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

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 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.

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.

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. Toward the north are people from the Marmoucha area, toward the south, Aït Ayash. Incidentally, in Sefrou, I was often told that the finest woolen jellabas came from Imouzzer des Marmoucha, though I also heard that the region of Khenifra was another area for 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

L’oued Sebou, « magnificus et navigabilis »

Sans être le plus long des cours d’eau marocains, l’oued Sebou en charrie tout de même le plus important volume d’eau. Amenant des eaux vitales à l’agriculture irriguée de la plaine du Gharb, l’une des régions agricoles les plus riches du Maroc, le Sebou se jette dans l’Atlantique à Kénitra. Étant le seul fleuve navigable du Maroc, Kénitra constitue le seul port naturel du pays. Ce manque de cours d’eau navigables et de ports atlantiques sûrs constitue sans doute un facteur majeur dans la préservation de l’indépendance de la région dès l’Antiquité jusqu’au 20e siècle.

Le Sebou au port de Kénitra. Durant l’invasion alliée de l’Afrique du Nord, il était le site d’une escarmouche entre des G.I. américains et des soldats français de Vichy.

Le Sebou prend sa source dans les hauts plateaux basaltiques du Moyen Atlas, plateaux parsemés de cônes volcaniques récents.

Le cratère à Michliffen.
Sur la route royale, Tareq es-sultan. Jbel Tichoukt à l’arrière plan.

Dans son cours supérieur près des villages de Timhadite et Guigou, le Sebou porte pertinemment un nom berbère, Asif n Guigou. Il coule vers le sud-est à partir du bassin fluvial de la Moulouya.

Pays calcaire où les rivières s’alimentent des rivières souterraines.
Les villages du Moyen Atlas se trouvent souvent dans des positions protégées aux bords des plateaux.

Dans sa descente à travers des plateaux calcaires, le fleuve s’alimente de sources artésiennes et acquiert, chemin faisant, un nom arabe, oued Sebou, même si l’on croit que l’étymologie du nom arabe est également d’origine berbère. L’écrivain romain Pline l’Ancien, auteur de L’histoire naturelle, en fait mention en le nommant Sebubus, ce qui montre que le nom est effectivement très ancien. Pline l’Ancien était général. Il avait une bibliothèque immense et même s’il n’a jamais visité le Maroc, qui à l’époque faisait partie de l’Empire romain sous le nom de Mauretania Tingitana, il en parle dans ses écrits. Pline a connu une mort tragique en essayant de sauver des amis lors de l’éruption de Vésuve en 79 av. J.-C. Son neveu, Pline le Jeune, était un témoin direct de l’éruption et a décrit la manière dramatique dont sa famille a échappé à la catastrophe.

Des tributaires du Sebou passent par des gorges comme celle-ci à Skoura.

Dans son cours sinueux à travers les montagnes du Moyen Atlas, le Sebou creuse de très profondes gorges. Ici on voit le fleuve sur le point de quitter les montagnes avant sa descente à la plaine du Saïs près de la ville de Fès.

Les gorges un peu au-delà du pont, là où le fleuve quitte sa gorge.

Peu après, il se gonfle des eaux d’autres rivières provenant du Rif avant de serpenter à travers les terres cultivées du Gharb et de déboucher dans l’océan Atlantique.

L’Ouergha, un tributaire majeur, dans le pré-Rif.
Un soir au printemps.

Mon experience du Sebou provient de sa proximité de Sefrou. Sur la route menant à El Menzel, un pont enjambe le fleuve là où il émerge d’une gorge profonde.

Les gorges profondes commencent non loin du pont, en aval dans cette photo.
La route et le pont entre El Menzel et Sefrou.

À cet endroit les eaux du Sebou étaient claires, surtout en été où une source artésienne, l’Ain Sebou, dilue ses eaux boueuses.

En se rendant à El Menzel ou à Ahermoumou, d’où on a une vue superbe du Jbel Bouiblane, on ne saurait manquer de voir le fleuve.

Vue à partir du belvédère à Ahermoumou, lorsque la neige hivernale couvre le Bouiblane.
Baignade rafraîchissante en plein été.

Dans les gorges on pouvait faire de la randonnée et en été les eaux du fleuve étaient suffisamment claires et fraîches pour faire une baignade rafraîchissante.

Prenant une rafraîchissante gorgée d’eau dans la source Aïn Sebou.

L’aïn Sebou, aïn qui signifie source en arabe, impressionnait par ses eaux claires et froides jaillissant dans un bassin pour ensuite déborder immédiatement dans les eaux boueuses de la rivière adjacente. Je ne me suis jamais baigné dans la source, mais j’ai regardé d’autres le faire. Après coup, je regrette l’occasion manquée; une autre de ces choses qu’on aurait voulu tenter sans jamais arriver à le faire.

Le contraste entre l’eau de la source et celle du fleuve est frappant. L’eau tombe d’une petite saillie avant de se mêler aux eaux du fleuve. En été, la rivière finit par devenir claire. Photo prise par Gaylord Barr.
Après les pluies hivernales, les eaux du fleuve deviennent claires. En été, on aperçoit des lauriers-roses en fleurs le long des berges.

Après les pluies hivernales, les eaux du fleuve deviennent claires. En été, on aperçoit des lauriers-roses en fleurs le long des berges.

En quittant le Moyen Atlas, le fleuve serpente en direction de Fès.

Près de Fès, cependant, les inondations du Sebou représentent un problème important, aggravées plus tard par de grands débordements printaniers occasionnées par la pluie et la fonte des neiges dans le Rif.

Le pont qui traverse le Sebou près de Fès pendant une inondation hivernale.
Le gonflement des tributaires du fleuve dans son cours inférieur, fait souffrir les plaines plates du Gharb.
Un navire de Sète en France qui pompait du vin marocain en vrac à Kénitra. En France, ce vin était mélangé avec des vins français.

Ce n’est que près de son embouchure sur l’Atlantique que le Sebou devient calme et placide, un point d’ancrage sûr pour les navires de haute mer.

De nos jours, le Sebou souffre de la pollution. Les écoulements des champs agricoles et le manque d’infrastructures de traitement des déchets dans un pays à forte croissance démographique font que la qualité de l’eau est une préoccupation majeure pour les Marocains. Les variations de débit entre l’été et les mois hivernaux ainsi que l’augmentation du nombre de diversions le long du fleuve ne font qu’aggraver le problème de qualité d’eau auquel le gouvernement marocain fait face le long du Sebou et d’autres cours d’eau du pays.

Loin dans le temps et dans l’espace, j’ai le souvenir d’un fleuve différent qui se déversait des collines et dont les eaux claires et pures coulaient parmi les lauriers-roses en fleurs.

Auteur: David Brooks

Traduction: Jim Erickson