Here in America, Netflix has just premiered a Spanish series, Love in Times of War, which takes place in Morocco in the nineteen twenties, during the Rif uprising by Abdelkrim. Filmed in Morocco, much of the series is situated in the Spanish enclave of Melilla.
Not well known outside of Morocco, except in Spain, the Rif rebellion was an unmitigated military disaster for the Spanish, and an episode of Moroccan history that showcases Berber resistance in the North, never a popular subject with the Makhzen, the Moroccan government. The Rif remains a region where the government is unpopular and its rule is heavy-handed.
The Rif War was marked with corruption and incompetence, and fought with conscripts so poor they sometimes sold their weapons for food and clothing. Against common sense, the Spanish set up a series of forts extending west from Melilla, through the dry hills and rugged mountains of the Rif. Many were located in spots without permanent water sources. In the hot summer of 1921, the Riffians, after warning the Spanish not to advance deeper into their territory, struck simultaneously along the line and cut off each fort from resupply. The rout in the battle of Annual is immortalized in the Spanish novel by Arturo Barea, The Track (La Ruta), part of his larger work, The Forging of a Rebel. Over 13,000 Spanish soldiers died, and for a long time afterwards the Spanish army was confined to Melilla. Barea sought asylum in Britain after the civil war, and his wife and friends helped him translate his autobiographical novel into English. An interesting footnote to this story, Barea lost the Spanish copy after the translation. The Spanish version of his book, La forja de un rebelle, is a translation of its English translation.
In only two battles of the war, the Spanish suffered casualties of roughly 30,000 men. The next disaster was Chauen.
In the retreat from Chauen in 1924, with the weather turning bad and fear that the army would be trapped in the mountains without supplies for the winter, the Spanish attempted withdraw to Tetuan through narrow mountain valleys with poor roads.
The weather was rainy and the road turned into mud. The Riffians waited until the Spanish column was strung out, then attacked along its whole length.
It was a slaughter for the Spanish and a major victory for Abdelkrim. Franco was an officer involved in the debacle. Indeed, Spanish Morocco might be seen as the incubator for the Spanish Civil War.
Abdelkrim’s succes was also his downfall. The French, deciding that he had become a threat to their interests, intervened massively, put down the rebellion, and sent Abdelkrim into exile.
My first encounter with the Rif was early in my Peace Corps service. My job often took me to the pre-Rif as Fes Province extended north.
By the winter of 1968, I was sharing a house in the Sefrou medina (old city) with another volunteer, Gaylord Barr. He had decided that he needed a 35 mm SLR. He had brought over an 8 mm movie camera from home, but found it insufficient. I had been taking color slides, and he wanted to do the same. We decided to hitchhike to Ceuta from Fes. Ceuta was a free port: no taxes. The route was straightforward, north of Fes, along the western edge of the Rif Mountains. It went through the hilly country of the pre-Rif, where I occasionally worked, and by Chauen to Tetuan.
We did it in one harrowing ride. It really was a dark and stormy night. There were rockfalls along the route from the recent earthquake and all the usual mudslides from the winter rains, and the driver had been drinking!
The ride was scary, but we arrived safely in Tetuan and Gaylord got his new camera in Ceuta. Sadly, it got lost on the train crossing Algeria in 1971. Gaylord was a good photographer, but most of his Moroccan slides seem to have been lost.
If you decide to watch Love in Times of War, perhaps you may reflect on the drama playing outside of Melilla today. NPR just feature the story of an African migrant trying to get past the fences and barriers, hoping for refugee status.
In the This American Life program, look for this reportage:
There are two tiny Spanish towns on the African continent protected by multiple layers of razor wire, cameras and guards. A man from Cameroon tells producer David Kestenbaum about his attempt to get through the obstacle course and onto European soil. (19 minutes)
Morocco might be called an outlier. Until modern times, it has always been a place on the marches. It has always existed on the edge of large empires, but it was never part of them. Arabic historians traditionally referred to Morocco as the place of the Farthest Sunset (المغرب الأقصى), where the sun set in the Atlantic, an immense, unknown ocean.
The Phoenicians set up trading posts in Morocco. They were more traders than colonists or empire builders, though in Carthage, in the middle of the Mediterranean, they produced an empire that rivaled and threatened Rome.
The Romans had client states in the north of Morocco, where Rome eventually took full control during the Empire, but it left most of Atlantic Morocco untouched. The Byzantines had only nominal control, and the Ottomans never got past Algeria.
Some Moroccan dynasties reached across North Africa and into Spain, but none were long lived. The Mediterranean world was focused on the basin of its sea, and had its own dynamics. Morocco had an inhospitable Mediterranean coast with mountains crowding the shore. Most of the country, and its richest agricultural lands, faced the Atlantic. Morocco was barely part of the Mediterranean, the world of the “sea between the lands.” Mare Nostrum, our sea, the Romans called it, because it indeed was theirs at the height of Rome’s power.
The natural continuation of Morocco is Spain, not the Sahara or the rest of Africa. Only 15 kilometers wide, the Strait of Gibraltar can be crossed in one-half hour by car ferry. The Strait of Gibraltar posed few difficulties for the Vandals, who invaded Morocco in Byzantine times or for the Arabs and Berbers who invaded the Iberian peninsula a bit later. Today it poses few problems for migrants swarming into Europe.
After the Spanish Reconquista, the Strait took on a new role as a moat, protecting from invasions, much like the English Channel protected England. It separated Christian Europe from Muslim Africa. The Spanish and Portuguese tried to establish toeholds on the African continent, but ultimately were repulsed except at Ceuta and Melilla.
Barbary pirates harassed European ships, but technology favored the Europeans. Now technology enables migrants, desperate for work and a better life, to cross cheaply and relatively easily into Europe.
As European sea power grew, the Mediterranean Sea became even more inhospitable. Morocco’s connections to the east were more and more by land, and there were no longer roads as in Roman times, but only horse and camel tracks until the advent of steam ships and cheap air travel put the Hajj within the reach of those with better means.
Trade continued via new routes. The British brought tea, and Queen Anne style teapots. But despite trade connections, Morocco became more and more landlocked until the twentieth century, when the French seized control and established a protectorate, a system under which the Moroccan sultan was relegated to a ceremonial role, while the French ran the colonial government as their own interests dictated. With independence and modern technology, the isolation is broken forever, for better and for worse.
When I lived in Morocco, I always thought of it as a backwater, and I suspect many Moroccans, proud as they were of their country, may have felt some inferiority. Important events in the Arab world took place in the east. Important history in Maghreb had taken place in Al-Andalus. The greatest monuments of western Islamic Art are in Al-Andalus.
None of this is said to disparage Morocco, which is a place I love dearly, but simply a recognition that Morocco is an outlier, and has been for a very long time. Yet another example: Morocco was one of the first, if not the first, countries to recognize the new United States.
If someone asked me where to see the ruins of a Roman city in North Africa, I would say, without hesitation, Timgad in Algeria or Leptis Magna in Libya. Perhaps I would suggest that they go to El Djem in Tunisia, and visit the largest arena outside of Rome. If western Islamic architecture were their interest, I would suggest going to Córdoba to walk under the superimposed, multicolored arches and through the marble columns of the Mezquita, and then go to Granada, to wander through the rooms of the Alhambra and the gardens of the Generalife. I once did that at night. The palace was dimly lit, and virtually empty. It was as close as I could ever get to Washington Irving’s vision. You would be fortunate, indeed, to have that experience today.
Still, there are virtues that arise from being off the beaten track. Morocco’s most important Roman site is Volubilis, a short drive from Fes, north of the Massif of Zerhoun, just a short distance from the town of Moulay Idriss. The Arab leader, Moulay Idriss established the first dynasty in Morocco at Volubilis, before building his capital a short distance away, partly from stones quarried from the Roman city. After the fall of Rome, it was common practice to reuse stone from the abandoned Roman cities.
Today there is a large shrine devoted to him.
When I visited Volubilis in the late sixties and mid-seventies it was virtually without tourists, even on weekends.
One could wander through the ruins, step into and out of Roman houses, climb the forum stairs, and do it all in complete freedom, with no crowds to distract from the quiet of the place.
Tourist facilities were limited to a tiny cafe that served simple, but delicious, food.
It may be different today when Morocco has twice as many inhabitants and the tourism industry has grown substantially, but then it was a place lost in time and space. The city of Volubilis, wrecked by earthquakes, quarried for building materials, seemed to float over the rich agricultural lands that surrounded it, a stone oasis.
One could wander through it, dreaming of the life and people of that ancient place, reflect on history and the passage of time, and do it alone, in the quiet of the countryside.
There were no guards to remind you to keep to the path. There were no tourists to jostle you. You were really alone.
Volubilis was not a big or important center. It was an outlier. It grew to prominence just before the Empire entered its long decline. Still, to a young person, new to North Africa, it was a truly magical spot.
There are many other places to see larger and better preserved triumphal arches.
There are larger, better preserved, and much finer mosaics elsewhere.
There are spectacular aqueducts, great temples, immense baths, and fantastic amphitheaters scattered all over the Mediterranean. Volubilis lacks all that, but at Volubilis you felt and heard the wind, and you breathed the scent of the fields around you, while the only footsteps that echoed from the 2,000-year old stones were your own.
If you’re a movie fan, and, in particular, a Brit, you may be thinking Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, but this blog post is more mundane and less amusing, and it also lacks the sadder, darker undercurrents of their comedies.
In a Walk above the woods I mentioned that Peace Corps vacation policy for Morocco volunteers was basically travel within Morocco, or anywhere in Africa, or Spain. Most of us had numerous opportunities to travel within Morocco, and, much as we loved Morocco, many of us wanted a change of scenery, and, perhaps, a bit more freedom. Algeria was officially considered a hostile country, so a visit there was out. That was unfortunate, because the Algerian people were friendly and happy to meet Americans, and Algeria is full of interesting places to visit. Airfare to the rest of Africa, or, to Europe for that matter, was limited and expensive. Spain ended up the place of choice by default. According to the Peace Corps, the cultural affinities and mutual histories made Spain a perfect visit. Some volunteers discovered even quieter and cheaper vacations in Portugal, but many of us went to Spain.
What you did in Spain depended a lot on your personality. Did you want to see historical sites, major cities, Islamic monuments? Lounge on the beaches, eat tapas in the bars, look for romance? Ski or hike the mountains? Appreciate art? Catch a recent movie? Spain already had an enviable tourist infrastructure, and the south coast had become an important destination for British pensioners. Spaniards were friendly and accommodating, and the food and wine was great.
And what you could do depended on where you went. Ceuta or Melilla were for duty-free shopping and a visit could be as short as an afternoon or an overnight.
If you lived near these enclaves, they were only a bus ride away! The peseta was cheap, and the hotels were inexpensive.
Once in Spain, the possibilities were unlimited. If you were going to peninsular Spain, you could take ferries from Tangier to Algeciras or Malaga. You could also go to Gibraltar, but during much of my stay in Morocco, Gibraltar, because of Spanish territorial claims, was blockaded, and you could not get into Spain from the Rock. The shortest, cheapest route was Ceuta to Algeciras on the passenger/car ferry. It only took an hour and a half. Once in Algeciras, the train would take you north to any big city.
One summer I took my vacation in Chamonix.
This was, of course, against the rules, but I didn’t care. It was 1970. Perhaps the rules had even changed by then. The downside of making stupid rules is that no one pays much attention to them. Most organizations, even the most benevolent, have a penchant for making stupid rules.
The French had a special program for kids and young adults under the auspices of the Union Nationale des Centres de Plein Air. You could spend a couple of weeks learning and participating in just about any summer sport imaginable. The French government subsidized it heavily. During the previous year, I had been corresponding with a member from a Club Alpin Français section in the Pyrenees, and he suggested that I try it. I love the Pyrenees, and hope to return while I can still walk, but I chose Chamonix over the Pyrenees (and other Alps sites), because, frankly, Chamonix was more historical (the place where French climbing was born) and more spectacular (the highest mountain in Western Europe, and lots of high, vertical granite rising amid glaciers). I spent a month there, something I could never have done on my very limited Peace Corps budget if I hadn’t been subsidized by the French Government. Remerciements à l’UNCP!
I will be forever grateful, too, and I am happy to learn that the UNCPA still exists after all these years. Thus I spent a month living with a group of fifty or so French kids, roughly my age, and I had a ball. It was co-ed, and we were housed in comfortable chalets. In the mountain refuges, when the weather was bad, we ate, told jokes, and played cards
The food was fine, as you might imagine, certainly far better than French cité universitaire cuisine. This was a holiday in France! Would anyone tolerate bad food? Bon dieu!
Now if you are wondering what this has to do with Spain, remember that I was living poor and had few resources. I figured I could save and scrape up enough for the train trip, but fortune shined. Jean, a young French kid from Brive-la-Gaillarde, had been touring North Africa in his Peugeot 404, and was passing through Fes just about the time I was about to leave. He was hoping to find someone to share expenses and driving as he returned home. How he found me, I don’t recall, but there weren’t that many foreigners in Fes, and I worked there. He met someone who knew me and knew that I needed to get to France.
We drove up to Ceuta or Tangier and crossed to Algeciras. It was late, and we were tired and we spread our sleeping bags out on the beach facing refineries in La Linéa.
I would not try this today when crime in the region is a problem. Even then, though it was summer, it was damp and uncomfortable and the lights of the towers and burning gas lit up the beach with an unappealing industrial glow. The next day we drove up the coast, taking time to swim in the Mediterranean before turning inland.
There were fewer roads, then, and even the main north-south routes were not very good. We skirted Madrid, and, after dark, pulled off the road into the stubble of a wheat field somewhere in Castile.
The following day we continued north, stopping briefly in Burgos to admire the Gothic cathedral.
We crossed the French border at Irun and Hendaye. I had been there once before, when I lived in Pau.
The Mediterranean weather gave way to that of the Atlantic, and, entering the pine forests of the Landes, it began raining. It was now dark and wet, and we were exhausted, so we found a small, inexpensive roadside hotel that had one room left, but with only a double bed. Sharing a bed with a stranger was odd, but not a problem: we were beat, and neither of us had slept in a bed for two days. Outside it was raining.
When we got back on the road the next morning, we were fresh. For Jean it was the homestretch. Brive-la-Gaillarde was only a few hours away.
That day began with some excitement. The Peugeot was beat up, made a lot of noise, and needed brake work. About midmorning, we drew the attention of a gendarme, who directed us off route to a police station. The police, finding that we were returning from Morocco, were interested in whether we were carrying drugs, which we were not, and, after a short interrogation, they released us to continue on our way. The route continued through the Dordogne. I would have liked to stop, but Jean was tired and eager to be home. He had done his sightseeing in Africa. Once in Brive-la-Gaillarde, I caught a train to Chamonix.
I can never think of Brive-la-Gaillarde without hearing the Brassens song, Hécatombe, in my head. Its anarchist message resonated with my younger self, though I am happy that Brassens eventually made his peace with the police in a later song, L’épave. If you can understand French, you may, depending on your sensibilities, find the songs hilarious or offensive. According to Wikipedia, Hécatombe is now associated with Brive-la-Gaillarde throughout France! And, of course, every place in France has something named after Georges Brassens. Rightly so!
So that was another Peace Corps volunteer experience with Spain. The following summer I got a postcard from Jean, who was then touring the Middle East in his car, but we never stayed in touch, which I regret because I enjoyed his good company, and he really had done me a big favor. The train ride home to Sefrou was far less interesting and totally uneventful. But Sefrou was home, then, and it felt good to be back.
