CHAPTER FOUR

THE TAFILALT

The word 'paradise' derives from the Persian faradis, meaning an oasis garden protected by walls.


The signs on the outskirts of Er-Rachidia welcome the tourist in five different languages. Not that there's much to be welcomed to. The town is a large, modern and ugly administrative sprawl, in many ways the equivalent of a moon base. It lies stranded all alone on the edge of a horizonless desert plateau that stretches south from the last buttresses of the High Atlas all the way to Algeria, and then beyond still further. From any vantage point one can see the sallow sand and rock that surrounds the town, much the same sober orange that plasters its buildings and barracks. The skyline is broken only by a handful of minarets, and the only vegetation aside from irrigated palm groves to the north of town is a smattering of roadside scrub grass, watered by occasional rains that trickle off the asphalt road. Elsewhere, the desert is too dry to sustain any vegetation, and from here on south, settled life is concentrated entirely in a chain of small oases and Ksour that straddle the valley of the Ziz (the Tafilalt oasis). Everything else, from one horizon to the other, is wasteland.
   Despite the decline of nomadism and the trans-Saharan trade associated with it, Er-Rachidia has continued to prosper, not least because of its governmental status over the Tafilalt. Er-Rachidia houses the headquarters of a substantial military garrison, intended to guard against both Algeria and the Polisario Front, and the city in consequence often gives the impression of being under siege. The strategic value of Er-Rachidia straddled across the fertile Ziz at the very edge of the Sahara was first recognised by the French Foreign Legion, who built a fortress here at the turn of the century. From the fortress came the town's first name, Ksar es-Souk, for it was ostensibly constructed to guard a traditionally important market site for Saharan nomads and mountain Berbers alike. However, the demise of the caravans led to the town being renamed in the 1970s after Moulay er-Rachid, Morocco's first Alaouite Sultan and brother of the notorious Moulay Ismaïl.
   The military apart, the most important contribution to Er-Rachidia's sustained growth has been the advent of tourism. Its proximity to the beautiful and exotic Tafilalt, to the popular oasis of Meski, and to the equally popular sand dunes of Erg Chebbi, has led to a boom in hotels and other tourist orientated establishments. Their names say it all: Hôtel Marhaba Royal, Oasis, Meski, Rissani, Café Hôtel Restaurant Renaissance... Other signs state 'English Spoken' and 'Go No Further - Fast Food Here!' Western influences are visible throughout the town, the more obvious being the quantity of advertising for corporate First World goods: Coca Cola, Pepsi, Fanta, Marlboro, Camel, Sony, JVC, Tudor, Peugeot, Vespa, and even TOTO football pools. For some reason, 'dental technicians' seem to occupy most street corners, displaying gleaming sets of false teeth, dentures and brackets in small glass cabinets. Army fatigues and uniforms hang in the window of the 'Super Taillieur à l'impeccable: Civil et Militaire'. The display of the Studio 2000 video and photographic store is plastered with gaudy portraits of young couples nervously holding hands, of fat babies, and of soldiers posing rigidly in front of painted Alpine landscapes. There is a curious over abundance of insurance companies, hidden between hundreds of half built or abandoned buildings. There are dozens of opticians too. The dusty atmosphere gives the town one of the highest rates of eye disease in the country, and everywhere I saw walleyed or half-blind people, suffering from trachoma and cataracts.
   A bare rocky outcrop a few kilometres from the city is carved with enormous Arabic script that reads: 'For God, King and Country'. Like a gold-digger's stave, it is a claim for land that has yet to repay the prospector's faith. Er-Rachidia is above all a statement. A statement asserting both Man's right and Man's ability to inhabit the hostile desert.

Cry, you old idler of incoherent ages.
Your pretensions will only make us laugh
For we have made our cement
From the dust of the desert.

Paul Eluard, Les Constructeurs (4)

