In search of a lost Moroccan oasis
The Anti Atlas people are known for farming the fertile oasis valleys of Morocco. (Simon Urwin)
“They call me Hammou Le Philosophe,” he laughs, as the sun rises over the hill town of Tafraoute and we head south towards the plateau. The argan trees are deep green under lucent sky, the morning as tranquil as any these mountains can have known in their 300 million years. The way to explore them is to walk: for many people here, walking is both a way of life and a way of changing life.
My guide Hammou Amechghal and I are embarking on three expeditions in the Anti Atlas: a downhill stroll and a flat walk will be preparation for a two-day hike in the Ameln Valley and up the red-gold ramparts of Jebel L’Kest. We go quietly – we are both incomers. Hammou came from near the Algerian border, and walks here because this place altered him. “Women, kif [cannabis], alcohol, two packs of cigarettes a day – I committed all my follies before I was 40! Then I came here and changed.” He raises his chin to the high chameleon peaks of Jebel L’Kest, which overlook Tafraoute from the north, their colours shifting with the play of light through spectrums of ochre-pink. “This made the difference. A place where you can breathe.” He smiles the mischievous smile of the semi-retired sinner. “The Prophet says, as long as you change by age 40, you’re okay.”
Negotiation with norms, their adaptation and, sometimes, outright rejection are characteristic of the area. The Anti Atlas is Berber country. The populace descends from Morocco’s indigenous inhabitants: with the arrival of Islam in the seventh century, the mountains became fortresses of Berber ways. Many Berber people call themselves Imazighen, or “free people” – and they’re not to be underestimated. They resisted Roman and Ottoman attacks across north Africa, converted to Islam in the 9th Century, and in the 11th formed the body of the Almoravid dynasty, which ruled an empire from Ghana to southern Spain and Portugal. The last successful invaders were French colonialists, who used Tafraoute as their headquarters.
Today the Anti Atlas is less remote in geography – only a two-hour drive from the city of Agadir – than it is in time and tradition. The approach road is a narrow, twisting ascent, occasionally blocked by livestock. In the centre of Tafraoute, sheep make their way up a dry stream bed. Market traders busy themselves manufacturing babouches – leather shoes, locally regarded as the only footwear worth wearing – and a young businessman veers, horrified, around a drunken snake charmer.
A stroll en route to the Sahara
The potentate of this region is the Sahara. The desert to the south gives the Anti Atlas its exalting light, its star-clear nights and blazing noons. A Berber story says that the desert was once a green place of running water and bird song. All men and women were honest and kind.
Then, one day, someone lied. It was only a small lie, but God drew the people together and said: “Because someone lied, I'm going to drop a grain of sand on the world.” The people thought, well, that’s not much. But God said: “For every lie, I'll add another grain.” The reason there are oases, the story says, is that some people are still honest and kind. In Aït Mansour gorge, the paradise of the story endures. Beyond the plateau south of Tafraoute there is a fissure in the granite escarpment. At the bottom is a stream bed thick with palms, their dates clustered like golden bees. We walk under pomegranates, olives and figs. The walls of the canyon are dusty orange and paprika. Driss, a farmer, sells five kinds of dates. He has more than a hundred palms. “But my daughter is in England, my sons away in the cities. No help for the harvest. The young people go away,” he says. It is a part lament, part boast.