Travel: Nights under Saharan stars

Fish that jump out of the sand, rock crystals that flower in spring? Christine Aziz takes a trip to the real Morocco where the Fayou family take her into the desert. And later, in Marrakesh, she explores the quiet courtyards that offer respite from the dust, crowds and eternal heat of the city

Fatima was a child when Mohammed Fayou first saw her, but he knew instantly that she would be his wife. They were engaged when she was 13 and he was 21. They had been married for two weeks when we arrived at the Fayou family house in Merzouga, perched on the edge of the Sahara in the Moroccan south. Fatima, now 16, had moved into the Fayou home and had already become part of the rhythm of the daily chores. At dawn she squatted in their kitchen, kneading dough. With the sun newly risen, she sat beside the clay oven sheltered by the well in the courtyard and baked flat rounds of leavened bread. Mohammed's younger sister, also called Fatima, sat beside her helping. "Isn't she beautiful," Mohammed said, gazing adoringly at his wife's sweet face.

Ibrahim, Mohammed's younger brother, was to take us camping in the Erg Chebbi, the great waves of sand dunes which rise beyond Merzouga. We set off late in the afternoon. But it was Mohammed and his father, Ali, who prepared the two camels. Ibrahim and our friend, Rachid, were nowhere to be seen. We set off with Mohammed, who was deep in thought as he led the camels. The golden dunes deepened to sienna under the rising moon's pale, translucent light. The wind was whipping up clouds of sand from the dunes when we heard the sound of Bob Marley; Ibrahim was following us with his ghetto blaster and Rachid was beside him. We stopped and waited for them. "I have a headache," Mohammed said miserably. I handed him an aspirin.

We headed for the dune that rose like a mountain before us. "Behind that dune is the oasis where we will sleep. You only have to scratch the surface of the sand, and water bubbles," Ibrahim said, and he told us about the fish he had seen leaping out of the sand. "They have tiny front paws but otherwise they are just like fish in the sea. We eat them." He told us of more desert miracles, pointing out pieces of pink rock crystals which flower like roses in the spring.

After three hours of walking we spotted palm trees and shrubs. The camels were unloaded and the tent put up - a heavy sheet of thick woven wool propped up on wooden beams in the centre and pegged on two sides. Carpets were spread over the sand and Mohammed placed a pressure cooker on a kerosene stove and waited for dinner. He still had his headache.

"It's because you are missing Fatima!" his companions teased. "It's the first night we have spent apart," Mohammed said unhappily. "She was angry when I said I was coming. But I thought it would be good for her to miss me." He remained silent, lost in his thoughts, and, after dinner, disappeared into the night with a blanket to sleep on top of a dune. In the morning he looked even more miserable. "I couldn't sleep," he said as we returned to the village. "I think I am going mad. I keep thinking of Fatima all the time. She goes round my head in circles. Is that normal?"

We reached the outskirts of the village and Mohammed visibly perked up. His headache had gone, he said. We stopped in front of the house and Fatima was the first to put her head out of the door. Mohammed tethered the camels and entered the house with a big grin. Mohammed's mother, Mama, said that Fatima normally worked hard in the house, but while Mohammed was away hadn't been able to do anything.

Mama Fayou is the matriarch of the Fayou family. A small dark woman with piercing eyes, she rises to greet us as we enter the courtyard. She walks regally towards me and holds my hand and presses it against her mouth in Berber greeting. Ito, her eldest daughter, runs kisses affectionately down Rachid's neck. Both women have indigo tattoos on their faces to signify their married status. In the evening, I sit on the roof with the Fayou women. Mama has 11 children and says she doesn't know how old she is - perhaps 40. She asks me why my husband allows me to travel alone. It is unthinkable for a Berber woman to leave her husband's side. Mama's world is her home and Merzouga and she has rarely left either. She looks up at the bright stars which festoon the Saharan sky. Some are tumbling through the night. "Are your stars like our stars?" she asks dreamily. "No," I reply, remembering European nights where the stars seem further away and often hide behind city lights. She continues to stare proudly up at the galaxy with a smile of satisfaction on her beautiful, wise face.

