We have devoted this section to the South of Morocco, since it is Lahcen’s home and second love (after cooking!). Whether or not you visit the South in your travels to Morocco, we would like to give you a taste of the beauty of the people and the landscape. And how to help preserve this beauty!!
Many people say that Morocco is divided into two cultures: the culture of the North and that of the South. This is not an unfamiliar statement for people coming from the United States, France, England, and many other countries where the north and the south have always been distinguished by their different cultures and mentalities. However, in Morocco, the difference is striking. Part of this disparity has to do with the hugely diverse landscapes. The North is known for its greenery in the peaceful, rolling Middle Atlas Mountains. The High Atlas Mountains in the South are quite the opposite of the Middle Atlas. These mountains are jagged, dry and harsh. The only greenery that we find in the south is in the beautiful, lush valleys along which you find small Berber farming communities. It is the hospitable culture of these communities and the dramatic landscapes that makes the south so different from the north.
Marrakech is the legendary and romantic city in the south that thousands of tourists flock to every year. However, the South of Morocco is also famous for its striking display of the various kinds of landscapes that a dry desert climate can produce. Driving through the High Atlas Mountains feels like you are navigating a geological treasure trove. Colourful layers of rock curve with the face of the mountain in ways that look oddly similar to some of the geometric tile-work you see in Fes. Every stark mountain range in the High Atlas is cut by a long green ribbon of farmland and Berber villages. The houses in these villages are built in the traditional way, using the earth of the region. So from afar, the villages practically blend into the face of the mountains. Almost every valley in the High Atlas is more stunning than the last. Some famous ones include Dades, Draa, the Valley of the Roses, Gheris, and the Ziz Valley. One of the most stunning (and most touristy) is the Draa Valley, which is lined with lush palmeraies that follow the river for 95 kilometers.
As you continue further South, you end up in the desert. The transition between the High Atlas Mountains and the sand dunes in the region of M’hamid and Merzouga is a stark, flat landscape. It’s the kind of place where you certainly wouldn’t want your car to break down. The dunes have become a popular tourist attraction, so towns like Merzouga and M’hamid, which used to be military outposts are now filled with nothing but hotels and hostels for people who want to take a 4×4 or a camel excursion into the desert. However, once you leave behind the hotels and bazaars and climb over the first few dunes, you feel like you are walking through a sea of sand. You might start to feel akin to Lawrence of Arabia.
The South is primarily Berber, or “Amazigh”, which means “the free man”. The language that Amazigh people speak is called “Tamazight”. Although Arabic is the official language in Morocco, there are still communities in Morocco where people only speak Tamazight. Tamazight has a script of its own called Tifinart, although most people use Arabic or Latin script when writing in Tamazight. Like the Arabs, most Amazighs are Muslims. However, there are still some who are Jewish and Christians. Although there is no racial distinction or prejudice between the Amazigh people and the Arabs, the Amazighs have a very different culture than Arabs – a culture that many are struggling to preserve.
Amazighs are known for their hospitality and their openness. If you ever end up in a Berber village, you will surely be invited at least once into someone’s home, even if you don’t know the person. Amazighs have a social code that whether the guest is an enemy or a friend, one is required to host this person for at least three days in their home. If there is a traveller, someone from the community must house them. Even if they know that the traveller already has a place to stay, they will still invite them. If there is a person who comes to the village to serve the community (a shepherd, a teacher…), members of the community take turns housing and feeding them.
This custom is part of a tradition of brother and sisterhood among Amazighs. The effort of the community is far more valued than the work of a single person, which is practically unheard of. In a village, each family has their piece of land that they farm, but the work on the land is shared by the whole village. Every family helps the others to irrigate and harvest their land. This way, there is no competition between the farmers of whose land is the richest. The same community effort is seen when it comes time to shepherd. Neighbours and friends share the responsibilities with each other’s herds. If one family has 10 goats and another family has 20, the shepherd of the first family will take all thirty up into the mountains for 10 days, and then the second family will send their shepherd up for 20 days. Therefore, each family shares the time equally, depending on how many goats they have.
Farming in the Valleys
In the valleys of the South, there is a complicated system for irrigation that requires the help of the entire community to control. The long valley of fields is irrigated by water that comes from the river to small streams that run through the terrain. In a long valley lined with fields, families will not always have fields next to each other. So when a family buys a piece of land, they also buy water time. Therefore, when a member of a family inherits the land, they also inherit the water, so to speak. The water comes from the river to streams which have been created to irrigate the land. Each piece of land has a passage from the stream to the land. When the water arrives on one piece of land, the community starts to count down the farmer’s water time. When the land is irrigated, the farmer opens the stream for another person’s land and the watch stops. However, this farmer’s work is not yet finished. There is still another piece of land further down the valley. So, the farmer waits for the water to arrive to the other piece of land and the watch starts again. Of course, it is important not to take too much time on one piece of land because you will be taking water away from your other fields. Therefore, using physics, farmers have figured out how to speed up the irrigation of one field so as to gain water time for their other pieces of land.
Tourism and the South: Preserving Beauty
With Marrakesh and Agadir as the two biggest tourist attractions in the country, the South has known tourists for quite a long time. However, every year more and more hostels, hotels, fancy guest houses, and gite d’etapes have been popping up. As with tourism in every third world country, this is seen as a good thing and a bad thing. A big concern is the preservation of small communities, like Lahcen’s town, Amellago. It would be sad to see this hidden treasure turn into a hot tourist spot. However, behind these concerns are more complicated concerns of the community members. People in small villages lead very happy lives, despite the lack of modern comforts. They eat well, they live amongst beautiful nature, they live in a close connection with the community. But in recent years, their comfort is due to their sons, husbands, and brothers who all leave the village to find jobs so that they can send money. Some travel to cities that are close, like Marrakesh, but some travel as far as Spain and France, staying away from their families as long as a year or sometimes two.
Could tourism save these villages from the mass exodus of their men? Perhaps. But since these communities live amongst beautiful nature that they also depend on for their agriculture, tourism should not come at the expense of the land. Tourism is good for the country, but not if it will destroy the land. Few in the Moroccan tourism industry are paying close attention to the kind of tourism that the South is attracting. But we encourage you, dear visitors, to pay attention. There are many ways to travel in an eco-friendly way: stay in smaller locally-run gite d’etapes, think about how much water and energy you are using in smaller villages, take your trash with you when you leave or make sure that it goes in the right place. During your stay in a village, go for walks instead of drives to appreciate the scenery. Don’t drive too quickly when you are driving through rural areas. Many children tend to come close to cars. Wherever you go, respect the culture, and try to get close to the people. Accept invitations. If someone says hi to you in a village, say hi back. When people say hi in cities, it is not always a genuine friendly greeting. But in villages, there is rarely a hidden interest – people are just trying to be friendly.