As the first rays of sun make their way into the gorge, I turn around to see where I just came from. The white- and- grey slabs of granite follow the source. Deep- green transparent- waters natural pools where fish swim sparkled between the rocks and the canyon’s wall. What looks like wax, tons of it, had spilled over the edge of the cliffs and froze in time on its way down, in its wake creating peculiar strings of hanging solidified lava threads. To my left, a giant lava mushroom had almost made it all the way to the ground. In the solitude of this early morning, I feel like Adam in awe at the Creation. I take a moment and stare up at the vertiginous ridge where half way down, a remote palm tree somehow clings onto the perfectly vertical escarpment. Austere. Spartan. Obstinate. Adjectives that encapsulate the whole topography of the last days.
After the sand dunes of the Sahara, came hundreds of miles covered with barren sun- burnt lunar landscapes. The occasional palm grove. But then, I turned north, away from the confines of the Sahara, ruined French Foreign Legion forts and the blinding light of the deep south. On the other side of the dunes came the acacia trees and wide steppes and, at some point I must have crossed the invisible border between the palm and almond trees, dark skinned and red-in-the-cheeks youths.
It isn’t quite the Morocco I’m used to. The crowded souks, the Chinese motorbikes, the satellite dishes. Even the kasbahs are missing. I drive and drive. Every half hour I cross another car. There are so few people around that I feel compelled to greet the few persons I pass by, most of them herders out with their goats. I’m more than 300 miles south of Marrakech. A whole different country here, on the fluid frontier between the Anti Atlas and the Sahara. This morning I couldn’t get a mint tea. Atay. In Morocco. Here, places are called Icht, Akka, Aday or Id Aissa. Go figure. Places in Morocco where at the right place and time of day, you may spot foxes or mountain gazelles. Hares and wild boar.
Some of the main dynasties ruling over Morocco came from just south of here. On the north fringes of the Sahara, deep in the rudeness of the dunes yet safe from any danger. Getting strength. To then attack north when drought was making life in the desert impossible. And then falling back into the dunes. Yet some of them continued north. The Almoravids. These mountains were the first natural obstacle they encountered. I wonder how they first felt, riding their horses and camels through narrow refreshing gorges like this one, rough men used to open spaces and sweltering heat. Did they tread on the same gravel ? Breathed the same almond- perfumed air ?… Or was it summer ? Autumn ? To think they founded their capital Marrakech and marched way north to cross the Mediterranean and conquer Andalusia. Could these regular invasions be the reason why the sedentary Berber build their formidable igoudars on the most inaccessible summits, safe places where grains and sometimes cattle was kept and occasionally communities could find refuge for months ? The granary visited the previous day, a true fortress that seemed the definition itself of unconquerable, used to accommodate water cisterns, bee hives. 70 rooms, each given to a family, and guarding towers. Miniature basins had been dug out into stones so that even bees had water to drink. The amin‘s son showed me dry carrots which, he argued, would turn comestible after a few hours of being left in water.
The smaller brother by the valley, is estimated to be around 800 years old. And although damaged by last November’s rains, it still stands. Dignified. Protruding. Way before its birth and even before grains became part of the diet around these parts, elephants, rhinos, giraffes or ostrichs were roaming free while men- hunters were using traps and arrows to hunt down their pray. They also had the time to graphically represent these facts, which one can still witness nowadays throughout many of the hundreds of rock engravings present in the area.
It is also in these mountains that fierce combats were given, between the French occupation forces trying to ‘pacify’ the area in the 1930’s and the Berber guerrilla tribes, refusing to be ruled by French, or any other army for that matter. French ruined forts still dot these areas and many legionnaires, many of them criminals on the run looking to bury their past, gave their last breath here.
I remember a few days back, while contouring a palm grove, I stopped by the banks of the oued. The local women were doing their laundry up the river, helped by the young girls of the family. The men had put on the best djellaba preparing for Friday’s prayer. I went walking under the palm trees and, out of nowhere, the unfinished minaret of a mosque was standing in the sun, its baked bricks neatly arranged. From the first glance, it was obvious it was not recent – it immediately brought to mind the also unfinished 12th century Hassan tower in Rabat. Could it be that old ? Doubtful. The architect in charge of its restoration had told me a few days later that it was most likely a gift of a Saadi sultan to the local population or a mark of an important stop on the caravans’ route, but that scientific research will soon bring evidence. There was also a nearby Jewish mellah, albeit in ruins. The cliff- perched granary was intact though and it was pleasing to see that the families had taken possession of the old rock houses again.
Back from the gorge, I was packing my car and getting ready to reach the Atlantic coast that evening. A young beautiful local girl was passing on the dirt road, pulling her mule at the end of a string. I felt compelled to greet:
‘Aalaykum salam’ she answered boldly. And indeed, peace was upon me.