something covering the back of my head and neck (I had only a baseball cap), so a spare was found for me - given North American social realities about who is most likely to carry a change of clothes I had a women's one, but only a Berber would probably notice, and the guys working the cafe watching us agreed I needed something.

From the hotel we could see the Erg Chebbi, the vast field of sand dunes at the far side of which was the oasis where we would spend the night.As the afternoon started to melt into evening the guides brough a few dozen camels, and everyone began to prepare to set out. The bustle caused the Bostonian professor, who had opted out of this leg of the journey, to say he felt like the keeper of a medieval caravanserai as some huge merchant caravan was about to depart. The camels were all on their knees, and once we had our water and everything else we would need, guide helped us sling our bags by the front of our saddle while we got on the camel, and then the guides got the camels to stand up. Once we were all ready, waving goodbye to the few who were left behind, we set off into the erg.

Riding a camel is not a terribly comfortable experience, and leaves one sore for several days. The erg scenery, however, is beautiful, with pure golden-yellow sand in drifts across crisply blown dunes cut clearly against the cloudless sky ov early evening. Here are there was an occasional blade of grass, or even a tree that looked not so much lolely as relaxed. There were also swift, tiny birds and insects sitting on gray rock ledges occasionally sticking out of the sand. After almost two hours, we got to the oasis, featuring a number of palm trees and shrubberies watered by an aquifer about a meter underground in the shadow of a huge sand dune that took over 45 minutes to climb, but which offered a view of the desert deep into Algeria in an atmosphere of perfect stillness. (No, I didn't make it to the top.)

That night was one which I will likely never repeat, as we camped out in Berber tents in the cool night air beneath the star-filled desert sky. If you wandered around a bit outside of the camp, it was impossible not to fully absorb the vastness of creation, a sense which had been with us at least since the gorges winding through the High Atlas. People can adapt to much of the world, but the world itself inevitably marches on, and only recently have we gained the capacity to affect its core processes, and then only to destroy, not create.

We set out early the next morning to return to our base, and as we passed once more through the drifting dunes of the Erg Chebbi, the desert was already forgetting out passage, as the same sharp morning winds that blew sand into our eyes and threatened to undo the ties on our clothes swiftly wiped out the tracks we left behind us. However, I have not forgotten, nor will I ever, the sense that we are creatures of this world and not its masters, and that there are far greater forces at work than I as an individual will ever be able to control.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home