Berbers and the Atlas Mountains

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We enjoyed a day-long 4×4 driving tour up into the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, including visiting some Berber villages. 

The drive from Marrakech to the foothills of the mountains took about 45 minutes. Along the way, the driver left the main highway to meander on gravel roads amid fields and villages. The landscape is mostly flat, punctuated by tiny villages and little olive-tree orchards. In one stretch, large fields of ribbed dry earth spread behind new fences. We came upon well-digging-rigs like this one. The government is financing new drip-irrigation agricultural development in this region.

All our tours in our short time in Morocco were about 75% sight-seeing and 25% surprise opportunities to buy something — whether we wanted to or not. Before we reached the mountains, we stopped at a road-side pottery and stone vendor. A young man trapped in the corner threw one pot after another. The guide showed us how they make the clay for these pots: combination of raw clay, water, and lots of mixing. (At home, all of our soil is clay. Perhaps we can start making our own authentic Carcassonne pottery?)

The High Atlas Mountains run down the middle of Morocco, dividing the relatively temperate, fertile coastal plains from the Sahara Desert. The tallest peak in the Atlas Mountains, and North Africa is Mt Toubkal, at 4,165 meters / 13,665 feet.

As we gained elevation, the hillsides grew drier and drier. The adobe buildings — or modern concrete ones in the same colors — blend in and grow out of the land. The valleys along the waterways are lush and green. The residents grow mostly grains, but also nut and fruit orchards and vegetables. 

Next surprise stop: A women’s cooperative for argan oil products. Argan oil comes from the argan nut tree. Argan oil is used for cosmetics as well as for cooking.

Most of the argan nut production is in southwestern Morocco, between the mountains and the sea — about 100 – 200 km from this particular cooperative.

Every part of the argan tree is used. Goats love the leaves and part of the nut husks; discarded kernels are fuel for cooking; and the oil has been found to have good health benefits.

While we didn’t see them directly ourselves, argan trees are the famous goat-magnet trees of Morocco.

As far as we can tell, this cooperative is legitimate. The development of women-run, but not necessarily woman-led, cooperatives, especially in rural areas like where we were, has increased many women’s financial security. While there is likely some middle-man diluting of the revenue that gets to these women, the fact of a regular stream of income makes a huge difference from traditional and unpredictable seasonal income.

The start of our visit to the cooperative was sipping mint tea along while tasting some argan oil. The central dish holds organic Moroccan olive oil. The two bowls with clear liquid contain pure argan oil; the two others hold an argan oil and peanut butter mixture. We dipped flat bread in each to compare. The argan oil has a clean subtle flavor, less dynamic than olive oil. Addition of the peanut butter brings more liveliness.

Some of the valleys were barren except for the thinnest strip of green at the bottom.

This region, along with much of mountain and desert Morocco, is home to the Berbers. About 60% of the population of Morocco is Berber. Today’s Berbers are descendants of pre-Arab inhabitants of North Africa. There is evidence of their being in North Africa as far back at 12,000 years ago. Arabs started coming to this part of Africa in the 7th century. They converted the Berbers to Islam.

Our guide said that a Berber needs three elements in the landscape in order to live and thrive: A valley with water for growing crops. A good building site up the hill from the farming areas. Forest above for the animals, and for wood for building and fire. 

In recent decades, the government has planted conifer trees on many hillsides. The purpose is to reduce mountainside erosion.

The typical Berber house includes a lower level for animals and compost; and a main level for living, including a terrace that opens to the views across the valleys. This is different from the inward-looking courtyard houses of Marrakech.

We were invited into a Berber house so we could watch a traditional preparing and serving of mint tea. 

After a few glasses of sweet mint tea, we were dropped off for an al fresco lunch. We were enjoying a beautiful cool sunny day. We found a large outside terrace nestled in a wooded valley, down the road from a ski resort. But almost no other customers. March is typically a high season in Morocco. The coronavirus was already emptying the countryside. Nonetheless, we enjoyed a pleasant lunch with our fellow travelers, a young French couple.

Talking with this couple showed us that not everyone comes to Morocco for history and culture, or at least not primarily. They, like many other people, had come for a sunny warm vacation full of relaxation. They explained that they were staying in an all-inclusive resort outside of Marrakech. Breakfast, lunch and dinner: all were buffets; the night before had been Mexican themed. Sounded like a cruise without the ocean.

On the drive out of the mountains back to Marrakech, we stopped at the last high land before the broad coastal plain.

A few of the animals we encountered along the way:

More pottery on the road side:

Street scenes:

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