This cover from one of Needham’s collections was drawn by Duncan Macpherson (now there’s an old style Canadian name), a truly great editorial cartoonist.

My old Morocco X friend, Reed Erskine just left a thoughtful comment on my last post, And Monarchs to behold the swelling scene, and I began to reply to it only to find my response demanded more space than a simple comment, so I am adding it as a new post.

People all over the world should do what they can for the health of the planet. Reed crossed the Atlantic in a sailboat, sailed the Mediterranean, crossed the Sahara by vehicle, worked in Guinea, and God knows what else, so the fragility of the natural world is one he knows personally and intimately.

Monarchs are becoming endangered and often cannot help themselves. We as individuals can help them by doing simple things such as letting the goldenrod grow and growing patches of milkweed. Two years ago a professor of biology from the University of Maryland gave a public lecture at Niagara University, just a few miles from here. He presented his research showing that many suburban areas had become food deserts for native birds, and adding to the many other man-made hazards for migrating species. Since most birds feed their young with insects, even seed-eating species, having trees that produce those insects in abundance, especially caterpillars, and, at the right season, is crucial to the survival of their nestlings. In the same vein, migrating in the autumn, birds often eat berries. Having berries with the right nutrients and food value at the right time is important for their survival. Suburban gardens often have the wrong types of shrubs and trees, coming as they do from other regions of the States or even other continents, and even local species vary greatly as to the quality and quantity of food they offer.

My response to this was to resolve to plant only the most helpful species that met our garden needs, and over the last two years I have planted a dozen red oaks and catalpas, the latter known in some places in the States as “bait” trees, as they were once planted intentionally to provide fishermen with caterpillars. The next trees I plant will be pin oaks and maples. Our home is in a rural area, but recent development along the lake tends to echo suburban tastes, clearing brush and forest for lawns, and making formal ornamental gardens. Maybe the next owner of this property will cut them all down, but I surely hope not. Along the eastern edge of our lot, I have let the hedgerow expand and encroach upon the lawn, and it harbors many kinds of wildlife. As I write, the wild grape vines are ripening, and there are grapes and berries of various sorts everywhere.

The survival of humanity is a different story. I don’t doubt that we are endangered and that the planet’s sixth great extinction is now happening. Whether humanity is a part of it remains an open question. It certainly will happen if the oceans die, since they are the earth’s greatest source of oxygen.

By way of contrast, this is a humanitarian issue, where survival concerns a group, not the human race. The death of migrants will not lead to extinction. Nor do most of us keep them in our consciousness all the time. They are just another news item, and only when enough of them die does the disaster make the news. Many of us don’t know them. We don’t know the circumstances they left nor what obstacles they face migrating to and settling in new homelands. I think of them often, perhaps because through life in Morocco I came to know some of them personally. And I would never begrudge them their chance for a better life for their families.

Years ago, still in college, I traveled with my Nagra reel-to-reel tape recorder to the offices of the The Globe and Mail, then and still, Canada’s national English language newspaper. I had been traveling about Canada, and actually living for long periods there, collecting interviews for a radio show on our college station, at the time an important one small corner of northern New England. Canada was celebrating one hundred years of nationhood in 1967. Having recently adopted a national flag and anthem, the federal government and the provinces were embroiled in difficult negotations concerning the repatriation of the British North America Act of 1867, an act of the UK parliament which created an independent Canada and provided a constitutional basis for the creation of a federal system of government. The BNA Act was unilaterally repatriated in 1982 without the consent of the Quebec government which, thirty-eight years later, has still not signed on.

The Globe was a conservative paper, read by the bankers and brokers of Bay Street, the Wall Street of Toronto, but conservative in those times meant something more reminiscent of Edmund Burke than Donald Trump. There was an editorial page writer, Richard Needham, who certainly would have looked out of place among the bankers. He wore second-hand suits and lived in an eight-dollar-a-week Chinese boarding house, despite having a regular salary as a humorist for Canada’s largest newspaper and royalties from publishing collections of his daily articles. Needham loved to poke fun at people, mores, and institutions, not simply to make his readers chuckle, but often with a deeper message about what he thought was important.

Sitting in his office with late-afternoon light streaming through the windows behind him, Needham expressed his confidence in Canada, but also criticized it. He thought that Canada should throw open its borders and open its vastness to much more new emigration. At the time it seemed so radical that I discounted it, but his comments have never left me, and Canada has since been changed, all for the better, by a huge influx of immigrants. The scale has not matched Needham’s hyperbole, but for me, as an observer, it seems to have confirmed the soundness of his advice, advice that was kind and generous, and born out of common humanity, and not concern for development or economic gain.

Richard Needham is gone now, but I will never forget him, nor the Moroccans whom I knew who sought a better life in France. My only regret is that over the many years I have lost touch with them.

If the name of Richard J. Needham is foreign to you, Wikipedia has a sympathetic portrait.

And monarchs to behold the swelling scene

Monarchs on the goldenrod

As my wife and I sat on our deck the other night, looking over Lake Ontario, butterflies drifted in and out of our field of vision, and flew over our heads or alighted on the leaves of the trees above us. In the setting sun and in the twilight that followed, they bedded down for the night.

The cold front driving them over the lake swells triggers their journey. The next day our yard was full of them, and many clustered around the goldenrod plants that grow wild under the dead ash by our back door.

The butterflies are known as Monarchs. They are a common butterfly, and one finds them in both North America and Eurasia. The old-world Monarchs and those from the New World differ only in one respect: the North American Monarchs migrate long distances. In our case they are moving south from New York State and southern Canada.

This butterfly gets its name from its orange coloring, the orange of William of Orange. It feeds on many flowers, but Monarch caterpillars feed only on the milkweed plant. This is a strength and a vulnerability as milkweed is considered a weed and therefore eradicated. On the other hand, the plant imparts a sour taste to the insect, and birds seldom eat more than one Monarch. Indeed, another butterfly, the Viceroy, takes advantage of the Monarch’s bitter taste, by mimicking its colors and patterns. Birds avoid the Viceroy, fearing the taste of a Monarch.

A few years ago I had wanted to cut down the goldenrod. The pollen of the plant is wrongly thought to irritate people with hay fever. My wife dissuaded me, and I am happy that her opinion prevailed, as the annual Monarch migration is a scene for us to behold. Though the scale and drama would not compare with the battlefield at Agincourt, the clouds of butterflies have a charm for us, especially as they presage and precede the change of seasons as late summer August slips into early autumn.

The Monarch migration is threatened these days. Not only is their food source more scarce and their routes filled with dangerous highways and other obstacles, but their wintering grounds in the mountains of northern Mexico suffer from serious loss of habitat due to deforestation and, perhaps, climate change. When we see the Monarchs on the move, there is sadness as well as joy, a sadness born of the increasing difficulty of their journey and their problematic reception at its end.

The sadness for me also comes from the personal knowledge of the travails and fates of human migrants around the world. Pushed by hunger and war, and that through no fault of their own, migrants everywhere are attracted to the richer societies around them where they are welcomed for their inexpensive labor, but feared for their skin color and religion.

When I lived in Morocco, the migration, though changing, was primarily a temporary one of single men, an age-old pattern for Moroccans where Swassa have long migrated from their arid, argan tree valleys to the imperial cities of the north, in the same manner as the Mzabis and the Djerbans in Algeria and Tunisia. Far from their families, they lived frugally, and maintained a reputation for probity. In old age, they returned to the Souss, or the Mzab, or the isle of Djerba, to the homelands they loved and missed, to retire in comfort.

Miloud Soussi at his shop in Derb el Mitre, with one of his sons. 1973.

During the First World War, with a dire shortage of men due to their continual slaughter on the battledfield, France found a temporary source of factory labor in Morocco, and, as the French say, rien ne dure comme le provisoire. And over time, North African migrants from all over the Maghreb began to bring their families and settle in France and other European countries. Weighing the pros and cons, many decided that a life in France was better than one in their homeland, however difficult the former might be.

Mohammedi in front of his vegetable shop in Seti Messaouda. He left for France in the seventies

Today I read in Le Monde that more and more small boats are trying to cross the English Channel, braving harsh enforcement, rough water, and dangerous shipping lanes. In the Strait of Gibraltar, the situation is the same. West African migrants cross even wider reaches to get to the Canaries. And who can forget the heart-wrenching photo of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, lying lifeless on a Turkish beach?

Hammad Hsein, Sefrou, 1973. A primary school teacher at the school in Habouna, he migrated to France. His family lived in Seti Messaouda.

I recently sent my friend, Reed, some old American embassy guidelines for crossing the Sahara from Morocco. In the sixties and seventies, tourists routinely, if infrequently, made the crossing, and Reed replied by recounting his difficulties finding a ride and then, having found one, riding for two days in a cram-packed Land Rover on the long unpaved, and sometimes unmarked, track from Tamanrasset to Agadez. Today this route, though partly paved, is far too dangerous for tourists, but thousands of migrants follow it north every day, at great expense and peril. When and if they arrive on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, they then face an even more perilous sea journey, hoping to find refuge, but often being turned away. And some, like little Alan, never arrive.

Migrant workers in Agadez

As the earth’s climate changes, as senseless wars continue, as poverty becomes unbearable, the streams of migrants grow and multiply, pulled by aspirations to a better life for themselves and their families. If I were sitting on a beach in northern Morocco, I might see a migration not of butterflies but of people. As fellow humans, they are far more beautiful and precious than the Monarchs, and my thoughts, as I watch the butterflies, are often with my poor and persecuted fellow inhabitants of the earth.

John Paulas

A Morocco XII volunteer, John Paulas, recently passed away. I think he might have worked in forestry. If I am wrong, please use the Contact page to write and I will correct any error.

To some John Paulas was “Africa John”

John was stationed in Boured, usually transliterated Bourd, a small hamlet north of Taza. One might say Boured was nowhere. Or one could say it was two or three hours from the nearest city, Taza or Al Hoceima, neither of which were very large at the time. Bourd was a day’s journey from Rabat or Casa or Tangier. The nearest big cities were Fes and Meknes. So after everything is said, Bourd was relatively isolated. It was certainly more isolated than Sefrou, where I could commute to Fes by grand taxi or bus in a half hour or so. And Sefrou was itself a city, if a small one.

This Google Earth view shows Boured’s location near the eastern end of the Rif Mountains.

The remoteness of Bourd probably pleased John, who had graduated from Paul Smith’s College, a small institution located in the northern Adirondack Mountains of New York State, another isolated spot. The landscape around Bourd is hilly. The Ouergha River has its origins nearby. The spine of the Rif mountains is not far off, and in the winter the higher peaks are clad with snow.

Bourd was also small. I have tried to find an old population figure. I suspect that in 1968 Bourd had only few thousand souls, and certainly far fewer than the 10,000 plus inhabitants that it has today.

John the Hiker, in Morocco, age 23 or 24

I met John in 1969. We both were eager to hike Morocco’s mountains, and we had both met the young Peace Corps doctor, Louden Kiracofe, who had developed a love of the outdoors and mountaineering in Colorado. Louden organized a trip to climb Jbel Toubkal, Morocco’s highest peak, and John, fellow Morocco X volunteer Tony Singleton, and myself accompanied Louden and his wife, Ginny. For all of us it was our first trip to the trails of the High Atlas. The trip is partly documented elsewhere in this blog.

John and Tony Singleton on the way to the base of Jbel Toubkal

John had wanted to serve in Nepal and, on his initial Peace Corps travel to Morocco, he mentioned that preference to another new volunteer who was seated next to him on the PanAm flight. The latter replied that he was being sent to Nepal, but that he had wanted to go to Morocco! Such is life and such is the Peace Corps. I had wanted to go to Morocco, and was given a slot in a program to Senegal. I turned it down, and later was offered a slot in Morocco X.

John with Louden Kiracofe en route to the then Neltner Hut
John, on the shoulder of Jbel Toubkal, looking down the long scree slope in the gully that leads up from the Neltner Hut. Having hiked to the summit of Toubkal, we descended the gully in long jumps, sliding along with the scree, then kicking off again. It only took 20 minutes to reach Neltner. On the way up, by way of contrast, slipping and sliding in the scree made progress a chore. Across the valley is Tadat.

Had John gone to Nepal, his relative isolation in Morocco might not have compared to what he would have found in Nepal.

In my junior or senior year of college, I sat in a dorm room of Cutter Hall listening to a returned Peace Corps volunteer who had served in Nepal in one of the earliest Peace Corps programs. He flew out of Katmandu to his assignment, and, as the plane passed over the village he would serve in, the pilot pointed it out. The volunteer asked how long before they would arrive. The pilot answered that the plane would land in twenty minutes—but the volunteer would then face a three-day walk! The mountains of Nepal are a different order of magnitude.

John on the running board of the Jeep on a rock-strewn part of the road to Taffert, below Bouiblane. We had a bit of trouble with rockfall.

John and I hiked together one other time. If one lives anywhere between Fes and Taza, from most high points the mountains of Bouiblane and Moussa ou Salah, snow capped for more than half the year, dominate the southern horizon. There was a striking view of Bouiblane from the roof of my house in Sefrou.

John, Louden Kiracofe, and myself in the early morning light, on our way to Taffert. The valley below is filled with clouds.

Along with Bou Naceur and Tichoukt, their summits represent the culminating points of the eastern Middle Atlas. John and I wanted to climb Bouiblane. The opportunity presented itself when Louden organized a trip which included Don Brown, Gaylord Barr and, of course, John and myself. That trip is discussed in another blog post. Suffice it to say, la montagne n’a pas voulu, but Louden and John later climbed it on a moonlit night, and I on a bright and fine May morning.

John with a couple of locals and myself, near Taffert.

I hardly ever saw John after that, and we never became close friends, though he did read this blog. His passing saddens me and is a reminder that though in time one can conquer many mountains, in the end it is time which is the ultimate conqueror.

John in rear with Louden Kiracofe and Don Brown. They thought the summit of Moussa ou Salah was near, but Bouiblane has a long summit ridge. They walked for miles and never got to the summit of Moussa ou Salah, which is separated from Bouiblane by a wide saddle. The weather turned.

Here is a link to John’s obituary. May he rest in peace among the mountains of Oregon that he loved.

Chants d’une nuit d’été

La grande mosquée de Sefrou, à quelques pas de la maison

Au Maroc, les nuits étaient silencieuses, sauf, bien sûr, au mois de Ramadan quand la population, après le coucher du soleil, célébrait et mangeait pour souligner la fin du jeûne. Une seule chambre de ma maison donnait sur la rue, une des rues principales de la médina, mais la circulation cessait après 22 heures. Le quartier n’avait pas de café à l’époque, et les camions et les voitures ne le troublaient pas. Depuis longtemps les petits commerçants avaient fermé leurs boutiques pour rentrer chez eux.

De temps en temps on entendait des passants dans la rue en bas, surtout ceux qui revenaient du cinéma ou du hammam, mais cette circulation cessait avant minuit. Sur la terrasse, un hibou se perchait sur la muraille, peut-être pour appeler son compagnon, mais cela n’arrivait pas souvent, et les superstitieux le prenaient pour un signe de malheur. La vieille ville dormait tranquillement. Seti Messaouda ne se réveillait qu’avec le Fajr, qui appelait les fidèles à la prière. La voix toujours belle et attirante du muezzin retentissait sur les pierres dont les murs de la médina étaient constitués. Cet appel à la prière me réveillait souvent. Dans un état semi-conscient, entre le rêve et la veille, je le trouvais très beau. Comme le dit le muezzin: la prière est meilleure que le sommeil (ٱلصَّلَاةُ خَيْرٌ مِنَ ٱلنَّوْمِ).

Cette cigale périodique, qui aura passé 17 ans à se développer sous terre, émerge enfin. Elle laisse sécher les ailes avant de prendre sa place dans le chœur du couvert forestier. Si par chance elle réussit à échapper à ses prédateurs, elle vivra encore deux semaines. Photo prise derrière notre maison.

Aujourd’hui, par contre, bien que nous vivions à la campagne, les nuits sont pleines de bruit, un vacarme dominé surtout par les chants des cigales périodiques. Hautes dans le couvert forestier, les cigales, qui ne sortent du sol qu’après de longues années, chantent toute la nuit en quête, brièvement, d’un compagnon. Là où il n’y a pas d’arbres près de la route, c’est les grillons qui chantent, mais ces nuits-ci, leur chant est étouffé par celui des cigales.

L’été bat son plein, mais il est à la veille de se rafraîchir comme pour annoncer l’automne. Dans le ciel, les Perséides viennent de nous livrer leur spectacle. Les oiseaux migratoires se préparent à s’en voler vers le sud, ou bien, comme les hirondelles, sont déjà partis. Les jours se raccourcissent, et le soleil se couche chaque jour un peu plus tôt et un peu plus au sud. Sur notre terrasse au bord du lac, nous remarquons le point où le soleil couchant disparaît à l’horizon, et nous ne pouvons que constater son mouvement inéluctable.

Au milieu du mois d’août, le soleil couchant se déplace petit à petit vers le sud, s’éloignant de la ville de Toronto, dont les gratte-ciels, loin d’une cinquantaine de kilomètres, semblent flotter à l’horizon.

Les Pirates de Salé ?

Les Maple Leafs de Toronto finissent par marquer un but en deuxième période du deuxième match de leur série trois de cinq contre les Blue Jackets de Columbus.

Me voilà devant la télévision, une bière fraîche à portée de la main. En dehors il fait 30 degrés, ce qui est parfaitement normal au début d’août, la période la plus chaude de l’été, la saison de notre canicule, qui cette année s’éternise. Ce qui n’est pas normal, c’est le match de hockey que je regarde. La saison aurait dû prendre fin il y a longtemps. Mais, ici comme ailleurs, la COVID-19 a bouleversé le monde du sport, et les joueurs commencent à peine à disputer la coupe Stanley, une compétition normalement terminée au début de juin.

Afin de minimiser les risques que pose la COVID-19, la Ligue nationale de hockey avait décidé que tous les matchs auraient lieu dans deux amphithéâtres canadiens, soit dans les villes de Toronto et Edmonton. Elle aurait voulu ajouter Vancouver, mais la province de la Colombie-Britannique s’était opposée à la présence des équipes américaines. En fait, la frontière entre les États-Unis et le Canada est fermée depuis quelques mois déjà, et cette fermeture risque de se poursuivre jusqu’à la fin de l’année. Pour encore mieux isoler et protéger les joueurs, les équipes jouent dans des arénas sans spectateurs. Le spectacle est réservé à ceux qui le regardent sur leurs écrans de télévision.

La glace et la chaleur me rappellent la patinoire que j’ai visitée à Abidjan en Côte d’Ivoire, lors mon voyage à travers l’Afrique occidentale en 1971. Qu’une nation aussi pauvre, où souvent les rues et les routes n’étaient pas encore goudronnées, ait une patinoire m’a bien surpris. Je me demandais combien d’Ivoiriens pouvaient disposer de l’argent nécessaire pour la fréquenter.

Le patinage en Afrique de l’Ouest. Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, 1971

Au Maroc, par contre, la seule glace que j’aie jamais rencontrée était dans le fameux Couloir de Neige sur le versant nord-est du Jbel Tazaghart. Là-haut, au beau milieu de juillet, elle réservait une surprise désagréable pour mon copain Louden et moi, et elle avait fini par nous persuader d’abandonner la route presqu’avant de l’avoir entamée.

Louden Kiracofe, son piolet à la main, au couloir « de glace. » La montagne n’a pas voulu. Juillet 1969.

Mais le temps passe, nous voilà au vingt et unième siècle et le Maroc possède deux patinoires, et même des équipes de hockey! Comme à Abidjan et à West Edmonton au Canada, les patinoires de Rabat et de Casablanca font partie de grands centres commerciaux. Plusieurs équipes participent à des tournois et même à des compétitions internationales. Aidées par les Tchèques et les Canadiens, les équipes marocaines ont même remporté quelques honneurs. Les joueurs sont pour la plupart des jeunes émigrés de souche marocaine qui viennent d’autres pays, du Canada, d’Angleterre, de France, de Suisse, de Finlande ou de Suède. À cet égard des Québécois d’origine marocaine, qui constituent la majorité de ces joueurs, y ont joué un rôle particulièrement important.

En tant que fan de sport, j’en suis ravi. Il y a même une équipe marocaine à Casablanca qui s’appelle les Buffalos, qui est également le nom d’une grande ville près de chez nous. Et cependant, encore une fois je me demande si les ressources consacrées aux patinoires auraient pu être mieux utilisées ailleurs.

Chers amis Marocains, je ne veux ni vous offenser ni vous décourager. Dans le monde du sport, le Maroc a certainement le droit d’élargir ses horizons et de participer au patinage artistique et au hockey sur glace. Je vous félicite, d’ailleurs, d’avoir apporté ces sports en Afrique. Mais même ici aux États-Unis et chez nos voisins canadiens, le hockey demande d’importantes ressources financières dont bien des gens ne disposent pas. De plus, la gestion d’une patinoire coûte cher surtout quand il fait très chaud, sans oublier que le temps de glace disponible avec seulement deux patinoires sera toujours minime. Dans le contexte nord-américain, les groupes sociaux économiquement désavantagés tendent à être exclus du hockey, contrairement au basket et au soccer (football) où le seul équipement nécessaire se résume à un simple ballon. Dans le hockey nord-américain, par exemple, les Noirs et les hispaniques sont carrément sous-représentés.

Tout de même, je continuerai à suivre l’évolution du sport au Maroc, et j’attends la construction de la prochaine patinoire, dont les dimensions seront conformes, espérons-le, aux normes du hockey international. Pourquoi ne pas en bâtir une à Ifrane pour répondre aux besoins des villes de Meknès et de Fès?

Bonne chance et gardez vos bâtons sur la glace !

Note de l’auteur : Compte tenu du manque de commentaires sur ce billet, j’aimerais en ajouter un de mon cru pour mieux expliquer le point d’interrogation de son titre. Au dix-septième siècle, la ville de Salé hébergeait des pirates qui gagnaient leur pain en s’emparant des navires chrétiens au large de la côte marocaine. Les Anglais donnaient à ces pirates l’appellation de « Sallee Rovers ». On compte parmi les captifs réels qu’ils avaient enlevés contre rançon le célèbre héros d’un roman de Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoé.

Le faiseur de pluie et l’ivrogne

Le camp de travail pour migrants à Hemet en Californie, novembre 1967. Je crois qu’aucun d’entre nous, même parmi ceux affectés aux sites les plus reculés, n’ait vécu au Maroc aussi mal que nous avons vécu dans ce camp.

Quand notre groupe de volontaires était en formation à Hemet en Calfornie, nous avons visionné un film documentaire en noir et blanc sur l’islam, intitulé, si ma mémoire est bonne, Au nom de Dieu. Le film avait été produit pour la télévision et j’ai beau essayer de le retrouver, je n’ai pas eu de succès. Je ne me souviens pas si le Maroc était le décor du film ou si seulement quelques-unes des séquences y étaient tournées; je crois que c’est le premier, mais certaines des scènes ont bel et bien eu lieu au moussem annuel à Moulay Bouchta.

Un moussem est un festival marocain, souvent centré sur la célébration annuelle d’un saint. Le terme saint, dans un contexte chrétien, peut évoquer un concept qui n’est pas tout à fait précis. D’habitude je me méfie des analogies religieuses parce qu’elles peuvent comporter un bagage d’information contextuelle qui est inapplicable ou fallacieux. C’est humain, je suppose, de prendre l’inconnu et de le placer dans un contexte qui le rend compréhensible, mais les apparences peuvent être trompeuses. Dans certaines parties du christianisme les saints agissent comme intermédiaires entre le fidèle et Dieu. En islam, du moins dans l’islam sunnite suivi au Maroc, il n’y a pas de place pour des intermédiaires. Le lien entre le musulman et Allah est direct.

De plus, dans le contexte chrétien occidental, les saints sont canonisés, c’est-à-dire légitimés par les autorités religieuses suprêmes. Dans le contexte marocain, les saints sont largement populaires et ruraux et gagnent des adhérents en dehors de l’influence des autorités religieuses urbaines. Comme dans la plus grande partie du monde islamique, ce sont les citadins qui contrôlent ce qui définit l’islam et ils peuvent parfois légitimer des saints ruraux. Les articles de la foi sont bien définis, mais la pratique de l’islam fait généralement l’objet de débats et de tolérance.

Il existe une maison d’édition française établie de longue date, Éditions Marabout, dont le symbole est la cigogne marabout, semblable à celle qui constitue la marque de commerce des Éditions Penguin. Cependant, comme ceux qui connaissent les oiseaux le savent, il ne s’agit pas de l’oiseau qui fait ses nids au Maroc, mais de celui d’un prédateur et charognard subsaharien d’apparence plutôt redoutable.

À l’époque coloniale, les Français utilisaient le terme marabout pour décrire les saints musulmans. Le terme peut aussi s’appliquer à la structure physique où le saint est enterré, et peut comporter également le sens de sage.

Marabout publie des livres pratiques et de loisirs dans un petit format carré.

Une cigogne européenne dans son nid sur le toit d’un bâtiment à Azrou. 1968
Comment devenir champion du sport « national » du sud de la France.

La racine arabe du mot marabout signifie « être lié » et se retrouve dans le nom de la capitale du Maroc, Rabat. Les Almohades, la dynastie berbère qui a fondé la ville, l’appelaient Ribat al-Fatah. Synonyme de forteresse, d’autres dérivés de la racine paraissent dans des noms de famille comme Morabit, et, en espagnol et en portugais, Morabito. La racine du verbe contient le sens d’attelage de chevaux dans un fort et le mot murabit peut signifier soldat ou cavalier. Dans un contexte métaphorique, le mot peut vouloir dire contraignant au sens spirituel. Les disciples du saint sont liés à leur maître par des croyances, des pratiques et par leur dévotion.

La porte de la kasbah des Oudayas à Rabat. Cette entrée massive est plus décorative que défensive et l’arc porte un verset du Coran en écriture koufique qui encourage le djihad. Elle date de la fin du 12e siècle, à l’apogée du pouvoir almohade.

En Afrique septentrionale et occidentale, le terme français marabout se réfère communément aux personnages, qui, de leur vivant, étaient connus pour leur piété, leurs connaissances religieuses spéciales et souvent pour leurs miracles.

Le soufisme est un autre terme associé aux saints musulmans. Le soufisme implique souvent la prétention d’une connaissance personnelle de Dieu moyennant des pratiques ésotériques. Dans les faits, le terme couvre une vaste gamme d’activités allant de simples prières jusqu’à des états de transe. Souvent toléré, le soufisme dans ses formes les plus extrêmes a entraîné des conflits avec les autorités et même la peine de mort pour hérésie. Certains saints marocains étaient des soufis, d’autres non. Au Maroc le soufisme et la sainteté se chevauchent largement.

Un groupe de la confrérie des Aïssawa au festival des cerises à Sefrou en 1968. Les Aïssawa figureront dans un billet ultérieur sur les saints et les confréries.

Les saints sont appelés « sidi » ou, s’ils sont chorfa, c’est-à-dire descendants de la famille du prophète, moulay. Les deux termes sont analogues à « mon seigneur », mais « moulay » indique un héritage qui remonte au prophète Mahomet et est utilisé pour le roi du Maroc et pour tout descendant du prophète, qu’il soit saint ou non. Ceci étant dit, selon la tradition, le pedigree royal de la dynastie des Alaouites qui dirige le Maroc depuis le 17e siècle, prétend posséder également la baraka.

Au Maroc, un saint peut être un soufi ou non, mais c’est certain qu’il prétend posséder la baraka, une puissance spirituelle et sainte qui œuvre ici-bas. Les gens se rendent au tombeau du saint, appelé souvent koubba, apportant des offrandes et demandant des faveurs au saint, une guérison, une grossesse et ainsi de suite. La baraka est transférable, pouvant passer d’une personne à l’autre. Un saint peut, même après sa mort, partager sa baraka avec ses disciples. Sous certaines conditions, la baraka peut même être soutirée ou volée. Pour moi, la baraka, cette force spirituelle qui se trouve partout sous la surface, représente le Maroc.

Vous pouvez aisément apprécier la présence généralisée des saints en regardant une carte de l’Afrique du Nord où les toponymes contenant « Sidi » ou « Moulay » parsèment tout le territoire. Le siège de la Légion étrangère française se trouvait à Sidi Bel Abbès en Algérie.

Les tombeaux de saints, appelés koubbas (en arabe, dôme ou coupole) se présentent sous plusieurs formes et grandeurs, mais n’ont pas toujours de dôme. Le peu de cas que Clifford Geertz fait des koubbas dans Observer l’islam m’a toujours déplu, même si le reste de son ouvrage est une merveilleuse comparaison de l’islam au Maroc et en Indonésie. Les tombeaux des saints montrent une grande variété de styles et de grandeurs. Certains ont des dômes, d’autres des toits en bois ou en tuiles de céramique vertes, la couleur associée au prophète, certains sont des cavernes alors que d’autres ne sont que de simples tombes marquées d’un cairn ou d’un amas de pierres.

Un groupe de tombes très photographiées en route vers Beni Mellal.
Un regroupement de tombes reculées près de Imouzzer des Marmoucha dans le Moyen Atlas.
Le tombeau de Sidi Chamrouch sur le sentier menant de la ville d’Imelil à la vallée au pied de Jbel Toubka. 1969. Le tombeau se trouve sous le grand rocher au centre gauche de la photo. Le tourisme et la croissance démographique ont favorisé ce saint. Les photos récentes montrent un site bien plus visité qu’auparavant.
Le tombeau de Sidi Al Bouseghrine qui donne sur Sefrou. 1969
Le tombeau de chérif Sidi Mouylay Lahcene dans le Sahara algérien en 1971. Des photos récentes semblent le montrer en ruines, peut-être l’œuvre d’islamistes qui considèrent le culte des saints comme non orthodoxe et contraire à leur conception de l’islam.

Si le saint compte de nombreux adeptes, il peut avoir une loge, appelée zawiya, où les adhérents de ses enseignements ou de sa voie (tariqah) célèbrent ensemble leur culte. Les loges sont entretenues par les descendants du saint qui reçoivent des dons de visiteurs ainsi que des offrandes lors des grands pèlerinages.

Le sanctuaire d’Idriss I, le premier souverain islamique du Maroc, dans le village de Moulay Idriss du Zerhoun. Autrefois les non-musulmans n’étaient pas autorisés à passer la nuit dans la ville.

De nombreuses loges sont soutenues par des fiducies religieuses, et certaines, dont Moulay Bouchta, reçoivent de temps à autre des dons du gouvernement. Ma visite à Moulay Bouchta en septembre 1969 ou 1970 est documentée dans les photos qui suivent.

Moulay Bouchta, circa 1970. Une histoire autour du saint raconte que, à cause d’un délit commis dans le passé, les habitants ne peuvent pas blanchir leur maison comme c’est la coutume dans les régions urbaines. Je me pose des questions là-dessus, car les maisons sur cette photo sont typiques de la région et ne gagnent rien à être blanchies à la chaux, mais aujourd’hui les nouvelles constructions sont généralement blanchies dans le nord du Maroc.

À l’époque, je travaillais au ministère de l’Agriculture à Fès et la zawiya de Moulay Bouchta était située dans le territoire de la province de Fès, à environ 60 kilomètres au nord de la ville de Fès. Aujourd’hui la zawiya se trouve dans la nouvelle province de Taounate. Pour la région au nord de Fès, j’utilise souvent le terme géographique pré-Rif, mais on appelle communément Jbala la région de collines et de montagnes qui se trouve à l’extrémité ouest du Rif. La route de Fès qui mène à Tétouan et à Tanger la traverse et, par le passé, constituait pour la ville de Fès un lien important avec l’Andalousie.

Deux de mes collègues, M. Mernissi et M. Martinez. Je suis fier d’avoir enseigné les techniques de la chambre noire à M. Mernissi.
Deux de mes collègues qui entourent notre conducteur lors d’un déjeuner près de Moulay Bouchta sous un soleil printanier.

Des visiteurs montaient des tentes et campaient en plein air autour de la zawiya créant ainsi un croisement entre un village et un souk (marché). Des biens et des services se vendaient ou s’échangeaient entre les commerçants et les locaux, et les rues principales de cette ville de tentes ressemblaient à un marché rural, ou souk, comme on en trouve partout au Maroc. Les visiteurs au moussem avaient besoin de nourriture, de services et, peut-être, d’offrandes. Ce qui est différent, c’est que les vendeurs dans un souk se groupent d’habitude dans un espace central, alors qu’ici ils se plaçaient le long des artères qui passaient à travers les tentes des visiteurs.

Une petite partie du village de tentes autour de Moulay Bouchta. Je suis resté dans une tente semblable à celles-ci quand je suis allé en pèlerinage à un autre saint, Moulay Abdesslam Ben Mechich au sommet du Jbel Alain. Ce sera le sujet d’un prochain billet.

Pour ceux qui ne sont pas familiers avec le terme, un souk est un marché. Dans une zone urbaine, le terme se réfère à un site où certains biens se vendent, ce que les occidentaux appellent souvent bazar. Dans le Maroc traditionnel, les souks étaient des marchés ruraux périodiques et portaient le nom du jour, par exemple Souk el Khamis (marché du jeudi). Comme ces marchés étaient si courants, on y ajoutait un autre nom de lieu qui précisait l’endroit, comme Souk el-Arba (mercredi) du Gharb, un village important dans la région du Gharb.

Un diagramme de J.-F. Troin qui a étudié les marchés ruraux. Dans son diagramme, il indique le jour du marché par un chiffre. Dimanche = 1. Lundi = 2, et ainsi de suite. Ces souks sont centrés sur Tiflet, un village dans la région de Zemmour, entre Rabat et Meknès. Notre groupe de volontaires y a suivi une formation avant de recevoir nos affectations.

En regardant une vieille carte de l’Afrique du Nord, on voit partout des noms de lieu qui commencent par souk (ou zoco en espagnol). Bien des marchés étaient entièrement ruraux, mais avec le temps la plupart ont vu surgir de petits établissements autour d’eux.

Du bétail au souk à Missour, avant le Ramadan, 1970.
Marché de céréales au souk de Missour.
En 1968, le souk à Sefrou, tenu le jeudi, ne se trouvait pas sur la route touristique. Le vendeur dans la photo était content de montrer ses marchandises; ici un brasero à charbon.

Les moussems importants étaient de grands rassemblements, des événements où le gouvernement se plaisait à se faire voir. On y trouvait d’habitude des tentes pour des hauts fonctionnaires du gouvernement et des notables locaux, d’autres pour le divertissement comme la musique et des danseurs, et pour la nourriture. Étant donné la nature religieuse de l’événement, la danse me semblait incongrue. Des femmes qui dansent en public sont considérées comme des prostituées. Les tentes du gouvernement, par contre, se trouvaient loin du tombeau.

Les tentes du gouvernement à Moulay Bouchta.

Dans mon imagination, l’impression générale était celle d’une foire médiévale ou rurale même si je me rebute à comparer le Maroc moderne à l’Europe médiévale, sauf pour son caractère rural. Pensez au Maire de Casterbridge sans la beuverie.

Aux notables locaux on faisait de l’espace pour se détendre.
Pour d’autres, l’espace était limité.
Il vaut toujours mieux être riche et avoir des accointances.

Je ne me souviens plus comment je m’y suis rendu, mais étant donné que j’ai passé du temps des les tentes gouvernementales, j’étais sans doute avec d’autres personne du ministère. J’avais souvent à travailler dans la région au nord de Fès. Je n’ai aucun souvenir d’avoir mangé, mais on a dû me donner à manger. En ce qui me concerne, l’événement lui-même était un festin pour les yeux.

Un orchestre a fourni de la musique.
Les femmes dansaient. Ces femmes, venant en général de familles pauvres, étaient souvent des veuves ou des divorcées qu’on désignait pas le terme cheikat, soit vieilles femmes.
Des danseuses comme celles-ci venaient souvent du Moyen Atlas, où certains endroits étaient réputés pour leurs prostituées. Le fait de se produire en public les étiquetait comme des femmes de mœurs légères.
Au bord du Moyen Atlas, de jeunes hommes parlaient souvent d’ « aller voir les filles », et certaines villes étaient réputées pour ce commerce.

Je me souviens qu’il faisait beau ce jour-là et que j’ai passé le temps en circulant parmi les foules et en prenant des photos. Il me semble que j’étais le seul non-Marocain là-bas, mais personne ne m’a prêté beaucoup d’attention. J’ai pu photographier certains des événements qui honorent Moulau Bouchta, ainsi que les activités des commerçants et des spectateurs.

Qui était Moulay Bouchta? Ceux qui connaissent l’arabe marocain sauront que le nom signifie littéralement père de la pluie. Ses pouvoirs de saint comprenaient celui d’apporter de la pluie en temps de sécheresse. Dans un climat méditerranéen comme celui du Maroc, la pluie tombe de manière irrégulière. En une décennie, il peut y avoir quatre années de pluies moyennes, mais également six années où il en tombe trop, ou trop peu. Pour l’agriculteur marocain, la sécheresse est un souci majeur, spécialement pour les petits agriculteurs de lopins marginaux.

Des femmes qui ramassent des olives que l’on a descendues à l’aide de longues perches, pratique qu’on appelle gaulage. Comme cette pratique tend à endommager les branches et à restreindre la nouvelle croissance, on ne la trouve pas aux États-Unis.

Dans des régions vallonnées comme le pré-Rif, on trouve couramment les oliviers parce que leurs racines profondes permettent à ces arbres de survivre aux longs étés chauds et secs. Cependant, ce sont les céréales qui constituaient la culture de base de ces agriculteurs, et ces cultures dépendaient d’une bonne quantité de pluie au bon moment.

Moulay Bouchta était un descendant de Idrissid chorfa, les descendants du premier roi musulman du Maroc, Idriss I, qui, à son tour, descendait de la famille du prophète Mahomet.

Après avoir étudié à Marrakech, Moulay Bouchta a terminé son éducation à l’université Qaraouine à Fès. Natif de la tribu Ouled Saïd de la Chaouia, les plaines situées au sud de Casablanca, il a fini par s’établir parmi les Fechtala près d’Amergu où il a rendu l’âme le 20 novembre 1588.

Le moussem se célébrait autrefois au printemps, après la moisson, mais, pour une raison que j’ignore, se célèbre maintenant au début de l’automne. La célébration printanière est certes un moment plus opportun étant donné que les récoltes céréalières se font à ce moment-là.

Beaucoup de ce que je sais de Moulay Bouchta provient d’un article de tourisme écrit en 1931 par un militaire, Paul Oudinot, intitulé Moulay Abi Cheta ou Moulay Bouchta. Je l’ai repéré sur le blog À l’ombre de Zalagh. Zalagh es le nom de la montagne qui surplombe la ville de Fès et le blog réédite de vieux articles coloniaux, parfois enrichis de nouvelles photos sur Fès et de son arrière-pays. Je le recommande fortement à tous ceux qui s’intéressent à l’histoire marocaine et à la région de Fès.

Jbel Zalagh apparaît en arrière-plan. Une section de la muraille de la ville est visible, y-compris la porte occidentale appelée Bab el Mehrouk, où l’on pendait autrefois les têtes de bandits et d’ennemis de l’État.

La fondation de la zawiya de Moulay Bouchta semble remonter au 16e siècle auquel moment le saint s’est établi parmi la tribu Fechtala. Moulay Bouchta et ses disciples étaient engagés dans la lutte contre les Espagnols et les Portugais pour reprendre des enclaves sur la côte marocaine dans le but de chasser les pouvoirs ibériques hors de l’Afrique du Nord.

El Ksar es-Seghir, une forteresse tenue par les Portugais. Après avoir abandonné leur projet de procurer et de garder des terres au Maroc, les Portugais ont démantelé les fortifications et ont déversé les débris dans le port peu profond, ce qui le rendait inutilisable.

Aux temps modernes, les chasseurs et les cavaliers célèbrent Moulay Bouchta en tant que moudjahidin. Un autre exploit que l’on attribue à Moulay Bouchta est celui de débarrasser la campagne d’oiseaux qui dévoraient les céréales des agriculteurs. Un groupe local, les Heddawah, assistait le saint dans sa lutte contre les oiseaux, de sorte que le saint les a pris sous sa protection et est devenu le patron des Heddawah actuels, qui constituent une confrérie religieuse d’errants connus comme fumeurs de kif (cannabis). Moulay Bouchta est également un saint des musiciens qui, selon ses adeptes, ne sauraient perfectionner leur art sans la baraka du saint.

Des musiciens errants à Chaouen. On les voit ici qui vont de porte en porte.
Ces musiciens divertissaient les femmes du quartier et recueillaient des dons.

Il existe de nombreuses histoires au sujet de Moulay Bouchta, qui porte aussi le sobriquet flatteur de ivrogne, non pas parce qu’il consommait de l’alcool, mais parce qu’il était ivre de Dieu.

Jadis ses restes ont été volés par une autre tribu qui a établi une zawiya sur leurs terres, mais les Fechtala, après une lutte, ont pu rendre les restes du saint à leur propre zawiya. Il existe encore aujourd’hui un autre « petit » Moulay Bouchta tout près, mais le véritable Moulay Bouchta se trouve à Amergu. Ce lieu de pèlerinage attire des visiteurs de partout au Maroc.

L’histoire précédente me rappelle des cas en Europe de vols de reliques sacrées par des moines de monastères différents, une pratique courante en Europe médiévale. Dans l’histoire de France, de tels larcins ont eu lieu à Conques et à Vézelay.

Cette carte des tribus du nord du Maroc montre les Fechtala (numéro 28) qui accueillent le moussem de Moulay Bouchta.
Moulay Bouchta est situé à l’ombre d’Amergu. La forteresse almohade se voit clairement au centre droit de cette photo Google Earth.
Les visiteurs déambulaient le long du sentier principal menant au sanctuaire. C’est le matin. En bas, près de la route asphaltée, on peut voir les tentes du gouvernement au loin à l’extrême gauche.
Les artères principales du village de tentes étaient bondées de commerçants.
Ci-dessus un commerçant vend des bottes en caoutchouc, pratiques pour le temps frais et humide à venir.
L’artère principale menant à la porte du sanctuaire.
Ce cordonnier était là pour réparer les chaussures.
Le fast-food style moussem.
Ces messieurs confectionnent des vêtements féminins sur mesure.
À mesure que le jour avançait, la foule devenait de plus en plus dense.
Cette jeune fille s’accroche à son père…
…pendant que sa mère ou sa sœur marche à côté.
L’après-midi, les gens se rapprochent du sanctuaire où ils peuvent mieux regarder la procession.
Comme tout le monde, les Marocains aiment les friandises; ce vendeur offrait une bonne variété de bonbons et de biscuits.
Près du sanctuaire, les boutiquiers vendaient des chandelles en guise d’offrandes ou de souvenirs. Les messieurs à la droite ont trouvé bien amusant que je prenne cette photo.
Plus tard dans la journée, un mouton est amené pour être vendu ou mangé.
Les femmes rurales portaient souvent de grandes serviettes comme vêtement d’extérieur.
Ce vendeur de bonbons errait dans la foule, tranchant des morceaux à vendre.
La procession vers le sanctuaire a commencé au nord, en haut du village de tentes. Ensuite, on amènera un taureau en sacrifice. La structure qui ressemble à une tente est un nouvel emballage pour le tombeau de Moulay Bouchta.
La procession descend dans la zone des tentes…
….et le traverse en serpentant.
La procession se poursuit. Les hommes défilent avec leurs mousquets.
Ils poursuivent leur chemin le long de l’artère principale.
De temps en temps les hommes tirent leurs mousquets.
Des spectateurs se mettent le long de la route alors que les tirs créent des nuages de fumée.
En défilant, ils continuent de tirer.
Les spectateurs regardent d’en haut pendant que la procession entre dans un espace ouvert devant l’entrée du sanctuaire.
Rendus là, les hommes s’arrêtent pour montrer leurs mousquets.
…par un mouvement de va-et-vient….
…jetant leurs armes dans l’air et les attrapant…
…avant de tirer dans le sol. C’est l’équivalent de la fantasia (tbourida) qui comprend également des exploits d’équitation.
Le site se remplit de fumée de poudre à canon et les spectateurs se mettent à courir pour en sortir.
Tout en haut, des femmes regardent…
…à mesure que la procession arrive à l’entrée du sanctuaire. À l’apogée de la cérémonie la foule s’enthousiasme et des activités religieuses commencent à l’intérieur du sanctuaire.

Voici arrivée la fin de ma journée et la fin de mon récit. Les cérémonies se sont poursuivies dans la soirée, mais j’ai dû rebrousser chemin à Fès avec mes collègues. C’était la fin du spectacle pour moi.

Traduction : Jim Erickson

The King’s Birthday or Not Quite as High as the Moon

During my first year in the Peace Corps (1968), I worked in a government agricultural center (a Centre de Travaux or “CT”), supposedly as an extension agent. It was located in the country a few miles distant from the town of Sidi Kacem, in a relatively modern farming district that featured some tractors and irrigation along with peasants that worked their fields with horse-drawn plows.

The cover of a USIS publication on US space exploration. 1969.

Like others in my Morocco X Peace Corps group, I was somewhat handicapped. I could barely speak Arabic, I knew very little about farming, and the CT where I worked was itself dysfunctional. Even my Moroccan co-workers might go days without any assignment and occasionally without pay. The head of the center spoke to me on only one day—the day I arrived. There was absolutely nothing for me to do.

I was however industrious. Behind one building I found some metal plows, for use with a horse or camel. I gave these metal plows a coat of fresh paint and hauled them to the local souk for sale. I was a success. A well-off French resident bought one, put it in the trunk of his Mercedes, and drove away. I haggled with one worn-looking Moroccan peasant farmer, trying to persuade him that he needed one of my plows. “And what happens when it breaks? Who will repair it?”, he asked. I said I did not know. “You see!” he said with waving hands and a dismissive shrug.

The author as he was as a trainee in 1967.

Though I was a baffling curiosity – why was I there??—my co-workers treated me with kindness. Often with time on their hands, they engaged me in conversation. How old was I? Was I married? What was the United States like? What was my opinion on various political issues? The level of sophistication varied. Some had limited education and experience, others maturity and knowledge.

I lived in a small one-story dormitory with some of the other unmarried workers. Sometimes when I would be hanging out in my room, reading, one of the other dorm residents would come and sit down with me, thinking it would be unpleasant for me to be alone.

The most remarkable feature of my dorm was Aisha, the elderly woman who cooked for the dorm residents (we ate together) as well as cleaned. I was made to understand that paying Aisha was my responsibility, a duty I accepted. I got to know her well. Though she could not read, she was well-versed in Koranic lore, and we had interesting conversations. I remember her describing the cosmos—earth centered with the planets, sun, and stars revolving around it. I also remember her warning that demons would consume the astronauts who foolishly tried to reach the moon and her awe and amazement when they did (and maybe a little shaming of her and her country?). She told me the hard experiences of her life that had left her without a family and that required her to work at the CT. When I later moved to Rabat, I had her come and visit me. I remember her looking in the large mirror that was part of my clothing cabinet and pulling back in shock and exclamation at the aged face that greeted her— mirrors not having been part of her furnishings back at the CT.

My year at the CT was punctuated by the Islamic and Moroccan holidays, in which all of the CT workers took part and in which I was generously included. Celebrations were segregated by sex, with men in one tent sharing a meal and entertainment, and women in another location (or maybe cooking the meal!). I remember dancing girls (prostitutes?) visiting the men’s tent one evening although more often I just remember speeches from dignitaries that everyone dutifully listened to, followed by large meals.

One holiday however surpassed the others. Oddly, it was the King’s birthday. In the evening the men assembled in a large tent with bleachers around an open space. The evening started with the usual speeches from various dignitaries, followed by music from a Moroccan band. Cookies were passed around. The music went on and on, with drums and singing and eventually dancing. The hour grew late. Towards the end everyone left in the tent (except me) was down in the tent’s open space, jumping up and down, ecstatic, shouting “Allah, Allah, Allah”. I left not long after, walking the short distance from the tent back to my dorm, very slowly. The next day everyone kidded me about my slow pace. It turns out the cookies had been laced with hashish.

James A. Humphrey, Morocco X

Ramadan (version française)

Vagues d’un orage de fin de printemps sur la rive du lac Ontario. Mai 2020.

En regardant le coucher du soleil il y a quelques jours, j’ai pensé au Ramadan. Les musulmans ont actuellement terminé près de la moitié de leur mois de jeûne obligatoire. Des souvenirs me reviennent d’avoir été dans l’appartement de Don Brown à Rabat où nous avons entendu le tir de canon qui annonçait la fin du jeûne. Situé près de la kasbah des Oudayas, ou bien du cimetière voisin, le canon semblait tirer à travers la médina de Rabat directement vers le bureau du Corps de la Paix et je croyais vraiment entendre la balle passer, alors qu’en réalité il n’y avait pas de balle. Il doit y avoir une histoire associée à ce canon, mais une recherche superficielle sur Internet n’a rien donné.

La plupart des villes utilisaient des sirènes plutôt que de l’artillerie pour signaler la fin du jeûne. Les rues étaient souvent désertes alors que les familles prenaient place autour de leurs tables en attendant de rompre le jeûne. Il y avait du café et des friandises, suivis de harira, cette soupe épaisse, remplie de pois chiches ou de lentilles et consommée toujours dans de petits bols. De nos jours, on trouve la harira partout dans les restaurants d’hôtel à travers le monde arabe, mais je doute qu’elle soit aussi bonne que celle que je mangeais comme jeune volontaire au Maroc. Il y avait une grande variété de biscuits et je me souviens surtout de la chebbakia, ce délice couvert de graines de sésame et imbibé de miel et de sucre. À cette extravagance de gâteries on ajoutait des dattes dont le sucre servait à ranimer ceux dont l’énergie avait faibli, tout comme la cigarette pour ceux qui avaient cette habitude. Les musulmans pratiquants allaient ensuite prier à la mosquée ou peut-être à la maison.

En1968, quand notre cohorte du Corps de la Paix est arrivée au Maroc, le mois de Ramadan a commencé fin novembre. À mon départ en 1971, j’avais vécu trois Ramadans, mais tous en octobre, novembre et décembre. À Sefrou, c’étaient des mois froids où les journées étaient courtes et humides et les nuits dans une maison froide étaient bien longues. Les journées courtes et fraîches facilitaient le jeûne, mais se lever la nuit s’avérait plus difficile.

J’habitais la médina où tous mes voisins jeûnaient. Gaylord Barr, avec qui je partageais la maison, s’est accordé avec moi pour jeûner par sympathie et solidarité, mais je crois que nous l’avons fait aussi par curiosité. Nous étions naturellement curieux de connaître la vie musulmane et voulions nous mettre dans les souliers des Marocains. En tant qu’enfant catholique, j’avais grandi avec le jeûne et l’abstinence, mais c’était toujours pour de courtes périodes qui, pour un jeune enfant, ne semblaient pas nécessairement courtes. On jeûnait avant la communion et lors de certains jours saints, mangeait du poisson le vendredi et renonçait aux sucreries pendant le Carême.

Lors du premier Ramadan, Gaylord et moi avons peut-être fait un voyage ou deux à Rabat où nous pouvions manger. La plupart des restaurants dans le centre-ville étaient ouverts pour les touristes et la toujours importante population européenne. À l’époque, j’étais encore fumeur, donc Rabat me donnait aussi l’occasion de m’adorner à cette habitude.

Toujours lors de ce premier Ramadan, je me souviens d’avoir rompu le jeûne dans un restaurant ou dans un café de la médina de Sefrou, mais mon souvenir en est vraiment flou. À Sefrou, comme je me souviens, on ne mangeait qu’à la maison où chez des amis. Je ne me souviens même pas d’un restaurant dans la médina, mais j’ai le sentiment que c’était dans Derb el-Miter. Khadija préparait toujours un gros pot de harira que Gaylord et moi partagions. Lors des deux autres Ramadans, nous avons observé le jeûne sans tricher. Comme il faisait trop froid dans notre maison à Sefrou pour nous lever prendre un repas avant
l’aube, nous avons fini par manger avant l’heure du coucher, ce qui nous occasionnait un bien long délai avant de manger de nouveau. Ce n’était pas l’eau et la nourriture qui faisaient défaut à mes collègues de travail : certains étaient fumeurs et c’était la satisfaction de leur habitude qui constituait leur principal problème. Les collègues étaient fatigués et à l’occasion grognons, mais ils allaient au travail, quoiqu’au ralenti.

Un certain samedi après-midi de l’un des nos Ramadans, je me souviens d’avoir été voir un film à Fès avec Gaylord. Quittant le cinéma tout juste avant la fin du jeûne, nous sommes descendus dans des rues désertes qui me rappelaient des scènes du film Les derniers rivages. Aujourd’hui les rues désertes se trouvent dans les métropoles américaines en quarantaine. Nous nous sommes précipités au coin de la rue du côté sud de la ville nouvelle où nous pouvions prendre un autobus ou un grand taxi pour le retour à Sefrou.

Ces jours-ci, je jeûne deux jours par semaine pour perdre du poids et pendant ces jours je me permets de grignoter un peu et de boire autant d’eau que je veux, de sorte que mon jeûne ne ressemble en rien au jeûne du Ramadan. Pourtant, des petites fringales et le coucher du soleil rappellent de vieux souvenirs ainsi que les goûts et les odeurs de bonne chère. Quand je m’imagine assis autour des tables rondes et basses, les plaisirs partagés de convivialité et d’amitié me reviennent. À l’extérieur dans la rue illuminée, des boutiques rouvrent de nouveau et on entend les bruits des commerçants, d’autres qui vont à la mosquée, d’autres qui prennent simplement de l’air. Quelle chose toute simple que la nostalgie!

Gaylord est décédée il y a cinq ans et je n’ai pas visité le Maroc depuis les années 1970; maintenant ces mois de Ramadan me semblent bien lointains. Et pourtant, en quelque sorte, je peux encore savourer le goût de la harira et de la chebbakia.

Traduction : Jim Erickson


Waves from a late spring storm on the shore of Lake Ontario, May 2020.

I watched the sun set a few days ago, and thought of Ramadan. Muslims are now about halfway through their month of obligatory fasting. Memories returned of sitting in Don Brown’s apartment in Rabat, and hearing the cannon fire to announce the end of the fast. Located near the Oudaya casbah or nearby cemetery, the cannon seemed to fire across the Rabat medina directly toward the Peace Corps office, and I actually thought I could hear the shot fly by, though there was no shot. There must be a story about that cannon, but a lazy internet search did not find it.

Most cities had sirens, not artillery, to announce the moment the fast would end. The streets were often deserted, as families sat around their tables waiting to break the fast. There was coffee and sweets, followed by the thick, chickpea- filled Moroccan soup, hrira, always eaten from small bowls. Today one finds hrira served in hotel restaurants all across the Arab world, but I doubt that any taste better than those I ate as a young man. There were cookies of all sorts and I best remember the sugar- and honey-soaked, sesame seed-covered chebakia. There is a nice picture, the third photo, in an article on Ramadan under quarantine in France, of both a bowl of hrira and chebakia. Dates added to this riot of sugary things, and the sugar rejuvenated those whose energy had flagged as did the cigarettes for those who had that habit. Observant Muslims would then go to pray at the mosque, or perhaps at home.

When our Peace Corps group entered Morocco in 1968, Ramadan began in late November. When I left in 1971, I had experienced three months of Ramadan, but all were in October, November, and December. In Sefrou, those were cold months when the days were short and damp and often promised a long night in a cold house. The short cool days made the fasting easier, but getting up in the night more difficult.

I lived in the medina where all my neighbors were fasting. Gaylord Barr, with whom I shared the house, agreed with me that we would fast out of sympathy and solidarity, but I think we both did it out of curiosity as well. We were naturally curious about Muslim life and how it felt to be Moroccan. As a Catholic child, I had grown up with fasting and abstinence, but it was for short periods, which for a young child, did not necessarily seem short at all. One fasted before communion, and on certain holy days, ate fish on Fridays, and gave up sweets during Lent.

Gaylord and I may have made a trip to Rabat or two, where we could eat during that first Ramadan. Most restaurants in the city center were open for the still large European population and tourists. I smoked then, so Rabat was also an occasion to indulge that habit.

The first Ramadan, I remember breaking the fast in a medina restaurant or cafe in Sefrou, but my memory is really fuzzy. I have no clear recollection ever eating anywhere in Sefrou except at home or in the homes of friends. I can’t even remember a restaurant in the medina, except that I have this feeling that it was in Derb el-Miter. Khadija always made a big pot of hrira that Gaylord and I shared.

The second and third Ramadans we kept the fast without cheating. Too cold in the Sefrou house to get up and enjoy a pre-dawn meal, we ended up eating before bedtime and then going a long time before eating again. I worked in Fes, and sat in an office all day with colleagues who were smokers. Food and water was not what all of my co-workers craved: some were smokers and satisfying their habit was their major problem. People were tired, and occasionally grouchy, but went to work albeit at a slower pace.

In one Ramadan, I remember watching a Saturday afternoon movie in Fes with Gaylord. Leaving the theater just before the fast was to end, we stepped into deserted streets that reminded me of scenes from the movie, On the beach. Today the deserted streets are in big American cities in quarantine. We hurried to the street corner on the southern edge of the ville nouvelle where one could catch buses and grand taxis back to Sefrou.

These days I fast two days a week to lose weight, and on those days I can eat a bit and drink as much water as I like, so the fasting is nothing like the Ramadan fast. Still, little pangs of hunger and the setting sun brought back old memories, and the tastes and smells of the food. When I imagine sitting around the low round tables at which we ate all meals, the shared pleasure of conviviality and friendship returns. Outside, in the lighted street, some shops are reopening again and one hears people resuming business, going to the mosque, or just taking some evening air. What a simple thing nostalgia is!

Gaylord passed away five years ago, and I have not been to Morocco since the 1970s, and those Ramadans seem so far away. Still, somehow, I can taste the hrira and the chebakia.

Making hay while the sun shines (version française)

Cette vieille expression making hay while the sun shines (faire du foin pendant que le soleil brille), a plusieurs sens en anglais. Il y a d’abord l’idée d’agir au moment opportun ou d’exploiter une situation sans attendre, ce qui correspond à l’expression française battre le fer quand il est chaud. L’expression sous-entend aussi l’idée de racheter le temps, de ne pas gaspiller le temps qui, selon Benjamin Franklin « est l’étoffe dont la vie est faite ». Si j’ai choisi cette expression, c’est parce que je vieillis. Le soleil continuera de briller, mais je ne le verrai pas à six pieds sous terre où je m’attends à me trouver sous peu. Mon bon ami et réviseur me trouve lugubre, mais je parle simplement et de manière réaliste du passage du temps. Par convention et pour des raisons pratiques tout le monde mesure le temps de la même manière, mais sur le plan individuel nous tendons à le mesurer différemment. Ces jours-ci, je m’identifie au poète anglais Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) que j’ai lu à l’âge de 15 ans dans le cours d’anglais de M. Molloy :

Mais dans mon dos, j’entends sans cesse
Le char ailé du Temps qui presse
Devant nous gît l’inexploré
L’ample désert d’Éternité

En ce moment, j’essaie de faire le ménage dans ma bibliothèque personnelle, ce qui me met devant une évidence, à savoir que je ne pourrais jamais lire tous les volumes que j’ai collectionnés depuis des années. Je devrais penser à racheter le temps.

Au Maroc, du moins dans le Maroc que j’ai connu, les agriculteurs ne cultivaient pas le foin à la même échelle que leurs homologues américains. Seules les grandes fermes sur les plaines pouvaient produire du foin en grande quantité.

Sur la plaine du Saïs à l’extérieur de Fès, les parcelles de terre sont suffisamment grandes pour une mécanisation rentable. Les dernières neiges de la saison hivernale traînent sur le Bouiblane en mai.
Chargement de balles de foin pour le transport.

Ailleurs, c’était rare que l’hiver garde les troupeaux hors des champs, sauf aux grandes altitudes, de sorte qu’il n’y avait que peu de foin et donc peu d’ensilage. Le petit agriculteur, s’il avait du bétail, laissait les animaux brouter le chaume sur son champ et les environs. L’agriculture se pratiquait plus intensivement dans certaines régions, et plus extensivement dans d’autres. Il n’y avait pas de haies comme on voit couramment en Angleterre et en France et la transhumance traditionnelle était caractérisée par une grande extension de troupeaux à travers d’immenses régions en partant de la vallée de la Moulouya jusqu’aux vallées abritées au pied des pentes septentrionales des plateaux du Moyen Atlas. La puissance militaire et les enclosures avaient déjà brisé le pouvoir des grandes tribus du Moyen Atlas longtemps avant mon arrivée là-bas, mais les hautes terres servaient toujours aux pâturages estivaux.

Les maisons rurales marocaines étaient parfois entourées de figuiers de Barbarie et d’agaves, plantes importées des Amériques grâce à l’échange colombien. On voyait également des enclos de bétail entourés d’arbustes épineux, mais la campagne en général restait ouverte.

Un douar du Moyen Atlas entouré d’un nombre impressionnant de figuiers de Barbarie. Parfois en été, les gens de la campagne vendaient leur fruit le long de la route. Le goût était sucré mais quelque peu fade. Les agriculteurs pouvaient également nourrir leur bétail avec les feuilles.
Vue à partir d’une butte connue sous le nom de Jbel Binna, juste à l’extérieur de Sefrou, en direction de Immouzer du Kandar, à travers le paysage valloné des plateaux. Dans cette photo prise au début du printemps, on voit clairement la mosaïque de petites exploitations agricoles.

Bien sûr, ce qui couvre les champs après la moisson n’est pas du foin, mais de la paille. Je ne me souviens pas d’avoir vu beaucoup de paille en balles, sauf là où l’agriculture avait été mécanisée.

Moisson du blé au sud-est de Sefrou.

Certains agriculteurs ramassaient de la paille, et j’en achetais à mettre dans la litière des chats sur la terrasse, mais je ne crois qu’on s’en servait comme rembourrage. Ceux qui en avaient les moyens achetaient de la laine qui était plus chaude, plus moelleuse et qui servait également à se constituer un petit pécule.

Marché de la laine au souk de Sefrou. Ce souk hebdomadaire avait lieu tous les jeudis.

Pour les pauvres, ou pour les résidents à court terme comme moi, l’alfa, trouvé localement, constituait un meilleur choix que la laine qui coûtait cher.

L’alfa (Stipa tenissima) dans le bassin de la Moulouya.

Dans un billet antérieur où je réfléchissais sur des décisions imprudentes, j’ai mentionné mon arrivée à Torla, un village espagnol haut dans les Pyrénées, et mon projet de traverser un col de 2 750 mètres sur la frontière franco-espagnole pour ensuite descendre au village de Gavarnie en France. En route pour Torla, comme j’avais été malade, j’ai passé une journée au lit à Madrid.

Peut-être sous l’effet de la fatigue, j’avais oublié mes bottes de randonnée dans la chambre du vieil Hôtel Atocha au moment de partir pour le nord. Elles étaient des godasses usagées, mais je les aimais bien. En révisant ce billet, je pense à la vieille chanson du chansonnier canadien-français, Félix LeClerc, Moi, mes souliers. Comme pour le chansonnier, mes souliers m’accompagnaient partout.

Les remplacer allait s’avérer difficile, et j’ajouterais qu’à cause de mes pieds qui sont longs et très étroits, acheter des bottes où que ce soit n’a jamais été facile et à ce jour continue de me poser des problèmes. Il n’y avait pas de magasin d’articles de sport à Torla qui à l’époque était si petit qu’il y avait à peine de magasins du tout. J’ai donc fait du stop jusqu’à Broto dans la vallée en bas.

Broto, juste au sud de Torla.

Comme il n’y avait pas de bottes de randonnée à Broto non plus, j’ai décidé de voir si je pouvais porter une paire de bottes de ski bon marché. Comme toute personne normale devrait le savoir, et j’avais déjà fait du ski à l’université, quoi que l’on fasse, les bottes de ski ne peuvent aucunement servir à la randonnée car les semelles n’ont aucune flexibilité. Après le premier jour, j’avais de grosses ampoules sur chaque talon et je boitais péniblement. Donc, retour à Broto où j’ai acheté une paire de souliers en toile bon marché. Les semelles intérieures étaient en corde tissée et l’extérieur du soulier était vulcanisé. La toile était brun foncé et les souliers ressemblaient beaucoup aux baskets américains qui à l’époque étaient plus simples qu’aujourd’hui. Quant aux bottes de ski, je les ai rapportées à Sefrou, où Khadija les a vendues le jour du souq.

Faisant l’essai de mes nouveaux souliers en toile aux semelles en corde et tentative de guérir mes ampoules. Dans le canyon du parc national d’Ordesa, maintenant site du patrimoine mondial de l’UNESCO. Photo de Gaylord Barr.
Les souliers en toile

Les semelles en corde de mes souliers en toile étaient sans doute faites de jute, une fibre importée, mais l’Espagne possède une longue histoire de souliers et de sandales aux semelles en cordes, une tradition qui remonte à la préhistoire. Appelés espadrilles en français, le style a été et continue d’être en vogue, mais aux yeux des Espagnols contemporains, ces souliers, appelés alpargatas et espartenas en espagnol, étaient traditionnellement portés par des gens de la campagne. Fait intéressant, le mot français espadrille provient de l’occitan, la vieille langue de la France méridionale par l’intermédiaire du mot catalan espardenya, soit alfa. Ainsi que le prétend Wikipédia. De nos jours, le mot alfa se réfère en réalité à deux plantes herbacées natives de la Méditerranée occidentale.

Malgré des chutes de neige exceptionnellement importantes, j’ai réussi à me rendre à Gavarnie. Mes souliers en toile était trempés, j’avais froid aux pieds et je craignais de perdre pied sur les abruptes pentes enneigées, mais une fois sain et sauf dans une chambre d’hôtel français, j’ai bien dormi et le lendemain matin mes souliers était secs et prêts à me ramener au Maroc.

