Posts Tagged With: nomad

Morocco Postscript: Nomad in a Jewelry Store

I have been having a lively email debate with our travelmate Liz on the nature of karma, a concept that appeals to her and many people but leaves my scientific soul cold. The exchange was precipitated by a final purchase on our last night in Essaouria, just a few hours after what I thought would be my final blog post, about 48 hours ago. But for it to make sense I must first tell you about the jewelry stores in Morocco; I’ve been remiss in not doing so sooner.

Moroccan jewelry — of which Alice has now purchased a substantial amount — is most frequently silver, often inlaid with stones. There is great variety among the styles and settings but the stones, though varying in size and shape, are almost always turquoise, orange coral, or a few varieties of semiprecious green gems.

All of the good quality stuff is handmade, and there is a lot of it. All of the stores display it in a common way, which is a chaotic riot of items filling every square inch of the front window and every wall, often spilling over into chests on the floor like some fairy tale Alladin’s find: little open treasure chests a foot or two across, filled with jingly rings and bracelets with no attempt at organization.

The walls are covered with necklaces, pendants, and bracelets, thousands of them, and all with a slight patina of tarnish that somehow makes their presence more warmly human and immediate. The silver shines but does not gleam; their display makes any Western jewelry store seem cold, overlit and antiseptic. But what really catches the eye, or more accurately overwhelms it, is the sheer density of items; if you laid them out on the floor you would cover every square inch of it to a measurable depth, and you could walk across it without a toe ever touching the tile below. Even hanging on the wall there is barely a quarter inch of space between them, filling every surface.

I find these displays to be like looking at a waterfall from very close range, so that the cascade fills your field of view completely. It is beautiful but disorienting, because it gives the eye no focal point on which to gain visual purchase. Rather, your eye flits from item to item to item without ever coming to rest, saccadic motions as your brain tries to process everything at once. It is pleasing and frustrating at the same time, and after more than a few minutes becomes tiring.

Alice does not have this difficulty; if it’s a problem at all, it is probably a male one. She — and I am guessing other women — seems with little effort to sort through the acreage of visual clutter, homing in one or another object and remarking, “Isn’t that one beautiful?” Well, yes, now that you mention it I suppose it is. But it is difficult for me to tell whether it is more or less beautiful than any of the glinting army of argent baubles surrounding it, and I am ever mystified as to what cortical algorithm allowed her to single out that one.

As you may be able to tell we have visited many such stores over the past three weeks. And so it was no surprise, the night before last, that Alice requested that after dinner with our friends we take a final stroll through the cobblestone alleys and their many storefronts in Essaouira. It was a cool and pleasant Saturday night, perhaps 8:30 PM; the stores were all open, and the streets lively.

We came upon one of many jewelry stores like the ones I have described, this one with many antique wares, and as Alice appraisingly scanned the storefront display, for the first time something caught my eye instead of hers, hanging from a cluster of thin leather thongs at one edge of the window. I thought at first it was an old pocket watch, because it was a brass disk whose color had caught my eye, one of the very few non-silver items in the window. I peered more closely and saw that it was not a watch, though it superficially resembled one: brass, about 2″ across with two ornate hands like on an antique clock face. But instead of a single ring of numbers the face had two concentric rings and was divided into 16 segments instead of twelve, which puzzled me. Some kind of calculator, perhaps, like a circular slide rule?

The owner saw my interest — they always come out to chat you up and inveigle you into the store — and pulled it out of the window, then started to fiddle with it. “It opens up,” he said, though I could not guess why, nor what might be inside it. And what was inside was five smaller disks, each of which could overlay the face and thus replace the inner ring. Some of the disks seemed to be marked with Arab numbers — a very confusing term, since actual Arabic numbers do not look like our numbers, which we call “Arabic numbers”. One disk had perforations of uncertain purpose, still others some arcane symbols, possibly astrological.

