In the High Atlas, with the Berbers and Allah

In Morocco's mountain villages women don't rate very highly, so Justine Hardy kept her opinions to herself as she enjoyed some lavish hospitality
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The Independent Travel
The old Berber tribesman walked just ahead showing his apple trees and rubbing the red mountain dust off the ripe fruit. His long, hooded robe was trailing on the ground and each time he turned to say something he would trip on the hem, spit in the dust in disgust and continue his sentence. He took an old bone-handled knife out of the folds of his robe and cut one of the apples, leaving a slight rust mark on the white fruit; he held one of the halves. "I grow all my fruits for Allah." He put the half apple in my hand, tripped on his robe and spat.

Berber villages like this, perhaps some even without such a guttural headman, are scattered across the High Atlas mountains of Morocco. All around the range rolls and climbs in a high tundra. It was the end of the long summer so every horizon was red dust. Yet the villages of the Berber tribes punctuate this dust with green profusion. Walnut and chestnut trees shade the paths in and out of the villages, each terrace of land carries a patchwork of blown barley or vegetables that would turn any market gardener's head. The grazing stock are shaded by the spreading branches of olive, almond, fig and pomegranates.

We were given Barbe-Arabian horses to ride across the High Atlas. The Berbers speak of them in hushed tones as if they are referring to deities. They are pretty little things with floating manes and dished faces; not quite the angry war horses you would imagine from the tribesmen's descriptions. But then the Berbers have this canny ability to make all the greatest inventions and discoveries attributable to the Berbers, everything from the discovery of garlic as a panacea to the internal combustion engine with fireworks and condoms thrown in along the way.

Whether you were born in the saddle or have just taken to it the Berber horses look after you. They have an inbuilt mountain-goat ability to deal with clambering up and down rocky ravines. Our guide was a Berber and he gushed continually about the stamina and beauty of his horses.

With the tales of Berber greatness in our ears we crossed the plateaux and rode down out of the dust into the villages at the end of each day. A gaggle of children would crowd around, hanging on to our stirrups, their hands out, with the flash of a toothy smile before the wistful sigh and request for some money, pens or sweets, the international language of the aesthetic rural youth of the second and third worlds. After the front- line of children came the matriarchs of the village. They hurled stones at the sweetie brigade to stop them begging, sending more great arcs of spit in the direction of the retreating youngsters. We were there as guests and these crumple- skinned women believe that you do not beg from your guests.

Each evening the horses were bedded down, fed, watered, cosseted and crooned at. We would retire to an inner courtyard or roof top to drink coffee and mint tea poured from frothing heights out of silver pots. We listened to more Berber wisdom; their main cure, apart from the garlic, being the first pressing olive oil for everything from backache to stomach pain. We heard stories about the battles between the Berbers and the Almoravids. The latter had driven the Berbers out of the plains with their superior desert technology. Of course, we were assured that the Berbers were not a defeated tribe but rather a people who felt they were better tuned to the mountains. They believe that they should only eat food that has been killed or gathered that day. So we ate tagine of mutton simmered all day in its own juices; roasted pumpkin, quinces and loquats; flat bread baked in huge curves on the inside of the clay ovens; fresh butter that smelt so strongly of cow that it bordered on cheese (pasteurisation is not yet a Berber invention); couscous steamed to light grains; glistening green and black olives marinated in olive oil and mountain herbs, and always mint tea poured from increasing heights until it splashed us all and the Berbers laughed loud and long.

Sometimes our hosts ate with us, sometimes they just sat and watched, willing us to eat on way beyond our capacity. The women of the house slid in and out carrying dishes and nodding shyly when we complimented them on their cooking.

One night we ate on a village rooftop and talked about marriage with a young Berber who had moved to Marrakesh and married a city girl. Under a Walt Disney blanket of stars he described the role of his wife: "I will never have to go out to eat again in my life if I choose. Her job is to stay in the house and to keep all things clean and to produce fresh food. I will always eat fresh food." Yet he was a young man far more attuned to the modern world than most of his fellow tribesman. I smiled and wished his recent marriage longevity.

I did not have a chance to talk to his new bride. She kept out of sight. She had married into a tribe where the men still parade their masculinity by galloping across the mountains, firing their guns in the air, and performing gymnastics on horseback during wild festivals; a tribe that turns to the lines in the Koran: "Blessed art thou, Lord God, who hath not made me a woman." There is a uniformly chauvinistic attitude towards women and I was better served by maintaining a kind of sexless identity and not coming out with too many opinions.

Sometimes, in the late afternoon, we would walk through the olive groves to other villages. As it began to cool, we watched the sheep and cattle being driven in from the day's grazing, the paths becoming busy with motoring donkeys, dwarfed by their hooded riders. We found fig, pomegranate and apple trees with fruit beginning to rot on the branches. We passed vineyards where the grapes were falling off the vines and vegetable patches where the pumpkins had burst in the dust and the courgettes were the size of weightIifters' forearms. The villagers encouraged us to eat the warm, overripe figs off the trees while we watched the dusk slide through the villages as the lamps were lit.

I asked the apple farmer with the trailing robe why so much produce was left to rot where it grew.

"The Prophet said that all who grow plants for the nourishment of man, bird or beast shall be rewarded by God," he spat heartily and admired his dark mark in the red dust.

FACT FILE

Basics

Riding in the High Atlas can be arranged through the equestrian centre at Residence La Roseraie, Ouirgane. Tel: (00 212 4) 432094

All the author's travel arrangements were made by the Moroccan specialist, Annie Austin, at Morocco Made to Measure, 159 Sloane Street, London. SW1X 9BT. Tel: 0171 235 0123/ 2110 Fax 0171 730 4976. They can arrange anything from just an afternoon's riding to a two week trek among the Berber villages. Five days on trek with all meals included costs about 40OOdh (pounds 285). The village houses are very basic. The riding is easy for those with basic experience, though the accommodation is not for those who do not enjoy sleeping under the stars. The best time of year to go is during March, April and May when the mountain flowers are in bloom.

Visas

EC passport holders do not need a visa to enter Morocco.

Travel

There are both chartered and scheduled flights into Morocco. The two main scheduled operators out of UK are Royal Air Maroc 0171 439 4361. They have flights to Marrakech via Casablanca every day except Wednesday. Prices for spring 1997 start at pounds 360 minus airport tax. GB Airways 0345 222111 has direct flights from Gatwick to Marrakech with special spring offers starting at pounds 249 minus tax. These flights only go out on Fridays and Tuesdays.

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