In search of a lost Moroccan oasis
I walk on down the gorge, listening to the bird song and the chergui, the Saharan wind, which shushes like a ghost river through the palms. It is Friday, mosque day, and the day for ma-harouf: charity to travellers. As the palms give out and the heat swells, I long for shade and succour. In the village of Agerd Amlalen, at the foot of the gorge, 30 women gathered in a yard beside the mosque are absolutely insistent that I must come in, wash and feast. They serve a delicious thick-grained couscous, with eggs, garlic and lentils. The women will take no payment – the food is given “fi sabilillah”, to honour God. Amid the wood smoke, the chatter and the squeals of children, the atmosphere is as high-spirited as a hen party. As I leave, waved off with blessings, it is as though I had journeyed through that Berber tale, to a place where people were honest and kind.
A circular walk, via the Blue Rocks
“You know why the flies are smaller here, on the plateau?” Hamou asks, on my second trail – our “philosophical” walk in the environs of Tafraoute. “Because they are interns. The professionals go to town.” The sly humour of this lies in the reference to depopulation, which makes the area so beguiling to walk in, but perhaps melancholy to inhabit. Everywhere people say, “the young go away, to the cities”. If they return they build modern houses near roads, leaving the fort-like villages to decay into the mountainsides. Not that those left behind are outwardly mournful. Two Berber women beside the path are securing large bundles of firewood. Hammou rushes to help one hoist her load. The weight staggers him. The lady takes the strap around her forehead, derides his weakness and plunges off into the bush, singing.
Intern flies are the favourite prey of the grey-backed shrike – a burst of pied-wing beats among the green of the argan trees. Known as the tomb-bird, the shrike makes a larder of insects, impaling them on thorns. Hammou pauses by a leafless argan and snaps one of its silvery twigs. “See? It’s alive – this is a very patient tree. It sleeps through drought.” Argans are indigenous to western Morocco. Their nuts are hand-ground in a stone mill to produce a nourishing oil. The trees are also living hayricks for Berber goats. A farmer herds them using sling-shot stones, driving them up into the branches, which the goats climb easily.
Our walk takes us past peach-coloured tors of granite, many with local names. There is Napoleon’s Hat, a sphinx and a tortoise, and here a collection of bright blue mushrooms. Around us are huge boulders painted pink, green and grey, as well as the dominant lapis blue. They are the work of Jean Verame, a Belgian artist who enlisted the help of the fire brigade for his project in 1984. “He did it to please his wife,” says Hammou. The blue rocks are a favourite site for picnics and parties on summer nights. Their main artistic effect, on this limpid morning, is to highlight nature’s effortless superiority over man as a sculptor and manipulator of light – perhaps that was Verame’s point.
We circle past a red-painted mosque at the village of Aday and arrive at one of the few Berber houses in the region that is still occupied. The owner, Mahfoud Idihi, has eschewed the pull of the cities. “I want to keep our heritage alive,” he says. “Our patrimony. I am the last generation of our family to live here. Please, come in.”