To my liking, Er-Rachidia had far too much of an outpost kind of feeling - dull, introverted, incestuous and hopeless. Fierce sand storms sweep-in periodically from the desert, no matter what the time of year. There are miniature sand drifts everywhere, that no one bothers to clear away any more. Wide and dusty streets delineate uninspiring rectangular blocks of orange-plastered buildings, three- or-four storey affairs in the bland and universally hated style known by architects as 'desert-utilitarian'. A few cypress, pepper and palm trees line the broad avenue Muhammad V, but the older postcards on sale in its tobacconists show a street that was once much greener. There is little ornamentation, except for a few faded posters of King Hassan II that hang from lampposts, and a couple of dusty fountains that have not seen water for years. In a way, the town itself is a reminder of the desert's destructive wiles, because many of its buildings date from after the disastrous flooding of the Ziz in 1955, a catastrophe that left over 25,000 people homeless.
   I arrived in mid afternoon. It was extremely hot. There was very little traffic: only the odd soldier on a scooter, and a camouflaged water truck that belched noxious black clouds into the sky. A gendarme paced up and down between idle Land Rovers (for tourists visiting Erg Chebbi). He looked bored and tired, and eyed me suspiciously for a while, then smiled weakly and walked away when I acknowledged his presence with a nod. A few people were sitting against walls in the shade of overhanging concrete balconies, watching whatever was happening, which was usually very little. In the heat - heavy and suffocating - it was impossible to think straight. The lethargy it induced was so bad that often I couldn't even be bothered to eat, which although for fasting Muslims wasn't a problem, it was to be for me. The nights, too, were hot and stuffy, and I found it difficult to sleep. Even clambering out of bed in the morning required gargantuan effort: the heat made me so tired. Even the swarms of flies were affected by it, to the extent that they were too lazy to move when I attempted to swat them. I found it easy to understand the 'dynamics' of desert towns, to see how they have sprung up and why they have survived, for the oppressive heat crushes all desire to move or travel. It is all too easy just to wallow and do nothing, and nigh impossible to do anything else.
   Er-Rachidia only begins to come to life in the evening, when the setting sun casts long shadows over dozing dogs and people alike. Shopkeepers still rubbing their eyes of sleep begin to unlock trellises, and the first tureens of harira are placed over the gas burners of tiny soup houses. Then, the comforting aroma of freshly baked bread drifts temptingly across the empty streets and squares, and hunger is rekindled. During Ramadan, eating is forbidden until nightfall, traditionally signalled when the difference between a black and a white thread becomes indistinguishable. Then, the drowsy silence is shattered by a wailing air raid siren, something that scared the wits out of me the first time I heard it. As soon as the siren is sounded, all conversation and activities are abandoned as people get up and walk off in droves towards the mosques. Businesses are left unguarded, buses are emptied, doors left ajar and even the steaming soup tureens are left unattended. I found the whole thing distinctly unsettling, even frightening, especially given the wartime connotations of sirens. That there is a force so strong that it can command total subservience, that it can compel entire populations to fast for a whole month, that it can empty houses and buildings at the sounding of a siren - as an outsider, I found this nightmarish. Everyone was seen to act with identical but unconscious and unthinking reactions. For them, there was no question of whether or not to obey. For them, the question did not even exist, and should I have asked them why, they would have thought my query as pointless as asking someone why they breathed. 'Unconscious orthodoxy' is what George Orwell called it in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
   After the prayers are over, the feasting begins, though in Er-Rachidia, even this is a subdued affair. The only spontaneous excitement came from youths cavorting about on mopeds under the orange streetlights, yelling and screaming to potential girlfriends. Bakeries and stalls opened to sell sickly sweet honey pastries - Ramadan specialities that I adored. Other stalls sold locally grown dates, which were not at their best at this time of year. Vendors with barrows and carts appeared on street corners, selling ice-cream, orange juice, nuts, sweets and chocolates, snaking reed garlands of dried figs, and 'gazelle horn' biscuits made with almond paste. The few hustlers milling around were generally slow-witted, their patter old hat by now. Kids still asked me for the odd dirham or two, but were much less insistent than their counterparts in Fès, and in any case were more likely to share a joke with the N'srani than to treat him solely as a pliant source of pocket money. The cafés, too, opened to business, and sold the best black coffee in Morocco. Some had TVs, showing Egyptian films mingled with religious sermons. Others, frequented in the main by the younger generations, had pinball machines and were bedecked with busty posters of Madonna, Samantha Fox and Sabrina. 'Hypocrisy is the homage paid by vice to virtue', noted the Duc de la Rochefoucauld.

Wandering around one night with Dave, a thirty-year-old Englishman from Reigate who was fed up with InterRailing, we were accosted by a tall gangly Arab called Hamid. He was a rough and rugged character, who could have stepped straight from the pages of the Arabian Nights. His face, partly swathed in a mottled blue and white Palestinian head cloth, was long and drawn, with a greying moustache and ragged beard. Hamid's eyes were intense, wildly gleaming, and unleashed the kind of the glare that penetrates right to the back of one's skull. In his right hand, he clutched a brown paper bag, containing two mouldy oranges, a small artichoke and a bottle of red wine, from which he frequently took large swigs. For over an hour he kept us trapped with his wino soliloquy in slurred and broken English, because we were loathe to walk away on account of his decidedly psychopathic appearance.
   From the little that I managed to understand, I gathered that Hamid was obsessed with the idea of man as an animal. Pointing a long, bony finger at me, he asked: 'Are you a fighter?' His right eye twitched nervously, and a trickle of saliva inched down his chin. Before I had time to answer, he declared loudly: 'Ah, yes, you are a fighter!' I breathed a sigh of relief.
   'Alas, mister fighter,' he continued, 'no Africa fighters, in Africa no fighters.' He belched loudly, to sniggers from the crowd that had gathered around us. On and on he rambled, every so often bellowing 'You unnerstan?' when, of course, we hadn't the faintest idea.
   Hamid seemed to like Dave, or rather his blue eyes, from which he inferred that he was a 'good man', because blue eyes were made in paradise. This was odd because of the commonly held belief among Berbers that blue eyes, especially those of infidels, radiate particularly bad Evil Eye. The whole conversation was a fiasco of confusion. When Hamid next stared at me and my brown eyes, I couldn't help but snigger, which provoked a prolonged fit of mock anger. 'Ah, so you are shaitan,' he slurred, wiping the neck of the bottle on his shirt. I replied, in my most angelic manner, that of course I wasn't, and then grinned.
   'Israeli?' he asked. Many people asked me this, presumably on account of my nose.
   'Humm. Then you are Merican?'
   When he asked us what we wanted with Morocco, we mumbled the usual half hearted platitudes (for me, Fès had killed all further desire to explain). 'Ah, but I have Allah,' he announced proudly, gesticulating towards a nearby minaret, at which he almost fell over. The crowd sniggered again, so Hamid bawled at them and they fell quiet.
   We finally parted ways when a gendarme sauntered over to see what all the fuss was about, and then scolded us Englishmen for not having sought the services of an official guide.