The owner explained that this was a Saharan nomad’s astrolabe, a navigation device. It had been hanging in the store window for decades; his grandfather had opened the shop in 1923, and it may well have been there since then. Its provenance and age were unknown, though it is clearly old.

So there is your karma, if that’s the way you prefer to look at it: an astronomer on his last night of vacation, walking through an alley in Morocco at the request of his wife, and stumbling on a nomad’s astronomical device for traversing the Sahara. There was really little question of not buying it. Since it had been hanging there forever the owner basically had to make up a price on the spot when I inquired; he asked for $150, I offered $80, we settled on $100 and both walked away happy. So, as my actual closing grace note to this vacation, here is my remarkable new treasure, which I must now research and learn more about. (I have removed the inside disks for display so you can see the whole thing.) What are the symbols? How is it used? How old is it?

Karma? Coincidence? Or just plain incredibly cool?

There is a frisson of excitement in leaving such an exotic place with a little remaining mystery. We are home now, as you read this — I am typing it on the plane, about an hour before landing — so I can soon start my own navigations into my new acquisition’s past.


Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

One Hump or Two?

We had a comfortable night, punctuated by occasional sounds from the dunes of varying familiarity: a dog barking, percussive music wafting from some other distant camp, and braying by some wayward beast, either a donkey or a camel. And if darkness had a sound, the night would have been deafening, because it was dark, very dark indeed, eyes-closed-while-standing-in-a-closet dark, so dark that when you wake up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, if you don’t find the bedside flashlight you might as well just keep your eyes closed. 

Despite our diligence in keep the screens of our tent zippered, we nonetheless awakened this morning to find a microtome-thin patina of fine sand covering absolutely everything. Moreover, in the “unintended consequences” department, the camp staff did us a favor of leaving the power on all night so we could charge iPads and the like, which drained the solar-powered batteries, which in turn meant that the water pumps could not operate, which yet in turn meant that we could not shower this morning. So it was not only our room furniture, blankets, and clothing that were covered with Saharan dust: we were too, and would remain so for most of the day. So it goes; this sort of thing is just part of the landscape. Literally.

We awakened early enough to throw on some clothes and climb the nearest dune to watch the desert sunrise, which you can see below. There were tracks in the sand: fox, stag beetles, and something big, presumably last night’s braying Mystery Animal. The sunrise itself was evocative though not the colorful extravaganza that one might hope for: there was a layer of dust haze near the horizon that muted the illumination of the clouds. Still, how often will we see a sunrise over the Sahara? (Answer: once more, tomorrow.)

And here is a picture of Alice at the base of our sunrise-viewing dune, her smile belying the sandiness of her underwear.


Breakfast included a “Berber omelet” which is made with olives and a kind of local salsa. I would probably wax rapturous about it if I didn’t hate olives, as I have previously confessed. So I ate around them and joined everyone else in declaring my approval. Then we climbed into our convoy of 4 x 4s and made dusty tracks across the rocks and sand to our day’s first destination, a one-room Berber schoolhouse, pictured below. A slightly harried teacher was giving Arabic lessons to about 30 children, half of them girls.

I say “lessons“, plural, because she was teaching two classes at once, side by side in the room. The right half of the room, viewed from the back where we stood, seated about 10 fifth graders; the left half, 20 sixth graders. So in addition to answering our questions she was simultaneously ping-ponging her attention between the two groups. She spoke and wrote on the blackboard in Arabic, and the posters around the room were variously in Arabic and French. Until recently Berber was purely a spoken language, but under government auspices a project was undertaken about a dozen years ago to create a written Berber alphabet. It looks a bit like Greek, and reads from left to right like English (unlike Arabic or Hebrew). Some of the children had Berber reading primers.

I mentioned that half the students were girls. This is obviously a good thing. The problem is follow-up; it is not at all certain that most of those girls will still be in school a year from now, since, appallingly, they are getting close to marrying age.

