In search of a lost Moroccan oasis
The architect Le Corbusier once said “a house is a machine for living in”. The traditional Berber dwelling is a miraculous, integrated and embracing device. Built like a miniature fortress, it has separate entrances for animals, family and guests. We stoop through low passages which spiral around the heart of the machine: the kitchen. A hole in the floor means organic waste can be dropped to the animals below. They function both as central heating, in winter, and as a recycling centre.
“Smoke from the cooking fire protects the ceiling from insects,” says Mahfoud. “Notice that the kitchen is raised up – a big step to stop babies coming in. There will be 10 or 11 people living here, lots of children. The house is designed for all of them.” Mahfoud shows me the granary. “We keep treasures in here, hidden under the wheat.” After that, the women’s sleeping quarters, the passages which double as nurseries, the roof where they sleep in summer and the space for drying dates. Built of earth, stone and palm, the Berber villages decay gracefully, returning themselves to the earth. Walking through them is an eerie experience – they are teachers as much as memorials, offering a model of existence in harmony with the environment; something the most advanced architects of our time struggle to achieve.
Near Mahfoud’s house is an ancient rock carving of a gazelle. Two schoolgirls have climbed up to the ledge above it and are dancing to music played from a mobile phone. They wave and giggle. Morocco’s prehistory and its future side by side. The girls’ lives will be entirely unlike those of generations of women before them, Aisha Taboudrart explains, when we join her for lunch after the walk. Aisha inherited her father’s argan-oil business, which she has supplemented with a convenience store. She also offers traditional meals to visitors. As we eat a rich couscous with argan oil, eggs and honey, Aisha tells me, “A few years ago, I could not even have walked to market in Tafraoute without a husband or some male relative. Now I can go wherever I like. I travel to Agadir, to Casablanca, on business.” As they walk in ones and twos, the local women are living through and propagating quiet, revolutionary change.
A hike along an old drovers’ path
If the best walks are the oldest – the pilgrim trails and the ancient ways – then the most delightful of all are the drovers’ paths, their contours forgiving, their prospects timeless. My two-day hike follows a drovers’ road north from Tafraoute, into the Ameln Valley and up the escarpment of Jebel L’Kest, along the track farmers use to bring barley, livestock and oil to market in Tafraoute.
We bear northwest out of town, crossing rising ground towards a low escarpment, as Hammou shows me the tracks of porcupines and places where wild boar have foraged. We pass a giant boulder, its top piled with thousands of stones. “People add one for good luck on their way to market,” he explains. To his eye, the whole path is a mosaic of story and incident. “You see that tree? There was a serpent in there. It bit a woman gathering argan nuts and she died in 15 minutes. You see that rock with the hole in it? A tourist lived in there for a week in 1996.”
Beside the track grow wild onions and thistles known as “rien-du-touts”: nothing-at-alls. “They have milk inside – drink it, you soon die.” A scrabble of claws is a ground squirrel, striped gold like a chipmunk. A spry old man in traditional robes passes us, telling Hammou he is going to the doctor. Hammou rolls his eyes. “He is always going to the doctor,” he says. “But look how strong he is.”