Marrakesh to M’hamid – A Journey Through Morocco’s Cinemaland
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
A land of towering snowcapped mountains, scorching deserts, lush oases, majestic kasbahs and turbaned horsemen in flowing robes was how for years I visualized the countryside of southern Morocco. Now, as I rode the comfortable train from Casablanca to Morocco, I was filled with excitement. The plans which I had dreamt about for years were soon to become a reality. In a few days I would make a journey through the land of my fantasy.
Marrakesh, one of the four imperial cities in Morocco and known as the ‘Queen of the South’ was to be the place from where I planned to begin my excursion. It was ideal to start from this city set amid palm and olive orchards and dwarfed by the inviting Atlas Mountains. Seemingly reaching for the sky, they hovered majestically over the city. Challenging and mysterious, they beckoned the traveller – irresistible sirens.
After exploring the towns charming reddish mosques, palaces and impressive homes enclosed inside secret walls, I joined a tour group which was to journey through Morocco’s fabulous south. To put us in the mood for our coming trip, we were taken that evening to attend the legendary fantasia – a medieval pageantry of horsemanship. I watched spellbound as a band of turbaned horsemen charged toward the spectators. Fiercely galloping, their battle cries echoed above the thunder of hooves. Suddenly, a few feet from the crowd, they fired their flintlock rifles in the air, then returned as quickly as they came. It was a breathtaking performance and a brilliant display of horsemanship – a reliving of the past ages in the land we were to visit.
Early next morning, our bus made its way through the Marrakesh oasis toward the foothills of the Atlas. Soon we were passing terraced mountains overlooking deep valleys, lush with greenery. As we climbed upwards, the gorges deepened, and the mountains gradually turned bare. Near the top on the edge of the snow-covered peaks, we turned and made for the Tizi N’Tichka Pass in the heart of the high Atlas. Below, the awesome gorges appeared breathtaking.
From the Pass, we made our way downward through the mountains bare of vegetation. Behind us loomed to the majestic white peaks while before us lay a lifeless landscape. It appeared as if we had left the land of the living for the country of the dead. Yet, here and there amid the barrenness, there were spots of cultivation. Contrasting vividly with the surrounding countryside, these green plots were a pivot of colour and life.
It was late in the afternoon when we reached was Ouarzazate, a city situated on the threshold of the land of kasbahs (mud castles) and ksars (walled villages). It was an impressive town with kasbah-style modern buildings and impressive avenues. The stunning reddish structures enhanced the scenic setting of this desert city which was surrounded by rocky land and overshadowed by the snow topped Atlas. After the virtually empty countryside we had traversed it was as if we had reached a huge modern metropolis. We were content that night, dining and sleeping in its kasbah-style Azghor Hotel.
The December air was cool as we drove through the Anti-Atlas hills until we reached the Draa Valley- an oasis surrounded by wasteland. The Draa River which gives it life is one of Morocco’s longest streams. It rises in the High Atlas then snakes its way between the Djebel Saghro and the Anti-Atlas to the Draa Valley.
The Valley is a rich area of farmland in an otherwise barren landscape. Green irrigated fields of grain and vegetables thrive under fig, pomegranate and above all palm trees. These surround countless kasbahs and ksars which can hardly be made out- so well do they blend with the surrounding land. The driver halted the bus a number of times to give us a chance to examine and take pictures of these romantic structures.
Impressive from a distance, they lost much of their glamour when we studied them closely. The ones which are kept in good repair were very attractive. However, a fair number were in semi-decay with cracks showing in the structures. The people told us that if they were not repaired, the buildings will fall apart and become part of the soil in which they were built.
It is believed that the Arab tribes which came from the Yemen brought with them the art of erecting kasbahs. In the oases’ lands of southern Morocco this form of building took hold and gave this part of North Africa the atmosphere of Yemeni landscape.
Built from the soil of the countryside, which is mixed with straw, they cost very little- ideal for people with hardly any money to spare. Their thick walls and high towers which catch the breezes make them cool in the hot summer months- a natural method of air conditioning. Men with modest means construct their small homes kasbah-style while the powerful erect huge fortress structures- the true kasbahs.
Darkness had set in when we reached Zagora where at the Tinsouline Hotel we were to spend two nights. This large village is the last stopover point in the Valley and once controlled the caravan routes. A true desert frontier town edged by rich palm orchards; it has become an important tourist spot.
The next morning, we set out for M’Hamid and a desert picnic. About an hour and a half of driving through a barren landscape, at places dotted with palms, we entered the town, situated where the Draa makes its bend toward the Atlantic. A true desert oasis, it is built on the rim of an arid plateau which stretches into the endless Sahara.
We left the bus at the gateway to M’Hamid, then walked through its sand covered streets on a tour of exploration. Scores of children attached themselves to us and began to ask every question under the sun. When I spoke to them in Arabic, they were astonished. Having only seen Europeans on tours, they could not understand why even a Canadian Arab would travel with foreigners. One bright young girl of about eight turned to me asking in perfect classical Arabic, “Why are you travelling with nasaaras?” (Christians, which to Moroccans mean Europeans). In her mind, the strange ways of Europeans were not for Arabs.
Back on the road to Zagora, we stopped to have our picnic amid the palm trees in a Touareg’s tent. When lunch was over, our host who must have been in charge of many tourist picnics served us tea in an elaborate ceremony. He then took us for a tour of his kasbah-style home where his women exhibited handmade articles for sale at inflated prices. The tent in which we were entertained was only a tourist gimmick.
Before reaching Zagora, we stopped at Tamegroute, an old religious centre which houses a virtually unknown ancient library. It was established by Abu Abdallah Mohammed Bennacer who gathered books from all parts of the Muslim World. According to the learned caretaker who showed us rare, illuminated Qur’ans etched on gazelle skins dating from the 13th century, the majority of books deal with astronomy, poetry, religion and science. Once the library had 6,500 manuscripts. However, in the last few years 1,500 have been transferred to the University of Rabat. The remaining 4,000 of these rare manuscripts, a number dating from the 10th century and written in Toledo and Cordova are, to the world of learning, an undiscovered treasure.
It was Christmas Eve when we reached our hotel that evening. Understandably, nothing had been prepared to celebrate the event. Most Moroccans are Muslims and only in large cities where there are many tourists and businessmen is Christmas a special occasion. Nevertheless, our group prepared their own festive evening. Communicating in a variety of languages, including hand signs, we enjoyed our Christmas Eve on the edge of the Sahara.
The following day we retraced our route back to Ouarzazate where we toured Tifeltout – the kasha of El Glaoui – a feudal tyrant who was once the strong man of French colonial rule. Leaving this attractive town behind we started on our way back to Marrakesh. Less than half an hour later we stopped in the village of Aĭt Benhaddou.
From a distance its homes and castles had looked majestic. However, when we entered the town, we found that almost every structure was in ruins. According to our driver, the only reason this decaying ksar is important is that scenes from two movies ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and ‘Jewel of the Nile’ were filmed within its walls. In the last few decades, the movie industry has discovered the bewitching atmosphere of Morocco’s southern towns such as Aĭt Benhaddou. Their kasbahs and ksars surrounded by the greenery of the oases appear tailor-made for the cinema.
The sun was low on the horizon when Marrakesh came into view. The excitement of the country of the kasbahs had abated but the thought of spending a few more days I the city which poets have called ‘an enticing rose between the palms’ was arousing it anew.