Our next stop was (for us, anyway) the day’s main event: camel ride! The handlers divided us into three groups, each with its own handler and “train” of camels tethered single-file. (No, I have not forgotten that they are dromedaries, and I also have no idea whether “train” is a correct term.) We mounted them (not that kind of mounted, you pervert) by stepping on overturned plastic milk crates as the camels knelt on all fours, positioning ourselves in the saddle and gripping the T-shaped handlebar for all we were worth, as the beasts rose one by one. Then we bobbed off into the dunes. We were out for about 45 minutes, just enough time for our thigh muscles to start begging for mercy. Here are some shots of the experience, starting with Alice grinning naively after mounting and seconds before the beast lurched skyward by standing up.

..and now we are under way, Alice in front of me, then Thumper and Steve.

Here’s another part of our group. 

Now Alice is attempting to film her entry for World’s Shakiest Home Videos:

…while I bring up the rear. The rear rider bears the heavy responsibility of being the most likely person to have an article of clothing blown away by the wind, which I did. (One of the handlers recovered my bandanna.)

 And at the conclusion of the ride, we share a self-congratulatory moment with Steve and Thumper. So was the whole thing “touristy”? Of course. But was it nonetheless fun and cool as all get-out? Absolutely.

Our next stop was a fossil bed, or perhaps more accurately, The Mother of All Fossil Beds. A paleontologist might find the whole thing rather pedestrian, since the variety of fossils in this region is pretty limited… basically the three sorts that I mentioned yesterday. But for sheer numbers, I have never seen anything remotely like it. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that every rock was covered in mineralized squids, nautilus-like ammonites, and — much more rarely — trilobites, all more than 300 million years old. The things were literally underfoot as we walked upon intact little ammonites a half inch across. Here are a couple of examples: for scale, the rock in the first photo was about 3 ft across;the big creature in the center of the second photo was about a foot long. (To put things in perspective, the largest one of this type ever found was a 40 ft monster in Israel.)

We probably spent about a half hour there, spreading out over the small plateau and into the shallow valley that were littered with little fossil bonanzas. Sound carries extremely well in the desert, and for that half hour the plateau echoed with our shouts to each other: “Hey, come look at this!”  “Look what I found!” “Look at the size of this one!” 

It’s a protected area, as you’d suppose, and commercial harvesting of the fossils is forbidden. (God knows there must be vast numbers of them around since every fly specked backwater souvenir store sells them.) But Momo said that taking a few small ones was not a big deal, and so we somewhat guiltily pocketed about a half dozen tiny ones, the biggest about 3/4″ long. Those included two completely intact ammonites, perfect little stone snail-like spirals less than a half inch across.

Our last stop of the day was at the canvas dwelling of a truly nomadic nomadic. No semipermanent corrugated aluminum walls and satellite dish for this 51 year old nomadic widow: she lives in the home that you see here for a few months at a time, then literally folds her tent and moves on. 

She lives at present with her 20 year daughter and granddaughter; the daughter’s husband is a shepherd who was away tending his flocks for long periods. The daughter was baking bread in a tiny outdoor “beehive” oven while we were there, a little stone or clay dome perhaps two feet high, identical in concept to what we saw in the mountains near Chefchaouen but much smaller. The bread came our of the oven steaming hot and irresistibly appetizing in appearance, crusty and puffy. After removing it from the oven and letting it cool for, oh, 30 seconds, she scooped it up on a blanket and handed it to Momo to allow us to sample it. And so we did, including Momo, one by one burning our fingers because that loaf of bread was way too damn hot to touch, let alone eat, because it looked to good to wait for. It was indeed possibly the best bread we have had so far, and I’m sure our fingers will heal quickly.

After all this driving around it developed that this particular nomad was about a half mile from our own camp, so we made the two minute drive there and basically rested up for an hour or two. (Happily, the camp batteries had since recharged and we once again had running water.)

