Gone are thee days of the great camelback pilgrimages leading out of Morocco to Mecca or across the Arab lands to Timbuktu, a near month desert trek through the Sahara, depending on thee sun above. This trek was made by thousands of Berber families and it became a traditional trade route. There may be a few nomads still living who have made the entire journey and nonetheless ride camel everyday, but it seems a figment ov ancient memory, preserved in painting, mythos, story, and drums. After the Erg Chebbi dunes in Merzouga, one sees nothing but desert, with the Algerian border just in sight, a mountainous wall separating the two countries. Morocco, being one of the last havens in the Arab countries has had a magnetic pull on my soul as of late, as I have sought to venture further into the East, and penetrate Africa for the first time. The way I live is rather hermetic, I keep to myself and don’t really follow much of what is going on in the world. Oft, thee stories of humanity are not so HumanE, and leave one drowning, longing for a shred of trust in this civilization, an un-poisoned truth where everything else has been twisted around so hard that we can’t even recognize it ourselves. But through all this, there are remnants of culture worth understanding, places of spaces of thee planet worth experiencing, and real stories to be told from the journey to find them as they are, and as they were, and, pray, as shall remain. In the advent of both the Spring equinox, and a Lunar eclipse, I found myself in thee southern regions of the Moroccan country, hoofing along the sand on the back of a Golden camel, a fair wind blowing dunes through thee air, imbibing thee Sun like a new found medicine, and carrying a New sense of magical appreciation for the Old world…
It may have been no 1000 Arabian Nights and the way to the Sahara was somewhat less romantic but also worth sharing. This trek and spiritual pilgrimage of mine came at a time of personal despondency and inner darkness. I had been facing some imposing daimons here on thee island, and drifting too close to a menial routine, and felt the need for an escape. Flying Irish tended to be the way out and cheap enough for a tramp, thus I flew into Malaga. After overnighting by the coast, I went aboard the Mediterranean ferry, with a few hundred other Moroccans and Spanish camp, a stranger in a strange place, and ventured on to Melilla, arriving by sunrise. Still I was not in Morocco, and I held a cautious apprehension of thee border crossing into Nador, the Moroccan territory linked on land to Melilla. I had seen footage of the push to cross the frontier by hundreds of families climbing the barbed wire fences and pass the Policia in a heroic attempt for freedom, with only few who may have made it but then arrested afterwards. Of course, I am not a native Moroccan or Spanish so this current happening did not really hold testament to how I would be treated there. I could read and prepare, or just be calmly naive, or paranoid, but this fate was not up to me. In the end, going through the frontier was no big problem, and the worst trouble I had to face was translating my identity to the border control or pending off eager men from stealing my passport information. Soon I walk right into Morocco, and everything seemed alien. A father approached me and wanted to guide me to the taxis, so we walked through the market streets and rows of catamarans and mopeds until we reached them, and he signaled for something in return, it was Moroccan dirham he most wanted, their currency which I did not yet know how to acquire. I offered a drink of my whiskey and he tried to hustle the whole bottle, but then after drinking recoiled and said in French ‘FORTE!’ He didn’t want it. The taxi driver came out and told him off, and then before I knew it I was packed into a cab with 7 people and his kids were waving me goodbye. I found the tour buses and heading down to Fez, a three hour road trek that would let me sink in a little, see the open country and drift pass the people without having to confront them all at once. Fez is the home of the Moroccan prime minister, a fairly respected and even idolized Man to those living here. He is keeping Morocco out of the war, keeping the border safe, and doesn’t mind if people smoke. He earned my respect already, but I wasn’t here because of that, and I continued the next leg of the journey by dark after waiting in Fez for traveling. Another 9 hours passed on the road from Fez to Rissani, climbing and descending through the Atlas Mountains, of the ghosts only could I see and in a half sleep state. In Rissani I met with the 4×4 driver that would take me into Merzouga to the Casbah I would rest in before mingling with the camel herders, and I needed that siesta direly. I arrived to thee sand castles on the edge of the desert, beside a natural lake and the perfect ambiance surrounding it all. It was hard to wrack my brain that I was here, and by sunset would be heading to the first of the Berber bivouac camps behind the dunes. Tonight I would rest my Self in the Sahara.
