Will we be asking “Where are the snows of yesteryear?”

The main road south from Meknes crosses the high Middle Atlas plateau just south of Ifrane. In the distance, looking south, the eastern High Atlas towers above the Upper Moulouya River valley.

This week, the International Panel on Climate Change issued a long anticipated report on climate change, its sixth since 1988, and almost 4,000 pages long. The gist of the report is that the nations of the world may still be able to stabilize rising global temperatures and limit their rise from the 1850 to 1900 period to 1.5° Celsius (2.7° F)—but only by immediate, serious, and concerted efforts over the next decade or so. Within the report some scientists suggested that there must be dramatic action within the next four years.

A few days ago, the New York Times published an article, “How much hotter is your hometown?”, in which you could input where you live and when you were born to see how much temperatures have risen over your lifetime and how much they can be expected to rise in the next century.

The series of temperature data used for comparison only begins in 1960, so I decided to use 1968 as the date of my birth, the year that I stepped off a PanAm 707 onto the tarmac in Salé to spend the first four of the seven years that I would live in Morocco. I now live close to where I was born in Western New York so I thought it would be interesting to look at Niagara Falls, New York and Sefrou, Morocco. The first location has a temperate climate, tempered by Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, while the latter has a Mediterranean one, where a 3,000-foot elevation moderates the temperature.

In 1968, Niagara Falls had one day of temperatures of 90° F or more (32.2° C). Sefrou had 34 days. Today Niagara Falls still has only one day, but Sefrou has 65 days. In twenty years, the respective number of days of 90°+ for each city will be two and 85. Near the end of the century, the 90°+ days will rise to 12 for Niagara Falls and nearly 100 for Sefrou. Needless to say, in both locations summers will be much hotter. The number of 90°+ days represents only a daily high.

The consequences of this change will be enormous. Today we see daily reports of destructive wildfires and drought in California, which has a Mediterranean climate like Morocco, as well as wildfires all around the Mediterranean itself. Fires in the Kabylie recently claimed scores of lives. In the future, with more heat in the atmosphere, storms and other severe weather events will certainly increase in strength. All this will happen, without adding in still unknown tipping points such as the potential collapse of the Gulf Stream.

Today I think of the many Middle Atlas lakes and the great forests of Atlas cedars, and wonder what will happen to them.

The forest at Tafferte in 1968 or 1969, outside the old ski hut.

Will the lakes be drained for irrigation or even drinking water?

Seated on the terrace of Le château du lac beside Dayet Aoua in 1969 or 1970. Note the pedal boats. The lake is now dry.

Will the cedars fail to regenerate in a drier, hotter environment especially after the forest substrata of green oaks is gone, burned for production of lime or charcoal?

Producing lime near Sefrou by burning green oak. At higher elevations, the green oak provides a valuable microenvironment for young cedars.

Will the snows of the high plateaus and mountains become ephemeral? And, more importantly, what will happen to the pastoralists and farmers in the coming new environment?

Some of the news that comes from Morocco is disquieting. Birds once common around Daya Afourgah have disappeared, and satellite photos show great expanses of dried up shoreline, and what look like irrigated fields.

Picnicking beside Daya Afourgah in 1969 or 1970. Photo by Gaylord Barr.

The karst lakes of the Middle Atlas have always risen and fallen with snow and subterranean flow, but today some seem to be drained.

A recent aerial photo of Daya Afourgah, which displays large areas formerly under water. Google Earth, 2021.
A quiet evening on Lake Afourgah. In the autumn, great flocks of starlings would congregate around the reed beds. The flocks would perform aerial acrobatics including diving toward the surface of the lake and pulling up virtually at the water’s surface. Photo from 1968.

Daya Ifrah, the largest of the Ifrane region’s lakes, is suffering fish kills from the chemicals in agricultural runoff.

Daya Ifrah, the largest lake, in the Ifrane area, is now polluted by agricultural runoff. Photo from Yabiladi, © 2020.

Daya Aoua seems to have been drained entirely for irrigation of surrounding apple orchards. Contrast this photo with that of the one above taken years ago at the Chateau du lac. Photo by Jassim Ahdani from Hespress, © 2119.

