Morocco: On the Verge of Itself (1 of 2)

Travel through Morocco for any length of time and you’ll uncover a land fiercely traditional and full of daily change, a land of harsh desolation shadowed by lush oasis, and a land where earnest well wishers stand toe to toe with the desperate, impoverished, and outright swindlers. In short, Morocco is a world of contrasts both breathtakingly beautiful and devastatingly harsh. It is a country coming to grips with itself.

Any trip through the southern reaches of Morocco will sustain at least a passing glimpse of the Anti-Atlas mountains. It is here amidst the craggy passes and moonscape deserts that much of Morocco scratches out its existence. On the road from Tafroute to Tiznit my bus wends its way through innumerable low slung mountain passes which give way to endless plains of soft coral and umber. In the course of becoming fine Saharan dust, the fist-sized rocks testify to the harsh wind battered climate that exists up here at 2300 meters. Just as I become convinced that nothing can live up here for any length of time, the hills unveil the fading scars of long abandoned fields.

Over the next few miles these dusty spent tracts give way to increasingly verdant terrace gardens set along side small shepherds’ hut. Goats begin to dot the hillside as the bus descends toward a small cluster of buildings, by appearance more abandoned slum than town.

Yet as the bus pulls into its stall, villagers swarm the bus. The press of bodies hefts the busman and his assistant onto the roof. Quickly backpacks, sacks of grain, chickens, seeds, school desks, and chairs are lowered into clawing hands. The crowd though urgent and insistent is patient and, after a fashion, orderly – like well-heeled paparazzi (this is, after all, Morocco where patience is not a virtue, but interpersonal currency).

In the midst of what seems an impossibly wasted landscape the people are all smiles. There is food to be had. Brochettes, Spanish chocolate, almonds, figs, dates, French cheese, bottled water, and Moroccan pastries spill from curbside stalls and stores. And as always, colorful rugs are for sale. The mid-point on my journey, this stopover will be longer than the customary five-minute passenger exchange. It’s not long before the hawkers, Muslim zealots and beggars slip onto the bus selling jewelry, prayer tapes and desperation.

Much further north, the High Atlas mountains seem to vault spontaneously from the desert planes in the east and from the fertile groves in the west. The lush snowcapped hillsides of the High Atlas provide topographic relief for the weary traveler coming from the Anti-Atlas. But for the people of the High Atlas the life ahead is no less fraught with difficulty. Just as in the Anti-Atlas my bus pushes ever upward on a narrow ribbon of road and I become more and more certain there’ll be no outpost of civilization in this forbiddingly vertical world. As the thought forms in my head, the riverbed on my right drops into a deep terraced gorge, and up ahead perched high above the river lies the quasi-Bavarian village of Taddert.

This geographically misplaced hamlet confirms my growing sense that wherever the land sees fit to offer itself up with a modest fertile plane, or even the hope of moisture in streambed sediment the Moroccan spirit latches on and weaves its roots deep into the land. Yet all too often in Morocco the desperate face of a blind child reminds me that even in the oasis, blowing sand still stings.

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