In a couple of days we will be having a discussion session with a Sunni imam, so to give us some background for this (and possibly to forestall the likelihood of anyone sticking a religious foot in his or her mouth), Momo lectured us for about 45 minutes on the precepts of Islam. We had already inferred that he was a very moderate, live-and-let-live sort, and he confirmed this at length, giving us not only some Islamic history (including the Sunni-Shia schism) but making it abundantly clear that he regards all the current flavors of Islamic extremism as evil and stupid.

The conversation was interesting and led to a a uprising observation — one might even say epiphany — from Alice. During the discussion Steve asked Momo about the origins and justification of jihad as a weapon of Islam. Momo explained that jihad as currently defined is a perversion of its Koranic definition. According to him, the Koran defines jihad as a struggle to perform godly acts; these may include self defense (but never offense), acts of charitable sacrifice, and the imperative of providing for and defending one’s family. Whereupon Alice leaned over to me and said one word: “Mitzvahs.” So think about that connection for a while.

After the discussion I sought out Momo and asked him if he knew what a bar mitzvah was, which he did not. So I explained the whole thing to him, including the concept of a mitzvah. (Note to Gentile friends: a mitzvah is a godly act, a good deed of any sort, performed without the expectation of any kind of reward, simply because God commanded that everyone should do good deeds, period.) He saw the connection immediately and lit up, shaking my hand delightedly before we returned to our tent. Alice went barefoot as we walked, and so I took my sandals off too. Everyone should walk barefoot in the Sahara at least once.

We leave the tent camp tomorrow morning and drive to the town of Tineghir, which we are told is an oasis. So I guess we’ll learn (a) what an oasis is in practice, and (b) whether they have wifi.

Postscript: RAIN! About 20 minutes ago as I type this, the wind picked up ferociously. Sand came blowing throug the screens into our tent, and the space between the two rows of tent was snaking with windblown serpentines of fine sand, sidewinding  down from the dunes. The clouds had been building through the day and finally coalesced into dark and pendulous omens, and just now the wind reached a crescendo and the rain started. It’s not heavy, more of a wind-driven drizzle, but the fact that it is happening at all is pretty neat.

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Atlas Drove

…and drove, and drove. Today was a travel day, and we spent a total of 11 hours working our way from Fez to Erfoud, the gateway to the Sahara. The distance is about 260 miles, but we made some stops along the way, and at no point did the road resemble an interstate highway. We were in addition slightly slowed down by another one of our group falling ill and requiring a number of impromptu pit stops. Everyone takes this in stride, recognizing that it literally goes with the territory, and happily she is already feeling somewhat better. But the bottom line is, that there was not a whole of jam-packed activities today other than watching the scenery go by (which I will describe in a moment). 

We headed due south towards the desert, our first geographical landmark being the Middle Atlas Mountains, which are only a few thousand feet high (they peak at about 5000′). That is more than enough to notice a significant change in climate, though: the air is much cooler and drier, and the hills forested with cedar and pine. Indeed, this region is rather incongruously referred to as the Switzerland of Morocco, a metaphor made even weirder by the fact that there is in fact a ski resort. They don’t get an enormous amount of snow, but it is apparently enough to ski on; we could see a couple of trails and lifts on the hillsides. It was in this area that we made our first rest stop/coffee break in the town of Ifrane, whose architecture, signage, and heavily German tourist population indeed suggest that we somehow stumbled through a wormhole into some bizarre Islamic corner of Bavaria.

Once we crossed the crest of the Middle Atlas, we were on a high plateau, the plain between the Middle Atlas and High Atlas Mountains; the Sahara is on the far side if the High Atlas. This plain is a rocky desert with scrub vegetation, the road mostly straight and way too narrow: a single skinny lane in both directions with no median strip, guardrails, or shoulders. It was clearly built in an era when this region had no traffic at all, but now that the Moroccan government is investing in a number of southern towns there is a steady two-directional flow of passenger cars, trucks, and buses like our own. The narrow highway and generally marginal road conditions make every oncoming encounter — and they are frequent — an opportunity for terror, as the clearance between northbound buses and our own is about 6″.