Départ de la cabane de Goriz en route vers Gavarnie. Photo : Gaylord Barr

À mesure que la neige s’accumulait, mes souliers se trempaient de plus en plus. Nous aurions dû prévoir des piolets, mais nous n’avions pas anticipé la quantité de neige.

Incidemment, l’Hôtel Atocha avait conservé mes vieilles bottes et j’ai pu les récupérer lors de mon voyage de retour au Maroc. L’Atocha, hôtel vieux et vétuste, était situé face à la station ferroviaire où les trains arrivaient en provenance du sud. L’hôtel était bon marché et populaire chez les voyageurs à petit budget.

Au Maroc, l’alfa (ou sparte) s’appelle halfa, dont le nom scientifique est Stipa tenissima. Cette herbe robuste couvre de vastes régions du Maroc dans les bassins de la Haute et Moyenne Moulouya. Il pousse en touffes largement espacées et sert comme rembourrage de lits et de coussins, ainsi que dans la fabrication de paniers et de tapis de plancher.

L’alfa pousse en touffes largement espacées

Un tapis tissé d’alfa.

Dans certains endroits, les gens font du papier à partir de l’alfa, un matériau véritablement polyvalent.

Chez moi, les matelas et les coussins des banquettes étaient rembourrés d’alfa et j’avais aussi une natte d’alfa.

Les matelas et les banquettes étaient rembourrés d’alfa; ils étaient durs mais les gens s’en servaient rarement comme lit. Ci-dessus, la chambre de Gaylord Barr dans la partie antérieure de la maison dont les fenêtres donnaient sur la rue en bas. On prenait souvent nos repas sur la table en roseau. Je parlerai des meubles en roseau dans un prochain billet.

L’autre côté de la chambre où Gaylord avait son lit. Ma chambre se trouvait de l’autre côté de la maison et n’avait pas de fenêtre donnant sur l’extérieur. À noter la photo du président Kennedy sur le mur et la bota suspendue, un souvenir du Nord de l’Espagne. Les volontaires dans les grandes villes vivaient d’habitude dans des édifices plus récents de style européen. Ma maison, par exemple, n’avait pas de cuisine et la pièce qui servait de cuisine n’avait pas d’eau. On a réussi à s’en sortir parfaitement, surtout grâce au travail acharné de Khadija.

Les Marocains bien nantis tendaient à avoir de la laine dans leurs coussins et des tapis plutôt que des nattes. Comme rembourrage pour les coussins, l’alfa séché était dur. Comme mes banquettes ne servaient pas à dormir, ce défaut n’avait pas d’importance, mais dans une vraie maison marocaine, les chambres étaient multifonctionnelles et les gens dormaient souvent sur les banquettes sur lesquelles ils s’assoyaient durant la journée. La laine, plus moelleuse et plus chaude, faisait sans contredit de meilleurs matelas. L’alfa dégageait une odeur d’herbe séchée que l’on ne pourrait pas qualifier de fragrance, mais je m’y faisais sans problème.

Au printemps 1970, Gaylord Barr et Mark Miller étaient partis pour Aïn Kerma juste au sud d’Oujda pour visiter le père d’Ali Aseriah. Ali était étudiant au lycée Sidi Lahcen El-Youssi où Gaylord enseignait et Ali avait invité ce dernier chez eux pendant la semaine de relâche. Mark était volontaire à Casablanca où il travaillait dans les pêcheries, et comme il avait connu de graves problèmes de santé, il voulait s’éloigner de la vie des grandes villes.

Je me suis joint à Louden Kiracofe et à l’administrateur Don Brown pour encore une autre escalade du Djebel Ayachi. Louden et moi en avions fait l’ascension l’été précédent, mais nous étions déçus d’avoir choisi le plus bas des deux sommets et, comme il faisait alors tard dans la journée, nous étions trop fatigués pour traverser la crête jusqu’à l’autre sommet. Nous voulions toujours nous tenir sur le sommet le plus élevé, pensant que tout serait plus pittoresque sous la neige, que l’ascension serait également plus facile, et nous avions convaincu Don Brown à nous accompagner.

C’est en route vers Jbel Ayachi au printemps 1970, ou bien sur le chemin de retour, que nous avons remarqué des fabricants de corde, sans doute près de Missour et nous avons pris des photos de leur façon de travailler. Comme les synthétiques et les plastique ont de nos jours remplacé les cordes de fibre, leur petite usine est un rappel d’une industrie traditionnelle et durable.

L’alfa pousse en touffes sur des sols secs et est commun dans la vallée de la Moyenne et Haute Moulouya.
Dans cette photo, l’herbe a été brûlée à ras le sol. Je présume que cette pratique faisait partie de la moisson, mais il se peut qu’il y ait une autre raison. Est-ce qu’un lecteur peut répondre à cette question?
L’alfa est ramassé en bottes où il sera filé pour fabriquer de la corde.

Les brins initiaux sont alors entrelacés pour former une corde pratique.

Le poteau tient les brins en place.

Préparation du tressage final.

On se prépare à tordre les brins

Les brins tordus sur le poteau où l’on va les nouer.

En dernier lieu, les brins tressés sont coupés et noués aux extrémités.

Aujourd’hui, l’alfa continue sans doute de couvrir la haute Moulouya qui se trouve dans l’ombre pluviale du Moyen Atlas. À cause de la nature du sol et du climat sec, les terres arables sont très rares, sauf là où l’irrigation est possible. Cependant, des températures de plus en plus chaudes peuvent représenter une menace à l’écosystème existant, et encore plus aux terres agricoles de cette région.

À l’âge de 75 ans, je me souviens toujours des grandes plaines couvertes d’herbes et des pauvres gens qui gagnaient un peu d’argent en fabriquant de la corde. Je n’avais pas demandé d’où venaient ces cordiers. Ils étaient peut-être venus de la région de Marmoucha vers le nord, ou bien d’Aït Ayash vers le sud.

Incidemment, à Sefrou, on m’a dit que les meilleures djellabas en laine venaient d’Imouzzer des Marmoucha, même si j’avais également entendu dire que de belles djellabas venaient aussi de la région de Khénifra. La plupart du temps le tissu comportait des motifs géometriques en noir et blanc que j’admirais beaucoup. Ma propre djellaba, que je portais toujours à Sefrou quand il pleuvait ou faisait très froid, était d’un brun bien ordinaire. Je l’aimais quand même!

Ma djellaba était plutôt rustique et lourde, surtout quand elle était trempée, mais elle était toujours chaude. Parfois les gens utilisaient les capuchons pour transporter des objets. Dans la photo, j’avais 22 ans.

Traduction: Jim Erickson

The Rain Man and the Drunkard

The migrant labor camp in Hemet, California, November 1967. I don’t think any of us, even those posted to the remotest areas, lived as badly in Morocco as we did in this camp.

When our Peace Corps group trained in Hemet, California, we watched a black and white documentary film about Islam entitled, if my memory serves me correctly, In the Name of God. The film was produced for television, and though I have tried hard to track it down, I have had no success. I can’t remember whether Morocco was the setting or whether just a few scenes were shot there, though I think it was the former, but some of the scenes took place at the annual moussem at Moulay Bouchta.

A moussem is a Moroccan festival, often centered on the annual celebration of a saint. This term saint, in Christian minds, may conjure up a concept that is not quite right. I usually cringe at religious analogies as they can carry over a host of accompanying information from their contexts that is inapplicable or misleading. I suppose it is human to take the unfamiliar, and fit it into a context that gives it sense, but things are not always what they seem. Christian saints act as intermediaries between the faithful and God. Islam, at least in orthodox Sunni Islam, the tradition followed in Morocco, has no place for intermediaries. A Muslim’s connection to God is direct.

Furthermore, saints, in the Western Christian religious context, are canonized, that is to say vetted, by the ultimate religious authorities. Saints in the Moroccan context are largely popular and rural, and gain followings outside of the influence of urban religious authorities. As in most of the Islamic world, it is urbanites in Morocco who control what defines Islam, and they may provide legitimacy to rural saints. Articles of belief are well defined, but there is usually debate and tolerance about the practice of Islam.

The colonial French used an additional term to describe Muslim saints: marabout. This term can also apply to the physical structure where the holy man is buried. The French word may have an associated meaning of sage or wise man.

There is a long-established French publishing house, Editions Marabout, though its symbol is the marabout stork, chosen as a trademark on the model of the Penguin one. If you know your birds, you will know that this is not the elegant bird that nests in Morocco, but a large sub-Saharan predator and scavenger, rather formidable in appearance.

A European stork on its nest atop a building in Azrou. 1968.

Marabout publishes how-to-do-it and leisure time books in a small square format.

How to be a champion at the “national” sport of southern France.

The Arabic root of marabout has the meaning to be tied or to be bound, and is found in the name of Morocco’s modern capital, Rabat. The Berber dynasty, the Almohads, who founded the modern city, called it Ribat al-Fatah. A word for fortress, other derivations from the root appear in family names such as Morabit, and, in Spain and Portugal, Morabito. The meaning in the verb root includes the tethering of horses in a fort, and murabit can mean a soldier or cavalryman. In a more metaphorical context, the word may mean binding in a spiritual sense. Disciples of the saint are tied to their master through beliefs, practices, and devotion.

The Oudaya Kasbah gate in Rabat. The massive entryway is more ornamental than defensive, and the arch is surrounded by a Kufic inscription of a verse from the Quran encouraging jihad. Built at the height of Almohad power, it dates from the end of the 12th century.

In North and West Africa, the French term marabout commonly refers to holy personnages, known in their lifetime for their piety, special religious knowledge, and often miracles.

There is another common term associated with Muslim holy men: sufism. Sufism often involves claims to a personal knowledge of God through esoteric practices. In practice, it covers a vast range of activities from simple prayers to enhanced states of conciousness. Usually tolerated, sufism, when taken to extremes, has resulted in conflict with the authorities and even capital punishment for heresy. Some Moroccan saints were sufis, some were not. There is a wide overlap between sufism and sainthood in Morocco.

A group of the Aissawa brotherhood at the Cherry Festival in Sefrou. 1968. More to follow about the Aissawa in a later post about saints and brotherhoods.

Saints are addressed as sidi or, if they are chorfa, descendants of the Prophet’s family, moulay, both terms analogous to “my lord,” but the latter, indicating a heritage back to the Prophet Mohammed, and used for the king of Morocco and any descendant of the Prophet, whether a saint or not. That said, the royal pedigree of the Alaouite Dynasty, which has ruled Morocco since the seventeenth century, traditionally includes having a claim to baraka, too.

In Morocco, a saint may be a sufi, or not, but he definitely has a claim to baraka, a holy and spiritual force, that works in this world. People will come to the saint’s tomb, often called a qubba, bringing offerings, and asking for favors from the saint, cures for illnesses, a pregnancy, etc. Baraka is transferable, and may flow from one person to another. A saint with baraka is able, even after death, to share it with followers. Baraka may even be sapped or stolen under certain conditions. Baraka represents Morocco for me, the spiritual and the good, under the surface everywhere.

You can quickly gain an idea of the prevelance of saints by looking at a map of North Africa, where toponyms containing “Sidi” or “Moulay” are scattered all over the map. The home of the French Foreign Legion was Sidi Bel Abbes in Algeria.

Tombs of saints, qubba, show a great variety of appearance, and may not have the visible dome the Arabic word suggests. I have always disliked how Geertz describes them dismissively in Islam Observed, an otherwise wonderful comparison of Islam in Morocco and Indonesia. A saint’s resting place may come in many different sizes and shapes. Some have domes, some have wooden roofs, some have green tiles, the religious color associated with the Prophet, some are caves, and some are not much more than simple graves marked by a cairn or stones.

A much photographed group of tombs on the way to Beni Mellal.
A more remote group of tombs near Imouzzer des Marmoucha in the Middle Atlas.
The tomb of Sidi Chamrouch, on the trail from the town of Imelil to valley below Jbel Toubkal. 1969. The tomb is under the large rock, to the left center of the photo. Tourism and population growth have favored this saint. Recent pictures depict a much more visited place.
The tomb of Sidi Ali Bouseghrine, overlooking Sefrou. 1969.
The tomb of Chérif Sidi Moulay Lahcene in the Algerian Sahara in 1971. Recent photos seem to show it in ruins, perhaps the work of fundamentalists who see saint worship as unorthodox and contrary to their understanding of Islam.

If the saint has a large following, he may have a lodge, called a zawiya, where adherents to his teachings or way, tariqah, worship together. The lodges are kept up by the descendants of the saint, who receive gifts from visitors as well as offerings during major pilgrimages.

The shrine complex of Idriss I, the first Islamic ruler of Morocco, in the town of Moulay Idriss du Zerhoun. In former times non-Muslims were not allowed to spend the night there.

Many lodges are supported by religious trusts, and some are also favored with donations from the government from time to time. Moulay Bouchta is among the latter. My visit to it in September 1969 or 1970 is documented in the photos that follow in this post.

Moulay Bouchta, circa 1970. There is a story surrounding the saint that, because of an offense in the past, locals may not whitewash their homes as is common in urban areas. I wondered about this since the houses in these picture are typical of the region and gain nothing by being whitewashed, but today new construction is usually whitewashed in the northern Morocco.

At that time, I worked for the Ministry of Agriculture in Fes and the zawiya of Moulay Bouchta was in the territory of Fes Province. It’s about 45 miles (60 kilometers) north of Fes. Today it is in a more recently created province, Taounate. I often refer to the area north of Fes using the geographical term, pre-Rif, but the area of hills and mountains at the very western end of the Rif is commonly referred to as the Jbala. The route from Fes to Tangier and Tetouan passes through it, and, in the past it was an important connection to Andalusia for the city of Fes.

Mr. Mernissi and Mr. Martinez. Two of my co-workers. I am proud to say I taught darkroom skills to Mernissi.

The moussem at Moulay Bouchta was an annual affair, and locally quite a big event, drawing many local people who celebrate it regularly as well as pilgrims from more distant parts of Morocco.

Two of my co-workers and our driver, center, lunching near Moulay Bouchta in the spring sun.

Visitors pitched tents and camped on the open land around the zawiya and created a cross between a village and a suq (market). Goods and services were sold and traded by merchants and locals, and the main streets of the tent city resembled a rural market, or suq, common in all of Morocco. Visitors to the moussem needed food, services, souvenirs, and, perhaps, offerings. The difference is that the vendors in a suq are usually grouped in a central area, whereas here they lined thoroughfares that cut through the visitors’ tents.

A small part of the tent village around Moulay Bouchta. I stayed in a tent like one of these where I went on a pilgrimage to another saint, Moulay Abdesslam Ben Mechich, on top of Jbel Alam. That’s for another post.

For those unfamiliar with the term, a suq is a market. The term in urban areas means an area where certain goods were sold, and westerners often refer to them as bazaars. In traditional Morocco, suqs were often rural, periodic markets, and bear the name of the day the market is held. Where towns grew up around these periodic markets, they often are named for the day, for example Souq el Khamis (Thursday market). Again, because these markets were so common, there is usually an additional place-name designating location, for example Souq el-Arba’a (Wednesday) du Gharb is a major town in the Gharb region.

A diagram from J.-F. Troin who studied rural markets. In his diagram, he indicates the day of the market with a number. Sunday is 1, Monday is 2, et cetera. These suqs are centered in Tiflet, a town in Zemmour country, between Rabat and Meknes. Our Peace Corps group did a training session there before being posted to our sites.

Look at an old map of North Africa again, and you will see place-names starting with souq (or zoco, in Spanish) everywhere. Many markets used to be completely rural, but over time most have had small settlements grow up beside them.

Livestock at the suq in Missour, before Ramadan, 1970.
Grain market at the Missour suq.
The suq in Sefrou (Thursday) was not on the tourist route in 1968, This vendor was happy to show off his wares, in this case, a charcoal brazier.

Important moussems were big gatherings, and places where the government liked to show the flag, so to speak. There were usually tents for government officials and local notables, entertainment such as music and dancers, and food. The dancing struck me as incongruous given the religious nature of the spectacle. Women who dance in public are viewed as prostitutes. But the government tents were far from the shrine.

The government tents at Moulay Bouchta.

The overall impression was, in my imagination, of a medieval or more modern rural fair, though I cringe at comparing modern Morocco to medieval Europe. The biggest part of the comparison lies in the rural character of the gathering. Think The Mayor of Casterbridge, without the drinking.

Local notables got some room to lounge.
For others, the space was limited.
It is always better to be wealthy and have connections.

I no longer remember how I got there, but since I spent some time in the government tents, I was probably with others from the Ministry. I often worked in the area north of Fes. I have no memory of eating, but I must have been fed. As far as I was concerned, the event was a feast for the eyes.

An orchestra provided music.
The women danced. These women, generally from poor country families, were often widows or divorcees, and they are referred to as cheikhat.
Dancers such as these women often came from the Middle Atlas, where certain places were famed for their prostitutes. Performing in public labeled them as loose women.
Along the edge of the Middle Atlas, young men often talked about going “to see the girls,” and some towns were notorious for the trade.

I do remember that it was a beautiful day and that I spent all of it wandering through the crowds, and taking photos. I seem to have been the only non-Moroccan there, but no one paid much attention to me. I was able to shoot some of the events associated with honoring Moulay Bouchta, as well as the activities of tradesmen and spectators.

Who was Moulay Bouchta? If you know Moroccan Arabic, you will recognize that the name means literally the father of rain. His saintly powers included bringing rains in a time of drought. In a Mediterranean climate such as Morocco’s, rain falls irregularly. In a decade, there may be four years of average rains, but also six others with too little or too much. Drought is a major concern to Moroccan farmers, especially small farmers on marginal plots.

Women picking up olives. The olives were knocked down with long poles, a process called gaulage in French. It is not practiced in the U.S. as it causes damage to branches and restricts new growth.

In hilly regions such as the pre-Rif, olives are common since their deep roots allow the trees to survive long, hot and dry summers. Still, the basis of small farmers’ cultures was cereals, and those crops depended on the correct amount of rain at the right time.

Moulay Bouchta was a descendant of Idrissid chorfa, descendants of the first the first Muslim king of Morocco, Idriss I, who was a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed’s family.

Having studied in Marrakech, Moulay Bouchta finished his education at the Qaraouyine University in Fes. A native of the Ouled Saïd tribe from the Chaouia, the plains south of Casablanca, he finally settled among the Fechtala in the vicinity of Amergu, where he died on November 20, 1588.

The moussem used to be celebrated in the spring, after the harvest, but now seems to be in the early autumn. I don’t know why the timing changed. The spring celebration is certainly a more timely harvest festival since the cereal crops are harvested then.

Much of what I know about the Moulay Bouchta comes from a tourism article, written in 1931, by a military man, Paul Oudinot, entitled Moulay Abi Cheta ou Moulay Bouchta. I found it on a blog, A l’ombre de Zalagh. Zalagh is the mountain that overlooks Fes, and the blog site republishes old colonial articles, sometimes with new photos added, on the city of Fes and its hinterland. I strongly recommend it for anyone interested in Moroccan history and the region of Fes.

Jbel Zalagh looms in the background. Part of the city wall is visible, including the western gate called Bab el Mahrouk, where the heads of bandits and enemies of state used to hang.

The foundation of Moulay Bouchta’s zawiya seems to go back to the sixteenth century, when the holy man settled among the Fechtala tribe. Moulay Bouchta and followers were involved in the struggle against the Spanish and Portuguese to take back enclaves on the Moroccan coast and push the Iberian powers out of North Africa.

El Ksar es-Seghir, a fortress held by the Portuguese. When they abandoned it, having given up their attempts to secure and keep land in Morocco, the Portuguese dismantled the fortifications and dumped the debris in the shallow harbor, making it unusable.

In modern times Moulay Bouchta is celebrated by hunters and cavalrymen as a moudjahidin. Another claim to fame involves ridding the countryside of the birds that once devoured farmers’ grain. The Heddawah, a local group, assisted the saint in his fight against the birds, so he has looked over them, and became a patron of the modern Heddawah, a religious brotherhood of wanderers, known for smoking kif (marijuana.). Moulay Bouchta is also a saint of musicians, who, according to the saint’s followers, cannot perfect their art without the saint’s baraka.

Traveling musicians in Chauen. Going from door to door.
They entertained the neighborhood women and collected donations.

There are many interesting stories about Moulay Bouchta, who also bears the flattering sobriquet, the Drunk ( مولاي بوشتى الخمار ), not because he drank alcohol, but because he was intoxicated with God.

His remains were once stolen by another tribe, which set up a zawiya in their land, but the Fechtala, after a struggle, were able to return the saint’s remains to their own zawiya. There is to this day, I think, another “little” Moulay Bouchta not far away. The true Moulay Bouchta lies near Amergu. It is a substantial shrine, and he draws visitors widely in Morocco.

That story reminds me of European cases involving the theft of sacred relics by monks of different monasteries, a common practice in medieval Europe. Conques and Vézelay are examples of this in French history.

This tribal map of northern Morocco shows the group, the Fechtala (numbered 28), who host Moulay Bouchta.
Moulay Bouchta lies in the shadow of Amergu. The Almohad fortress is clearly visible in the center right of this Google Earth view.
Visitors walked up and down the main pathway to the shrine. Here it is morning. Down below, closer to the paved road, the government tents can be seen in the distance on the extreme left.
The major thoroughfares of the tent village were filled with merchants.
Here a merchant sells rubber boots, handy for the cool wet weather to come.
The main thoroughfare to the shrine gate.
This cobbler was there to repair footwear.
Fast food moussem style.
These gentlemen tailor women’s dress garments made to measure.
As the day went on, the crowds got thicker.
This young girl hangs on to her father…
…while her mother or sister walks alongside.
In the afternoon, people gather closer to the shrine where they can get a decent view of the procession.
Near the shrine, shops sold candles as offerings or souvenirs. The guys on the right got a kick out me shooting this photo.
Moroccans love sweets as much as anyone, and this vendor offered a variety of candy and cookies.
Later in the day, a sheep is carried to be sold or eaten.
Country women often wore large towels as an outer garment with which to cover themselves.
This vendor of candy wandered through the crowds, slicing off pieces to sell.
The procession to the shrine began to the north and above the tent village. A bull will be led to be sacrificed. The tent-like structure is a new wrapping for Moulay Bouchta’s tomb.
The procession descends into the tent area…
…winding through it.
The procession continues. The men parade their muskets.
They continue down the main thoroughfare.
The men occasionally fire their muskets.
Spectators now line the route, and the gunfire creates clouds of dust.
They continue firing as they march past.
Spectators watch from above as the procession marches into an open space before the shrine entrance.
There the men stop to display their weapons.
Moving back and forth…
…throwing their weapons into the air and catching them…
…before discharging them into the ground. This is the equivalent of fantasia, which also involves horsemanship.
The area becomes filled with powder smoke and dust, and spectators run to get out of it.
High above, women watch…
…as the procession reaches the shrine entrance. The crowd is enthralled as the ceremony climaxes, and religious activities begin inside the shrine.