Some people have a fear of heights, some of water, others of confinement, and so on. Luckily, I do not seem to have any of them. What I do have is a love of the outdoors and also of novelty. Therefore, as I discovered the mountain scenery of Morocco, I also looked to some of its underground sights. Caves are common where there is limestone, since they are generally formed when acidic ground water slowly dissolves the rock. Morocco has plenty of limestone, as well as the water to dissolve it.
Some parts of the Middle Atlas look much like the causes of southern France, just north of Montpelier, where scrub vegetation, la garrigue, covers the limestone uplands. A variety of erosional features are found there, including collapsed surfaces and caverns.
In Morocco, the karst topography of the area between Azrou and Sefrou is plainly evident in the several small lakes, without inlets or outlets, fed by underground streams.
Springs are common, and sometimes they can be spectacular. The Ain Sebou, a large artesian spring which surfaces beside the Oued Sebou, is a good example. Diving into the cold, upswelling waters is an interesting experience.
The clear spring water tumbles over a small ledge into the waters of the Oued Sebou, which are usually colored by sediment from runoff, and the contrast, before they mix, is striking.
For anyone not familiar with Morocco, the word oued is dialectical Arabic for a stream. In the Middle East, the word is wadi, and is used for dry valleys as well as rivers. In Spain, you might note that some of the large rivers bear toponymes beginning with Guad-, a prefix that was derived from Arabic, such as Guadalquivir (oued el-kebir) or “big river”. Even spoken in different languages, the name sounds virtually the same.
In other places such as parts of the Rif Mountains, erosional remains such as natural bridges or even true caves give further evidence of water working on the limestone.
Morocco has not made much of the tourist potential of its natural caves, and most guide books only mention them in passing, if at all. Some of this scenery is just a bit too far off the tourist track or simply not grandiose enough. Nevertheless, living in northern Morocco, it provided plenty of interest to me and did not demand long or difficult travel.
The city of Taza sits in a place where the Rif and Middle Atlas Mountains come together, about 70 miles east of Fes. More to the east are the plains of the Lower Moulouya River, and even farther, the Oujda and the Algerian border.
Just south of Taza, is Tazekka National Park. Originally created in 1950 to protect the isolated cedar forest on Jbel Tazekka, the park was later expanded significantly. Within it are two sets of caverns, Friouato and Chikker. The latter are considered to be spectacular, but require specialized equipment and spelunking experience. The former cave, first expored by the famous French caver, Norbert Casteret, was developed by the French for tourism, but by 1969 had pretty much fallen into disrepair. It extends several kilometers.
The terrain between Sefrou and the highlands south of Taza, is relatively low. One June evening as I sat on my roof in Sefrou the flashes of lightning from a big storm over Taza repeatedly lit up the mountain skyline. It was much too far to hear the thunder, and there was no rain in Sefrou, but the light show was spectacular.
One Saturday I set off with a couple of PCV architects from Fes to visit the Friouato Caverns. I don’t recall that the drive from Taza was very long, and you exit it on a high plateau surrounded by hills.
Once at the entrance of the Friouato Caves, we found some rather plain and worn concrete steps leading down to a balcony looking into the first chamber which was about 400 feet deep.
The room was illuminated by a huge aven about 100 feet wide. The view was impressive, but we had to ask ourselves: Should we go further?
Descent into this deep pit was by iron steps that the French had secured to the wall. We tested them, and took a chance, slowly descending. The only life we saw was an owl that we flushed from a crevice in the mossy wall. Finally at the bottom, the aven was now just a small light, far above us.
We searched for a passage, and found one. With our headlights now on, we descended through a hole down dilapidated wooden ladders through rooms with seemingly bottomless pools. There was no noise, except for dripping water. There were few stalactites and stalagmites, but the rooms were mysterious and interesting. We only stopped when it was clear that our headlamps were dimming. We had no exact idea of how far we had gone, but as we had no extra batteries, we hurried out. We had no map with us, and didn’t have any clue as to how huge the cave system was.
The other cave I visited was Kef el-Ghar, which was in hilly land north of Taza, on the edge of the Rif mountains. From the distance, Kef el-Ghar is a dark elongated indentation in a mountain side. Entering it, we followed a rising, sandy path. At some point, we could feel bats flapping about, and, shortly after, I was disturbed to see a footprint of an animal, probably a dog or jackal. What was it doing, hundreds of feet into this cave, without any light to guide it? Despite the paw print, we saw no animals. The cave floor climbed and eventually we could feel the flow of air. After a narrow, winding passage, we emerged on the opposite side of the mountain. The cave pierced it!
On a dumber note, on the trip to Friouato described above, a dashboard light indicated an electrical problem. I ignored it. So driving in the dark, mostly empty road between Taza and Fes, the old Willis Jeep abruptly stopped, and could not be started. The battery was dead. The problem was the alternator, and, without a charged battery, there was nothing to do. One of us had to hitch to Fes, about 45 miles away, find a tow truck, and have us towed back to Fes. It must have been 5 am when we got to Fes. That jeep was incredibly rugged and dependable, but when it needed an alternator, I didn’t listen, and paid the price. In 1968, it cost about $20 dollars to get towed all the way to Fes!
