The Authentic Morocco driver who picked us up from our Riad at eight o’clock sharp on Tuesday morning was not the same man who brought us back the following Friday evening. That first day he was clad all in black: chinos, shirt with button down collar, lace up shoes and a leather jacket. He seemed pre-occupied, wanting to load us into his white Toyota Land Cruiser as quickly as possible, manhandling our luggage across the busy, dusty road, dodging the cars, erratic bicycles, buzzing mopeds and lazy, donkey drawn carts that formed part of the Marrakech rush hour. It was only as we reached the outskirts of the city that he seemed to slowly begin to relax and conversation began to flow more easily.
My wife Kay and I watched as over the next four days this man changed with the landscape. As we started the climb through the verdant, rugged High Atlas Mountains, he became more animated when he pointed out the primitive, ochre coloured villages perched on rocky outcrops, or nestled in steep valleys next to rushing streams. His gestures became more expansive, his warm smile more ready and by the time we stopped for our first pot of sweet mint tea against the stunning mountain backdrop, he had taken off his jacket and started joking with our two teenage sons, Will and Ed.
The amazing geology of the mountains gave way to the dense green palm groves of the fertile Draa valley. We stopped the Land Cruiser near a farming village and wandered on foot through the small fields of alfalfa and wheat, balancing on the mud walls of the irrigation channels, the air warm, still and humid, smelling of cut grass and earth. Mohammed drank from the channels, “bit salty”, he concluded, and picked almonds from trees, munching them happily as he strolled. The joyful shriek from behind us announced the arrival of three impish children from the village, tousled, dusty and breathless, carrying a deflated plastic football. Kay rifled through her bag and produced a few boiled sweets and some balloons, bought especially for just such an occasion. Ten minutes later we were surrounded by at least twenty expectant children, with Kay trying desperately to distribute goodies in an orderly, English kind of way. Mohammed, twinkled eyed, watched with huge amusement as any semblance of queuing, impartiality and fair play disappeared amongst the squeals, shouts and small eager hands. Just as matters seemed to be spiralling out of control, with some children feeling hard done by and loudly (and incomprehensibly) putting forward their views, Mohammed swept in on a cloud of bonhomie, jokes, winks, nudges and a promise to inflate their football with the pump in the Land Cruiser. We later discovered these children belonged to his people, the Berbers, the independent minded nomads of Northern Africa. They loved him almost as much as he loved them.
The same scene, or variations of it, would play itself out many times throughout the rest of the trip. Wherever we went, even in the remotest part of the Sahara desert, Mohammed knew people. He was always greeted with huge affection, beaming smiles and hugs, and as our eyes became more used to the social nuances of Berber life, we often noticed that before leaving some seemingly long lost friend, he would access some remote compartment in the Land Cruiser and leave something with the poorest and most needy.
On our second day, as we approached the outskirts of the desert, Mohammed surprisingly appeared in flowing white Berber robes, intricately and beautifully stitched with golden patterns. By lunch time that day, out of nowhere, a black Berber turban appeared on his head and together with his soft, tan leather slippers, the sartorial transformation was complete. In the same way that my youngest son, no matter how hard he’s cleaned, washed, ironed and combed, can ever look comfortable in anything other than jeans and tea shirt, Mohammed now looked at one with himself.
By the time we had reached our camp amongst the huge, breathtaking, golden sand dunes of Erg Chebbi, I think Mohammed, like a cat, had decided that he liked us. Over a candlelit dinner under the Saharan moon, he regaled us with stories of spirits and Berber legends, of self help cures for tummy upsets (large quantities of cumin) and tales of snakes, camels, life and death in the desert.
Take your son”, he whispered into my ear, “walk into the darkness of the desert away from the light. Lie on a blanket and look at the desert stars, you will never forget it”. He was right.
The next morning, up early to see the sunrise over the desert, Will almost stepped on Mohammed, who had spent the night sleeping fully clothed in a sandy hollow he had fashioned near the top of a dune. He too was watching for the sun, but also examining the sky and feeling the breeze, predicting the day ahead. I could not have predicted the effect that day would have on me, although perhaps he could.