Two days later we were in Marrakesh and I was woken in my hotel room by the dawn muezzin - the Muslim call to prayers. I found myself thinking of Mohammed and Fatima. "Allah akbar - God is great" boomed a hundred sound-systems. "Prayer is better than sleep," echoed the town's muezzins, their words punctuated by the sighs of the couple making love in the room next to me.

Marrakesh is a riddle of labyrinthine passages with doors which, when opened, offer a tantalising glimpse of lives lived in courtyards that are oases amidst the eternal heat, dust and crowds of the city. We heard music and women singing when the thick wooden door of the salon de the opened for us. We turned a corner to be confronted by a long cool courtyard filled with orange and lemon trees, their fallen fruits fermenting on the earth. A fountain that once bubbled water was filled with bright plastic flowers and birds sang. A tall fig tree offered welcome shade and the tiled floors were cool.

In the late 19th century, the Salon de The Dar Mamoune was the home of the chief of all carpenters in Marrakesh. The old man was now dead and his grandson, Mamoune, escorted us around the house. It was like a Moorish palace, with carved and painted cedarwood ceilings and walls of delicately worked plaster and arabesque tiling. He threw open the huge doors lining one side of the courtyard, each revealing a tableau of chaotic domesticity. They had once been inhabited by his grandfather's four wives. Facing the rooms, in a richly carpeted recess, sat seven middle-aged women swaying on low brocade divans, singing and clapping to a blind lute player.

Mamoune, a handsome man, with large, kind eyes, explained that he was flying back to Lyon in France the next morning, to continue his PhD in liquid gasses, and some friends of his mother's had dropped in to say goodbye. He led us upstairs where Haja, his grandmother, sat cross-legged and frail on a pile of cushions overlooking the courtyard. His dark kohl- rimmed eyes looked up at us. "She won't come down," Mamoune said. "It is her custom and she won't change."

His grandfather's quarters, taken over by Mamoune, were in a state of disarray. "A party, last night," he explained sheepishly. Cushions had been thrown all over the floor and clothes were everywhere. Pieces of antique French furniture filled the room and finely painted flowers and motifs decorated the walls, ceilings and doors. The atmosphere was oppressive. Another room was filled with an enormous bed. "These were my grandfather's quarters and none of his wives could come here. He would go to them," Mamoune explained. Recently, he suggested to Fahita, his mother, that she turn the house into a salon de the for a few hours a day. "My father has died and now I am away she gets lonely and bored."

We joined the women. They poured us mint tea from silver teapots set on huge silver trays. They all wore coat-like jellabas or dresses that covered their bodies. One woman in a scarf was smoking - a habit few Moroccan women indulged in public. Suddenly she leapt up, took her arms out of her jellaba and rolled it down to her waist revealing what looked like a skimpy night dress. Her hips rolled and wobbled as she gyrated to the music, dancing like a young woman. Fahita passed around sweetmeats. She joined in the dancing, smiling and laughing. "You must come tomorrow and I will henna your hands and cook you dinner," she said to me.

The next day the salon de the was quiet. Mamoune had already left. We lounged on divans in the l'bhou - a raised room that opened out into the courtyard and which was used to welcome important visitors. Fahita came to greet us. She looked sad and preoccupied and had clearly forgotten yesterday's invitation. She disappeared and sent a girl out to us with mint tea and almond biscuits. Later she emerged unexpectedly like a shadow from one of the rooms. Her footsteps were slow and heavy as she crossed the courtyard to the main door and let herself out. A small bird hopped at our feet.

"It's a tibibt," Rachid said. "In Morocco we say it will bring visitors to the home who will be greatly loved.'' !



Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.


Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss