Happy (almost) Halloween! I’m typing in the van on our final leg home from the Tafilalt region, an oasis near the beginnings of the Sahara Desert—I had an absolutely incredible weekend, and have so much to tell everyone! This is a marathon post…get comfortable!
To begin; the Tafilalt region is a huge oasis; it’s the second largest in Africa (behind the Nile Valley). Some general info about oases; contrary to popular belief, they are not naturally occurring and miraculous areas found sporadically throughout the desert. Every oasis is entirely man-made, and requires intensive labor to create and maintain. The productive soil that you might find on a farm in Kansas doesn’t exist in the Sahara desert, so it must be made with the addition of nutrients and biomass. And of course, water is scarce—so it must be brought in through extensive irrigation systems. Yet despite these difficulties, oasis agriculture is the most productive of any farming method in the world; if done correctly, one can grow multiple crops year-round while simultaneously renewing the soil.
|A panorama of the Tafilalt Oasis--it stretches for at least an hours drive, if not longer.|
Our group left Al-Akhawayn at 2 on Friday afternoon, and got into the Tafilalet Hotel in Erfoud at around 8:30PM, so we didn’t see much of the oasis on the way in (it gets dark around 5:30 now). The scenery on the way, however, was absolutely gorgeous—it looked a lot like Jackson Hole, Wyoming! Saturday, however, was full of stops. First, Professors Shoup and Ross took us to the remnants of an underground irrigation system. These tunnels (again, entirely man made) ran from the foothills of a mountain range dozens of miles away to the oasis, and back out again (you also have to drain water from an oasis, otherwise the area will turn into a salt plain as a result of the high salt content of the water in the region). The tunnels ran perhaps 5-8 meters below ground—slaves were forced to dig out these channels and maintain them, literally back-breaking work. But because they are below ground there is far less water evaporation, making these channels an efficient transport mechanism (better than even the Roman aqueduct). The oasis is also fed by water diverted from the Ziz and Ris rivers. However, due to serious flooding these rivers were dammed in the 1960s; while this provides the region with a steady supply of drinking water, the lack of flood water has starved the region’s water table and thus strained the oasis system. In case you haven’t noticed, water is an extremely important concern here; in fact, every family that owns land in the oasis also owns water rights (i.e. the right to have water let out from the dams to your specific plot). There is one man in each sector of the oasis who memorizes the exact number of hours that a family is allotted per year; thus, one’s livelihood in the oasis is literally measured in hours. And of course there are disputes between families and with the government about who gets water when. At this stop we also learned that Morocco is the site of many a Hollywood movie (when you can’t film in Egypt/Syria/Saudi Arabia, Morocco seems like a friendly substitute); we saw a mountain range used in “The Mummy”, a palace used for the movie “Sahara”, and drove near the starting gates of the famous Ocean of Fire race in “Hidalgo”, among others. (picture of tunnel + picture of tunnel + mountain).
|One of the tunnel entrances--this one was abandoned when the state installed new irrigation systems.|
|The tunnel stretches all the way to those distant mountains, marked by a row of holes.|
|The mountain to my right was used in The Mummy!|
From here, we made the quick drive to a nearby oasis village. The village was surrounded by a large protective wall (to ward off raiders) made by the ram-pack method; dirt and straw are mixed with a little bit of water, placed into molds, and then rammed repeatedly with large poles to compact the material into a firm building material. This material must then be plastered over with more dirt (it erodes quickly)—if properly maintained, these walls can last up to 150 years. Villagers also used the more commonly known adobe bricks to fashion the upper sections, though this is a far less sturdy building material than rammed earth. We learned that the villages in this region are among the most conservative communities in Morocco—we did not see any women (unless they were trying to duck inside houses), and certainly no women who were not fully covered. Water issues also play into gender roles in the village—because the government run water fountain was situated outside the village, little girls are traditionally the ones assigned to go fetch water (the boys aren’t trusted to do the job right). Because it takes hours to fill up the water buckets necessary for the family, this means that girls must skip school on a regular basis, resulting in a nearly 90% illiteracy rate among females in the village. And next to the village, we saw one of the many dams/irrigation channels that the government has recently build; unfortunately, due to relatively poor planning and coordination with the locals, these irrigation channels have actually done more harm than good.
