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.'' !

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