I woke within the Casbah, the sun filtering through the portholes, and the walls a sandy mud tone like tanned skin. The structure of these rooms are immaculate, bright colored drapes and clothes hanging from the ceilings or over the doorways, caught by the slight breeze from outside, and handwoven carpets from the hands of the Berber woman bedeck the floors, contrasted by the brown colors, I equate their simplicity with luxury. Walking barefoot is thee only way. I skulked out into the sunshine after a three hour siesta, and looked around the riad. I ventured outside of the casbah and thought to swim in this strange Saharan lake, it was greenish grey with pollen and had been mostly sitting water without much flow. I decided against a full body submersion and stood instead in it’s crest. Behind me, almost instantly, a dark Berber man appeared with a white turban and a shimmering azure blue djellaba (long tunic), it reflected the sun and seemed rich in make. He greeted me with words I would come to know so closely from the natives, Marhaba, and ‘big welcome’. He said his name was Salahm. We formed a kind of communication even though we could not conversate will full eloquence. He took me to see their pool, which I wasn’t really interested in, but it served for a place to sit. Then he took out fossil after fossil from a small woven pouch he was carrying and showed them to me. They were all polished with ancient marine vertebrates and shelled fauna in them, snails, a long gastropod he called a salamander, and maybe some plants. They were all laid out on the tiles and he coerced me to buy one or two, and I ended up doing so. They were shaped into Egyptian style hands, circular disks, and long raft shapes. He said he digs for the fossils in the sands, and carves them down, then polishes them, he makes mostly ashtrays, and vessels for carrying tobacco. Inside one he folded up some crystals of black onyx and gave this as a gift, ‘eye medicine’ for the sun, he said. This came to be quite an allusion to future circumstances during my time in Spain. We parted soon after and I went beyond the riad, and came upon a family plot, they were growing palms and rows of a crop I did not know. A wave was the extent of our communication. I felt intimately this is the place I needed to be as I passed their garden into where the dunes started building and the oasis stopped. I sat and listened to the sand whirring, of thee dunes, though I could not hear their sub bass decibel, I felt the immensity and delicateness of their force. Wandering back, I met with some other guides in a lounge area, and we listened to Bob Marley, they lived here permanently and grew up in the desert. Muhammed, my camel guide met me there and we shared a few drams of scotch from the frontier before getting ready. A train of six camels harnessed and fed, packed down with water and a small pack. I was joined by four other Moroccans and a Canadian, I considered it highly ironic. I languished at the guttural vibrations the camels made as they were handled, the deepest gurgling from their reumens, they sounded like devils. We set off, high on their humped spines, Muhammed walking in front, the coal glazed sun setting at our right casting long desert shadows in the undulating terrain.
Passing two other lines of camels along the way to the first bivouac camp, I drank in the remedy of being free again. In the moment, nothing to see but magnetic sand, and my spirit came with. After some two hours, the sun had set and the desert took on a cool edge. I put on a long tunic that was lent to me by Salahm for the nights. It wore beautifully and was made of layers of thick camel hair, reaching my ankles. I wound a shemagh around my head and sat in the circular Berber tents grateful for the rest. Immediately the traditional Berber whisky was served, which is actually a green tea drunk in these parts, and is offered everytime to the traveler, an old custom. After several drinks of piping tea, a Tagine was served in a pyramidal clay pot, it had broiled vegetables and dark meat with tons of spice and potato, and wood fired bread. I thought it the finest food one can desire. The four other Moroccans were from Casablanca and Marrakesh areas, and started to play on the goatskin drums. They seemed to go on forever, and had memorized entire lyrical epics that were quite upbeat. I wandered outside the tents to stargaze at thee unfiltered sky. I have never seen this many stars nor complete a sky, not even in Europe. The horizon stretched for aeons literally as the most distant stars seemed to hover over dunes in an illusion and a crooked moon bear them in place. Thee constellations were shifted almost upside down from what I was used to seeing, it was a new sky, a new night. The night came in full and a fire was blazed, then another Berber man joined the fire circle from another camp and now there were three of them, the four Moroccans, another Canadian and myself watching the flames. They rapped on the goatskins and sang out with the most beautiful love for their country, a song called Mama Afrika, which is now permanently ingrained in my consciousness. I was told later by our host Aziz, that he played this song every night, guest or not. Then I showed him my Snake Rattle and Tibetan Singing bowl, for which he had no comprehension of what to make of it. I started to be called ‘Magic Man’ from then on, and taught them how to make it sing. I stayed awake with them longest as we laid in silence beside the embers, and then I retired in my chamber.
