Drop-off in the village
We have a tour around the oasis gardens and the casbah, are dropped off in a tiny village, and then party!
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Considering that this report continues, you might conclude that we were not eaten in our sleep by any local wild animals. And indeed, we were not. After a pleasant night, we awoke and after refreshing ourselves, we joined in for breakfast and for Geert’s final lecture. He was to take us for a walk through the casbah of the El Glaoui family and through the oasis gardens that morning. A casbah is basically a castle belonging to an influential family; the El Glaoui one was located close to the Caid Ali one, where we were staying. The El Glaoui were the main family of importance in Agdz back in the day, but had at some point decided to rebel against the sultan. The latter was not entirely pleased with that decision, and when he remained in power due to some political manoeuvering involving the French, confiscated all the El Glaoui possessions. The casbah has been abandoned and fallen into disrepair since then, although some people seemed to still live in some of the ruins.
Through the casbah ruins, we made our way into the oasis gardens. These are small bits of farmland along the Draa river, where the high water level and irrigation make agriculture possible. The “three layers of the oasis” from Geert’s lecture were clearly visible here: the smaller crops, such as vegetables and wheat, at the bottom, the larger bushels and small trees, like pomegranate trees, above that, and finally the date palms above that. Across a network of small garden paths, followed by a small group of children who we were pretty sure were supposed to be in school, we made our way to the dry riverbed. It was actually impressively wide, taking the lack of any above-ground water into consideration.
We crossed the riverbed and found ourselves at the foot of the Jbel Kissane. This mountain, which was carved out by the river, had in the past also received a somewhat less exotic name from Geert’s students, due to the rather peculiar shape of its tip: ‘nipple mountain’. From there, we turned around towards our casbah (the one still standing), but not before marching straight through a corn field in an attempt to find a road back, indubitably causing the Great Corn Shortage of 2016.
Tour of the casbah and lunch
Back in the casbah, Gaëlle took us on a tour of the building. As previously said, the El Glaoui family had been disowned by the sultan, elevating the Caid Ali family to prime importance. As Morocco modernised and the tribal leadership disappeared, Caid Ali’s sons sought various other endeavours. Gaëlle, a cheerful French lady who had come to Morocco at some point, had married one of the original Caid Ali’s grandsons. Together, they now ran the hotel/camping in order to pay for the upkeep and restoration of the casbah. Like many other buildings in Morocco, the casbah is made from adobe. Drought and even more so, rain, seriously damage adobe, which means it needs continuous maintenance and restoration. But as it is readily available, cheap and is very good at mediating temperatures (a necessity with temperatures that vary between -5°C en +50°C annually), it remains very popular.
Gaëlle told us that a few decades ago after severe rain and an earthquake, a part of the tower and half the courtyard had completely collapsed. With a certain sense of understatement, she added that she had “not been happy” with that. They were in luck, however, as a professor of the German Bauhaus University Weimar had visited the casbah, and had fallen in love with it—like Gaëlle had before. He also happened to be an expert in adobe construction, and ever since comes every year with his students to work on restoring and reinforcing the building for two weeks. It had gotten more difficult in recent years to restore the casbah, however, as tourist numbers in Morocco had been declining as a result of the unrest in the Arabic world. A shame to hear, for it is an amazing structure on a beautiful location along the river in the oasis.
Worst case scenario: having to spend two hours in a village, followed by a group of Arabic speaking children with a lack of writing utensils.
After the extensive tour of the building and explanation of its various spaces and rooms, it was time for what might just have been the best bit of the entire vacation: the lunch with the kafta, the meatballs with Moroccan spices from the tajine. And they were delicious. If my fellow table guests had not restrained me, I might have eaten the tajine itself. Following the lunch, it was time for perhaps the most exciting bit of the programme: being dropped off in a village. It was something he did regularly with students, and wanted to try with us as well. In groups of about 5–6 people, we would be dropped off in various villages along the river, to be picked up after about two hours. Usually, he explained, people managed to get themselves invited by the locals, giving them the opportunity to get more insight in how people live there.
Some of the group were not overly fond of throwing themselves into the unknown like that, preferring to throw themselves into the pool instead. We figured it would be an unforgettable experience if we were successful, and of course joined in. Worst case scenario: having to spend two hours in a tiny village, being followed by Arabic or Berber speaking children with a lack of writing utensils. We were eventually split up into four groups of six people each, and a short bus trip later, we were thrown out along the side of the road. Geert gave us a wide grin, wished us good luck, and closed the door. As the dust from the departing bus settled, we were on our own.
Tea in Talamzit
We decided to walk into the village’s oasis garden first, but before we even had the opportunity to do so, we were spotted by a few young Moroccans sitting underneath a large tree. They asked us where we were from and we told them we were from the Netherlands. Richard, the most skilled French speaker in our group and only second to Harrie on the Scale of Chatter, attempted to strike up a conversation, but discovered that they did not speak French very well. As we started to head into the direction of the gardens, one of the young men asked whether we spoke English–I responded that we did, and he immediately pulled out a phone to call his brother. In the meantime, another man had passed us by, nodding when Richard asked him if he was un fermier (a farmer) and whether we could follow him into the gardens. We followed him, but did not make it far before the young man with the phone came running up behind us, and pressed the phone into Richard’s hands with no other explanation than “english”. Richard had no choice but to accept the phone, and told the stranger on the other end “Hi, this is Richard. We are here to visit your village and gardens” (what else are you going to say when a complete stranger hands you a phone in a random village in the middle of Morocco, with an even more unknown person at the other end?). After a bit of “Yes” and “Okay”, the phone was returned to its owner, and we followed the farmer, who was patiently waiting.