This was the end of my day. The ceremonies continued into the evening, but I had to return with my co-workers to Fes. The spectacle was over for me.

Voie de la mort

Chris, le facteur, que Dieu le bénisse, livre un colis, chose qu’il fait plus fréquemment dans ces jours de ventes en ligne. Chris est super consciencieux et livre directement à la maison. Je trouve qu’il fait parfaitement honneur à la devise officieuse des services postaux USPS :

« Même la neige, la pluie, la chaleur ou la noirceur ne sauront entraver ces messagers dans la poursuite rapide de leurs objectifs. »

Je croyais que c’était vraiment une devise, mais en fait il s’agit d’une citation au sujet des courriers de l’ancien Empire perse, il y a 2 500 ans, et provient de Les guerres médiques d’Hérodote. Dans Wikipédia, où j’ai déniché ces informations, on trouve un article intéressant portant sur ce dicton.

Je ne pensais pas beaucoup au service postal quand j’étais jeune. C’était quelque chose que l’on tenait pour acquis. Le courrier arrivait tous les jours sauf le dimanche. Quand je suis allé en France en 1965, j’ai été impressionné par le système français qui garantissait qu’une lettre postée où que ce soit en France serait livrée le lendemain. Par contre, le système téléphonique, géré également par les Postes Télégraphes et Téléphones (PTT) était archaïque. Dans les années 1980, les Français avaient instauré Minitel, un système de messagerie électronique intégré au téléphone qui surclassait tout ce les États-Unis avaient à l’époque. Hélas, l’Internet a sonné le glas de Minitel et a largement supplanté la lettre traditionnelle partout dans le monde. Comme volontaire, j’ai envoyé des centaines d’aérogrammes, ces lettres d’une seule page utilisées en France, au Maroc et ailleurs. Le courrier par avion coûtait encore cher à l’époque et les aérogrammes étaient relativement bon marché. Les aérogrammes étaient petits, de sorte qu’on écrivait aussi petit que possible et sur chaque partie de la feuille. Une fois terminé, on le pliait et on le mettait à la poste. Pas besoin de timbre.

Un aérogramme envoyé des États-Unis par un ancien professeur d’université. Arthur Wilson m’enseignait l’histoire de la science politique. Son champ d’expertise était le siècle des Lumières et l’œuvre principale de sa vie était une biographie définitive de Diderot.
À l’intérieur de l’aérogramme, on avait une page complète. Bob Wood avait été volontaire en Thaïlande et m’a écrit cette lettre après son retour aux États-Unis.
S’il fallait plus d’espace, on écrivait sur les deux plis.

Cependant, quand Chris n’a pas de colis à livrer, je dois faire toute la longueur de notre entrée à pied pour aller chercher le courrier dans la boîte aux lettres au bord du chemin.

Après des pluies récentes, l’entrée est jonchée de corps de vers de terre qui ont fui leurs galeries inondées pour ensuite périr sur l’asphalte. Ce n’est là qu’un des dangers auxquels doivent faire face les vers de terre et, même si je fais attention pour ne pas les écraser, leur sort inéluctable ne me trouble guère. Si j’en vois un qui dépérit, j’arrête pour l’aider, mais la plupart se noient avant l’arrivée de mon assistance.

Ce qui, par contre, me trouble pour de vrai, c’est la rangée double de frênes morts, victime de l’un des ambassadeurs de la mondialisation, l’agrile du frêne asiatique. Ce parasite, qui serait arrivé de Chine dans des caisses d’emballage, creuse des galeries et se loge sous l’écorce de l’arbre, consomme le cambium et tue l’arbre en le cernant. Le frêne européen et d’autres arbres de la même espèce ont développé des résistances contre ce parasite. Le frêne d’Amérique, par contre, n’a rien pour résister et est pratiquement voué à l’extinction sous peu. Le frêne, en plus de sa valeur commerciale, constitue un pourcentage important des arbres des forêts indigènes d’Amérique, peut-être jusqu’à 50 % dans certaines régions.

Ce frêne est presque mort. À noter, les trous minuscules par lesquels l’agrile du frêne entre.

Mes arbres sont adultes et mesurent entre 15 et 25 mètres de hauteur. Les enlever va me coûter cher, de l’argent dont j’ai besoin ailleurs, mais ma plainte n’est pas fondée sur l’argent. Ces arbres, hauts et majestueux, nous constituaient une véritable allée. De mon vivant, rien ne peut les remplacer, tout comme personne ne saurait remplacer ses amis disparus.

L’allée de frênes le long de notre entrée.

Le dépérissement du frêne évoque la COVID-19 qui traverse le paysage actuellement par l’intermédiaire des courriers humains. Ce virus n’entraînera pas l’extinction, mais pourrait s’avérer un précurseur de ce qui s’en vient. Le prochain virus, et c’est certain qu’il y en aura d’autres, pourrait être bien plus mortel. Au 21e siècle, les humains ont créé l’environnement idéal pour la propagation de ces minuscules ennemis : les vastes zones de taudis frappées par la pauvreté et un véhicule parfait pour les répandre, un réseau aérien planétaire. Depuis des années, les gouvernements ont été avertis qu’il y aurait des pandémies. Peu ont pris les mesures nécessaires.

Chaque jour, de plus en plus de cas font leur apparition et chaque jour ces cas se rapprochent de plus en plus de nous. Ma femme et moi suivons les progrès de la pandémie à de multiples services de nouvelles. La BBC et la CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (et son pendant francophone Radio-Canada) semblent fournir le plus d’informations, et certainement la meilleure perspective mondiale.

Les progrès quotidiens du virus me font penser au grand acteur suédois, Max Von Sydow, décédé dernièrement, qui était une vedette dans l’un des premiers films d’Ingmar Bergman, Le septième sceau. En rentrant chez lui des croisades, il essaie d’échapper à la peste quand la Mort l’accoste. Essayant de déjouer la Mort, le chevalier l’engage dans un jeu d’échecs, mais la Mort triche—et la Mort, comme nous le savons tous, ne peut pas être déjouée. Pour le chevalier, c’était comme un coup de dés, mais où les dés étaient pipés. Le chevalier réussit tout de même à faire du bien.

Quant à nous, il s’agit de rester à l’intérieur. Tout déplacement, même local, signifie un risque d’exposition. Quand le virus ne trouve pas d’hôte, il meurt. Quand plus de la moitié de la population aura développé une immunité, le virus s’éteindra lentement.

La Mort choisit le blanc ou le noir.

Lorsque je grandissais, j’avais peu de contact avec la mort. Les premiers décès dont je me souviens sont ceux de mes grands-parents, mais ces souvenirs sont flous et incomplets. La première veillée à laquelle j’ai assisté était celle de mon grand-père Francisco. Encore adolescent, j’étais choqué par la légèreté de certains membres de la famille qui étaient présents. Depuis cette époque, mes idées ont évolué et maintenant je me sens plus proche de la représentation de la mort de Georges Brassens, que celle de Bergman.

Brassens, dans une de ses premières chansons, dépeint la mort comme une prostituée qui convainc l’oncle Archibald que son accolade n’est pas si mauvaise :

“Si tu te couches dans mes bras
Alors la vie te semblera
Plus facile
Tu y seras hors de portée
Des chiens, des loups, des hommes et des

Et la chanson prend fin en répétant la première strophe :

Ô vous, les arracheurs de dents
Tous les cafards, les charlatans
Les prophètes
Comptez plus sur oncle Archibald
Pour payer les violons du bal
À vos fêtes

Bref, l’oncle Archibald ne dépensera plus son argent chez le dentiste, ni paiera d’autres services douteux. Il sera éternellement à l’abri de chiens, de loups, d’hommes et d’imbéciles. Or, pour moi, c’est une pensée réconfortante, bien que, à vrai dire, j’aime les chiens et ils me manqueront.

Peu de temps après le décès de mon grand-père, je suis parti pour le Maroc où la mort était omniprésente. Le système de santé était encore sous-développé et les pauvres n’y avaient qu’un accès limité.

Les volontaires du Corps de la Paix, jeunes et en partie sélectionnés pour leur bonne santé, ne tombaient gravement malades que très rarement, même si quelques-uns de mes bons amis figuraient parmi les exceptions. Quelques volontaires sont morts au Maroc, mais toujours dus à des accidents. Les routes étaient souvent dangereuses et les chauffe-eau à gaz dont certains volontaires disposaient ont parfois produit des quantités mortelles de monoxyde de carbone. Plus d’un volontaire a perdu la vie tragiquement, asphyxié en prenant une douche.

À titre de contraste, les Marocains que nous connaissions n’étaient pas, règle générale, bien nantis. À l’école primaire où je travaillais, j’ai vu le directeur mourir d’une crise cardiaque. Il aurait peut-être survécu s’il avait eu accès à une chirurgie de pontage ou à des thérapies modernes comme les stents. Un jour, Khadija, qui s’occupait de notre maison, est arrivée avec un bébé malade. Je lui ai offert de l’argent pour aller voir un médecin, mais elle a refusé mon offre. Le bébé, a-t-elle dit, n’allait pas guérir et, de toute façon, n’était qu’une fille. Un autre collègue du centre de travail qui avait une plainte médicale mineure est allé se faire traiter à la clinique publique locale. L’infirmière a oublié de lui demander s’il était allergique à la pénicilline et lui a oublié de le lui faire savoir. Il est mort d’un choc médical presque instantanément. Les Marocains, à l’instar de tous les peuples, chérissent leurs proches, mais se montraient parfois fatalistes. Après tout, tout était entre les mains de Dieu. S’ils étaient jeunes et innocents, ou s’ils étaient de bons musulmans, le ciel les attendait.

Khadija et un jeune enfant qu’elle gardait pendant qu’elle étendait le linge sur la terrasse.

Les meurtres étaient rares. Le seul meurtre à Sefrou dont je me souviens était celui du fils d’un commerçant soussi bien connu, tué à la hache lors d’un vol. La police a procédé rapidement à l’arrestation des coupables. À l’époque, Sefrou était petit et bien peu de choses arrivaient sans que la police le sache rapidement.

Par coutume et par religion, les musulmans enterrent leurs morts immédiatement, et les cimetières sont des endroits simples où l’on trouve peu de pierres tombales. En fait, les cimetières offrent souvent un lieu de repos pour les vivants. On voit des groupes de femmes qui y font des pique-niques, histoire d’échapper aux médinas surpeuplées où l’intimité n’existe pas. Les enfants peuvent aussi y trouver un terrain de jeu. Dans les villes traditionnelles, à part les rues et les mosquées, on ne trouvait pas d’espaces ouverts.

Femmes qui font une promenade au printemps le long du vieux cimetière juif. Sefrou
Le vieux cimetière derrière la Kasbah des Oudayas à Rabat. À gauche, de l’autre côté du Bouregreg, on voit Salé.
Entre les Oudayas et la mer, tard dans l’après-midi. Au bord du cimetière, on aperçoit des terrains de football de fortune. Rabat.

Je ne me sentais jamais en danger où que ce soit, et même si les grandes villes avaient des quartiers plus rudes qu’à Sefrou, je n’avais pas peur de sortir la nuit. À plusieurs reprises, je me promenais de nuit jusqu’à l’extrémité du brise-lames à l’embouchure du Bouregreg à Rabat pour écouter les vagues et prendre de l’air.

Au loin, le brise-lames à l’embouchure du Bouregreg. Photo : Gaylord Barr.
C’était une longue promenade jusqu’à l’extrémité du brise-lames souvent mouillé par les vagues. Photo : Gaylord Barr
Quand les vagues étaient fortes, on risquait de se mouiller en marchant. Au loin, on voit les Oudayas.
La vue des houles océaniques valait bien le déplacement. Rabat

Les volontaires qui tombaient gravement malades allaient à l’hôpital de la base navale américaine à Kénitra. Un ami volontaire, Marc Miller, qui a contracté la méningite, y a été traité.

Marc et moi à l’extérieur de sa chambre à l’hôpital de la base à Kénitra. Photo : Gaylord Barr.

Gaylord Barr et moi lui avons rendu visite peu après qu’il est sorti d’un coma. Ironie du sort, en 1971 quand Gaylord revenait de Tunisie en train, il est tombé malade de typhoïde. Quand il n’a pas répondu au traitement, on l’a évacué à l’ancienne base de l’armée de l’air américaine à Torrejón, près de Madrid où il a passé deux mois en convalescence.

Gaylord à l’extérieur du même hôpital, peu avant d’être envoyé en Espagne pour des soins plus poussés.

Ce qui est exceptionnel dans ces deux cas, c’est que les volontaires auraient pu mourir. Les volontaires ont reçu de bons soins de la part du médecin du Corps de la Paix et pour la plupart des maladies dont ils souffraient, la trousse médicale personnelle que le Corps de la Paix leur fournissait ou la pharmacie locale, s’ils vivaient dans une grande ville, suffisait.

Au moment d’écrire ces lignes, ma femme et moi restons en quarantaine auto-imposée alors que la COVID-19 se répand rapidement à travers les États-Unis et le Canada voisin. Tout comme l’agrile du frêne, le virus est arrivé par l’intermédiaire du commerce et du voyage planétaire,. Dans les années 1990, j’enseignais le concept de la mondialisation à mes étudiants d’école secondaire, ce qui aujourd’hui semble curieusement démodé.

Aujourd’hui, ce n’est pas la sécurité de ma femme et moi qui me préoccupe. Nous sommes bien isolés du virus tant que nous restons confinés chez nous. C’est plutôt à celle de mes proches parents âgés qui restent dans des établissements de soins infirmiers ou qui souffrent de maladies chez eux. Eux sont des cibles faciles de ce virus.

Ils sont prisonniers comme des centaines de millions de pauvres et de personnes déplacées autour du globe. En tant qu’Américain, j’ai honte d’énumérer les variétés de confinement de ces populations, étant donné que la politique étrangère des États-Unis y joue un rôle direct. Il y a des camps de réfugiés en Turquie, en Syrie, en Jordanie, au Liban, en Iran, en Afghanistan, au Pakistan et en Inde. Il y a Gaza. Il y en a qui sont prisonniers de guerres interminables comme au Yémen et en Syrie, en Afghanistan et en Irak. Il y a des centres de détention tout le long de la frontière avec le Mexique. Il y a d’énormes bidonvilles insalubres entourant toutes les métropoles des pays en développement. Il y a de vastes régions assaillies par la sécheresse, la pauvreté et la violence, comme les pays du Sahel. Pire encore, ces populations vivent dans des pays qui n’ont pas les moyens de les secourir. C’est déjà horrible de constater le nombre croissant de morts en Europe, dans les endroits que j’aime et où j’ai de la parenté et des amis, là où les gouvernements sont compétents et où les systèmes de santés sont excellents et ont les ressources pour combattre la COVID-19. La propagation de ce virus autour du globe va entraîner des effets terribles sur les plus faibles et les plus innocents.

J’hésite un instant, mais je ne peux m’empêcher de citer le passage bien connu du poète anglais John Donne, sa méditation no. 17, tirée de Devotions upon Divergent Occasions. Peu d’écrivains l’ont mieux dit :

Aucun homme n’est une île,
Un tout, complet en soi;
Tout homme est un fragment du continent,
Une partie de l’ensemble;
Si la mer emporte une motte de terre,
L’Europe en est amoindrie,
Comme si les flots avaient emporté un promontoire,
Le manoir de tes amis ou le tien;
La mort de tout homme me diminue,
Parce que j’appartiens au genre humain;
Aussi n’envoie jamais demander pour qui sonne le glas:
C’est pour toi qu’il sonne.”

Le coronavirus devrait nous rappeler que nous faisons tous partie de la famille humaine. En ces temps périlleux, je souhaite à tous mes lecteurs et à leurs proches une excellente santé. Que Dieu vous protège tous.

Auteur : David Brooks

Traduction : Jim Erickson

Driveway of death

Chris, the mailman, God bless him, is delivering a package, which he does more frequently in these days of online sales. Chris is great about delivering to the house. I think that he fits the unofficial motto of USPS perfectly:

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

I thought that this was really a motto, but in fact it is a quote about the Persian Empire’s mail carriers, 2,500 years ago, from Herodotus’ The Persian Wars. Wikipedia, where I found this information, has an interesting article about the saying.

I never thought much about postal delivery when I was younger. It was something one simply took for granted. The mail came everyday save Sundays. When I went to France as a student in 1965, I was impressed by the French system, where a letter mailed anywhere in France was delivered the next day. On the other hand, the phone system, also managed by the Postes Télégraphes et Téléphones ( PTT), was antiquated. By the nineteen-eighties the French had MiniTel, an electronic messaging system tied to the phone, and had leapfrogged anything in the U.S. Alas, the internet sounded the death knoll for Minitel, and has largely replaced letter writing throughout the world. As a volunteer, I sent hundreds of aérogrammes, the single-sheet airmail letters used in France and Morocco. Airmail was still expensive then, and aérogrammes were relatively cheap. The aérogrammes were small, so one wrote as tiny a script as one could manage, and often on every part of the sheet. When done, you folded it up, and mailed it. No stamp was needed.

An aérogramme from the United States, sent by a former college professor. Arthur Wilson taught me the history of political science. His field was the Enlightenment, and his life’s work was a definitive biography of Diderot.
Inside the aérogramme one had a full page. Bob Wood had been a volunteer in Thailand, and wrote this after returning to the States.
If one needed more space, there were areas on the folds.

When Chris does not have to deliver a package, however, I must walk down my driveway to retrieve the mail from the box on the highway.

After recent rains, the road has been littered with the bodies of the earthworms that have fled their flooded burrows, only to perish on the asphalt. This is just one of the hazards of being an earthworm, and, though I am careful not to step on them, I am not troubled much by their inescapable plight. If I see one withering, I will stop to help it, but most drown before my help arrives.

What is troubling is the double line of dead ash trees, victim of one of the ambassadors of globalization, the Asian Emerald Ash Borer. This pest, thought to have been introduced from China in packing crates, bores into the ash trees, eats the cambium, and kills the trees by girdling them. The European Ash and its relatives have evolved protection against the pest. The American Ash, on the other hand, has none and is doomed to virtual extinction shortly. Not only is the ash commercially valuable, it constitutes an important percentage of the trees in native American forests, perhaps as high as 50% in some areas.

This ash is almost dead. Note the tiny holes through which the ash borer enters.

My trees are mature, 50 to 80 feet tall. Removing them will cost me plenty of money, money that I really could spend better elsewhere, but money is not behind my complaint. The trees, tall and graceful, made up a de facto allée. Nothing can replace them in my lifetime. Just as no one can ever replace their lost friends.

The allée of ashes along my drive.

The ash die-off brings to mind Covid-19, now traveling across the landscape on human carriers. The virus will not bring extinction, but it may be a harbinger of things to come. The next virus, and another will surely appear, may be much deadlier. In the twenty-first century, humans have created the perfect place to breed these tiny enemies: the vast, poverty-stricken slums of the world, and the perfect means to spread them, a global air network. Governments have been advised for years that there would be pandemics. Few have prepared.

Each day more local cases appear, and each day those cases appear closer and closer. My wife and I follow the pandemic’s progress on multiple news services, but the BBC, and the CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, seem to provide the most news, and certainly the best global perspective.

The daily progress of the virus makes me think of the recently deceased, great Swedish actor Max Von Sydow, a star in the early Ingmar Bergman movie, The Seventh Seal. Returning home from the Crusades, he is trying to to outrun the plague when he is accosted by Death. Trying to outwit Death, the knight engages him in a game of chess, but Death cheats—and Death, as we all know, cannot himself be cheated. For the knight, it was like a crooked coin toss—heads I win, tails you lose, but he accomplishes some good just the same. In our case, it is just a case of staying indoors. Travel, even local travel, means exposure. But if the virus cannot find a host, it dies. When more than half of the population has immunity, the virus will slowly die out.

Death chooses for white or black.

I had little contact with death as I grew up. The first deaths that I can remember are those of my grandparents, and those memories are hazy and incomplete. The first wake I attended was for my grandfather, Francesco. Still a teen, I was shocked at the levity of some of my relatives who attended. Since then, my views have evolved, and now I feel closer to Georges Brassens’ portrayal of Death, than to Bergman’s.

Brassens, in an early song, portrays death as a streetwalker, assuring Oncle Archibald that her embrace is not so bad:

“Si tu te couches dans mes bras
Alors la vie te semblera
Plus facile
Tu y seras hors de portée
Des chiens, des loups, des hommes et des

And the song concludes by repeating the opening stanza:

Ô vous, les arracheurs de dents
Tous les cafards, les charlatans
Les prophètes
Comptez plus sur oncle Archibald
Pour payer les violons du bal
A vos fêtes

In short, Uncle Archibald won’t be spending his money at the dentist’s anymore, nor paying for more dubious services. He will be forever safe from dogs, wolves, men, and imbeciles. Now that is a comforting thought for me, though I do like dogs and will miss them.

Not long in the decade after my grandfather died, I left for Morocco, where death was ever present. The health care system was still underdeveloped, and the poor had limited access to it.

Peace Corps volunteers, young and partly selected for their health, seldom became seriously ill, though a couple of my close friends proved to be the exceptions. A few volunteers have died in Morocco, but always due to accidents. The roads were often dangerous, and the gas hot water heaters that some volunteers used sometimes produced lethal quantities of carbon monoxide. More than one volunteer was tragically asphyxiated taking a shower.