Thee next morning I woke to greet the sun sitting on a carpet in the sand. The five others who rode the first day now left to the Casbah by camel, but I was staying for 2 more nights. In the waning sun we would set off again to meet another family. For the hours that passed through the glass now, I wiled away walking the high Erg Chebbi dunes, bare in the skin, resting at thee crest looking south to Algeria. Muhammed and I had more Berber tea, and another customary dish, an omelet drowned in olive oil. Before long, and after getting our camel back, for he had learned to escape even with ropes tied round him, we set off East towards the Black Desert, solo this time. Eventually the huge dunes no longer surrounded but black shards of meteorite were strewn everywhere, with ancient fossils mingled with them. Looking down from the camel’s back, I could see the fossils ov the ancient Sahara, tiny scorpions, shells, and crystalline rocks, this land was almost an illusion. The second night I stayed with another Berber family, father mother, two sisters and a boy. The children herded the goats and sheep as we were coming in, and the mother made a tea for us. The father had spent the whole day walking with his own camel, to trade and collect food We had a separate hut, and just relaxed for a couple hours until dinner was brought over and we shared it with the father. We all ate with our hands from a dish of couscous piled up in a mound with vegetables until we were full and then smoked Marquise cigarettes. I brought the bowl out again, and we talked awhile longer about world culture until resting the night.
Day thee third, I had a traditional breakfast of sugar bread, with honey, jams, cheese and butter, simple but I began a craving for it. One of the Berber girls came with a backpack of stuff she wanted to sell and I caved in buying a small handmade camel and a chili pepper pendant. They collect other peoples stuff from the desert like beads, plastic, and threads and make them into something they can barter with tourists. Our camel had escaped again, and from this point I named him ‘Magic’ for his seemingly impossible ability to disappear even when roped. Muhammed brought him back, and the trek continued for some more hours. He talked about his uncle in prison, and the people he has met from all over the world who come to the Sahara. I didn’t really do much talking, and just sat riding, meditating completely on LIFE, my mission if I had one, and tried to picture the ancient desert fathers here in the summer thousands of years ago. I would be distracted once in a while by a piece of tourist garbage that had found its way out here, sadly it was inescapable, but it didn’t tarnish the experience. I would like to return some time and clean up this part of the desert, for it is too beautiful to let go like this I thought. Coming into view of the last dwelling I would stay at, a Tauraeg man, and his desert dog Zia, who just had 7 pups, they were totally free out here. We talked about the trek as the camel ‘Magic’ escaped once again, this time he did not come back. This third night, I experienced a rare Saharan thunderstorm, speaking from my guide, occurring only about five times a year. Thee skies hovered with black plumes and the dunes shook a sub bass note, rain drops congealed the sand and changed the entire color of the desert. We had a mutual dinner of couscous, and a supper of Moroccan soup and sweet black coffee, during the daylight hours I ventured out to look for fossils of the ancient waters. I collected a few marine fauna and others that resembled petrified sand, then I sat naked in the lower dunes and lay a tarot across the grainy floor whilst black iridescent beetles crawled over the cards. The Hermit wandered in his desert eternally. Carrying God Within. Returning to the Touraeg home by evening, we made some noise on the drums and flutes, it was a joyful noise. Sleep came like a heavy warmth, and the rising sun left no sign of the rain before. A 4×4 came to hitch myself and Muhammed back to the Casbah, and the ride seemed like dejavu, listening to a man and his band called Izenzarem over the speakers, a couple stops to drop off food and bread to the other Berber families, and I was settled back in the riad, ready to set out to Rissani, the nearest town. On the way out I met two Germans who had just come in and staying two nights, and a camp of French folk who had went out on the camel the day before and took the ride back to Rissani with me. They heartily suggested I visit France, and offered their hospitality as a country.
The remainder of my time in the south was spent in the Rissani market, a three day once a year setting where all of Morocco’s offerings are brought together for the taking. One can buy a mule for 10,000 Dirham, or a Camel and a herd of goats, hand woven carpets that take one woman a year to make, hair djelabas, teas, garden veg, hand picked spices, knives, silks, and meat, an Arabian medieval. I tried with no avail to find camel milk, and my friend Salam from the riad suddenly appeared behind me as I roved the open air market stalls. He seemed to have this ability of disappearing and re-appearing like a shaman. I was invited several times into the back rooms of carpet shops and medina platforms to drink more hot green whisky, with several invitations of a return In’shallah, so by evenfall I left the camel territory and nestled in for a long one way route to hashish territory, the Chefchaouen village and Rif mountains…