For very important dates

In the world's biggest palm grove bordering the Sahara, Ian Holmes enjoys the harvest festival
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The Independent Culture
THE BERBERS' cries drowned out the beat of their drums. Their white robes and turbans were brilliant in the desert sun, their claps and chants a chorus to which the women danced. The heat and dust of the street seemed charged with sound.

For days, the young men of Erfoud had been shinning up date palms in the surrounding oases to gather bunches of their musky, yellow fruit. Some were loaded on to mules for market, others left glistening on roof tops to sweeten in the sun. Now, it was the tall eucalyptus trees in the town square they climbed, to glimpse over the crowds the Berber musicians, as they moved down the street.

Processions of school children and soldiers followed them into the square, lined with tents, stages and stalls. Then came local officials: chiefs of police, army and government. In full regalia, they toured mounds of dates piled on tarpaulins in the souk, seeming to acknowledge each as they passed. Their inspection complete, cheerful chaos resumed. The Festival of Dates could begin.

Erfoud is a small, dusty town in the Tafilalt oasis, the world's biggest palm grove, bordering the Sahara in southern Morocco. For centuries, its date palms have been vital to the country's economy and to the lives of local people, a fact celebrated every October with a three-day harvest festival. On the festival's first morning, prayers are held at the mausoleum of Moulay Ali Sherif, in the nearby town of Rissani, site of the ancient city of Sijilmassa, founded in 707AD by the Arab conqueror of Morocco, Musa ben Nasser, and a centre of Islamic culture for the next thousand years.

Merchants living in Sijilmassa dominated Saharan trade in slaves, ebony, ivory, gold and dates until 1818, when a tribal attack razed the city to the ground. Curiously, local guides insist it was destroyed by an earthquake. Today, nothing but odd stretches of clay wall remain of this fabled first Arab city of Morocco.

Just over 100 years ago, the then sultan, Moulay Hassan, came here to visit his ancestor's shrine, with a retinue of 40,000 soldiers, servants and wives. Their white tents reached as far into the desert as the eye could see. His expedition seems the last extravagant flourish of a different age. An English journalist, Walter Harris, described the sultan's procession with images of velvet crimson canopies, billowing scarves and sparkling weapons.

There are echoes of this flamboyance in today's festivities. The original shrine, ruined by floods in 1955, has been replaced by a modern mausoleum. More evocative is the old Kasbah of Oulad Abd el-Halim, which lies some two kilometres away. Mosaic Koranic inscriptions, ornate plasterwork and painted ceilings survive around its elegantly arched, crumbling courtyards, and children play football in its square.

To reach Rissani from Marrakesh, I had travelled by bus along the route taken by Harris in 1893. Harris travelled in disguise, for fear of his life. He claimed to be only the second European ever to have passed this way. The first, Charles de Foucauld, was later murdered in the Sahara. The road, which leads to the oasis valleys of the south and the dunes of the Sahara, passes through the most dramatic and diverse landscape in all Morocco, the High Atlas Mountains. It runs by the gorges of Dades, Todra, and Ziz which define this landscape. Each is a spectacular rift in the mountains; without their rivers, life in the south would disappear.

That evening, beneath the harvest moon, some guides and I rode on camels out among the dunes. A fierce storm had greeted my arrival in the region and we could see the lakes it had left on its plains. I mentioned a fable from Moroccan folklore that tells how, with every drop of rain that falls, God sends an angel to ensure that it causes no harm. The guides seemed to enjoy the story. After all, it had not been their luggage strapped, uncovered, to the roof of a bus throughout the deluge.

One guide, Lafrance, told the tale of why his parents talk to the wind, believing it to be stirred by dust devils who can make men mad. Such stories are still believed here, their logic charming and elusive. Listening to them is like exploring the 18th-century ksar, a fortified covered village at the centre of Rissani: its apertures of dazzling sunlight seem unexplained by the known properties of light: all around them are only dark passages between. Perhaps, as the American exile Paul Bowles wrote, in Morocco nothing is the result of anything; everything merely is.

The roof of the ksar is made from the trunks of date palms, the wattle of its walls and floor from their fronds: the bricks and mortar of daily life. Four and a half million palms in these valleys produce 95,000 tonnes of dates a year, of over 100 varieties. They provide shade for people, animals and crops, and resist the encroaching sands. Their fruit, the staple diet of caravans for centuries, is praised in the Koran.

Traditionally, dates are believed to be blessed, the bearers of good luck. Tied to a baby's arm at birth, they will sweeten its nature. Thrown over a bride at her wedding, they will make her more fruitful. Ascribed a potency in matters of horse-buying, sexual attraction, love and death, their mystique touches upon life's most important occasions, and underlies this festival's celebrations.

The storm that lashed my luggage had made the river running through Erfoud impassable, but by the time the date festival began, shepherds could herd their goats and sheep across it to market. Children sat on its banks, listening to the rapids. Some floated beach balls, bought at the fair, where rifle ranges and candy floss stalls contended with those selling incense, herbs and spices.

Originally, this occasion was a market for dates, crops and livestock. Now, beside displays of local crafts - carvings of glossy black fossils found around here, wooden sculpture, ceramics and embroidery - exhibitions publicise progress in irrigation, telecommunications, health care and family planning: barometers of Morocco's modernisation.

Today, tribal rivalry is waged on the catwalk. The opening night's main spectacle was a fashion show of traditional costumes. Brilliant swathes of embroidered silk vied with vividly tressed headresses. Gold and silver sequins spangled to the flashbulbs of photographers. Crowds pushed against the army guards restraining them. The following night, they pressed forward ever more eagerly: a local girl from Rissani was chosen to be Queen of Dates.

Throughout the three days of the festival, there were plays staged, races run, prizes won, and much dancing and singing. Its highlight was a concert on the last night: a performance of traditional music, followed by a recital of spiritual songs from West Africa. I asked about the songs' lyrics, and met looks of bewilderment, later explained when I learned these were songs about "questions without answers".

While wandering around the ksar of Rissani, I had asked my elderly guide if people still believed in djenoun, the spirits of Moroccan folklore. He said they used to see many djenoun in the old dark rooms of the ksar, but not any more.

"Have they all gone?" I asked. To this he did have an answer. "Oh no," he said. "They are still all here. It's just that now we have electric lighting, we see them less." !