* * *

I stayed a few days in Er-Rachidia, a few days longer than I really wanted to, because I needed time to find a few provisions before finally launching myself into the Sahara. I needed spares for the bike, extra water bottles (Jerry cans were too bulky), plasters and aspirin, a small thermometer (for my ego), sunglasses and, most important of all, a face muffler-cum-turban (cheche). One morning, on one of these shopping excursions (a few shops remained open, despite Ramadan) I met M'Hamed Ouln Hassane, a doctor at the city hospital. Because of his work, he was permitted to break the fast, and so he invited me back to his home for lunch.
   Together with his wife and three children, M'Hamed lived in a small modern quartier a few kilometres to the north of town, reached by a gentle walk across sweet smelling plots of barley that were shaded by fig trees and date palms. M'Hamed was exceptionally polite and reserved, both prized Arab qualities, yet he was only partly of Arab extraction. Like many inhabitants of the Tafilalt and other ancient caravan termini, M'Hamed's dark, coppery skin and slightly flattened nose betrayed the fact that he was a descendant of Negro slaves, kidnapped long ago in West Africa to be marched across the Sahara in the infamous 'black ivory' caravans. An estimated two out of every five slaves died in the desert before they even reached the Maghreb.
   M'Hamed was uncommonly well educated, and especially loved things French: culture, bicycles, and above all, the language. This enabled us to hold a much more sophisticated conversation than was usually possible given my rudimentary Arabic. Eager for knowledge about the desert, I asked my host how, generally speaking, he viewed the Sahara. After a short pause, in which he seemed to consider censoring whatever he was about to say, he replied: 'They [speaking of his fellow citizens] regard the desert as representing everything that the Qur'an and the Way of Islam strives against. The nomads, the climate, the hardship all are equal curses.'
   'The Sahara is a land of anarchy,' he said, and he took great pains to ensure that I understood him correctly. In M'Hamed's opinion, the nomads were no better than packs of scavenging jackals.
   That M'Hamed mentioned nomads first in his list of curses struck me greatly, for I had all the usual romantic preconceptions of vast, nonchalant camel trains and the like. M'Hamed, of course, had good reason to dislike nomads given his family history, and he found it difficult to forgive the past. There was something, however, that niggled my mind. Even if one were to discount the animosity caused by their ignominious past as slavers, throughout my travels in the desert fringes I was to encounter an almost universal hatred of nomads. It was a hatred that survived in spite of the declining nomad population, and the virtual extinction of their caravans. It was a hatred that had outlived the fearsome razzias of times past, and a hatred that seemed to take no account of the nomads' much greater poverty when compared to the material wealth of the Arabs and other settlers.
   Throughout the world, people who have settled on the fringes of wildernesses have learned not only to despise but to fear the nomads, that lawless scourge of raiders and murderers that live beyond the pale of civilised society. In Mali, where M'Hamed's ancestors were born, a Mandingo proverb used to advise one to 'succour the traveller lest he return with his kindred and smite thee.' There are similar examples of this fear (well founded or otherwise) in every corner of the globe, be it fear of the Sahara's Moors or Tuareg, the Aborigines of Australia, the American Indians, the Bedouin or ancient Saracen of Arabia, the Tibetan Namtso or the Mongols, the gypsies of central Europe, or even Britain's 'New Age Travellers'. Everywhere, nomads are perceived as being uncivilised, uncouth, unkempt and immoral. Even the Qur'an condemns them: 'For they are an abomination, and Hell is their dwelling place, - a fitting recompense for the evil that they did.'
   The word unsettled is itself anathema to civilisation, for as well as meaning changing or moving from place to place, it means lacking order or stability, unpredictability, and emotional confusion. The nomad is fast, unpredictable, elusive and, above all, remains firmly outside the confines of civilisation.
   The two ways of life seem incompatible. Indeed, even before Cain the cultivator was condemned by God to wander the earth in punishment for slaying his brother Abel, nomads and settlers have clashed in eternal conflict. To mention only a few examples: witness the Great Wall of China, built to exclude the Turks and Mongols; Hadrian's Wall to separate the northern 'barbarians' from the Romans; the fact that the Roman Empire itself stopped short of conquering the Sahara, if such a thing were possible, to avoid the fearsome ancestors of the Moors and Tuareg; and the sacking by Mongol hordes of old Baghdad in 1258, a fitting illustration of the nomads' potential power. Yet the longer I travelled, the more I came to believe that a life of wandering was somehow more natural than one spent in only one place. It seemed as though the life of city dwellers was but half a life, and that there was a great deal more that could be gained by travelling. The fourteenth-century polymath, Ibn Khaldun, wrote:

Sedentary people are much concerned with all kinds of pleasures. They are accustomed to luxury and success in worldly occupations and to indulgence in worldly desires. Therefore, their souls are coloured with all kinds of blameworthy and evil qualities... [The Bedouin] are closer to the first natural state and more remote from the evil habits that have been impressed upon the souls [of sedentary people]... Bedouins are closer to being good.

