On the Road through the Rif Mountains, Morocco from “A Poet’s Progress,” Newtopia Magazine #5

While going in search of the wild Barberry apes in the Rif Mountains Ibrahim has some advice for us: “Never trust a monkey.”

The slave trade began in Africa in the 16th century, with members of one tribe selling its conquered enemies. One horse equaled ten slaves and one slave equaled two camels.

In the 1950s, the French discovered that the bedrock of Morocco was made of fossils caught in sedimentary rock millions of years ago when Morocco was at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. The Moroccans knew how to find these stones, but since the Koran has no mention of fossils, they thought they were selling minerals to the French. That is why the roadside stalls selling fossils are labeled “Minerales” even today.

The life of a nomad revolves around finding pastures and water for their sheep and goats year-round. There must be water but not too much water, there must be sun but not too much sun. The Berbers have a saying, “Rain in summer is wealth.”

But in the last twenty years the weather in Morocco has gone crazy. One hundred millimeters of rain—nearly ten times the average yearly rainfall—can fall in an hour, and there are winters without any rain or snow at all. Floods have swept repeatedly through the Ourika valley, washing away entire farms and families. It is no longer legal to build a house in the floodplains without government authorization.

And there’s the sudden cold. Last winter set records for the lowest recorded temperatures in the mountains. Unprepared for the cold, several hundred nomads died that winter crossing the mountains, trying to reach their summer pastures or find water for their flocks.

And there’s the sudden heat—summers are hotter and drier than ever. A nomad is used to the heat, but the last two years Morocco has been reaching temperatures difficult for even a Berber to bear.

En Garde, Erfoud

September 17, 2010: Fes, Morocco

A group of children are sitting on a long concrete slab in front of a building in the medina of Fes. One of the girls—about seven years old, dark and unkempt—leaps up and runs in front of me, yelling at me in Arabic, pushing against my stomach with her tanned hands, walking backwards. I realize she is almost exactly Zoe’s age, that this would be Zoe if she were born in Fes. A teenage girl rounds the corner, almost running into our group and leaps backwards to avoid contact and spits on the ground between us. It’s been explained to us that we must ask people if we can take their photos but still several of our group point their cameras at the locals as we walk quickly down the alleyways of the old city. Walking behind them I can see the people react violently against being photographed, bringing their hands up in front of their faces, scowling and looking away, waving their hands to scold us, or spitting at our feet as we pass. One shopkeeper rushes after us down the street, grabs a man from our party, points to the camera and makes him erase the photo. A young European woman comes up to me and says “Bon jour.” I smile and say “Bon jour” in reply, and she begins to yell at me. Even though I’m not carrying my camera, with what little French I know I can tell she’s asking me if I’m having fun, photographing the locals with no more courtesy than if I was visiting a zoo. It is explained to us that locals dress up in authentic costumes from their family’s historical caste—like the waterbearers and the musicians—and that this is how they make their living and they expect to be paid to have their picture taken. You should always negotiate the price first, Ibrahim tells us, and he recommends five dirhams, or about sixty cents. He says that if you wait until after the photo is taken, the price often rises dramatically to 100-150 dirhams, and sometimes they both ask for payment, whereas if you negotiate beforehand it’s assumed that it’s for both of them and they will share. I wait on the bus and watch one couple from our group walk up to the waterbearers and take some video and photos with them. When it’s over they turn their backs and walk away, ignoring the commotion behind them as the waterbearers follow them to the edge of the park, hurling insults in four different languages at their backs and shaking their fists. Boys of many ages are playing soccer in a dusty lot in front of the 17th century ruins outside Erfoud. A sudden yell of “En garde!” and I watch as one of the boys aims a soccer ball at my head. It drops and takes a weird hop and I have to leap out of the way. The closest boy—maybe seven years old—shrieks and imitates my clumsy leap, scolding me with a singsong nursery rhyme in Arabic, his eyes crossed, sticking out his chest, his hands on his hips, wiggling them back and forth in an exaggerated pantomime of a sex act as the other children shout and laugh. When I walk down a street leading away from the center square, away from the group, the locals fall silent, staring as I pass. When I look up and smile, they continue to stare as if I’m not actually standing in front of them, as if I don’t exist, as if I’m a phantom, an apparition projected on a screen. When I leave the medina, I almost immediately lose my way in the increasingly narrow one-way streets, until there is room for only one to pass at a time—the one nearest to a doorway stands sideways on the stoop, allowing the other to pass—never entering an alley and leaving it headed in same direction. I am the only tourist in this part of the medina. I know where I am for only a few steps before getting lost again. Other than when I am doing something forbidden have I ever really been alone? Whatever I wanted this is what it is, one street and then the next, going nowhere in particular, over and over again. Whatever I see will in a moment be gone. What was once in the distance is what I’m walking through and I’ll never be able to walk fast enough or far enough to walk out of the frame. As the sun sets, the details begin to disappear. Long hours of empty desert, baked earth, withered grass, bones and dehydrated fur, the sting of woodsmoke, the dunes constantly changing, the sharp edge of rocks, the sky distorted by the wind, the moon a part of this place as much as the cliffs and valleys. The horizon glows with heat and the sky slowly turns red and black and distant herons arc across it. Soon the evening is a blank. Ibrahim warned me, “No one has to tell you that when you see a spinning cloud of sand headed in your direction that it’s time to move indoors.”

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