As I write, the wind is howling. The weather forecast for the night is three to six inches of snow and a wind chill of -15 to -30F° (roughly -20 to -30° C). There is shore ice on Lake Ontario and Lake Erie is rapidly freezing over. Temperature is -20° C.
Sitting indoors, the weather outside invites us to reflect on sunnier climes, both here and abroad. I have been thinking about Jbel Toubkal.
As it is the highest mountain in North Africa, and, one of the most easily accessible high mountains on the entire continent, hikers and climbers flock to Jbel Toubkal. A short bus or taxi ride takes one to Imlil, a large village in the valley below the mountain.
Since I first visited Toubkal about 50 years ago, a serious tourism industry has grown up in this area. In my time, other than a stone dormitory building that the Club Alpin Français (CAF) left, there was just a village there, with villagers willing to sell you food, and muleteers offering their services to take you to the CAF huts of Neltner, De Lépiney, and Tachdirt. Today I see that a second hut exists next to the renamed Neltner, that businesses have grown up around Sidi Chamharouch, and that Imlil itself has holiday lets and lodging for tourists.
Bemoaning commercialization would be mean and selfish. There is no begrudging the living that the locals can make off of tourism. Life in the mountains is always difficult, and tourism is a great addition to the local economy.
There is no pretending that Toubkal is remote. In the seventies, a motorcycle group surprised us at Neltner, getting all the way up to the hut with their large bikes. On the other hand, the hut was never crowded in those days, and, once out of the hut, one hardly saw other hikers or climbers in the mountains.
My first visit to Neltner was in the summer of 1969, with other Peace Corps friends. Mules took our baggage up, while we walked, a good way to acclimatize.
We climbed the mountain by the gulley opposite the hut, an easy walk via a steep scree slope.
John Paulas and I had fun taking giant, gliding steps in the scree, and made it down from the summit in no time.
This is the standard walk up route, and not much of a problem for a reasonably fit person in dry weather. There are good views from the summit.
The real dangers on Toubkal are snow, ice, and bad weather. In 1970 an ill-prepared group of embassy people had a bad accident, with a member of the Turkish embassy slipping and sliding a long way down the standard route, and suffering serious injuries. Skiers can face avalanches in the winter, too.
The classic climbing route is up the west ridge, which starts at Tizi Ouanoums. I found it easy, and did it once alone, and, another time, with an Englishman whom I met at Neltner.
I do remember meeting a couple of young French climbers in Imlil on one of my visits, who complained in disappointment that the rock was rotten and that the route was not very challenging. I can understand that. The climbing is straightforward, not very exposed, and the rock could be better. With my limited skills, however, I found it enjoyable, and it is more scenic than the gulley route.
Neltner, at 3,200 meters, also served as a base for other trips: Tadat, Akioud, and hikes to the Lac d’Ifni. Tadat is a rock spur or isolated tower on Tizi n Tadat. Akioud is a ridge between Ouanoukrim and Afella that offers an easy traverse. The Lac d’Ifni is a tarn lake in the Massif of Toubkal, and is said to contain native trout. One simply follows the main valley above the hut over Tizi n Ouanoums, and down to the lake. Of course, if you don’t know where you are going you may have problems. I once stood on Tizi Ouanoums shouting at the top of my lungs to my friends Maya and Dan, who wanted to go to the Lac d’Ifni, but were heading toward Tizi n Ouagane! At least a thousand feet above them, they simply could not hear me, and there were no others on the route to set them straight. They only discovered their mistake when they found no lake at the bottom of the valley! Still they had a great time.
I ended up summiting most of the highest peaks around Neltner, all of which are easy walk ups. If you are thinking about doing it, go when there is snow on the mountains. They are parched and bleak in the summer.
I always wanted to climb Tadat, but never managed to do it, though my friend Jean-Michel Vrinat, and some other French friends with whom I climbed did it. Jean-Michel was a coopérant, who arrived in Morocco with a carload of sporting equipment (fencing foils, shotgun, etc.) which included climbing gear. I did lead this group, with friends Gilles and Sylvie Narbonne on a traverse of Akioud, which I had done by myself before, and I think that they really enjoyed it.
Akioud is an easy walk from the Neltner Hut, and, done from south to north, requires no rappelling. A rope for belaying and security is useful, but not needed for good climbers.
Finally, a trail leads to the third CAF Hut, Tachdirt, near the village and below the pass of the same name. I visited Tachdirt twice. In the spring, there was too much snow, and I think that we spent a couple of cold days in the hut before going back down.
A second time, we thought we could walk the ridges between Tizi n Tachdirt and connect to the trail to Neltner. We totally underestimated our physical condition and the difficulty involved. Having climbed from the pass to the ridge of Jbel Anrhemer, we camped out just below the ridge. I awoke sick the next morning. Climbing along the ridge, I became increasingly dehydrated, and needed water, which necessitated descending to the nearest snow patch (of which there were precious few—this was summer.) We ended up returning to Imlil, then walking the trail to Neltner, arriving in the middle of the night, in my case with the assistance of a mule for the last kilometer. What a day!