A few minutes later, a man in a djellaba of about thirty years (the man, not the djellaba) came running up after us. He introduced himself as Mohamed, guide and the voice on the other end of the telephone. He spoke very neat, albeit not very fluent, English. He was a teacher, only currently unemployed, although he did give private lessons to help the children in his village. He was more than happy to show us around and answer our questions. Over the next hour, he took us through the gardens, turned on one of the water pumps with the farmer to demonstrate how it worked, showed us the difference between a male and female date palm, told us of the increasing problem of diabetes (not entirely unexpected when you see the amount of sugar they put in their tea–or I should rather say, how little tea they add to their sugar), showed us the agriculture that they subsist on, and informed us of the necessity to have someone with a flashlight sleep between the watermelons to prevent them from being stolen by men from the a few villages over.
After the tour, we told him that we would also like to see the village if possible, which was not any problem. He took us to an empty house that was apparently under construction, as there was a nice supply of construction material around. There was also an oven in it: did we want any bread, perhaps? Or tea? We would indeed like some tea, so he went to make the necessary arrangements. He also wanted to show off the project that he was currently working on: he turned out to be the vice-president for a local organisation to protect cultural heritage, and was creating a sort of museum. At one end of the room, he had a supply of traditional objects, all neatly tagged in Arabic. From a mat made out of palm leaves to a wooden lock with a key that turned out not to belong to that particular lock, and from a decorated dagger (“is jewellery for men, not for killing!”) to a necklace made out of cloves that we all had to smell. In the meantime, a woman also entered, carrying a tray of dates that we had to try. A number of children had also slowly but surely gathered, although it was impossible to say whether they were more fascinated by us, or by the museum collection. Our guide was at least very proud of his starting collection, inviting us to a different house for the tea.
We were directed into another house and brought into the reception room, which was traditionally sparsely furnished, with only a couch and a cabinet with a small tv in it (should the tv be switched on for us? No, we were good, thank you). We took off our shoes and sat down on the carpets on the floor. Another three or four men entered, welcoming us into their home, and the doorway was soon filled with women and children. Whether we would be okay with having our picture taken? No problem, and we spent the next ten minutes being photographed together with the men. Mohamed explained to us that the house belonged to a man who had passed away three days ago; the other three men in the room were his sons who lived and worked in Casablanca, with at least one of them as gardener. They had just returned to the village for the funeral. Their mother, the wife of the deceased man, was also brought in in her white mourning clothing to welcome us.
Religion does not matter, as long as you have peace in your heart, you can live anywhere.
In the meantime, a small table had appeared in the room, containing water and cookies. Whether we also wanted anything to eat? We said that we unfortunately did not have time, as we were already rapidly approaching the hour at which the bus would come by to pick us up. Tea was brought in, however, which was traditionally poured into small glasses from a height of about a meter, by a man who must have done that before and seemed rather amused by our admiration for his tea-aiming skills. Mohamed patiently translated and answered all of our questions, until it was about time to go. Which was of course the moment that a large dish of steaming couscous was brought in, which looked as if it could easily have been served in a quality restaurant. We could of course not refuse altogether, so in the name of Allah, God, the Holy Spirit, and related friends (in the words of Mohamed: “religion does not matter, as long as you have peace in your heart, you can live anywhere”) we quickly had several spoonfuls of—by the way, really good—couscous, before we could reasonably depart and thank everyone for their hospitality.
That is when the melee started. On Geert’s advice, we had brought some small gifts for handing out to the children (pens, balloons, candy, chocolate, and the like). Although it felt rather colonial (like you have come to hand out beads and mirrors), the children were very enthusiastic and gathered en masse for a little present. As I made my way out of the house, I was greeted by an enormous stack of children, from which I could just see Vonne’s arms emerging, being relieved from the last of the chocolates that we had brought. Pretty much every child within a three-mile radius seemed to have gathered to watch and participate in the spectacle.
We gave Mohamed some money to thank him for his time, guide services and his hospitality, which he immediately swore to share with the widow, as she was not doing too well herself. Shortly after, the bus came driving up along the road to return us to the casbah. We were very happy to have joined in: it was amazing to find this kind of hospitality and friendliness, and very special to get a bit of insight into the local way of living. Back in the casbah, we shared our experiences with the other groups. Two of them had also been successful, and had both visited a local school and had tea with the locals. The last groups, which had Harrie in it of all people, had had no luck; they had not encountered anyone speaking either French or English and had been unable to make any sort of contact.
Party in the casbah
After another lovely meal—I never wanted to leave the casbah again, if only for the food—it was time for a party. First of all, we had just received word that we should in fact be able to return to Marrakech as planned. The rainfall had damaged the road between Ouarzazate and Marrakech, and the last news had been that the road was still closed off. That would have meant a very lengthy detour via Agadir, but we were in luck that our driver and his assistant came from the vicinity of Ouarzazate. They had made a few phonecalls and had heard that we should be able to get through after all. The second reason for a party was that Geert had arranged for a Moroccan music group who would rock the casbah that night, with drums, singing and dance. Especially the young child accompanying the band and who danced along with more enthusiasm than co-ordination, was fantastic. Together with Youssef joining in on the drums, the band created a joyful atmosphere in which everyone joined in the dance—although no one went in with as much gusto as Jos, who performed a rain dance that would make many a medicine man jealous.
The final evening in the castle of Caid Ali—the day after, we would see whether we would indeed return to Marrakech. Once again, a case of Insha’Allah!