Admittedly, some of this does not ring true, for who can argue that slave trading and raiding are not 'evil habits'? Nonetheless, there is much truth in what Khaldun says. Nomadism is a mode of life that predates that of settling, in that Man progressed first from gathering to hunting, then to herding and cultivation, and finally to civilisation (and with each step, lost a little more freedom of movement). The instinct for roaming is etched much more deeply in our primitive consciousness than that for settling, and this, I believe, is the 'first natural state' of which Khaldun speaks. This too, was how I came to justify my own roaming. Even M'Hamed could see the attraction of travel, and promised that if ever he got the money together, we would do a bicycle tour together in South America, Insha Allah.

* * *

Warm, glowing shafts of sunlight splashing on my face provided the final impulse to get under way, and I left Er-Rachidia with my heart aflame in anticipation of what was effectively to be my first day in the Sahara itself. I was well prepared: I carried nine litres of water in all (contained in five plastic bottles strapped to the bicycle frame, and four one-litre bottles in the panniers). This was to prove adequate for two or three days on the road, which was usually time enough to bridge even the larger gaps between towns, villages or wells. I had also become the proud owner of a brand new cotton cheche. At first, I felt a little self conscious wearing it, but on seeing several other similarly attired people not laugh at me as I cycled by, I soon got used to it.
   Over on the eastern bank of the Ziz, flanked on both sides by a narrow belt of gently waving palms, the dusty tarmac road swung southwards towards an imposing nineteenth-century Ksar, surrounded by the dry remains of a moat sunk to delay any attempt by aggressors at undermining the Ksar's foundations by diverting the river. As the shallow course of the Ziz curved away and out of sight, the land straightened out and the horizon lengthened, the road spooling out as far as my eye could see. The panorama consisted of a childishly simple play on perspective: a rectangle of land, a rectangle of sky, and the road which appeared as a grey triangle, its pinnacle a dot on the horizon. It was a landscape to which I was to become well accustomed in the weeks and months to come.
   Behind me, the last of the Atlas Mountains receded into the obscurity of a heat haze, and all around now, I was surrounded with a bleak, pebble-strewn wasteland: a vast expanse of raw ochre, dirty beige and burnt sienna, peppered with small olive drab shrubs, larger grey boulders and the shimmering mirages of trees and lakes. This was the real Sahara, for comparatively little of this desert is covered with the oceans of dunes that I had imagined. Much of the Sahara is level tableland called hammada, as was the case here. Sometimes, however, and to my great joy, I caught glimpses of far-away dunes of red or white sand, rising from behind the surreal folds of dry riverbeds.
   Some twenty kilometres from Er-Rachidia, still along Route P22, the road divides into two forks. The branch to the left and east goes to Algeria and the central Sahara. Its signpost set me dreaming of exotic places that I'd only ever read about: Tamanrasset, the Hoggar Mountains, Niger, Mali, Ghana, and Timbuctoo. Unfortunately, I had no choice but to ignore this road, for I had been informed that the Algerian border was closed to all touristic traffic, including bicycles. Alas, I did not know that only two days later, Algeria and Morocco were to reach an agreement that was to reopen the route for the first time in years.
   Shortly after the junction came Meski, a mud-walled village that lends its name to the hammada hereabouts, and whose 'Blue Source' attracts visitors from all around. It is a pool of seemingly miraculous water, where the Ziz re-emerges from a short subterranean journey. In fact, the pool is far from miraculous, because it was constructed earlier this century by Foreign Legionnaires, undoubtedly in dire need of some refreshment. The water is nowadays infested with bilharzia-carrying blood flukes, regardless of which I passed dozens of men with damp towels draped over their heads thumbing languidly for lifts beside the complex's concrete gate.
   A few kilometres from Meski, where the road veered to the right, the desert floor dropped suddenly away as the River Ziz reappeared amidst the hostile and scorched landscape. It was a most astonishing sight: a deep canyon, over a mile wide, carved into the desert as easily as a hot knife would slice into wax, its milky waters glinting in the sunlight. The river that had forged the fantastic gorges of the High Atlas was here enclosed by a luscious green valley, drowsily snaking its way into the quicksand marshes of Dayet ed-Daura. A long series of palm groves, each one more luxuriant than the other, traces almost all of the 35 miles along which the canyon pretends that the desert around it does not exist. Irrigated by the fertile waters of the Ziz and Rheris (a smaller watercourse to the west), the Tafilalt is an ingenious spider's web of canals, conduits, field troughs, and sometimes underground channels. Double rows of aureole palms, oleander, apricot and almond trees fill the valley to choking. In the cool, tangled embrace of fig trees, there are small but regular plots of wheat and maize, alfalfa and vegetables, that are protected from pilfering goats with thick clay walls. In its time, the Tafilalt was one of the most productive regions of all the Sahara, renowned especially for the succulence of its dates. Walter Harris noted that large quantities of Tafilalt dates were shipped by Fès' merchants to the drawing rooms of late Victorian London, and so important are dates to the local economy that they have become known simply as et-thamr, the fruit.
   As the road swooped down towards the river, I could hear once again the singing of birds and the laughing of children - this was exactly as I had imagined oases to be. I stopped at the first village, a sleepy collection of secretive pisé buildings called Oulad-Shahkh. It was the kind of place that, even outside the month of Ramadan, always looks as though it's only just woken up, still yawning and rubbing the sleep from its eyes. The two village stores, one a tobacconist, the other a general store emblazoned with the universal red and white legend of that a certain soft drink, were both shuttered, as were the doors and windows of the other buildings. At times, Ramadan was to make my hunt for fresh supplies extremely difficult. On the left hand side of the road stood the crumbling ruins of a small orange fort, beyond which a solitary hop pole awaited the July barley harvest. Mercedes service taxis zoomed past, horns blaring, and dogs barked in response. Further up the road, beside a scree of rocks and boulders, sat the squat, white-tiled Koubba (mausoleum) of an ancient marabout. The dome of the Koubba symbolises heaven, and its cube-like interior, earth. An elderly lady slipped out from its entrance, and for the few seconds in which she did not notice my staring, her face seemed to radiate an expression of supreme spirituality. She was dressed in a pale blue robe and a voluminous black shawl, with which she briskly covered her face on seeing me.
   Because of their veils, René Caillié found it impossible to describe the women of the Tafilalt: 'when out of doors they have the appearance of an uncouth mass,' he complained. The Qur'an advises men:

