On the Verge of Itself
Travel through Morocco for any length of
time and youll 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
Over the next few miles these dusty spent tracts give way to increasingly
verdant terrace gardens set along side small shepherds 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. Its 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 therell 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 Moroccos 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 ones 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 isnt.
What is true is that if you find yourself in a hard bargaining session,
even for a two dollar ashtray youll more than likely be invited
in for tea.
Lets 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 Moroccos
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 everyones
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 wed 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