On the Verge of Itself

Glenn Kaufmann

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. 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 shepherd’s huts. Goats begin to dot the hillside as the bus descends toward a small cluster of buildings, by appearance more abandoned slum than town.

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 seems 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 life 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 soil. Yet all too often in Morocco the desperate face of a blind child reminds me that, even in the oasis blowing sand still stings.

In a country of great cultural and artistic wealth Morocco’s greatest asset by far is its people. Trite as that is to say, the diversity of hearts, minds and the will to persist is nothing short of gut wrenching. Despite the challenges life throws their way, the people make room for any and all beliefs. The mind of Morocco is one that sees beyond ideological boundaries and has no patience for hate.

Traveling to a Muslim country I anticipated Mother Superior strictness. What I found instead was a people so at ease and unthreatened in their beliefs that they welcomed any and all denominations. Everyone I spoke with felt that to degrade the faith of another seems an act of heresy against one’s own faith. To disrespect another is to invite the same.

Perhaps it is the lack of proselytizing, but whatever the case, the Muslim faith as practiced in Morocco seems an intensely private and self-sustaining matter. Without the need to convert or to explain their religion most seem content to go about the business of worship and devotion. It is just what they do, some more and some less. This matter of fact devotion has so inextricably wed the tenants of the Koran into their lives that everything from the layout of the bus stations to the design of dishware lends itself to the traditions of this life.

All of the guidebooks tell you that everything in Morocco is subject to bargaining. As with much in the guides this is true and it isn’t. What is true is that if you find yourself in a hard bargaining session, even for a two dollar ashtray you’ll more than likely be invited in for tea.

“ Let’s sit and have some tea.” is the constant enticement. This is not a ploy to soften your edges and wring a few extra Dirham from your money belt, but rather a custom going back many generations in which they get to know you and your circumstances. They earnestly want to know the person with whom they are doing business. This is their tradition.
The drinking of endless cups of tea is simply part of life in Morocco’s more traditional towns. It is not necessarily done the same from city to city, or even from shop to shop, but within a particular family the tea is always poured the same. Attention to detail in this way is a form of active family record. I once watched two brothers pouring tea for separate clients. Their techniques were so identical as to be mirror images.

For families that are prosperous there is an orderliness and beauty to these traditions. But for many in Morocco, the economics of the country have been far less kind and tradition has fallen aside, to be replaced by triage economics.

Wahid, a lawyer turned schoolteacher in a small mountain town, told me over tea one evening that he believes the greatest challenge for King Mohammed VI is to improve the economy such that all children can attend school. As things stand, many children must work in family shops, as unofficial guides, or worse yet, beg to help their family survive. Striking a balance between inviting commerce and preserving traditions is on everyone’s mind, but solutions are much harder to come by. The urge to simply reach for and take as much of the new wealth of tourism is nearly all consuming in this atmosphere. Convincing the masses to wait patiently while the economy comes around is a bit like telling a drowning man to sit tight while you change into your swim trunks.

The ever-present travel guides further warn that Morocco has more than its share of beggars and swindlers. While this is true, the government has taken their reputation to heart and established the Tourist Police to keep begging in check and help promote tourism. On the surface this seems a bold and promising move. But there is more at work than meets the eye. The police crackdown on begging has reduced the number of beggars and helped to curb their tenacity. However, many working class Moroccans are now so afraid of the Tourist Police that they avoid any contact whatsoever with tourists. If I as an American were to go to dinner with a Moroccan friend he would have to walk ten feet ahead of or behind me in order to avoid arousing the suspicions of the police. The resulting standoffishness will, long term, only serve to damage what is now a growing tourist trade, the very thing the government wants to nourish.

Constantly weighing economic survival and technological advancement against tradition, family, and a faithful life it seems the balance struck between inviting tourism and supporting it in a way that preserves history and tradition is a perfect symbol of all that Morocco suffers.

Early in my trip I shared the rooftop at sunset with an old Berber woman. Neither of us spoke. We smiled at one another and laughed at children playing down below. Then, as if we’d shared too much, she bowed apologetically, veiled her face and hurried indoors. That night I learned these truths: we all stand in awe of beauty, we all love our children, and we are all afraid. Morocco meets you on these terms.

Copyright Glenn D. Kaufmann, 2001. All Rights Reserved