say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty... that they should draw their veils over their bosoms... and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments.

In theory, those who fail to do this face public disapproval (or worse). By contemporary Islamic standards, though, Moroccan society is remarkably liberal in terms of religion, and women veiled from head to toe in haiks and hijab veils are very much a minority among a people who generally prefer the gaudy glory of shimmery kaftans. The Tafilalt is the exception that proves the rule, for this oasis, along with the isolated M'zab region of the Algerian Sahara, played host in the eighth and ninth centuries to the Kharijite heresy.
   The Kharijites began in typical Berber fashion as fanatical religious anarchists, and rejected political government altogether saying that all authority should come from Allah and Allah alone. Like all extreme idealists, in time their uncompromising stance softened to assume a rather more practical basis, and came to embrace political ideas as well. Early in the eighth century, the Kharijites revolted against an early version of the poll tax - the jizya - which in theory was a form of 'protection fee' extracted only from non Muslim subjects, a stipulation that the first Arab governors of the Maghreb chose to ignore at their peril. Shortly afterwards, in the year 740, the Tafilalt underwent a general Kharijite rebellion following the assassination of a particularly rapacious Arab governor. He had specialised in selling his subjects to slavers in distant corners of the Muslim Empire. Although Kharijitism faded within a century or two, its legacy has remained most visibly in the veils that the women are obliged to wear. Indeed, in the M'zab, women must turn their backs on any males that happen to pass them by, and are forbidden to leave the walled confines of their desert cities. Without having to go to such extremes, there is a great deal to be said in favour of wearing haiks and hijab veils (hijab, incidentally, also means a written charm or talisman - protection). If one accepts the notion that all men have the potential to rape or be unfaithful, heavy gowns and veils have the remarkable propensity of reducing even the most voluptuous of bodies to mere anonymous bundles of cloth, of which, unless one is a particularly spectacular pervert, there is nothing even faintly attractive. As Dhou'l Rhoummah, the 'Last Bedouin Poet' who died in the eighth century, lamented:


   Among all the garments, that God confound the veil!
    for so long as we live, it shall be a plague on the young.
   It hides from us the beautiful, so that we cannot not see,
    and disguises the ugly to lure us into fallacy. (5)

