Travelling to the Threshold of the Sahara
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
It is hard to visualize while strolling the streets of modern Agadir and rubbing shoulders with tourists from all over the world that a little over 200 kilometres away lies the endless Sahara. For anyone with the slightest romantic inclination the attraction of tis nearby mysterious desert cannot be resisted.
Sunning myself on the tranquil Agadir beach, I dreamt of this colourful and of the nomadic Blue People, caravans of camels, oases and, of course, the guedra, an exotic dance of the Sahara. In my mind, it was an animated picture of desert life of which I had to partake.
For the short time which still remained of my vacation, I decided that the best bet was to travel to Goulimine, a city which edges the Sahara, and which is the gateway to the deep Moroccan South. I was sure that in this town those tourists, like myself, who have a taste for the strange and rare, would wish a rendezvous with the mysterious desert world.
It was still dark when our bus travelling in semi-murkiness left Agadir in the early morning heading for Goulimine. Daybreak was barely upon us when we crossed the Massa River, important in Arab history. At its mouth, the 7th century Arab conqueror of North Africa, Uqba ibn Nafi who had made good his claim to advance Islam to the ends of the earth, rode his horse into the Atlantic proclaiming, “O! God! If You did not put the ocean before me, I would have gone on to conquer new lands in Your Name!.” There is no doubt they had ambition and vigour, these Arabs of yesteryear.
At Tiznit, an oasis city of 20,000 and surrounded by reddish ramparts, we stopped for refreshments. Some historians assert that the town was founded in the 7th century by Lalla Zninia, a holy woman, whose shrine is an important religious monument. Nevertheless, in spite of this legend, the town is relatively new, having been built about 100 years ago by the Sultan Hassan I. He constructed it as a military centre in his attempt to stem the Spaniards who were beginning to occupy southern Morocco. Today, with its busy streets and large central square encircled by arched doorways and its reddish buildings touched by blue, it emits a strange enchantment. The old section of town, romantically enclosed within crenelated walls, is an active centre frequented by the inhabitants of the Anti Atlas and the distant oases. It is noted for its souks (markets), especially the silver shops which we intended to explore on our way back from Goulimine.
A short distance after Tiznit, the Sous Plains ended, and we were in the foothills of the Anti Atlas Mountains. Argan trees intermixed here and there with tiny plots of land dotted the surrounding hills and valleys. This landscape continued until we crossed the military town of Bou-Izakarn about 40 kilometres before reaching Goulimine. After this village the land flattened into a semi-desert valley enclosed by barren hills. It was an introduction into the Sahara with its sand dunes and few miles beyond Goulimine.
In half an hour we were driving through this gateway to the desert on our way to the camel market one kilometre south of the city on the road to Tan Tan. This souk is held every Saturday when the town comes alive. Tribesmen from the surrounding countryside stream in to one of the largest camel markets in the country.
Our bus stopped on the edge of this trading centre and we were left to roam the market for a couple of hours. What a disappointment! Where were the Blue Men I had come to see? I posed this very question to the first person I encountered in Goulimine. He had a logical response.
Apparently, many of them moved, with the encouragement of the government, within the proximity of Laayoune which was once the capital of the Spanish Sahara. After the Spanish left, the authorities wished to populate that relatively empty and newly liberated part of Morocco. The desert Blue Men were the ideal candidates. Hence, gone from Goulimine are almost all the Blue Men who had intrigued globe- trotters for centuries.
On the other hand, although the market has lost some of its colour, much remains. Men in turbans of black, blue, white and yellow with many varied Moroccan national or western dress rubbed shoulders with women attired in native dresses of black, blue, purple, white and all the shades in-between. Here and there the odd man was veiled, a leftover from the days when men hid their aces behind the lithem (veil) to protect themselves from desert dust and sand. These few veiled men are the descendants of the ‘People of the Veil’ who founded the illustrious Moroccan Almoravide Dynasty which held the Christians of Spain at bay for a hundred years. In spite of the common belief that for some mysterious reason only the Berber Touareg men hide their faces, the veil, also worn by the Arab tribesmen of the western Sahara, is only a form of protection from the elements.
Adding a foreign touch to the market were the tourists brought in by bus loads every Saturday from Agadir wandering around what must have been to them a strange surrounding. They appeared to be part of the action, blending well with the crowds bargaining for or trading camels, donkeys, cows, goats and sheep.
Alongside the animals, the market had for sale or trade a whole range of products and other goings on. Huge piles of vegetables and fruits were edged by butchers and saleswomen displaying silver jewellery. Spice and herb stalls were surrounded by clothing exhibited in front of tents, while here and there storytellers and medicine men had circles of people enthralled with their oratories. Dominating all was an auctioneer in one corner selling grain, his words barely understood above the shouts of a nearby perfume seller. It was a trading scene out of the medieval world. I found it hard to leave this colourful market when we returned to explore the sleepy city.
Goulimine, a town of 25,000, is the first in a chain of oases located at the foot of the Bani Mountains. In the 16th and 17th centuries, it was the international and commercial centre through which most of the trade with black Africa was channeled. It was the last stop for traders bringing the gold, salt and slaves from sub-Saharan Africa to the north to trade for cereals, sugar and Moroccan handmade products. Today, it is still an important commercial centre, but some of the romance of the past ages has disappeared. However, much remains – enough to lure the moviemakers. Part of the films “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Muhammad, the Messenger of God” were shot in this town.
We stopped in the central square of the older part of the city to walk around and inspect its reddish structures fronted by pillars decorated with colourful tiles. When the guide decided to take the group for lunch at the Hotel L’Ere Nouvelle, I detached myself from them in order to explore the old town by foot. After lunch, I met my fellow passengers at the hotel where we were to view a performance of the guedra dance.
The guedra, danced by women on their knees, is one of the most unique dances in the world. It has been described by travelers as exotic, erotic, picturesque and quaint whose origins and movements are lost in the mist of time. With these glowing descriptions, I was excited, anticipating the performance.
However, what we saw was a gimmick put on for tourists. Heavy-set women well past their prime went through the motions. It was apparent that it could be an interesting dance but as is often said, anything is good enough for tourists.
We left Goulimine and returned to Tiznit and its silver market. As is usual on tours, the guide herded his sheep into a few stores where he would return for his cut of the profits.
In almost all third world countries, most tours which are billed as sight-seeing, end up in restaurants and markets where the tourist is gouged, and the profits divided with the guides. These visitors, who already have paid a high price for the trip and have only a short vacation, pay these prices because of their limited time or ignorance of the values. Usually, if tourists leave the group to shop and bargain by themselves, they can save a good deal of money.
I took my own advice and left the guide and his captives to do some shopping since silver products made in Tiznit are cheaper than in other parts of the country. Skilled craftsmen turn out a great variety of charming filigree bracelets, delicate earrings and anklets, necklaces and broaches of endless varieties and many other decorative jewellery items. The workmanship is the best in the country. Hence, much of the silver sold elsewhere in Morocco comes form this small city.
After Tiznit the excitement of the journey was gone. The desert with its sand dunes, colourful people, horsemen, camel caravans, oases and dancers became, once again, only a land of fantasy. I had lived for a few moments on the edge of this colourful world. With that, I, like many other travelers, had to be content.