Evening in Erfoud, Morocco, from “A Poet’s Progress,” Newtopia Magazine #7

Dust storms have eaten away the faces on the reliefs carved in the courtyard’s walls. The desert is blue with ghosts. Mica shines for an instant like glass, then the desert buries it again. This must be what the seabottom looks like a thousand fathoms deep, yellow sand shimmering and swirling in the currents for an instant before it settles deeper into blue-gray.

The distant hills are thin, purplish, blue. The sky is no longer violet. The sky is not yet black. Mist slides across the stone terrace, rising in wisps when it reaches the sand. The bonelike sound of a woman’s heels walking toward my room, continuing down the hallway, not for me.

The drums start, a little tentative with lots of room between the beats, quickening into different rhythms, commenting on itself commenting on itself—a shoreline moving back and forth, a living thing, the fourth dimension always moving forward, waves cresting on a beach, erasing what it was, the whole process, the young women beginning to dance … the elder women, no longer fertile, keening.

Surreptitious Display of Affection, Casablanca

Heading into the Desert

To cultivate his land, the king has subsidized mining and agriculture in Morocco. If Moroccans can’t develop the lands themselves, foreigners are allowed to make use of the land for free as long as every step in the production process until the export leaves the country is performed by Moroccans. So the Germans and the French are here, mining phosphates out of the energy rich soil, and the Spanish are here turning scrub land into olive groves and argan plantations and apple orchards.

And rural Moroccans are flocking to cities that are being built by the government near the mines and cultivated orchards. The small apartments are filling up as fast as they are built, sometimes three families in a single bedroom. Ouarzazate—a town in a fertile plain, with many nearby mines as well, and whose name translates as “without noise”—has grown from 7,000 year-round residents to 36,000 in the last three years. So many people have come to Ouarzazate from the rural areas that policemen are employed around the clock at the city’s one red light because this is often the first stop light that some Moroccans have ever seen and they have no idea what it means.

For those who will not go to the cities, the king has put the villagers to work by building a series of four-lane super highways that are empty today but will one day—he believes—be filled with upwardly mobile Moroccans and tourists. Foreigners criticized the king for such an extravagant project when large swaths of his country were starving, just as ten years ago they criticized him for building a huge dam and canal project that was intended to store ten years’ worth of water for the country. The first six years after the dam was built was the great drought and the dam was nearly empty. But two years ago the rains began, and when they stopped the dam was not only filled to its limit, but engineers had to let out a significant amount of water in a kind of managed flood. The engineers had foreseen this possibility and designed a series of floodgates so the run-off rushed harmlessly into the desert. There is no way to measure how many lives and livelihoods were spared by this dam, or how many will thrive because of it when the droughts return, and they will.

Four years ago there was no rain for six months. The nomads had to sell many of their lambs and goats because they couldn’t find enough food and water to keep them alive. And then a disease came that killed off many of their flocks, and through two years of struggle some families ran out of reserves and had to sell everything. They had no choice but to move to the city in hopes of finding a job, but mostly ended up on the streets, begging. Ibrahim says that within a generation there will be no more nomads in Morocco.

Ninety-seven percent of Morocco’s energy is imported, and the king has made a five-year pledge to become energy independent, and that 40% of this new energy will be Green. On the roofs of just about every house—even in the nomads’ mountain sheds that are only occupied in the summer—there are solar panels, often beside a satellite dish that receives 512 channels of world-wide TV. The Moroccan nomads are better informed about international news than an average American. And since several television and radio stations originate in Morocco, they are better informed about what is going on in their own country than any generation in Moroccan history.

Since 2006, 200,000 acres of land have been turned into olive orchards, apple groves, cereal crops, and (in the mountains, to prevent soil erosion) pine trees.

Water is life for the farmers and agriculture is the third largest employer for the country, following the government and mining. Morocco is the world’s second largest supplier of phosphates for fertilizers. The fourth largest employer in Morocco is tourism. The government is the largest employer in the country, supplying over 40% of the country’s employment. There are so many policemen in the country that there is a saying that “Every family in Morocco has its own policeman.” There is a law that every check-point and guard station in the country has to be occupied equally by a government soldier, a local policeman, and a local security guard. This law was meant to ensure that the locals were always hired for any possible job but, since they were often not highly trained or educated, they were more or less mentored by highly trained and certified security forces.

Ninety percent of the country are Berbers—desert nomads—and historically they were first Jewish, then Christian, before converting to Islam in the 12th century. There are two Christian churches in Casablanca, but both were abandoned when the Christians left the city with the French in 1956. The Jews left Morocco in two waves: in 1948 and in 1967.

The first country to recognize the United States as a sovereign nation in 1776 after the War of Independence was Morocco.

We are headed into the desert and Ibrahim warns us about getting sand in our eyes. The desert tribes, he tells us, believe that sand helps to keep the eyes clean and improves the vision.

The tradition of covering a woman with a full burqa comes from the southern black tribes, not Islam, Ibrahim tells us. It was taught in African tribes that completely covering a woman was necessary to keep her from being overcome by evil. She is seen not only as the giver of life but as something to be feared, because she does the cooking and knows black magic and poisons and can spend all day plotting with her children against their father. But the younger children do not believe in this superstition and on this trip it has been rare to see a full burqa outside of the poorer parts of the country, mostly in the south, or in the immigrant communities near Marrakech.

In the center of the roundabout entering Erfoud, a teenage couple is lounging on the grass. His head is in her lap and her right hand smoothes and strokes his hair. He reaches up and cups her left breast and she smiles down on him tenderly like a Madonna giving milk.

Nomads conceive of numbers abstractly, as not having a literal meaning. When asked their ages, they have no sense of what it means to be twenty-five or fifty or eighty years old. A nomad does not count their flocks (although they know numbers and can count if they have to) but examine each of their flock’s faces as they pass on their way back into the pen at night, and can recognize when one is missing. A neighbor of Ibrahim’s can tell which goat is missing out of a flock of 195.

A water source within a hundred miles is close enough for a nomad family. Several family members will travel in shifts on camels or donkeys, or individual members of the family will travel in one continuous walking relay. A camel travels twenty-four miles a day and a donkey or mule covers five miles a day.

Many of these nomads are now technically rich, not only in land wealth (since the government acknowledges their ownership of the lands where they have traditionally grazed their cattle) but in cash.

There is one private university (where 80% of the classes are taught in English) and forty public universities, where tuition is free. The purpose of education in Islam is “to become what you should become.” Education and international economic development are seen as the future of Morocco and they are investing heavily in the next generation. There is a saying in Morocco, “The beautiful ones are not yet born”—there are better days to come.

Shaman’s Door, Meknas

The Desert

This is the desert—
what’s been taken
and what’s been left behind.

It is finished.
It’s the past and now just looks lost.
Driving on empty highways for hours at a time.

The sky above the desert is transformed,
broken slivers of light crisscrossing a puff of cloud
the color of smoke and sand in a water-white sky.

We can’t make it to the ruins before the storm—
we could run but wouldn’t reach the jeeps before it was too late,
so getting wet is absolutely certain.

The waiting’s not so painful
when there’s absolutely nothing to be done.

Please Leave a Comment:

Comment Guidelines: Basic XHTML is allowed (a href, strong, em, code). All line breaks and paragraphs are automatically generated. Off-topic or inappropriate comments will be edited or deleted. Email addresses will never be published. Keep it PG-13 people!

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>

All fields marked with "*" are required.