The old lady rounded a corner and disappeared, leaving me alone save for the workaholic ants and irksome flies. I cycled on. Here and there a chorus of frogs or toads joined the incessant buzzing of the locusts and grasshoppers. A lone sand-racer dashed across the road, narrowly missing my front tyre. I turned around to see it and another lizard sat gawping at me from the trunk of an old gnarled fig tree.
   I passed a succession of evocatively-named villages and Ksour: Ksar Jorf (Castle on the Cliff); Sidi Bouabdillah (a saint called 'Father of Allah's Slave'); Oulad-Aïssa (the Sons of Aïssa; Aït-Amira (Amira's Children); Zaouïa-Jedida (the New Monastery); and Douira (the Gathering of Tents). Shortly after Maadid, the first exclusively Arab Ksar of the Tafilalt (and thus somewhat isolated amidst the Tafilalt's Berber majority), is Erfoud, the modern capital of the oasis. Situated at the southern edge of the Tafilalt, some eighty kilometres from Er-Rachidia, the town was built by the French in the 1920s to coordinate their attempts to subdue this particularly troublesome region. The French, though, were kept at bay in Erfoud until 1931, prevented by the tribes of the Tafilalt from advancing any further to the north (the French had come from the south, via Algeria). The Tafilalt, like the Rif and Atlas, has a proud reputation for revolt and independence (of which the Kharijites were probably the first manifestation). By far the most famous example of this is the Alaouite Dynasty itself, to which King Hassan II belongs. Originally from the Filàl district of Arabia (hence Tafilalt, which in Berber means 'Sons of Filàl'), the dynasty was founded early in the seventeenth century by Moulay Ali Sherif, self-styled King of Tafilalt. The dynasty became established throughout Morocco under the rule of his son, Moulay er-Rachid, usurping the Saadians in 1668. The history of the Alaouites, however, is speckled, for although they claim the honour of having finally dislodged the Portuguese, in the twentieth century their rule was to see the almost total colonisation of Morocco. Yet, everywhere in the Tafilalt, people proudly pulled me aside to tell me that King Hassan himself was born in their very own village, a touching charade that was repeated on at least three separate occasions.
   Erfoud itself, as is to be expected, is a pretty desultory kind of place. I was scarcely surprised to see that the French had tried to liven the place up by introducing eucalypti, but even these looked less than happy in their surrogate environment. After Erfoud the valley sides began to recede, and before long, what little remained of the River Ziz was snaking its way across open desert, for the most part too saline to permit cultivation. Henceforth, all vegetation, even beside the river, was once more to disappear: recent droughts had taken their toll. Less than a century ago, travellers to the Tafilalt mentioned an abundance of antelope and gazelle (hence the name of the river). Nowadays one would be considered very lucky indeed to see even a single specimen. Tafilalt was once also renowned for the very fine fleece and hides of its native sheep. I saw not one, and I could not imagine how even a solitary flock could nowadays survive without devouring the precious crops needed for human consumption. The worsening situation has not been helped by the spread of bayoud, a disease that afflicts date palms and kills them within a year. I saw many trees that were virtually decapitated, merely trunks striking ignobly into the sun-blanched sky. In places, I could count the trees on the fingers of one hand and then they too disappeared, leaving only a few scrawny and windblown acacia, tamarisk and dusty clumps of oleander, interspersed now and then with brittle spiny shrubs and yellow sand drifts. Everywhere, the numerous ruined Ksour and frondless palm trees reminded me that the desert will always be king.