By way of contrast, the Moroccans we knew were usually not well off. I saw the director of the primary school where I worked die of a heart attack. He might have survived had he had access to bypass surgery or more modern therapies such as stents. Khadija, who kept house for me, had a sick baby with her one day. I offered money to take the baby to the doctor, but Khadija turned it down. The baby would not get better, she said, and, in any case, was just a girl. Another fellow, a CT worker who had a minor medical complaint, went for treatment at the local public clinic. The nurse forgot to ask if he was allergic to penicillin, and he forgot to let the nurse know. He died almost instantly of shock. Moroccans care about the people whom they love just as much as anyone elsewhere in the world, but were sometimes fatalistic. Everything, after all, was in the hands of God. If they were young and innocent, or if they were good Muslims, heaven awaited them.

Khadija and a young child, whom she was watching while hanging the laundry on the terrace.

Death by murder was rare. The only murder I can recall in Sefrou was that of the son of a prominent Soussi shopkeeper, killed with an ax as part of a robbery. The police quickly apprehended the culprits. Sefrou was then a small place, and little took place without the police knowing about or finding out quickly.

By custom and religion, Muslims bury their dead immediately, and cemeteries are often plain affairs. Headstones are minimal. In fact, cemeteries often provide a place for repose for the living. Groups of women often picnic in them, escaping from the crowded medina, where privacy is nonexistent, and kids play in them. There was no common open space in a traditional city, apart from the streets and mosques.

Women out for a stroll in the springtime, walking along the old Jewish cemetery. Sefrou.
The old cemetery behind the Kasbah of the Oudayas, Rabat. Sale, across the Bou Regreg, is visible on the left.
Between the Oudayas and the sea, late in the afternoon. There are makeshift football fields on the edge of the cemetery. Rabat.

I never felt insecure anywhere, and though the big cities were much rougher places than Sefrou, I was not afraid to venture out late. I walked to the end of the long breakwater at the mouth of the Bou Regreg in Rabat several different times at night, to listen to the surf or take some fresh air.

The breakwater at the mouth of the Bou Regreg in the distance. Photo by Gaylord Barr, taken near the Chella.
It was a long walk out to the end of the breakwater, and often wet from the surf. Photo by Gaylord Barr.
When the surf was strong, the walk could be a wet one. the Oudayas in the distance.
The view of the ocean swells was well worth the journey. Rabat.

For volunteers who became seriously ill, there was the base hospital at the U.S. Naval base at Kenitra. One volunteer and friend, Marc Miller, contracted meningitis and was treated there.

Marc and me outside his room at the base hospital in Kenitra. Photo by Gaylord Barr.

Gaylord Barr and myself visited him shortly after he awoke from a coma. Ironically, in 1971, Gaylord, returning from Tunisia by train, fell ill with typhoid, and, not responding to treatment, was evacuated to the then U.S. Air Force base at Torrejón, just outside of Madrid, where he spent two months recovering.

Gaylord outside the same hospital unit, just before being sent to Spain for more serious attention.

These cases were exceptional in that both volunteers might have died. Volunteers got good care from the Peace Corps doctor, and seldom suffered any illness beyond the curative properties of their personal Peace Corps medical kit or the local pharmacy if they lived in a larger city.

As I write this, my wife and I sit in self-imposed quarantine, as Covid-19 quickly spreads throughout the States and nearby Canada. The virus comes through the same process of global trade and travel that brought the ash borer. I had to teach the concept of globalization to high school students in the 1990s. Today that seems quaint.

Today my thoughts are not of safety for my wife and me. We are well insulated from the virus as long as we stay home. Rather I am concerned for my elderly local relatives, in nursing facilities or at home with illnesses. They are sitting ducks so to speak.

They are trapped like the hundreds of millions of poor and displaced people around the world. As an American, I am ashamed to enumerate the varieties of confinement of these populations, since U.S. foreign policy plays a direct role in it. There are the refugee camps of Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. There is Gaza. There are those trapped in areas with never-ending warfare, such as Yemen and Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. There are migrant holding centers all along the U.S. border with Mexico. There are huge, insalubrious shantytowns surrounding every metropolis in the developing world. There are vast regions beset by drought, poverty, and violence such as the countries of the Sahel. And to make everything worse, these people live in countries without the resources to help them. It is horrible enough to see the mounting toll in Europe, in places that I love and have relatives and friends, where the governments are competent, and where the medical systems are excellent and have some resources to fight Covid-19. Its progress around the world will take a horrendous toll on the weakest and the most innocent.

I hesitate for a moment, but I cannot help but quote the well-known passage in John Donne’s Meditation No. 17, from Devotions upon Divergent Occasions. Few writers have ever said it better:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

The coronavirus should remind us that we all are part of the family of man. I wish all my readers and those close to them the best of health in these dangerous times. May God protect you all.

Amergu (version française)

Quand je travaillais au ministère de l’Agriculture, la province de Fès s’étendait vers le Nord dans ce que les géographes appellent le pré-Rif, et comprenait une région qui fait actuellement partie de la province de Taounate. La rivière Ouergha, un tributaire majeur du Sebou, avait à l’époque une plaine inondable.

Ce tronçon de la Ouergha est devenu un réservoir.

En 1988, le barrage Al Wahda, deuxième barrage en importance en Afrique, a inondé la vallée fluviale créant ainsi un énorme réservoir. Le barrage a grandement facilité le contrôle des inondations et l’irrigation, mais accuse une accumulation rapide de limon. Il en est résulté une réduction de la sédimentation à l’embouchure du Sebou qui, à son tour, a entraîné une érosion des côtes.

Dans un contexte de changement climatique, ce problème et d’autres effets négatifs connexes, risquent de s’intensifier au fur et à mesure que le Maroc se réchauffe.

Le paysage a été profondément modifie depuis ma dernière visite à Amergu. Source : Google Maps.

Cependant, quand j’étais dans la vingtaine, le barrage n’existait pas de sorte qu’on ne vantait pas la beauté des panoramas d’un lac qui n’existait pas.

La forteresse à Amergu. Un rare exemple d’architecture militaire médiévale qui a survécu au Maroc.

La terre avait sans doute l’apparence de celle de l’époque où les armées de la dynastie des Almoravides se battaient dans une cause perdue contre leurs successeurs, tout aussi fondamentalistes, les Almohades, il y a presque un millénaire.

Aujourd’hui cette vallée est devenu un lac. Au fond le massif du Rif.

Dans leur quête de maintenir la maîtrise du nord marocain, les Almoravides ont construit une petite forteresse près du village actuel d’Amergu. Au sommet d’un promontoire qui permettait une vue dans toutes les directions, la forteresse assurait un contrôle sur les routes menant de Fès vers le Nord jusqu’à la côte.

Un douar pres d’Amergu à la fin des années 1960. Les toits typiques dans cette région sont recouvertes de chaume.

Amergu est situé près du site du principal sanctuaire de Moulay Bouchta où un impressionnant moussem a lieu chaque année. J’y ai assisté en ce temps-là, et j’en prévois un billet dans un avenir proche.

Moulay Bouchta. Source : Google Maps.
Très haut au-dessus du village. Vue vers le sud-est.

Je ne me souviens pas comment j’ai fini par visiter la vieille forteresse. Elle n’était pas très éloignée de la route principale, mais exigeait quand même une petite escalade.

Les touristes la visitaient rarement. Le guide bleu de Hachette, toujours fiable et complet, la mentionnait comme quelque chose à voir, mais elle se trouvait dans une région peu courue et encore moins visitée par les touristes. Certains habitants du coin m’ont dit que la forteresse était portugaise, mais je savais même à l’époque que les Portugais n’avait jamais tenu des villes ou des forts ailleurs que sur la côte, de sorte que Amergu n’était sûrement pas portugais.

Vue aérienne de la forteresse. Source : Google Maps.

Il me semble que je devais être seul, ou bien en déplacement pour mon travail dans la région de Taounate. Après avoir stationné ma Jeep, je suis monté aux ruines par un sentier accidenté. Aujourd’hui, à bien y penser, je vois dans cette forteresse ce que les Français appellent les citadelles du vertige, soit des forteresses comme celles que les Cathares et plus tard les Français ont édifiées dans les Pyrénées, perchées sur des rochers excessivement abruptes et presque inaccessibles. Les Occitans et les Français les ont construites comme refuges ou pour des guerres de frontière.

À cet automne de 1970, pendant que l’après-midi glissait vers le crépuscule, je contemplais les gens qui avaient gardé ces ruines et pourquoi c’était si important de construire un château d’une telle hauteur. À part les vieux remparts et les portes de ses villes, le Maroc offre peu d’exemples d’architecture militaire médiévale, de sorte que Amergu est unique, et pour moi, sa solitude avait quelque chose de spécial.

Très haut au-dessus de la Ouergha, les ombres s’allongent. Au nord-est, on aperçoit le Rif.

Devant mes yeux s’étendait une mosaïque de fermes et de collines innombrables. Au nord, les montagnes du Rif étaient à moitié cachées par la brume et les nuages. Le temps automnal était encore clément. Malgré un vent, je n’avais pas froid, mais il y avait une tranquillité qui était perceptible. Qui étaient les Almoravides qui ne sont plus qu’un lointain souvenir? Qui étaient les hommes qui occupaient ce nid d’aigle? À quoi ressemblait leur monde? Si j’avais eu le temps, je serais resté plus longtemps pour voir le coucher du soleil et voir la noirceur descendre sur la scène, là où la noirceur des siècles était déjà tombée.

Je suis redescendu à ma Jeep. Un long voyage de retour à Fès et à Sefrou m’attendait.

Traduction: Jim Erickson

Across the desert to West Africa by truck

Part 1 – The Trans-Saharan Highway

The Sahara desert from space. NASA

Part of a band of deserts that cross both Africa and Asia, the Sahara is the largest single desert in the world, stretching over 3,000 miles across the continent of Africa, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. Wider than the continental United States, the Sahara separates North Africa from the rest of the continent. Still, despite being a formidable physical barrier, the Sahara has never totally isolated sub-Saharan Africa from the north. Travelers made the trip in medieval times, and, in the 20th century, mechanized transport and roads have made it easier for traders and tourists alike. I was one of the latter, eager to visit parts of Africa I had not seen before, and not afraid to engage in what might be an adventure.

A few years ago, my younger daughter, a photojournalist, had the idea of retracing my journey across the Sahara. A little investigation on her part soon dissuaded her. With warfare waged almost daily across the Sahel by Islamic insurgencies, the trip presented far too much danger.

Now, Kate is no stranger to danger. She entered Afghanistan with the first U.S. troops, lived in Baghdad after the U.S. invasion, and made her home in Beirut, watching as the Israelis systematically bombed south Beirut while the Lebanese occasionally bombed themselves. She gave up on her idea of a footsteps-of-her-father article as much too risky.

Though I am relieved, the article would have been a timely one. The world has evolved greatly since I was in my twenties. Today the roads linking sub-Saharan Africa have become major routes for migrants fleeing warfare and poverty in hopes of finding a new home in Europe. These migrants take great risks for uncertain futures, and their trials remind me of another, totally involuntary migration across the desert, that of slaves traded to North Africa.

Note the crossroads position of Agadez in central Niger. Figure: Luiza Bialasiewicz, Frontex.

The early nineteen-seventies was a more peaceful and innocent time. Before the Green March in 1975, there wasn’t much desert within the borders of the Kingdom of Morocco. Most of what was then Morocco had a Mediterranean climate, as the Kingdom, once a French protectorate, did not yet include the Spanish Sahara. Only far south of the Atlas Mountains did one encounter true desert, although there is no denying that all of Morocco’s south is very dry.

Seen from space, northern Morocco and the Moroccan south are clearly different places. In this photo, where North is at the bottom right, one can make out the eastern High Atlas (where Jbel Ayachi is), the eastern Middle Atlas (where Bouiblane is), the Taza gap (where the Rif and the Middle Atlas come together), the entire length of the Moulouya River, and the dry plains stretching east to the frontier with Algeria (lower left). NASA photo.

Tensions along the contested eastern border led to military skirmishes with Algeria in the early sixties, and Algeria was closed to volunteers, not by the Algerians, but by Peace Corps rules set by the U.S. State Department. We were not allowed to visit Algeria. That was a great shame, as the country was safe, similar to Morocco but different in distinct ways, and had many things to see. The United States had been sympathetic the Algerians’s demands for independence, but that independence had come with much more struggle and violence than Morocco’s, and the government in Algiers was nonaligned. Sadly, the Cold War was playing in theaters everywhere then, and Washington had decided Algeria was just much too dangerous for Americans. Peace Corps volunteers did sometimes ignore travel restrictions, but stamps in a passport could be incriminating: Algeria required a visa for Americans.

A visa and a Moroccan re-entry stamp would document where you had been.

By 1971, however, the Peace Corps was willing to let volunteers at least transit Algeria. Gaylord Barr, a PC English teacher in Sefrou, returned to Morocco by train from Tunisia in where he had studied Modern Standard Arabic during the summer.

South of the Moroccan Atlas, high plateaus and foothills descend toward the edges of the vastness that defines the Sahara. There are few true oases in the Morocco That Was. Most of the southern settlements of Morocco lay along rivers that flow when winter snows blanket the mountain ranges collectively known as the Atlas. There are tall dunes at Merzouga and smaller ones at MHammid, both of which tourists may visit without too much trouble, and this is probably as much of the desert as most tourists want to see. Not everyone wants to cross the Empty Quarter by camel as Wilfred Thesiger did.

Southern Morocco is wonderful, a landscape of ksour (large fortified earth dwellings), palm groves, spectacular canyons, and gleaming mountains.

Ksar of Aït-Ben-Haddou, Ouarzazate.
À ksar on the road to Ouarzazate.

David Lean filmed part of Lawrence of Arabia at the Aït-Ben-Haddou ksar near Ouarzazate, and his crew stayed at the Glaoui palace nearby.

The Glaoui palace at Telouet. 1969

Today the latter is falling into ruin, a symbol of a modern political dynasty brought to an end by a failed joint effort with the French to remove King Mohammed V from the throne and the consequent demise of tribal power in a modern centralized nation state.

A window at Telouet. This view appears on the original cover jacket of Lords of the Atlas, Gavin Maxwell’s history of Moroccan tribal politics before 1956.

Beautiful as it is, Southern Morocco was not quite the Sahara; what might have been Morocco’s Sahara had been annexed to French Algeria, though few Moroccan sultans had exercised any real control over it. Indeed, in recent Moroccan history, sultans controlled relatively little outside of the royal capitals of their land.

On the road near Tinerhir. 1969.

As volunteers, we heard stories of a volunteer or two who had succeeded in crossing the Sahara by overland routes, so we knew it could be done, but the crossing and return required more vacation time than volunteers were allotted. TEFL volunteers, who taught English, had loads of time, but that time was in the summer— not an ideal time to cross a wide desert in the northern hemisphere. And, of course, it required gumption and an appetite for adventure.

If a volunteer wanted to make the crossing in another season, he had to set aside some vacation time and then hurry back. I had wanted to see a bit of West Africa as well as experience the desert, and so I did not seriously consider the trip until my volunteer service was nearing an end. I would not have done it then, but, fortunately, I found someone else who also wanted to do it. Adventurous though I am, I would not have undertaken that trip by myself.

My Peace Corps service was finishing up in early 1971. Another volunteer, Anne McLaughlin, who had already left Peace Corps service in 1970, also wanted to make the trip. She had worked in rural women’s centers in the pre-Rif and Rif, and spoke Arabic well. By that time, we were close friends.

We discussed going through Algeria to Niger, which seemed to be the most interesting route. Anne had been to Algeria recently and toured edges of the desert in a Volkswagen bus. Both of us spoke North African dialects and French, so we did not consider the culture and language a real problem. After living poor in the Peace Corps, traveling on a bare budget would not trouble us either.

We were fearless. We foresaw no real difficulty other than obtaining rides. So in the autumn of 1970, we made plans to leave Sefrou in March of 1971, and return to Casablanca by French steamship in late May. Two months would leave enough time for sightseeing and travel in West Africa, though much time consuming long-distance travel was required. In retrospect, more time would have offered a more leisurely trip, some interesting side visits, and possibly even an attempt to go east across the continent. However, we both intended to return to the States that summer, so a long trip seemed out of the question. I had applied to graduate school for studies that autumn, and was waiting to hear about my applications. And our funds were limited.

We needed visas, but most were easily obtained through the French consulate in Fes, and the rest could be obtained along the route.

Some of the many visas required.
France handled the consular affairs of many former colonies, and some of the visas were available in nearby Fes.

We chose the right season to leave, and the weather turned out to be perfect for crossing the Sahara. The desert was comfortable that early spring, neither too hot nor too cold. The Sahel, the zone immediately south of the desert was another matter, as we were to find out.

At that time, there were two or three practical routes across the Sahara for anyone living in Morocco. All were traditional routes that had been used by camel caravans for hundreds of years, and adapted for wheeled vehicles in the 20th century. The western route went through the Spanish Sahara, a colonial possession of Spain at that time, then through Mauritania to Senegal. I think that it was the most level and the quickest, but one ended up in Senegal, the farthest corner of West Africa. The central one went south of Béchar, eventually arriving in Gao, Mali, from where one could travel upstream along the Niger River to Timbuktu, or downstream to Niamey, in Niger. The least traveled of the routes, one could leave it at two points in the northern Sahara and connect to the route that we followed, the most easterly one, which went through Algeria, from Algiers, on the Mediterranean coast to Algeria’s southern border with Niger, and then on to Agadez. The road was regularly traveled as far as Tamanrasset, and even had occasional tourist vehicles on it, as it went through some interesting and classic desert scenery.

The first motorized traffic that connected the oases along the route with Tamanrasset occurred about 50 years before our trip, but the road was still not paved beyond El Golea in the nineteen-sixties. I do not recall seeing any private cars crossing the desert while we traveled, though there might have been a few; there were a few abandoned wrecks. The truck traffic was light. There were also scheduled buses as far as Tamanrasset, but not every day. As I write, the names of the places and countries come easily, but countries such as Algeria, Mali and Niger were immense and remote, something a simple and short name cannot convey.

We decided on the central Algerian route, where we thought that we would visit more interesting desert towns and regions, and, more importantly, find more traffic. The continuation of that route across Niger would take us to Nigeria, and through that country to the coast. I was interested in visiting the Cameroun, too, having had worked in a Peace Corps training program in La Pocatière, Quebec for English teachers going to that country.

Casablanca. 1968.

Hence, we went to the Nigerian Consulate in Casablanca for the necessary visa. As it turned out, Nigeria, smarting from its civil war, did not welcome us. International oil companies, Christian groups, and most Western Europeans had supported Biafra in its attempted breakaway from Nigeria. By January 1971, the war had been over for a year, and American sympathy for Biafra still preoccupied Nigerian officialdom. When we applied in advance for a visa at the Nigerian consulate in Casablanca, an interview with the consular officer began with the startling question, “You Americans don’t like Nigeria very much, do you?” He put it to us with a sardonic smile, and signaled that the rest of the meeting would be a waste of time. We were caught up in the politics of the time, and he would not grant us a visa. In retrospect, perhaps we should have tried a bribe. Could he have been fishing for one? We gave up with his refusal. Maybe it would have been possible to get visas for Nigeria in Niger, but we had given up in Casablanca and did not try.

We could continue the Algiers-Tamanrasset-Agadez route southward to Zinder, in central Niger, and make our way overland west to Niger’s capital, Niamey, then proceed to Ouagadougou a little further west, in what was then Upper Volta, but is now Burkina Faso, before finally turning south again and making our way through Ghana. It was a long detour and added hundreds of miles of travel over unpaved washboard roads. Had we been able to enter Nigeria, we would have been on paved roads very quickly. In 1971, Niger, by way of contrast with Nigeria, had about 20 miles (or 30 km) of paved highway, all or almost all, in the capital city, Niamey. Niger is twice as large as Texas, more than twice the size of France, almost three times the size of Morocco, and four times bigger than the U.K.

The continental U.S. compared to the Sahara. Source: C.I.H.A. Blog.
Niamey, Niger. 1971.

Today the route through Algeria is paved only to the border of Niger. Niger itself has far more paved roads than it had 50 years ago, and the route nowadays would be easier on drivers and passengers alike.

The main route is now paved to the border with Niger, but unpaved to and from Agadez. From: I, Rexparry sydney [CC BY-SA] Wiki Commons.
Much of the road across Niger is now paved. I, Rexparry sydney [CC BY-SA] Wiki Commons.

In our case, the Zinder to Niamey trip was a grueling ordeal, far more so than travel across the Algerian Sahara itself.

Our preparation included getting our vaccinations updated, and prescriptions for an antimalarial drug. Malaria was not common in Morocco, and volunteers did not worry about it, but the risk would grow as we pushed south. Elsie Honkala, the Peace Corps nurse, helped us.

The Peace Corp Offices, Rabat. 1971.

At some point, Washington decided to replace Peace Corps doctors in Morocco with nurses. The last Peace Corps doctor, Louden Kiracofe, was a good friend, and I missed him when he returned home.

Louden on Tichoukt. Morocco, 1969 or 1970.

The logic was that Peace Corps volunteers were mostly young and very healthy, and local doctors and the U.S. Naval base at Kenitra could handle emergencies. Elsie had served in the Navy, I think, and, in my first encounters with her, I found her demeanor gruff and military. As it turned out, that was a bit of a facade, and I will always remember her kindness in setting us up for the trip, with vaccinations and appropriate antimalarial drugs.

The Romans used milestones along their ancient roads, and the very name comes from the Latin word for one thousand, when the markers marked off a thousand paces. The French roads built in Morocco were in the same tradition and marked off distances. Our journey began here, the center of Sefrou.

With visas in hand and vaccinations in various other parts of the body, Anne and I prepared to set off in March of 1971. Sefrou was cold and wet at the time. Bouiblane lay hidden in the clouds, and the drizzle kept the medina streets muddy. I don’t remember if there had been some snow in town, but there was snow across higher elevations.

Sefrou in the winter. Snow is unusual and melts quickly, but the rain is cold.

There was certainly plenty of cold rain, and my house was clammy. March is often cold and damp in northern Morocco. I remember waiting in Sefrou for the rain to break, listening to records of Simon and Garfunkel and the greatest hits of Serge Reggiani, which Anne had brought back from her travels.