All in all the terrain closely resembles much of the American Southwest, albeit with more terrifying roads. However, the Southwest does not have nomadic tribes shepherding herds of sheep and goats across the rocky scrub. The nomads construct makeshift-looking compounds of varying permanence out of a wide variety of scrounged materials, and these constructions are visible on the hillsides every hour or so as we drive. We stopped at one, that you can see here.

The ground surrounding the structures was rough with coarse grass and stones, and littered with animal bones. Dung beetles about 3/4 of an inch long wee all over, diligently rolling up balls of animal dung about the size of acorns and popping into their burrows when our footsteps alarmed them. The rocks were peppered with pretty little orange beetles with geometric hourglass patterns on their backs, looking like robot ladybugs.

The compound itself consisted of a few dimly lit rooms — they do have electricity, courtesy of a solar panel — adjacent to some corrugated metal paddocks variously holding turkey’s and sheep. Seven people live here, from two families; that’s one mother and child in the photo, and there was a grubby looking second child running around on his own. The families vacate this compound in the winter, leaving two of their number behind to keep squatters from occupying it. They return in the spring. They are illiterate, unwashed, and of low life expectancy: the woman above was 22 years old, looked about 40, and had been married since 13. But she baked a mean loaf of bread: she shared some with us that was still hot from the oven, and it was delicious.

Now here’s the strange part: completely belying this otherwise primitive existence is the fact that they have television. A modestly sized TV with one of those ubiquitous pirated cable boxes was fed by a small satellite dish and powered by the solar panel. They probably only have enough juice to operate the TV for a small part of the day, but sure enough, she turned its on for us and we could see the channel guide from the satellite (which she, of course, does not know how to read). But she also flipped through a couple of stations with some kind of soap opera going on, which kind of put a dent in my personal mental image of the isolated nomad.

We crossed the plain between the two mountain ranges and ascended into the High Atlas, where the road became twisty as we climbed and not any wider. There were at least guardrails, although frequently damaged or broken through by what we can only assume was some prior horrific accident. The terrain also became even more sparse, the soil turning redder and the vegetation becoming even more sparse. But there is enough water to be found in wells and the occasional shallow river to allow the construction of bricks and adobe, and the architecture in the towns by the road reflect this. Take a look at the image below: the town is made from adobe, and if you remove the tall structure at right, which is the town minaret, the scene could very well be somewhere in northern Arizona. 

If you’re not altogether in agreement with that statement, then check out the next image and tell me that it couldn’t equally well be in Arizona or New Mexico.

What you will not find in Arizona or New Mexico, however, is groves of date palms like you see in the picture below. The trees sit in a strip of land a few hundreds yard wide in a valley below the winding road, and they follow it for miles. Dates are a major part of the economy here, and the are a number of varieties with a wide range of quality and corresponding price. At the top of the line are Medjool dates, which are quite expensive (and not the ones in this grove).

We arrived at our hotel in Erfoud at a little after 7 PM and upon entering it immediately felt like desert travelers encountering an oasis. Below is the courtyard. You can see the pool in the middle of the photo; what you cannot see is the white camel that they keep on the grounds. This place is nice, and will doubtless in retrospect stand in sharp contracts to the more primitive lodgings that we will have for the next couple of days. We head out into the Sahara for real tomorrow, leaving behind most of our luggage and abandoning our bus for several 4 x 4’s that will take us to our tented camp for the next two nights. There, we will be riding camels into the dunes, meeting desert Berber tribes, and — my astronomer self smiles — enjoying some truly spectacular night skies. What I will not be doing, however, is transmitting any blog posts for the next few days, as we will be well and truly off the grid. I hope to be back online with suitable Rich and Alice of Arabia stories in a few days.

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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