After breakfast under a rapidly warming, cloudless desert sky, we larked about a little, driving over small dunes for no particular reason other than the joy of it, getting stuck in the soft sand, and using every combination of gear in the four wheel drive Land Cruiser to get out, Mohammed roaring with infectious laughter. Soon we started driving over flatter terrain, scattered with irregular, cricket ball sized, razor sharp volcanic rocks, like a lunar landscape. In the distance we spotted a well, a simple bore hole with a concrete square arch for a rope and bucket to be raised and lowered by hand, surrounded by a small group of Berber women and children washing clothes under the baking sun. None of them wore shoes and they seemed to be dressed for English winter conditions, with some of them incongruently wearing western style sweaters over their more traditional robes, despite the baking heat. It was after all still only spring in the Sahara; I guessed they would be used to unbearably hot conditions in the summer. Mohammed was greeted, as usual, with smiles and warmth but then there was some more serious looking discussion, with low voices and much gazing at the ground. Mohammed came back to the Land Cruiser, rummaged around in the glove compartment and handed over to the women a small pharmaceutical style cardboard box. The tone lifted a little and we drove just a short distance to a small Berber nomadic settlement of just four families, some of whom we had just met at the well.
The settlement consisted of five or six low lying tent like shelters, three made from short wooden poles supporting a rude canvass roof made from camel hair, held upright with guy ropes. The others were igloo shaped, formed by low irregular walls made from the rocks round about, covered by tarpaulins, camel hair canvass and Berber rugs all supported internally with thin, arched canes. Once the Land Cruiser had pulled to a halt amongst the shelters, we were immediately surrounded by ten to fifteen excited children ranging in age from two or three to about twelve. Kay once again found her supplies of goodies and we all felt a sense of déjà vu as she vainly tried to distribute lollypops, smiley face stickers, notepads, crayons and sweets. Once everything had gone, the children carried on shouting and jumping until she eventually turned upside down the Marks and Spencer carrier bag the goodies were held in, but still they would not calm. Eventually Kay realized it was the brightly coloured carrier bag itself they still wanted.
We were led into one of the larger camel hair tents where Berber women greeted us. The men folk were, apparently, away at the market selling goats. Inside the tent, open at one side, it was cooler. The floor was covered with brightly coloured and intricately made Berber rugs and cushions. It is polite in Berber society to offer visitors water, but Mohammed insisted that he alone drank it, from a dazzling golden bowl – he knew our western stomachs would not have coped with it. The women busied themselves making tea for us over an open fire. They went to the back of the tent and dug around in hessian bags producing traditional glass tea cups shaped like sherry glasses and a silver coloured tea pot, the equivalent of Sunday best. Whilst tea was being prepared, we played with the children, who tried on our sunglasses and grinned the widest grins I have ever seen. We took photographs and joked around with them, Mohammed translating.
A thin old woman joined us, age and wisdom etched on her agile face. There was a return of the more serious conversation as the woman squatted to talk to Mohammed. Eventually Mohammed turned to us and asked, “Have you got any medicine? This woman is sick”.
The woman looked at us with calm and dignity. We asked what was wrong with her and eventually we left our entire supply of paracetamol and Imodium, the only things we had that we thought might help. We looked around. These people had virtually nothing and yet it was already clear that whatever they had they shared. There didn’t seem to be a sense of mine, just ours, or yours if you wanted it. There was no embarrassment in asking for help, for they would gladly give it if asked. It was their way. Only together could these people survive the unbearably harsh conditions of the desert. And yet their happy, smiling faces betrayed contentment with their lot, even happiness. Without access to medicines or doctors, education, transport, electricity or any of the thousands of must-have devices we westerners come to regard as essential to maintain our lives, these people survive in some of the harshest of conditions on the planet.
Whilst drinking our sweet tea (“Berber whiskey”) we broke out a large bag of paprika flavoured Doritos. The kids ate them with enormous delight and gusto and then, unused to the salt and paprika, we watched as, round eyed, they gulped down all the remaining water from the golden bowl.
After three glasses of tea, the polite number, we stirred to leave, and I asked Mohammed if it would be inappropriate to leave some money. He smiled and said it would be fine. Feeling awkward, I approached the old lady and stretched out my hand with some bank notes. She took my hand, and whilst looking straight into my eyes, kissed it. That moment changed my life forever. It was like slow motion. As I looked into the old woman’s eyes, I could see the years of struggle, the hardships and tragedies, her childhood, adulthood and motherhood, her love and commitment . The unbearable pain and joy of the desert and her acceptance of both. The knowledge of her own mortality and the ultimate futility of our trivial pursuits compared to Allah’s greatness. Our shared humanity. The world will continue to turn, with or without us. In that moment I would have given her everything I owned in the world – I felt so small and humble in the face of such courage and grace. But instead I retreated to the Land Cruiser and quietly shed a tear. So overwhelmed was I that I could hardly talk for most of the rest of the day.
And so when we eventually returned to the grasping city, we were all different people. Mohammed had reverted to his western clothes, but we had seen him without his cloak of disguise. When I decided to write about Morocco, I had to write about him, for he IS morocco to me. Beautiful, changing, caring, sharing, larger than life, warm, generous and wonderful company. I still have his number in my mobile. I can’t bear to delete it.