Rain was falling in Fes, too. Inside the Boujouloud Gate.

Our intention was to hitchhike, but hitching was relatively difficult in Morocco, and as it continued to pour rain, we began our trip by taking a bus from Fes to Oujda, on the eastern border of Morocco.

We entered Algeria through the Zoudj-El-Beghal crossing, and took the train to Tlemcen, where we stayed the night.

The train station at Zoudj-El-Beghal, Algeria, on the Algerian border with eastern Morocco
The train route to Tlemcen. Note the snow on the hills. Sunday, March 21, 1971.
Tlemcen is about the same altitude as Sefrou, about 2,700 feet. Cold weather brings snow there occasionally. These mountains, seen from the train to Tlemcen, had plenty of snow’

In Tlemcen, heavy snow had fallen and a visiting circus tent had collapsed when the main mast broke. We didn’t really sightsee there, though I would have liked to have explored the city. Tlemcen, the only Algerian city closely connected to Moroccan history, had substantial historical ruins.

Our practical goal, however, required getting out of the cold north and crossing the desert before the weather became too hot for comfort. We worried, uncertain about how long the desert crossing might take, so delay did not seem prudent. Anne had already seen her share of northern Algeria from travel in a VW bus just months earlier. Getting to West Africa was the main objective so we pushed on.

The center of Tlemcen.

The French had only left Algeria eight years earlier. Tlemcen, and everywhere else in Algeria looked French. There were the same bandstands in parks for summer concerts that you might see in France. Indeed, Algeria had been ruled for over a century as part of Metropolitan France. Street life, however, was not French. Most of the people on the streets were men, many in djellabas, and women were not prominent in public and many wore haïks.

The center of Tlemcen. The signs are still monolingual in French.

Algeria was my first exposure to harissa, a hot sauce used extensively in Algerian and Tunisian cooking, but less common in Morocco, where people eschewed hot pepper for a wide range of spices. I still miss Moroccan cooking as I write this.

As we planned to connect with the Algiers-Tamanrasset road, we needed to travel southeast. We continued by train to Sidi Bel Abbes, which had been the home of the French Foreign Legion until Algerian independence. In the 1920s, there was a story that the ladies temperance league of France had put up posters with a skull and crossbones and the message, “Alcohol kills,” on the walls of the Legionnaire barracks. On every one, the legionnaires had added: “But the Legionnaire does not fear Death!” The Legion is a legendary and romantic part of the Sahara for many people, but, in fact, legionnaires did little fighting there, and were often used in construction projects. The French Army in Africa itself conquered the Sahara, and, to do it, took initiatives that were not always popular among the politicians in Paris, and often even contrary to the army’s orders.

We did not really know our way around, and decided to continue by public transport to smaller towns where hitchhiking might be easier. We took a bus to Bou Hanifia and Hamamet, then hitched to Mascara, spending the night. The hotel there has twenty-foot high depictions of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, as well as other Disney characters. The next day we continued on through Frenda to Tiaret where we spent another night.

The Grand Hotel de l’Orient. Tiaret.

From Tiaret we traveled by bus to Ghardaïa, where we stretched our legs and took some photos. On March 24, we were in the desert at last, and the local architecture hinted at what we might see in West Africa.

Ghardaïa in foreground.

Located in an area named the M’Zab, Ghardaïa is one of five oasis towns inhabited by a refugee population of Ibadi Muslims, who follow a heretical sect and were forced to flee into the wilderness early in the history of Algeria. The French gave the Mzabis considerable autonomy when they ruled Algeria.

The cities of the M’Zab. The satellite photo shows green as red. RN1, the main north-south route is clearly visible. NASA.

A similar group of Ibadis live on the isle of Djerba, in Tunisia. By way of contrast, Morocco has been free of heresies for centuries, though many modern fundamentalist Muslims consider saint worship and superstitions heretical. I heard this more than once in Saudi Arabia, where Moroccans were also criticized for indulging in black magic and, somewhat ingenuously, speaking French better than Arabic, an unfair criticism, as many Saudis could surely be accused of speaking better English than Arabic! A Saudi newspaper editor in Jeddah said this to me in fluent and unaccented English. I wish I had been able to test his speaking knowledge of Modern Standard Arabic.

A closeup of the fives cities of the M’Zab. One can see the road north of Ghardaïa. The angle of the sun seems to reverse the relief. NASA.
The unique shape of the minaret echoes that of minarets that one sees in the Sahel, on the desert’s southern edge.

The M’Zabis were a group known in Algeria for their migration to the north, and M’Zabi men ran small grocery shops and other businesses, leaving their families at home in the M’Zab, much as did the Swassa, Moroccan Berbers from the Sous Valley in southwestern Morocco, and also the Djerbans, in Tunisia.

The market place, Ghardaïa.

The three groups are all known for their probity. When I lived briefly in a shared apartment in Sale in 1973, we left the apartment key at the shop of the Soussi around the corner, rather than invest in many sets of keys. In Sefrou, I did much of my daily shopping at the store of the late Miloud Soussi.

A classic guidebook view, the market place in Ghardaïa.
Another view of Ghardaïa’s main market.
UNESCO has designated the cities of the M’Zab a World Heritage Center.
Built on hills, Ghardaïa’s streets wind up and down.

From Ghardaïa we were able to get a shared taxi to El Golea, also known as El Menia. The shared taxi was a Peugeot station wagon, and the ride was comfortable as the road was paved.

The Peugeot taxi and passengers.
The paved road was flat and level.
A rest stop for driver and passengers, as well as a chance for the car to cool down.
The driver shows a lizard he has just caught to Anne. It looks like a skink. One of the passengers caught it at the stop. They joked about eating it, but I’m not sure if anyone did.

El Golea marked the end of the paved road, and we remained there for a week, waiting for a truck to take us farther. The wait gave us a bit of respite from travel, and a chance to explore the oasis.

On one side of town, a field of dunes was burying plantations of date palms. In this picture and the next, if you look closely, you may notice the wind blowing sand over the crest of the dunes.
Anne posing in the dunes at El Golea
A view from the crumbling ruins of an old fortified ksar.

The weather was warm and pleasant, and the stress of travel disappeared. A lemon tree bloomed in the courtyard of the hotel where we stayed.

The hotel in Ghardaïa.

The oasis was large, and had an important airport, but very little traffic at that time.

A number of Algerians befriended us and one Palestinian. One day the Algerians took us out to the airport, and a fellow who worked there inflated and launched a weather balloon just to amuse us. The younger people we met were mostly from the north, bored, and homesick.

Anne, a Palestinian, and an Algerian that we met.

One evening we were invited to a party, where the Algerian kids smoked marijuana in the paranoid way that young Americans did in those days. It was illegal of course. We ate lunch with them, too, during the day. At one lunch, we discussed the trip and talked about what West Africa must be like. There was a local fellow eating with us. He had a very dark skin, and the others kept looking at him to confirm their comments about West Africa. Somewhat frustrated, he finally interjected “ Wait a minute, I was born here in Algeria just like you guys.”

A street in El Golea.
A saint’s tomb on the edge of town.

With a lengthy stay, we had an opportunity to wander the oasis, and observe life there. The weather was mild, and walking was pleasant.

A view from the old fort, overlooking the oasis.
The fort. The oasis gardens were often enclosed by mud walls.
There were thousands of date palms, the life blood of the economy before oil and gas.
The wind filled this fellow’s garment.
On the outskirts, the dunes encroached on the settlement.

On April 2, after eight days in El Golea, when we were beginning to wonder when, if ever, we would proceed in our journey, a truck making the Algiers to Tamanrasset run agreed to take us. After a time the dusty road and the windy top of the truck proved too much for Anne and when the driver offered her a spot in the cabin, she wasted no time taking up the offer, leaving me alone. At the time I was angry, but, in retrospect, I really couldn’t blame her. The bumps, the cold, and the constant buffeting by the wind, ranged from uncomfortable to almost unbearable. I settled down, attempting to read La Chartreuse de Parme, but at some point the book flew out of my hands and was gone. I have tried to read this novel again several times, both in English and in French, but I have never finished it. I hope someone found it and read it. Today the novel is on my iPad, but

Just south of El Golea, a view of the RN1, the road to In Salah. ESA satellite image. The large dune field is east and south of El Golea.
Not far south of El Golea, the RN1 and the RN51 roads crossed, and this sign gave the traveler an idea where he was. Aïn Guezzam is near Algeria’s southern border with Niger. Timimoun is to the west in the Adrar district.

The first night we simply stopped on the Tademaït plateau, an absolutely flat, featureless, stony desertscape. The rock was dark and sharp, and reminded me of the highest mountain tops in the Atlas. We ate with the driver and his helper, and slept under the stars.

Featureless, with nothing but black, barren rock, and cold. Tadmaït.
Descending from the Tadmaït plateau. Our backpacks are visible on top of the truck.

We did not stop in In Salah, the next major oasis, where a sandstorm blew, but at a small roadside hut near Tadjmout, farther south.

The drivers must have stopped there regularly. They knew the owner and brought him sugar.

His name was Bou Baggara, as I recall. Perhaps he had a cow, though there wasn’t much grass around. Bou Baggara fancied himself a poet, and improvised for us. Since we had come from Morocco, one of his improvisations honored the Moroccan king, Hassan II. I don’t remember much from that night, other than the lamplight inside the small dwelling, the convivial conversation, and the cool desert air outside. We fell asleep in our sleeping bags under a bright star-filled sky.

The next day, these low mountains, rising from a sea of acacia, were a relief for the eyes.

We stopped shortly after this photo.
The tomb of Chérif Sidi Moulay Lahcene. The truck is parked. There was no one there but us.

Between Aïn Salah and Tamanrasset, there was the tomb of a saint, a marabout, Chérif Sidi Moulay Lahcene, a descendant of the Prophet, who died there while making his hadj to Mecca from the Touat.

The truck and the tomb.

The Touat is a large group of oases and ksour in western Algeria, to the west of our route. The route from Béchar passes through them. Ibn Battuta crossed through the region on his way to Timbuctoo in the 14th century, remarking that the people’s diet consisted of dates and locusts. So did Leo Africanus, a Muslim refugee from Granada in Spain, who ended up as a Christian slave in the Vatican, given the family name Medici by the pope. Leo Africanus was a major source of information for European geographers. Amin Malouf, a Lebanese author who writes in French has written a wonderful fictionalized biography, Leon L’Africain, which has been translated into English.

Graves beside the tomb. I think that the tomb has since been destroyed, as I was not able to find any modern pictures of it.

Though the Touat was conquered by a Moroccan sultan, the French occupied the region in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Moroccan control was only nominal, and annexed it to Algeria, then a part of France. Today the area is a major producer of natural gas.

Our driver and his mechanic. They were from the north.

Alongside the road, at the base of a huge group of rocks, lay the tomb. Those who traveled on the road customarily drove around it three times, and stopped to ask the saint for his blessing. Circling the tomb was thought to bring good luck, and we stopped there for a long break while our driver and his assistant prayed and rested.

Widely spaced acacia trees, in bloom, covered the plain at the base of the mountain, and I remember it as one of the prettiest spots in the desert. Today the paved road skirts the site, and a detour is necessary to visit it. The little marabout no longer seems to exist, and the spot is marked by piles of rock.

The trees were widely spaced…
…but in bloom, and a living contrast to the stone and sand.
From the mountain above Chérif Sidi Moulay Lahcene’s marabout. I would rest content buried with a view such as this.

Further along, we met some Touareg nomads beside the road, and the driver stopped to chat and drink tea with them.

The nomads’ camels grazed nearby.

I think it was the first time we saw anyone along the entire stretch from El Golea to Tamanrasset. Shortly after this stop, we crossed the Tropic of Cancer.

Tea with Touaregs. The fire was made from tufts of brush.

Once arrived in Tamanrasset, we said our goodbyes and began looking for our next ride.

Sunset over Tamanrasset.

The first evening there was a tremendous red sunset. Had we been stuck there for a while, perhaps we would have taken an excursion to the Hoggar mountains to the northeast and clearly close and visible.

The Hoggar was the center of Touareg resistance to the French. Charles de Foucauld, French nobleman and early explorer of Morocco turned ascetic hermit, made his retreat in the barren wilds of those mountains where he was assassinated in 1916. Once the region was firmly controlled by the French, tourists, pilgrims to the hermitage, admirers of the natural beauty, and rock climbers began to visit the Hoggar regularly. We heard that there was an American astronaut there while we visited, in spite of the travel restrictions, I guess. Tamanrasset was accessible by air to those whom could pay.

The mountains of the Hoggar are always in the distance in Tamanrasset.
I think there was a football match out there with the herds.
It is the Touareg men, not women, who veil themselves, contrary to the usual Muslim practice. Adjusting the veil up and down according to circumstances, can denote respect and deference. Noblemen show less of themselves than commoners. This fellow befriended us. Before the French subdued them, the Touareg controlled vast stretches of the Sahara, and the oases found there.
The Hoggar or Ahoggar massif in the distance.
Camel drivers coming or leaving town.
The Main Street of Tamanrasset in 1971.
The graves in the cemetery in Tamanrasset mirrored the mountains in the distance.

We did not wait long for a ride in Tamanrasset. After a day or so, the locals found us two Libyan truck drivers who were willing to take us to Agadez, on the southern edge of the desert, in Niger. We agreed to pay them the equivalent of about $20. The weather was hotter, and the road more a track, less distinct and flat and sandy in places. With the Libyans we both rode in the truck cabins. There wasn’t much scenery. We had to spend another night camped in the desert, this time in a flat, sandy and featureless plain. The Libyans, like the Algerians, shared their evening meal with us, but communication with them was more difficult because of their dialect.

Stopped for the night. Note the sandy soil.

The final segment of the voyage was very slow. The trucks stopped often to prevent overheating. The weather was hot and windy. When we stopped at one well, we eschewed our iodine tablets and drank the cool water immediately, taking our chances with an opportunity to quench our thirst.

From the cabin of the truck.

Having crossed the frontier into Niger, we finally reached Agadez around midnight. We had left Sefrou three weeks earlier to the day.

The minaret of the main mosque. Agadez.

End of part one. In part two, we struggle through the Sahel and cross tropical areas along the coast before returning by boat from Senegal.

L’exil et le royaume

Aujourd’hui Alain de Boton a écrit un éditorial pour le New York Times sur le coronavirus et sur le roman La peste d’Albert Camus. Je réfléchis à ce roman depuis belle lurette. L’autre jour, je conduisais la voiture de ma femme à la bibliothèque. Comme son modèle est plus récent que le mien et peut synchroniser avec mon cellulaire, j’écoute souvent la seule et unique playlist que j’ai sur mon iPhone. Cette collection de musique est énorme et extrêmement éclectique et quand je fais jouer des plages en ordre aléatoire, je suis souvent surpris par ce que j’entends. Ce jour-là la chanson était Wehrane Wehrane par Khaled dans laquelle, de France, il chante avec nostalgie sa patrie et sa ville natale, Oran. Le thème de la nostalgie pour sa patrie, en poésie et en chanson, est depuis toujours très courant partout dans le monde. La même playlist contient un très vieux disque de Wadih el-Safi et Fairus du festival de Baalbek, où elle chante les fleurs au printemps et son amour pour le Liban. Il s’y trouve même une interprétation de Un Canadien errant, un vieux poème canadien-français mis en musique sur l’exil qui a suivi les Rébellions de 1937-1838.

Autrefois les enfants français mémorisaient Heureux qui comme Ulysse de Joachim du Bellay, un poète de la Renaissance qui fait une comparaison entre sa maison rurale dans la vallée de la Loire et la grandeur de Rome, où il était en poste comme diplomate, et trouve que la magnificence de ce dernier est bien froid et étranger comparativement à son lieu de naissance. Moi aussi, je connais le poème par cœur, non pas parce que j’avais été obligé de le réciter, mais parce que j’avais appris à l’apprécier dès que je l’ai connu. C’était lors de ma deuxième année de français. Ces jours-là, la poésie française et le français en général étaient une lutte constante. En effet, c’était une lutte simplement de rester éveillé! La classe avait lieu vers 16 h 30 après le sport à interne et en général j’arrivais épuisé après avoir joué au foot. Le groupe de onze élèves s’assoyait avec le professeur Deveaux Delancey autour d’une grande table en chêne, pendant que le crépuscule tombait. Il n’y avait nulle part où se cacher. Une fois, je me suis endormi, pour ensuite me faire réveiller par le coude de M. Delancey, assis à côté de moi. Il m’avait gentiment sorti de ma somnolence. Comme de raison, j’étais gêné alors que lui et mes camarades de classe trouvaient tout cela bien amusant. Aujourd’hui je trouve surprenant que je sois tombé amoureux de la langue française après un début aussi cahoteux.

Oran m’a amené à penser à La Peste de Camus. Le coronavirus commençait rapidement à atteindre des proportions pandémiques, de sorte que réfléchir à un roman qui dépeint la vie de résidents en quarantaine n’a rien d’exceptionnel.

J’ai toujours aimé ce roman pour la manière dont les personnages de Camus regardent la vie alors qu’ils font face à la mort. Une année, j’ai choisi La peste pour le club de lecture de mon école secondaire, malgré ma peur que le roman serait trop aride et trop étranger pour intéresser qui que ce soit. Quand on est adolescent, y a-t-il quelque chose qui nous intéresse moins que celui de comment faire face à la mort? Du moins pour les adolescents américains, car c’est bel et bien ce à quoi les ados en Afghanistan, en Syrie, à Gaza et dans la plus grande partie du Sahel font face tous les jours de leur vie. Beaucoup ne connaissent rien d’autre.

Dans La peste, les habitants d’Oran sont prisonniers d’une quarantaine dans leur ville et doivent affronter la possibilité qu’ils attrapent la maladie et qu’ils meurent. Chaque protagoniste voit sa situation différemment. L’un d’eux, un médecin sans convictions religieuses, trouve que la vie est absurde, mais décide qu’il doit lutter contre la contagion jusqu’à risquer sa propre vie pour sauver les malades et ce simplement par solidarité humaine. Le docteur Rieux exemplifie le héros existentiel de Camus. Dans une autre œuvre, La pierre qui pousse, que j’ai lue à l’université, ce genre de héros paraît de nouveau. Cette nouvelle fait partie d’une collection, L’exil et le royaume.

Pour beaucoup de volontaires, leur service au sein du Corps de la Paix représentait un exil. D’âge universitaire, la plupart s’opposait à la guerre du Vietnam pour des raisons politiques ou morales, mais devaient faire face à la conscription à moins de pouvoir décrocher un sursis. À l’époque, tout dépendait du comité de sélection, un organisme civil composé de citoyens locaux. Les politiques des comités de sélection variaient beaucoup d’un lieu à l’autre. Si l’on avait des contacts politiques ou de l’argent, l’exemple contemporain parfait étant Donald Trump, on pouvait facilement obtenir de multiples sursis. Presque tous les comités de sélection accordaient des sursis aux volontaires, même si le sursis ne voulait pas dire que l’on éviterait la conscription à son retour. Pendant ma troisième année d’université, l’un des gars de ma résidence avait été informé par son comité de sélection texan qu’après ses deux années au Népal, il serait bientôt appelé parce que, maintenant qu’il avait connu la paix, il était temps qu’il se batte pour son pays.

De nombreux volontaires se sont joints au Corps de la Paix pour éviter la conscription, ou au moins, pour la retarder, même si ce n’était pas forcément leur seule motivation. Tous voulaient servir, mais ils ne voulaient pas participer à une guerre dont ils entretenaient de graves réserves. Nous nous demandions tous ce qui nous attendait à notre retour. L’un de mes copains et camarade de résidence, Bob Wood, est allé au nord-est de la Thaïlande, pour ensuite retourner faire un M.A. à Yale en études du Sud-est asiatique

Bob Wood. Bob a fait deux mandats dans le Corps de la Paix; malheureusement, il est décédé jeune. Son frère a aussi servi comme volontaire et s’est marié avec une Philippine. Photo prise à Dartmouth College.

La guerre fut un événement transformateur pour les Américains de l’époque. Les anciens combattants du Vietnam qui sont rentrés au pays dans une atmosphère de protestations, continuent de ressentir de l’amertume pour le manque de reconnaissance à l’égard de leur service et la plupart chérissent les souvenirs de la camaraderie qu’ils ont vécue en combat avec leurs compagnons d’armes.

Dans le but de favoriser l’équité, les États-Unis ont fini par établir une loterie de sélection militaire. La première loterie qui a eu lieu en 1969 visait les hommes nés entre 1944 et 1950, une cohorte dont je faisais partie. Ceux qui pigeaient un numéro entre 1 et 195 allaient être sélectionnés et comme j’avais pigé 333, c’était certain que je n’allais pas servir. Si j’avais été sélectionné, étant donné que je parlais français, on m’aurait probablement affecté aux services de renseignements militaires.

Ayant appris le français, j’avais compris l’expérience française en Indochine, et j’avais conclus que la guerre du Vietnam n’avait pas de sens. De nos jours, cette opinion est bien répandue et le fait que les politiciens et les dirigeants militaires nous mentaient continuellement sur la guerre est bien documenté. Je me souviens encore de l’incrédulité de Richard Holbrook quand les Pentagon Papers ont été publiés par le New York Times et le Washington Post. Ces documents contenaient des informations que lui ne voulait jamais partager.

La guerre a fauché la vie de très nombreux jeunes. J’ai essayé à plusieurs reprises de repérer leurs noms sur le Mémorial des anciens combattants du Viêtnam à Washington, et j’ai même calqué des noms au crayon sur papier. Pour beaucoup de survivants, la guerre a signifié l’amour perdu et des mariages brisés. Les parapluies de Cherbourg, un film français dont une nouvelle version restaurée vient de voir le jour, raconte une telle histoire, même si c’est la guerre d’Algérie, plutôt que celle du Vietnam, qui a déchiré les amants. De toute façon, pour la plupart des jeunes, la guerre du Vietnam représentait un hiatus.

Tout comme le coronavirus s’avérera un hiatus profondément perturbateur pour le monde contemporain. Et aujourd’hui, nous ne pouvons pas nous sauver au Maroc.