|The large wall surrounding the village (which was falling apart)|
Next stop: قصر الفيضة, a palace built by prince Moulay abd al-Rahman during his rule near the beginning of the Alawi dynasty (which still rules Morocco today, under King Mohammed the 6th). The building was used as the house of the governor during the French occupation of Morocco; while the inner sections have been restored into a museum, the curators and their families were not evicted, and still live there today. This might seem odd; however, the curators are actually descendents of the prince’s (and then the governor’s) slaves. These slaves were treated relatively well by their masters in that they did not have to do manual field labor, but instead performed duties and chores at the palace; they were thus exceptionally loyal to the Alawi dynasty as they showed us around! After our tour we were served tea by the eldest of the curators (Moroccan hospitality at its finest), and were then on our way to another palace built by abd al-Rahman. This one, however, was in total ruins—a crew was working to restore it, but the differences in care were striking.
|Artistic doorway at the first, restored palace.|
|The equivalent doorway at the second palace (a wall collapsed here a few months ago...)|
Then, we hit the hotel for lunch; a delicious beef tagine made with a specialty vegetable called quint; you can’t eat it raw, but when cooked it tastes exactly like a baked apple. Hope I find another one! From here, we headed out for our evenings activities. First, we stopped by a fossil museum; as it turns out, the Tafilalt region is rich in fossil deposits, especially Trilobites (at one point, the region that is now Morocco was underwater). Next we stopped by the souk in Rissani; Professor Shoup showed me where to find quality Moroccan dates (which are the pride and joy of the Tafilalt region); I hadn’t had a date before now! I liked it, but it’s an acquired taste…nothing like any fruit that I’ve ever eaten before (technically, it’s a grass plant…). But these two stops paled in comparison to the evening’s real activity: a visit to the Sufi Zawiyat Sidi al-Ghazi. Sufism is a branch of Islam that is taken a lot of criticism in the Arab world; some consider their religious practices to be shirk (which means association, the idea that one might have powers similar to those of Allah) and thus illegitimate. But the sect is on the rise, and is thus an important aspect of Islamic culture here in Morocco. We had a 4 hour program with them, involving recitation from the Koran, religious songs (think of an impromptu, religious version of a capella singing), and a humongous meal of fried chicken, fries, and couscous. I really ate like a king this weekend! In any case, it was an incredible experience. The people at the Zawiyat were more than friendly, and were entirely non-judgmental; if every American were to see this side of Islam, I suspect that our collective opinion about the Middle East would be very different. (Side note: I attempted to ask one of the members “how many brothers are there in this house”, and he answered eight. I was surprised—there were more than eight brothers in the room at the time—so I said “only eight?” to which he and everyone else burst out laughing. He thought that I meant REAL brothers…and he had eight! So now I know that the word for Sufi brother is not “brother” but rather “محبين”). We left the Zawiyat and returned to the hotel around midnight.
|محبين at the Zawiyat. In this picture, they are singing a traditional Islamic song about what heaven is like.|
So after a packed Saturday, a long sleep in on Sunday…was not in the game plan. We got up at 4AM the next morning, to head out to Merzouga dunes and watch the sun rise. To start, I can’t even begin to describe the stars here—because there was literally no light pollution in the area, the view was unlike anything I’ve seen before. I could clearly see the haze that is the Milky Way galaxy, and more stars than any American city dweller would ever see—it was a really humbling experience. And the drive over to the dunes in our escort SUVs was surreal; the rocky and barren desert landscape combined with the pitch black of night made it feel like we were on the moon in dune buggies! There was no actual road—we just drove wherever the driver wanted, across the desert and to the beginning of the sand dunes, where we were met by our camels (which were actually not that smelly/terrible after all). We rode out a little ways (not far at all), and then climbed up to the top of some dunes to watch the sun rise. The combination of the stars and the sunrise was one of the most beautiful things that I have ever seen. And I have TONS of photographs from the dunes! And sand…lots of sand. I’m still finding sand, even after my shower. Sand sand sand.
|Just before sunrise. It was still a little cold at this time--the stars were just disappearing.|
|Dying of thirst and exhausting (from laughing)|
|These guys kept following us.|
|One of the small camel trains. They were taller than I thought!|
And we’ve been on the way home since then! We stopped for lunch at Kasbah Asmae: I had another delicious tagine and Moroccan salad (FINALLY SOME YUMMY COOL AND FRESH VEGETABLES), and am still completely stuffed 3 hours later. Totally worth it. That’s all for now—If you made it through this whole post, I’m really impressed. I’ve totally forgotten what I wrote two pages ago…
Miss you all—enjoy the photos!
Words of the Day: جمل (camel), رمل (sand), and نجوم (stars)