This article is about Christmas, of course, not the Prophet’s birthday, the Mouloud, which Moroccans, and most Muslims celebrate. This year the Mouloud fell in December, within a month of Christmas, which my wife and I just spent in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her brother and his wife. While there I reflected on the holidays that I spent abroad, though there have not been very many. Of them, the Christmases and Thanksgivings come to mind first, most likely because they involve iconic symbols, and childhood memories. Christmases also fall within a week of New Year’s Day, and often make up part of a larger period involving school semester breaks and intermissions, important in the lives of young people and probably producing more intense and lasting memories.
In Morocco, volunteers would often travel at Christmastime. The Moroccan calendar had all kinds of holidays, and accommodated as well as it could both Christians and Jews. Many foreigners still worked in the GOM in the sixties. If PCVs had vacation time, it enabled them to visit remoter parts of Morocco, or to go to Spain. When my cousin, who was studying in Angers, France, visited me in 1968 or 1969, I traveled with her and Gaylord Barr to Meknes, Rabat, Marrakech, and over the Atlas and across the pre-Sahara to Ouarzazate and Boulemane and Erfoud. Another time, I went to Gibraltar with administrator and volunteer friends.
Ceuta was still another possibility for those of us in northern and eastern Morocco.
Just as often, volunteers would get together in larger centers and big cities, where they were often numerous, and have parties. Those traveling would look up friends for places to stay and for good cheer. By the time I got to Morocco, there were fewer and fewer churches, and I do not recollect any volunteers going to them to pray.
Actually the celebration of Christmas and Thanksgiving usually had little religious significance to the volunteers whom I knew. Christmas had attained an almost secular status in the United States, and was, and is today, dominated by commercial rather than religious sentiments. Recently some right-wing Republican politicians have argued that there has been a “war against Christmas” by more secular politicians in the center. They point out attempts at what they see as “political correctness” as well as a more consistent effort to keep religion and the state separated, as the Constitution requires, though they do not see it exactly that way.
There is a real argument here over all kinds of issues, and if you are very religious you may be offended. My own opinion is that though most Americans are nominally Christians, government institutions should be secular. Am I making war on Christmas? I say Merry Christmas where appropriate, attend religious services, give gifts, and assiduously attend to the customs associated with Christmas. Do I care if there is a crèche in front of City Hall? Not much. And it certainly should not be there if it offends my compatriots.
Christmas is not the central focus of Christianity. Indeed, many early American religious denominations, such as the Puritans, did not hold Christmas sacred, did not celebrate it, because they considered it a pagan holiday. After all, it aligns with the winter solstice, which was widely celebrated in pagan religions of the ancient world, and it isn’t clear exactly when Jesus was born anyway. The real essence of Christianity, all true Christians would agree, is in the death of Jesus and his resurrection as the Christ, and the redemption of the sins of mankind by his death on the cross. Indeed, these very beliefs set off Christianity from Judaism and Islam. Though most Jews believe Jesus existed, and all Muslims revere him as a prophet the message of Judaism and Islam is elsewhere.
Christmas retains its religious significance for many, but in the United States today, as in the United States 50 years ago, Christmas is largely a children’s holiday involving family get-togethers, food, and, above all, gifts. I came from an Italian family, and my Aunt Mary and Uncle Bill would follow a Sicilian custom, though their ancestors did not come from Sicily, and serve guests a Christmas Eve dinner where seven different kinds of fish were offered. Those who were observan often fasted until after they attended Midnight Mass. Then one could eat and open presents, while relatives and friends talked and drank and often played cards.
The social aspects of religious holidays are so important, not just to Christians, but to Muslims and Jews as well as adherents of other faiths. I remember with fondness the kindness of Muslim friends and neighbors, who invited me to their homes for all the major feasts. Indeed, I think I looked forward to Muslim holidays as much as my Moroccan friends!
As a volunteer in the sixties, celebration of Thanksgiving and Christmas was dependent on mood and who was around or would be visiting. The first Christmas, having moved into the house in Seti Messaouda, Gaylord and I actually dragged a 12-foot cedar up the winding stairway and into the courtyard (where it touched the ceiling), and decorated it with homemade ornaments and garlands. The popcorn strung together in garlands eventually got stale and the hanging tangerines mildewed, and our Moroccan friends probably thought we were nuts or idolators. Only the cat really enjoyed the tree, climbing in the branches, and, there were no more trees after that.There were no religious celebrations, and I don’t remember exchanging gifts, either.
There was also a Thanksgiving or two when we cooked a turkey. One took place in 1970, when a couple of female volunteers, Ruth and Jan, were then teaching English in Sefrou. They lived next door in the house of the Hadja, a widow, so there was, with Jan’s boyfriend, a critical mass of Americans. Seti Messaouda for a while had a small American quarter within it, just within the gate. We invited friends, Moroccan and volunteers, and tried our best to put together a traditional Thanksgiving meal. Two ingredients were difficult or impossible to come by: cranberries were nonexistent and the turkey posed a problem. With more foresight we could have probably got the cranberries through someone we knew with PX privileges at the base in Kenitra.
Turkeys were a different matter. Turkeys were not common in Morocco. They are not part of traditional cuisine. They are harder to raise than chickens and less hardy. Where I lived, they were known as bibi, though in the former Spanish zone they were often called by the Spanish name, el pavo (from the tail, perhaps, as a peacock is el pavo real.) Turkeys have various names in the languages of the world. A late import from America, part of the Colombian exchange, the English named the birds after the country of Turkey. They were exotic beasts that merited an exotic name. In France, India was apparently more exotic as the birds were said to came from India. D’Inde became dinde eventually.