Auteur : David Brooks

Traduction : Jim Erickson


When I worked in the Ministry of Agriculture, the Province of Fes extended north into what geographers call the pre-Rif, and included an area that is now in Taounate Province. The Ouergha River, a major tributary of the Sebou, had a flood plain there.

This stretch of the Ouergha has become a reservoir.

In 1988, the Al-Wahda Dam, the second largest such project in Africa, flooded the river valley to create a huge reservoir. The dam has contributed significantly to flood control and irrigation, but it is silting up quickly, and the reduced sedimentation at the mouth of the Sebou has resulted in coastal erosion.

With climate change, these and other negative effects are likely to increase as Morocco grows warmer.

The countryside has been profoundly changed since I visited Amergu. From Google Maps.

Back when I was in my twenties, however, there was no dam, so there was no boasting of views of the lake behind it.

The fortress at Amergu. A rare surviving example of medieval military architecture in Morocco.

The land probably looked much as it did when the armies of the Almoravid Dynasty fought a losing battle against their equally fundamentalist successors, the Almohads, almost a millenium ago.

A reservoir now occupies the River valley.

Attempting to maintain their control over northern Morocco, the Almoravids built a small fortress near the present-day village of Amergu. Atop an elevated prominence that gave a view in all directions, the fort exerted control over the routes from Fes north to the coast.

A douar near Amergu in the late 1960s. The thatched roofs are typical of this region.

Amergu is close to the major shrine site of Moulay Bouchta, where an impressive moussem takes place each year. I attended it and plan a blog post about it in the near future.

Moulay Bouchta. From Google Maps.
High above the village looking southwest.

I’m not sure how I ended up visiting the old fortress. It wasn’t far off the main road, but it still required a short climb.

Tourists seldom visited it. The dependably thorough Hachette Guide Bleu listed Amergu as something to see, but it lay in an area that most tourists didn’t pass through, let alone visit. Some locals told me that the citadel was Portuguese, but I knew even then that the Portuguese had never held towns or forts anywhere but on the coast, so Amergu was certainly not Portuguese.

The fortress from an aerial view. From Google Maps.

I think that I must have been alone, on some business to the Taounate area. I parked my Jeep, and climbed a rough path to the ruins. Today, in retrospect, I think of that fort as what the French call les citadelles du vertige, Cathar and later French fortresses perched on impossibly steep and almost inaccessible craigs in the Pyrenees. The Occitans and the French built theirs as refuges or for border wars.

In that autumn of 1970, in the dying light of late afternoon, I wondered who had manned these ruins and why it was so important to build a castle so high. Other than city walls and gates, Morocco has few examples of medieval military architecture so Amergu is unique, and in its loneliness it was special for me.

High above the Ouergha shadows are falling. The Rif looms to the northeast.

My view was of patchwork farms and endless hills. To the north, the Rif mountains were half hidden by haze and clouds. The autumn weather was still mild. I wasn’t cold, despite a wind, but there was a stillness that was perceptible. Who were the long gone Almoravids? Who were the men who manned this eagle’s nest? What was their world? Had I been able, I would have stayed late, to watch the sun set and darkness fall over the scene, where the darkness of centuries had already fallen.

I descended to my Jeep. A long drive back home to Fes and Sefrou was still before me

The exile and the kingdom

Today Alain de Boton wrote a guest editorial for the New York Times about the coronavirus and the Camus novel, The Plague. I have been thinking about the book for a long time. The other day I was driving my wife’s car to the library. Her car is newer than my own, and can sync with my iPhone, so when I drive it, I often listen to the one and only very large playlist on my iPhone. The collection of music is extremely eclectic. When I play random tracks, I am often surprised by what I hear. On the day in question, the song was Wehrane Wehrane by Khaled. In it he sings from France nostalgically of his homeland and the city of his birth, Oran. This theme of nostalgia for one’s homeland, in poetry and song, has always been a common one around the world. That same playlist has a very old recording by Wadih el-Safi and Fairus at the Baalbek Festival, where she sing about flowers in the spring and her love for Lebanon. There is even a recording of Un Canadien Errant, an old French Canadian poem about exile after the Rebellions of 1837-1838, set to music.

French kids used to memorize Heureux qui comme Ulysse by Joachim du Bellay, a Renaissance poet who compares his rural home in the Loire Valley with the grandeur of Rome , where he was stationed as a diplomat, and finds the magnificence of the latter cold and foreign compared to his birth place. I, too, know the poem by heart now, not because I was forced to recite it, but because I came to appreciate it years after I first encountered it. That was in my second-year French class. In those days, I struggled with French poetry, and French in general. Indeed, I often struggled just to keep awake! The class took place around four-thirty in the afternoon, after intramural sports, and I was generally exhausted after playing soccer. The class of eleven students all sat around a huge oak table with the teacher, Deveaux Delancey, while twilight fell. There was no place to hide. On one occasion I fell asleep, to be awakened by the elbow of Mr. Delancey, who was seated next to me. He kindly nudged me back to consciousness. I was embarrassed, of course, and he and my classmates were amused. Today I find it surprising that I fell in love with the French language after such a rough start.

Oran got me thinking about The Plague by Camus. The coronavirus was quickly reaching pandemic proportions, so reflecting on a novel that depicts the lives of residents who are quarantined is nothing out of the ordinary.

I have always loved the novel for the various ways in which Camus’ characters look at life while facing death. I chose The Plague one year for my high school book club, despite my fear that it was too dry and foreign to have interested anyone. When you are an adolescent, is there anything farther from your mind than how to face death? At least, for an American teenager, since this is what teens in Afghanistan, Syria, Gaza, and most of the Sahel routinely face every day of their lives. Many know nothing else.

In The Plague, the inhabitants of Oran are trapped in their city by a quarantine, and must face the possibility that they will contract the disease and die. Each protagonist sees his situation differently. One of them, a doctor without religious belief, finds life absurd, but decides that he must struggle against the contagion, risking his life to save the sick out of plain and simple solidarity with humanity. He typifies Camus’ existential hero. In another work, La pierre qui pousse, which I read in college, the type appears again. That short story is part of a collection, L’exil et le royaume.

For many Peace Corps volunteers, service was exile. Of college age, most opposed the Vietnam war on political and moral grounds, but faced military service there unless they could defer it. In that era, everything depended on one’s draft board, an organization of prominent local citizens. The policies of draft boards varied enormously from place to place. If you had political connections or money, the perfect contemporary example being Donald Trump, multiple deferments were easy to come by. Almost all draft boards granted deferments to volunteers, though the deferment did not mean one would escape conscription upon return. During my junior year in college, one of the fellows in my dorm was told by his Texas draft board that after two years in Nepal, he would soon be drafted, since now that he had seen peace, now he ought to fight a war for his country.

Many volunteers joined the Peace Corps hoping to escape conscription, or at the least, to delay it. This wasn’t necessarily their only motive. Everyone wanted to be of service. They simply didn’t want to fight in a war about which they had serious qualms. All of us wondered what would happen when we returned. One of my buddies, Bob Wood, another dorm mate, went to northeast Thailand, then returned to graduate school at Yale to graduate with an M.A. in South East Asia Studies.

Bob Wood. Bob did two stints in the Peace Corps, but sadly passed away while still young. His brother was also in the Peace Corps, and married a Filipino girl. At Dartmouth College.

The war was a transformative event for Americans of the time. Vietnam veterans, who returned home to protests, are still bitter about their perceived lack of recognition for their service, and most cherish memories of camaraderie with fellow soldiers under battle.

The U.S. eventually established a draft lottery to promote fairness. The first lottery, which took place in 1969, was for men born between 1944 and 1950, a group that included me. The highest number that would be selected was 195. I drew 333, and I could be assured that I would not serve. Had I been drafted, because I spoke French, I probably would have been made to serve in military intelligence.

Having learned French, I had understood the French experience in Indochina, and I had concluded that the war made no sense. Today that opinion is widespread, and the knowledge that American politicians and the military lied continually about the war is well documented. I still remember Dick Holbrook’s incredulity when the Pentagon Papers were published by the New York Times. They contained information he never wanted to share.

The war killed many young men. I have looked for their names on the Vietnam memorial in Washington several times and even taken pencil etchings on paper. For many of the survivors, the war meant lost love and broken marriages. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a French film just being reissued in a restored version, told such a story, though the war in Algeria, not Vietnam, was the event that ripped the lovers apart. For most young men, in any case, the Vietnam war meant a hiatus.

Just as the coronavirus will be a deeply disruptive hiatus to a world of people today. And today there is no escape to Morocco.

From making hay while the sun shines to making rope to make ends meet

The old expression “making hay” has several related meanings in English, but I chose it because I am getting old. The sun will continue to shine, but I won’t see it from six feet underground, where I expect to be before very long. My good friend and editor thinks that I am being lugubrious, but I think I am simply speaking realistically about the passage of time. We all measure time in the same ways by convention and for our utility, but we probably all measure it a bit differently, too. These days, however, I empathize with Marvell, whom I first read at the age of 15 in Mr. Molloy’s English class:

But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.

At the moment, I am trying to weed my personal library, and I am confronted by the obvious, namely that I cannot possibly read all the books that I have collected over the years. I should be thinking about making hay.

In Morocco, at least in the Morocco that I knew, farmers did not make hay to the extent that farmers did in America. Only the large, flatland farms could produce hay in any quantity.

On the Saïs plain outside Fes, the parcels are large enough for profitable mechanization. The last of the season’s snows still lingers on Bouiblane in May.
Bales being loaded for transport.

Elsewhere, winter seldom kept the flocks out of the fields except at the highest elevations, so silage wasn’t common, nor hay. A small farmer, if he had livestock, let the animals graze the stubble of his field and their verges. Land was used more intensively in some areas and more broadly in others. There were no hedgerows as are common in England and France, and traditional transhumance spread flocks across huge areas from the Moulouya River valley to the sheltered valleys below the northern slopes of the Middle Atlas plateaus. Military power and enclosure had broken the power of the great tribes of the Middle Atlas long before I set foot there, but the uplands were still used for summer pasturage.

Moroccan rural houses sometimes were enclosed by prickly pear cactus and agaves, American imports from the Colombian exchange, or a farmer’s stock pens by thorny bushes, but the countryside tended to be open.

An impressive growth of prickly pear around a Middle Atlas douar. In the summer, rural folks would sometimes market the fruit along the road. The taste was sweet, but a bit bland. Farmers could also feed the leaves to their livestock,

From the top of a little prominence known as Jbel Binna, just outside Sefrou, looking toward Imouzzer du Kandar, across the undulating Karst topography of the plateaus. The patchwork of small holdings is clear in this early spring photo.

Of course, what is covering the fields after the grain harvest is not hay but straw. I don’t remember seeing much baled straw, except where agriculture had been mechanized.

Harvesting wheat southeast of Sefrou.

Farmers did collect some of it, and I bought it to put in the cats’ litter box on the roof terrace, but I don’t recall straw being used to stuff anything. Those who were able to, bought wool which was warmer, softer, and a way to store wealth.

The wool section of the suq in Sefrou. This weekly market was held every Thursday.

If one were poor, or were a short-term resident as I was, halfa (esparto grass), a local grass, made more sense than expensive wool.

Halfa (Stipa tenissima) in the Moulouya basin.

In a previous post, reflecting on some thoughtless decisions, I mentioned that I arrived in Torla, a Spanish village high in the Pyrenees, intending to climb through a 9,000 foot pass on the Spanish-French border and down into the village of Gavarnie in France. On the way to Torla, I had been sick and stayed a day in bed in Madrid.

Perhaps not quite in the right mind, I left my hiking boots in the hotel room at the old Hotel Atocha when I left for the north. Getting replacements would prove difficult, to which I could probably add that with long, extremely narrow feet, buying boots anywhere was not easy, and continues to be a problem for me to this day. There was no sporting goods store in Torla, which in those days was a place so small that there were hardly any stores at all, so I hitched down to Broto in the valley below.

Broto, just south of Torla.

There were no hiking boots in Broto either, so I decided to see if I could break in a cheap pair of ski boots. As any normal person would have realized, and I had skied at college so I had good reason to know better, ski boots, no matter what you do to them, will not make good walking boots since the soles of ski boots have no flexibility. After a day, I had big blisters on each heel and was hobbling about. So back down the valley again where I bought a cheap pair of Spanish canvas shoes. These had woven rope for insoles, and were vulcanized on the outside. The canvas was dark brown, and the shoes looked much like American basketball sneakers which in those days were plain and simple.

Trying out my new rope-soled canvas shoes, and trying to heal my blisters. In the canyon of the national park of Ordesa. Today it is a World Heritage Site. Photo: Gaylord Barr.
The canvas shoes.

The rope soles of my canvas shoes were probably jute, an imported fiber, but Spain has a long history of rope-soled shoes and sandals. Indeed, a history that goes back into prehistory. Called espadrilles in French, the style has been fashionable, and still is, but for ordinary Spaniards in modern times, the rope-soled shoes, called alpargatas and esparteñas in Spanish, have traditionally been the footwear of country folk. Interestingly, the French word espadrille comes from Occitan, the old language of southern France, via the Catalan word espardenya, which itself comes from a word for esparto grass. So says Wikipedia. Today, the name esparto actually refers to two different grasses that grow natively in the western Mediterranean.

Despite exceptionally heavy winter snows, I made it through to Gavarnie. My canvas shoes were soaked, my feet were cold, and I had had some worries about slipping on the steep snow slopes, but once safe and sound in a warm French hotel, I slept well and the shoes were dry the following morning, and ready to carry me back to Morocco.

Leaving the Goriz hut on the way to Gavarnie. Photo: Gaylord Barr.
The shoes got wetter as the snows got deeper. We should have had ice axes for this trip, but didn’t anticipate the snow pack.

And, incidentally, the Hotel Atocha saved my old boots, and I was able to recover them on my way home to Morocco. The Atocha was threadbare and worn. Located opposite the Atocha railroad station, where trains arrived from the south, the hotel was inexpensive and popular with travelers on a budget.

In Morocco, esparto grass is called halfa. The scientific name is Stipa tenissima. This tough grass covers vast areas of Morocco in the Middle and Upper Moulouya River basins. It grows in widely spaced clumps, and is harvested for use as a stuffing for bedding and cushions, for basket making, and for floor mats.

Halfa grows in widely spaced clumps.
A mat woven from halfa.

In some places, people make paper from esparto grass, a versatile material, indeed.

In my home, the mattresses and the cushions for the banquettes were stuffed with halfa, and there was a halfa mat.

The mattresses on the banquettes were stuffed with halfa. They were hard, but people seldom slept on them. This was Gaylord Barr’s room in the front of the house. The windows looked out on the street below. Meals were often around the reed table. More on reed furniture in another post.
The other side of the room, pictured above, is where Gaylord had his bed. My room on the other side of the house had no exterior windows. Note the picture of JFK on the wall and the hanging bota, a souvenir from northern Spain. Volunteers in big cities usually lived in newer, more European style buildings. My house for example did not have a kitchen, and the room that served as a kitchen did not have water. We made it work perfectly, mostly with Khadija’s hard work.

Well-off Moroccans might have had wool in their cushions, and rugs instead of mats. As a stuffing for cushions, the dried grass was hard. My banquettes were not normally used for sleeping, so it didn’t matter much, though in a truly Moroccan home, rooms were multifunctional and people often slept on the banquettes that they sat on during the day, so wool made a better mattress, by far. Wool was soft and warmer to sleep on. The halfa had a fragrance, that of dried grass, that might be better described as an odor, but I was okay with it.

In the spring of 1970, Gaylord Barr and Mark Miller had gone off to Ain Kerma just south of Oujda to visit Ali Azeriah’s father. Ali was a student at the Lycée Sidi Lahcen El-Youssi, where Gaylord Barr taught, and he invited Gaylord to visit for the spring break. Mark, another Peace Corps volunteer, working in fisheries in Casablanca, had had some serious health problems, and wanted a break from big city life.

I joined up with Louden Kiracofe and Don Brown for yet another climb up Jbel Ayachi. Louden and I had climbed it the previous summer, but were disappointed to have chosen the lower of the two peaks and, late in the day, we were too tired to climb across the crest to the other peak. We still wanted to stand on the highest summit, and thought that everything would be more scenic with snow, and perhaps easier climbing too, and we convinced an administrator, Don Brown to come along.

Either on the way to Jbel Ayachi in the spring of 1970, or on the way back, we noticed some rope makers, probably near Missour, and we took some photos of the process. As synthetics and plastics have today replaced fiber ropes, the little factory is a reminder of a traditional and sustainable industry.

Halfa grows on drier soils as clumps, and is common in the Middle and Upper Moulouya River valley.
Here the grass has been burned at the ground level. I assume this was part of the harvesting, but maybe there is another reason. Can a reader answer this question?
The grass is collected in bundles where it will be spun into rope.
The initial strands are then intertwined to make a useful rope.
The post holds the strands in place.
Setting up the final braiding.
Preparing to twist the strands.
The twisted strands at the post where they are tied off.
Finally the braided strands are cut off and tied at the ends.

Today, halfa still probably covers the upper Moulouya, which lies in the rain shadow of the Middle Atlas. The soils there, as well as the dry climate, make arable land a scarce commodity, except where irrigation is possible. Increasingly warm temperatures, however, may pose a threat to the existing ecosystem, as well as an even greater threat to agricultural lands of that region.

At 75 years of age, I still remember the expansive plains of grass, and the poor fellows who earned a little money making rope. I didn’t ask where the rope makers were from. They may have come from the Marmoucha area to the north, or from Aït Ayash to the south.

Incidentally, in Sefrou, I was often told that the finest woolen jellabas came from Imouzzer des Marmoucha, though I had also heard that the region of Khenifra was another source of fine jellabas. Most of the cloth was woven into geometric patterns of black and white, which I always admired. My own jellaba, which I always wore in Sefrou when it rained or was very cold, was a nondescript brown. I loved it just the same!

My jellaba wasn’t very fine and it was heavy, especially when soaked with rain, but it was always warm. People sometimes used the hoods to carry items. I was 22 years old in this picture.

Femmes rurales

En ce moment, je lis un livre, dans lequel l’auteur retrace les voyages d’Alexander Mackenzie, un Écossais qui a émigré en Amérique au 18e siècle où il a fait fortune au Canada dans le commerce des fourrures. Aujourd’hui le grand fleuve qui coule à travers le nord-ouest canadien avant de se jeter dans l’océan Arctique porte son nom. Mackenzie l’avait découvert lors de sa recherche du passage du Nord-Ouest. Tout comme d’autres explorateurs avant lui, à sa grande déception il avait appris que le passage du Nord-Ouest n’existait pas. Paradoxalement, cette route plus rapide et si ardemment recherchée vers l’Orient deviendra bientôt réalité grâce au réchauffement de l’Arctique.

Les premiers explorateurs de la région comptaient sur les Amérindiens pour leur connaissance du terrain ainsi que pour leur savoir-faire pratique. Les déplacements en hiver où les températures pouvaient atteindre les 50 degrés sous zéro exigeaient des habiletés que peu d’Européens possédaient.

Le livre raconte l’histoire d’un autochtone, Matonabbee, qui est tombé sur un Anglais affamé, Samuel Hearne, dont il a sauvé la vie. L’auteur, Brian Castner, décrit les rapports et relate une conversation entre les deux protagonistes :

Matonabbee a pris Hearne en pitié. Il a habillé l’Anglais d’un manteau de peaux de loutre pour ensuite lui montrer une rivière où poussaient de petits arbres qui permettraient au groupe de se fabriquer des raquettes et des traîneaux. Hearne n’avait plus de munitions de carabine et, ayant désespérément besoin d’abattre du gibier, il a coupé un ciseau à glace en morceaux carrés pour créer des semblants de balles rudimentaires. Cependant, les chasseurs de Matonabbee les ont nourris sans problème pendant tout le trajet de leur retour au Prince of Wales Fort.

En cours de chemin, Matonabbee a demandé : « Allez-vous tenter un autre voyage pour découvrir les mines de cuivre? » Hearne a répondu que oui, sur quoi Matonabbee s’est porte volontaire comme guide, mais à certaines conditions. D’abord, il fallait payer un certain prix fixé par le gouverneur du fort. Et deuxièmement, que les femmes de Matonabbee les accompagnent. C’était là la condition la plus importante, car, selon Matonabbee, c’est le manque de femmes qui avait voué l’expédition de Hearne à l’échec. « Quand tous les hommes sont lourdement chargés, de dire le Chipewyan, ils ne peuvent ni chasser ni faire de grandes distances; et si par hasard leur chasse est couronnée de succès, qui va porter le produit de leurs efforts? Les femmes sont faites pour de telles corvées. Une femme peut transporter ou tirer autant que deux hommes. »

Ce passage me rappelle les énormes fardeaux que les femmes rurales portaient au Maroc. Arrivées à la vieillesse, beaucoup avaient le dos courbé de façon permanente. La vie n’a jamais été facile pour les paysans pauvres et leurs familles, et les hommes comme les femmes s’épuisaient à subvenir aux besoins de leurs familles. Les sécheresses étaient fréquentes, le temps souvent trop chaud ou trop froid et les récoltes imprévisibles. Exploités par les commerçants des villages, maltraités par les autorités, n’ayant pas accès à des soins de santé adéquats, les paysans les plus pauvres subsistaient de peine et de misère avec un stoïcisme qui m’étonnait. J’étais en admiration devant leur courage indomptable.

Récolte de fourrage dans le pré-Rif.
Près de Moulay Idriss
Près de Moulay Idris, je crois.
Jeunes filles, près de Risani. 1971 Photo de Leona Erickson.

Ce livre, Disappointment River, raconte l’histoire de la tentative de l’auteur de refaire le voyage de Mackenzie à travers les Grands Lacs et le nord-ouest canadien ainsi que son voyage le long du fleuve Mackenzie jusqu’à l’océan Arctique. Je vous le recommande en tant que très bon récit d’aventure et comme histoire du commerce des fourrures au Canada.

Copyright 2018 by Brian Costner
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Anchor
a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. Originally published
in hardcover in the United States by Doubleday, a division
Penguin Random House LLC, New York, in 2018.

Auteur : David Brooks

Traduction : Jim Erickson