Of all, perhaps the greatest reminder of mankind's precarious tenure in the desert is the city of Sijilmassa - 20 kilometres south of Erfoud - whose ruins lie half-buried under great sheets of sand. The erstwhile capital of the Tafilalt, and in its time one of grandest of all Morocco, Sijilmassa was founded on the site of an ancient Roman city in the year 707 by Musa ibn Nusair, one of the Umayyad conquerors of Morocco. Situated (at that time) at the head of the Tafilalt, it soon acquired a position of great importance on the trans-Saharan caravan routes, for it was the southernmost outpost of the Maghreb el-Aqsa, a place through which all merchants and traders from the Sudan had to pass. The city was quick to exploit the lucrative rewards of this trade and, until the Middle Ages, grew immeasurably wealthy on the heavy tributes and taxes it extracted from the caravans. The trade was indeed a rich one: slaves (including eunuchs and virgins), ostrich plumes, ivory, the horns of unicorn (probably rhinoceros), exotic woods and hides, copper, gum arabic, spices and, above all, gold. In the eighth century, the Arab geographer and astronomer al-Fazari noted that across the Sahara lay a kingdom called Ghana, a country which he called 'the Land of Gold.' Al-Fazari's contemporary, the historian Ibn Abd al-Hakam, is the first to have made mention of the trade in gold, when, in 734, an expedition returned to the Maghreb bearing 'a considerable quantity of gold'. By the tenth century, Sijilmassa had become well known as regarded that precious metal, and was mentioned in this respect by many geographers. Among the more notable ones were: al-Masudi (whose historical encyclopaedia was entitled Meadows of Gold); his near contemporary Ibn Haukal; the twelfth-century Iberian Moor, al-Idrisi; and Yaqut (1179-1229), who had been sold as a slave to a merchant of another great city of that time, Baghdad.
   So great were the riches of Sijilmassa that it soon acquired a notorious reputation for greed and vice, and in consequence was sacked both by the puritanical Almoravids, and their successors, the Almohads. In spite of these set-backs, the city continued to thrive, not least because Morocco controlled the salt mines in the heart of the Sahara, and therefore a commodity that, in West Africa, was at times worth quite literally its weight in gold. But gold must be treated with respect: like wine, it is a good servant but a bad master. In Sijilmassa, it seems that gold eventually became the master, and in the fifteenth century, the heavily-taxed nomads wrought their revenge by sacking the city. In 1818, Sijilmassa's demise was completed with its total destruction. Even the rank vegetation and weeds that once covered its ruins have now disappeared, and only a legend of a great buried treasure persists to the present day.
   A few miles from the ruins rises Rissani, a city that has fared rather better than its neighbour. As a somewhat romantic place, Rissani did not disappoint me. Despite the hungry carrion crows and evil-eyed ravens that were perched on the mud walls of Moulay Ismaïl's Ksar, Rissani exuded an oddly attractive aura. Beside the old city walls and its monumental babs, there were donkey carts, pink sand, blue sky, and black women dressed in black haiks. Men, too, wore in black robes, and sauntered about in face-mufflers and turbans, worn in theory for religious reasons but more practically to keep out the hot desert air and to keep in precious moisture. The face-mufflers are also said to protect the soul, for the soul is equated by nomads with breath.
   Several souks, including one in honour of Moulay Ali Sherif, are held each week, even during Ramadan, when Berbers of the Aït-Hasilbiyod tribe come in from the desert to trade. There are marble trinkets; dates graded according to sweetness, dryness and texture that are weighed on makeshift scales hung from walking sticks; men squatting like strange dwarves in heavy jellabas hawking aquatic fossils that date back over 350 million years; small coloured glass beads called "Mauritanian Gemstones" purported to be Phoenician; and jewellery en masse - gold and silver necklaces, bangles and filigree earrings, all of which are sold by weight. Other stalls - mainly aimed at the few tourists that hang about waiting for rides to Erg Chebbi - are laid out with rock crystals and geodes, semi-precious gemstones and 'desert roses'. Elsewhere, quack doctors exalted the virtues of gazelle horns, lizards (dead or alive), dried birds and hundreds of herbs.
   To digress: I had the pleasure, in Chefchaouen, of meeting two quacks. I was sitting outside the café as two suspicious men with nervous, fleeting glances had stumbled past. My gaze followed them past the iron-and-plyboard tables, past the trolley that belonged to the sweet-and-cigarette vendor, past the crumbling vine-twisted archway of the ancient caravanserai, around the mountain of firewood destined for the medina's Turkish bath, and up the short cobbled incline that led to the flea-ridden pension in which I was ensconced. At the time, there was nothing particularly remarkable in this, except that the shorter of the duo - fat, Teutonic-looking, bald but for sideburns and goatee, and clad in Chelsea boots, dark shades and rawhide jacket - was pushing a wheelbarrow, its jagged and lumpy contents concealed inside coarse hessian sackcloth.
   The next morning, when ambling still drowsy back from an eathouse that sold only baisa, I saw them again. Beside the arid fountain in the centre of the square, the two strangers had unfurled a bewildering array of cardboard boxes, phials and bottles, anonymous cellophane parcels, bundles of twigs and roots, and a host of other enigmatic items. It was about 8 o'clock, yet they had attracted quite a crowd: schoolchildren on their way to school, shopkeepers with nothing else to do but wait, a few hardy regulars from the café, bored policemen, and a gaggle of Berber housewives on their way to market.
   The couple's presence was announced with a homemade PA rig, which distorted the taller man's voice via the combination of car battery, camera tripod, and a tin baking tray to which was affixed a small loudspeaker. Of course, the amplification that this system provided was infinitely more useful in attracting attention than in faithfully reproducing the salesman's finely honed patter. With a conviction that would put an evangelist to shame, the taller man exalted the virtues of camel teeth, of lizards fresh from the desert, and of a red powder that looked uncannily like soil. The quacks liked to call themselves 'ambulant medical specialists', although I suspected that the ambulant nature of their profession had a deal to do with avoiding erstwhile customers...
   They travelled the length and breadth of the Rif Mountains hawking spurious potions and panaceas with which they claimed to be able to cure anything from heartburn to heartache. Their farrago was a child's dream of the heavenly grotesque: various amulets and desiccated hearts, goat hooves for baldness, ground-up ferrets for depression, seeds, shrivelled barks and twigs, mouldy roots and phials of holy water... rare and expensive hoopoe feathers to guard against evil spirits, bags of desert rock salt and alum, various gall and bladder stones, strange growths, desiccated leeches, fragments of tortoise shell, and dried chameleon (not only an antidote to snake bite but an aphrodisiac too).