Whatever turkeys were called, they were not common. In Sefrou we were able to get one relatively easily, maybe from Fes, but, later, living in Chauen, I had to scour the countryside, driving to Ouazzane to find one.
Roasting the turkey also proved difficult. We had no oven, and, even if we had had one, it probably couldn’t have contained a large turkey. We decided to cook our turkey in the neighborhood ferran, the communal oven, where Khadija baked our bread daily. We always has a Muslim man kill animals for us so the meat was halal. The recipe called for basting it every twenty minutes with butter. After a couple of hours, the baker, the mul el ferran, said safi, enough is enough. The ferran was busy and it wasn’t helping his business to keep opening the oven and taking the turkey out. Luckily, with the hot temperature of the bread oven, the turkey was properly done, crispy and cooked through.
And so we ate turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, and other dishes, and celebrated our American holiday with Moroccan friends. And what was left over, and there was a lot of it, went to the poor outside the main mosque, where excess food often went if Khadija didn’t take it all home.
Living in the eastern Middle Atlas, the High Atlas beckoned from afar. Marrakech required a long bus ride through Kenitra and Beni Mellal or a trip to Rabat and then south to Marrakech. I never got to the Toubkal Massif as much as I wanted, and envied volunteers who lived closer. I did climb many of the peaks there, accompanied by friends, and even family. Perhaps as I digitize more of my old Kodachrome slides, I will get into specifics, but this post is a compendium of a number of trips and a tribute to a spot of the world that was important to me, the mountain named Tazaghart.
Today the High Atlas mountains are served well by climbing and hiking guides, but the main sources in my day were the Club Alpin Français’s long out-of-print guide to the Toubkal Massif, the curious guide book, Villes et Montagnes (a guide to cities and mountains, but nothing else), and topo maps. Today there are any number of tourist organizations that will take you on long walks and climbs. And there are good English language guides to the High Atlas by Hamish Brown and Des Clark. In my day, the heritage of the French Protectorate was a number of huts and a larger dormitory at Oukaïmeden, primarily for skiers. That may not have changed much, but I suspect all are used more intensively today. The route up to Toubkal is much more developed.
I have also noticed more young Moroccans climbing Toubkal, and it is nice to see they take that much interest in the natural beauty of their own country. Nature is always under pressure in the Mediterranean world. Morocco has more than twice as many people today as it had when I lived there 50 years ago.
One of the great charms of the place was that the mountains were empty. One seldom saw another human in the high mountains, and, except at Neltner, below Toubkal, the huts were generally empty. I was there at a time when few Moroccans climbed mountains and the French were still leaving Morocco.
Rather than try to assemble all my memories into a single post, I am limiting this one to Tazaghart, in the Toubkal Massif. Future posts will cover Toubkal, Angour, and some day excursions around Toubkal. As I find more of my old slides, I may add to this collection. I realize that they are of uneven quality, but in my day film was expensive and Kodachrome was beautiful, but slow. Exposure was often a problem. I do envy modern photographers who can shoot without running out of film.
When I re-upped, I went home to the States by way of Paris, where I spent a few days. I went to Chartres to visit its Cathedral, I discovered that I could speak Arabic to Parisian waiters, mostly Algerians, who were delighted to hear their dialect from an American, and I missed an opportunity to hear Georges Brassens perform, for which I will ever experience a sense of loss.
But, in the cold and drizzle, I discovered Au Vieux Campeur, an outlet for camping, climbing, and other outdoors pursuits, on the Left Bank, not far from the Sorbonne. I invested in an ice axe, ropes, down clothes, and other paraphernalia which I thought I would need to climb more mountains. The memories of crossing the Pyrenees were fresh in my mind, and I wasn’t going anywhere unprepared again. The items that I bought got their first use on Tazaghart, my favorite place in the Toubkal Massif, and, later, more extensively in the French and Swiss Alps.
Louden Kiracofe and I had climbed Toubkal by the standard walk-up route in the summer of 1969, as part of a large group of volunteers. Now we would go to Tazaghart, and climb it via the Couloir de Neige, a steep gully filled with snow. We knew it had a bit of real climbing, and some steep snow, but we were up to it. Or so we thought.
Tazaghart caught my attention the first time I read its classic description: “Le plateau est un désert de pierres, plat, nu, vide, si haut perché qu’on n’aperçoit rien sous le ciel.”
A loose translation might be: “The summit is a rocky desert, flat, bare, empty, perched so high there is nothing but sky.” The name tazaghart is Berber and means “little plain or plateau.” What is remarkable is how high it is: over 13,000 feet. Most of the mountains in the area are lower than this. No others have a summit big enough for a football game!
One has a good view of the Tazaghart from Oukaïmeden and Jbel Angour. At Oukaïmeden, the French put up a tableau d’orientation, which identifies most of the mountains in the massif. I have a better picture of it that shows Tazaghart, but I haven’t found it yet.
You find these tableaus, usually installed by the Touring Club of France, now defunct, all over France and in many parts of its former empire. There is one in Fes, for example, that points to Sefrou and Bouiblane, among other places. Though you can see Tazaghart from Oukaïmeden, the most spectacular views of the mountain are from the valley below it and from Jbel Ouanoukrim.