   Well, I say two quacks, but in fact (as far as the punters were concerned) there was only one. The other (the Teuton) played the stooge. For the ruse to work (which unfailingly it did) the quacks were obliged to stay at least two nights in the host town, to give the stooge time enough to enact a miraculous recovery from whatever ailment he pretended to be suffering from. But no more than two nights: their patients were rather less prone to miracles than themselves!
   That evening, as I returned to the hotel, the taller quack - Nimri - simply grabbed me by the waist and bundled me into his room. At its centre (the only space not taken up by bed, bedside table, stooge or wheelbarrow) stood a large earthenware cauldron in which a goat meat stew was bubbling. 'Hallo Nazarene!' I felt myself lurching across the room as an overly friendly hand struck my back. 'You are my friend,' Nimri stated emphatically. I was introduced to the stooge with effusive bonhomie and much-prolonged clasping of hands, before Nimri filled a plastic tumbler with a murky brick brown fluid from a grubby Jerry can, and handed it to me.
   Nimri, for professional reasons, pretended to be Indian, apparently to give him more credibility, and sported a voluminous turban of gold laced white silk worn Hindu-style. To his credit, he did indeed attain a certain level of self-importance, and had even grown a long bushy beard for the part. If, however, one dared look closer, tiny scraps of past repasts could be seen clinging desperately from his chin, and his noble silk turban turned out to be little more than rayon. His breath, too, was rather less than saintly - an inebriating pile-driver of a geyser reeking of cheap Spanish whisky, the stale deathbreath of filterless Casa Sport cigarettes, and ashashin opium juice. Nimri also possessed a slight squint (whether permanent or else self-abuse-induced, was hard to tell) though he was so tall that the average Moroccan would never get near enough to notice.
   Nimri did all the talking - in a blend of pidgin French and English mixed up with Arabic and Berber patois. Despite the limitations of language, conversation was easy, fuelled as it was with copious amounts of alcohol, the evil juice, and at times wildly violent gestures in the universal speaktalk of sign language. Nimri was the male Shahrazad if ever there was one: smooth- and double-talking, beguiling, and taken to utter the most preposterous untruths with all semblance of heartfelt sincerity. He was a peddler of sweet lies, fifth-rate buys, bane of gullible lives, harlot, con-man, and first-class graduate from the university of charlatanry.
   When the stew was almost ready, Nimri produced a small paper wrapper containing a Day-Glo orange powder, and duly pronounced it to be saffron. When I read him the wrapper that said 'Artificial Food Colouring' he exclaimed 'Akh, my boy. Yes, yes, but at least it gives the colour of saffron, and that, my friend, is all that counts.'
   Supper over, the stooge stood up and solemnly handed me an illustrated tome on the herbs and spices of the Maghreb, followed by a hefty volume on Saharan reptiles, both in Latin. As I was perusing the books, the two quacks fell suddenly silent. As I looked up, Nimri, bang on cue, produced a wallet from behind his back with obviously much rehearsed dramatic effect. From it he extracted a battered sheet of oft-folded paper, scrawled all over with meaningless characters.
   'Shush, I beg your silence,' he demanded, with as much aplomb as his inebriated state would permit. I was handed a Qur'an to swear on.
   'Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim. In the Name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful...'
   'Marabout's hijab,' he whispered hoarsely. 'It will bring phenomenally, nay, miraculously good baraka.'
   'But marabouts are all dead!' I protested.
   'Oh, of course,' said the other, and apologised profusely for Nimri's drunkenness. 'You see, Nimri's is a maraboutic family.'
   'Ah, I see,' I said. 'So when exactly did this marabout write the hijab?' There was an uncomfortable silence, so I helped them along by suggesting that it must have been a long time ago (though the paper on which the charm was written was lined).
   'Oh yes, a very long time ago,' they agreed readily. 'It's written in sacred human... no, no, um, sacred bird blood,' they said: parrot, budgerigar or golden eagle. Or maybe stork... (all true charms require the validation bestowed by sacrifice)
   Much as humour is often the surest path to a woman's heart, it is also the smoothest lubricant of jealously-guarded pockets and purses. Sometimes, when watching Nimri and sidekick working the crowd, I had the impression of watching life enacted as theatre, or theatre as life: to sell, to influence, to amuse, to make a living - the real theatre of real life. I sensed that the quacks were consciously playing on (and enjoying) the fact that they were charlatans and that everyone else knew it too. At times, it was as though they would deliberately reveal the nakedness of all their sham-scam glory, so as to soften the act, to summon an element of realism, of truth to the travesty, of honesty, before once more, with the inimitable eloquence of the skilled Arab orator, reeling in those wavering minds, exhorting and demonstrating, wheeling his arms and rolling his eyes, hinting at magical powers, at saintly effluvia, to deceive them once more into believing, if only for a few short (but lucrative) moments, into believing that all that Nimri said and claimed for his panaceas was as true as the venerable Qur'an itself. Faith always requires an illusion.
   Holding his hands up for attention: 'This, in sight of Almighty Allah, I swear by Muhammad and his gracious wife (Allah and the Prophet be praised for the Miracle of Their Creation), by Allah this is no ordinary length of string, oh no! No, no, no, indeed not! It is a fact - and I know that you, my friends and fellow countrymen of this God blessed nation of ours, of ours! - you, my friends, blessed of Allah's most magnificent virtues, that you are able to tell mere charlatanry from what is more real, indeed indisputably true, as true as the soil upon which I stand before you today, humble servant of Allah that I am, as true as the blue heavens under which today I say to you, that this [and with a sudden shout, which dwindles to a confiding whisper] this, ladies and gentlemen, this is no ordinary piece of string ...'
   Sacred string indeed, to tie around one's loved ones' wrists, or else round a barren bedpost, or to secure the plenitude of one's purse. Yes, even only a short piece of sacred string could be put to a hundred good uses. And all for a mere ten dirhams. Of course, Moroccans aren't any more or any less gullible than we are. It was the act and the dream-spinning patter, rather than the goods themselves, for which the clientele gladly parted with their money. A charm or potion, even a humble aspirin, is worthless if no effort has gone into selling it, if the chasm of credibility has not been spanned, even if only an instant, by the bewitching charm of the quack. The charms that people took home were in fact portions of the quack's own charm: his charisma, his aura, his baraka.
   I bought the fake charm for twenty-two dirhams and half a packet of cigarettes and, thus guided by Lady Providence, was invited to divine the names of the winning horses at the next day's meeting in Tangier.


 
 
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Chasing the Lizard’s Tail - across the Sahara by bicycle
Copyright Jens Finke, 1996-2003

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