We traveled with Louden’s wife, Ginny, and an old school chum of hers, and stayed at Le Sanglier qui fume, a restaurant-hostellerie run by an elderly Frenchman, at the beginning of the road up Tizi n Test.
Louden and Ginny had stayed there before, after an exhausting winter drive over Tizi n Test, and had been charmed by the warm welcome, decent food, and the fire burning in their room. The owner was Paul Thenevin. Today the hotel is still there, but managed by his son. There was a boar’s head in the dining room, with a pipe in its mouth that puffed smoke.
It was June, I think, when I first went there. The weather was fine, and we drove to Imlil in Louden’s VW station wagon, and found some porters to take us to the de Lépiney refuge owned by the Casablanca section of the Club Alpin Français. As it happened, they only took us to an aluminum shelter much lower in the valley. I think the spot was Azib Mzik. The place was basic, hot, and stuffy.
The women must have stayed there, as Louden and I hiked up to the de Lépiney Refuge, which sits in a beautiful spot that offers views down the valley, and across it to the face of Tazaghart. We wanted to see Tazaghart. The walk up the valley was beautiful.
I think that we came back again to do the Couloir de Neige, I can’t say. It’s hard to imagine leaving the women by themselves below. So it was probably yet another trip. De Lépiney was an early French climber, and instrumental in making climbing a sport for all. He spent much of his life in Morocco, and, sadly, died there in a freak accident at Oued Yquem, a spot where climbers from Rabat still rock climb.
From the azib, the foot of Tazaghart is reached by proceeding directly up valley on a good mule trail. It follows a small stream through some ancient junipers, past a small falls, and eventually emerges above the tree line, in sight of the de Lépiney hut.
The de Lépiney Hut was comfortable. It was not heated, which was no problem in the summer. We left the windows open.
Situated at about 10,000 feet, it was cold during the other seasons, but certainly preferable to camping in the snow.
In any case, late that day, we climbed out of the valley, up behind the refuge, for a good view of the Tazaghart face and the Clochetons de Ouanoukrim.
Most of the Couloir de Neige can be seen. The only serious obstacle is a chimney, which, when the snow is melting, can become a shower.
It was late, and Louden had stumbled and cut himself on a sharp rock so we descended.
Early the next day we entered the Couloir de Neige.
Once we entered it, we found that the snow turned to ice, and our crampons hardly gripped it. Louden had an ice screw, but neither of us had experience cutting steps, so we gave up. I really think it might have been too soon. I think we could have negotiated the chimney, and, once above it where the snow would have been softened by the sun, we could have continued. We had ropes so setting up belays was not a problem. I wish now that we had tried that, but I always remember St. Loup’s La montagne n’a pas voulu. Better to be safe and sound. You cannot count on being lucky. We left the couloir, and continued up the main valley to Tizi Melloul.
Five years later, I was back in Sefrou studying, and Gaylord Barr, my former Peace Corps housemate, showed up for a visit. He brought me a new pair of Reichle boots which I had ordered from R.E.I., and we went down to Marrakech to climb Tazaghart.
It was July or August. Marrakech was hot. In the USA, John Dean had just given testimony to the Senate Watergate committee, and President Nixon’s days were numbered.
We stayed overnight, picking up some supplies, and took a bus to Asni, I think, from which we got a taxi to Imlil.
Gaylord had been to Marrakech several times, and crossed Tizi n Tichka on the way south, but he had never hiked in the Toubkal Area. We hired a mule for the baggage, and left Imlil in the middle of a moonlit night, passing through sleeping villages on the way to Tizi Mzik. The only noise was the clipclop of hooves and an occasional watchdog bark. The full moon provided great views of the valleys and peaks. We reached Tizi Mzik by dawn.
We had good weather. In the summer, bad weather is rare. Just don’t count on finding water along the mountain crests. We stayed a couple of days. The view from the De Lépiney Hut is grand, with a waterfall, an expansive view of the face, as well as pretty views down the valley. I think one can also see the lights of Marrakech far off on the plains below.
Everyone wants to climb Toubkal, but Tazaghart is much more scenic. If one has the time, it isn’t difficult to visit both areas in the same trip, and be rewarded with great scenery.
The easiest route up Tazaghart is up one of the several gullies that furrow the face. We chose one on the right, either Tsoukine or the one to its left. Or maybe the Diagonal. It’s a bit hazy now.
It was easy enough for a local dog, which we had been feeding, to follow us up to the summit, though the dog had to be resourceful to get around a few steep bits. Maybe we did do the Diagonal.
At the summit there were clouds rolling in, and thunder in the distance, so after a brief rest, we descended by way of Tizi Melloul fearing rain and lightning. We got a bit of rain, but no lightning.
The next time, and last time, I visited Tazaghart was in the late spring or early fall of 1977.
The weather was cold and wet, and I don’t remember climbing anything, but I did witness a spectacular landslide that involved some house-size boulders rolling down one of the couloirs, a good reminder that even easy routes may have unsuspected dangers.
On that trip we captured a dormouse and took it back to Chauen. When I left Morocco in 1978, a Peace Corps couple in Tetuan took the creature and continued keeping it as a pet. It was cute, but dormice are most active at night. We rarely saw it, but we always heard it scurrying in its enclosure after sunset. It was part of a menagerie of cats and tortoises.