Despite the increasingly better modeling of climate change, so many unknowns exist that it is difficult to fathom why anyone would risk the future of the planet, and yet that is exactly what has been happening for years.

In the United States, by the end of this decade, scientists project that the glaciers of Glacier National Park will disappear entirely, and we may soon be chanting Villon’s familiar refrain, “Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?” Will the beauty of the snows of the Atlas become as ephemeral as the beauty of Villon’s women?

* For you lovers of the English language, the poet Gabriel Dante Rossetti, in his translation of La ballade des femmes du temps jadis, coined the word yester-year now in use as yesteryear, as a translation for thé French word jadis.

Al Maghrib Al-Arabi

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

In the sixties, Sefrou had one movie theater, the Maghrib el Arabi, but it was great! On a hot summer night, the roof would retract, slowly and almost silently, and the cool evening air would pour in from a sky full of stars. I went to the movies whenever I could. I loved films, and, frankly, how many things could you do in a small provincial city where almost everyone went home to their families at night, tired from a day’s hard work? Not that the theater was an entirely respectable place. Now, whenever I watch the Italian movie, Cinema Paradiso, I’m always reminded of Sefrou, its movie theater, and the people I knew.

In those days the choice of films was mostly between Bollywood musicals and spaghetti westerns. Occasionally there was an Egyptian feature, beyond the comprehension of someone already struggling with Moroccan dialect,  and, sometimes, a recent American movie, and sometimes a classic. I remember watching High Noon, which for me was iconic and for my colleague puzzling, and, In the Heat of the Night, a contemporary drama about the civil rights struggle in the American South. The big cities had a much better choice of films. I saw Space Odyssey 2001 in the Theatre Mohammed V, not long after the film opened in the U.S. Needless to say, the Western movies were always dubbed in French.

But that was Rabat. In Sefrou, I still remember hearing, through the front windows of the house, the sounds of young men walking home through the empty street at night, a darkened medina street lit by an occasional street light, whistling the theme music from A Fist Full of Dollars (https://youtu.be/9uFlE1cO8Fc), and knowing they enjoyed it, but also wondering what they made of it. It was certainly more a part of their America than mine.

Madame Mystery

I remember emailing Gaylord Barr, a Peace Corps volunteer who served in the late 1960s in Sefrou, some questions about Madame Mystérie. I was surprised that he did not recall that my reference was to the first missionary to come to Sefrou, in early years of the 20th century. Her name was Maude Cary (I have a little book about her somewhere, published by a missionary society.) Unmarried, she became known as Miss Cary, which made more sense to non-English speakers as Madame Miss Cary as she got older! Of course, I misheard her name Madame Miss Cary as Madame Mystery, mysterious till I figured it out. It seems that my Moroccan friends also knew her as Madame Mestiry.
Every one tries to take unfamiliar things and place them in a context that makes sense. Near the end of the French Protectorate, when King Mohammed V did not support the French and spoke out for independence, the French exiled him to Madagascar, then a French colony. For many Moroccans who had never gone to school, Madagascar meant nothing, and some, asked about the King, said that he was sent to see “Madame Cascar.” Madame Cary was a lot like that to us naïve Americans.
I think the last missionary, Mr. Jessup, left in 1969 or early 1970. He couldn’t proselytize, and he had nothing to do and spent a fair amount of time fishing. When I told this story to an old friend, Ali Azeriah, he wrote back with his own recollections, and they contain a lot more detail than my own, and his story is interesting.
“Now to Madam Mestiry. She too was part of my childhood. I was eleven years old, and I used to go to a school in Derb l’Miter. My family used to live in Setti Mesouda. At that time (about 1958-59) many Jews (the wealthy ones) began to move out of the mellah and settle in such districts as La Ville Nouvelle, Setti Mesouda and Derb l’Miter. So Derb l’Miter hosted many Jewish and Muslim families living side by side and maintaining good neighborly relations. Madam Mestiry, the American missionary, used to live in a house in Derb l’Miter, it being the ‘Beverly Hills’ of Sefrou then. She was well known in the Sefrou community, and especially among pupils my age and teenagers in general, including those who did not attend school. At six o’clock in the evening when we came out of school, most of us students would pass by her house, and there she would be standing at the door of her house with a big smile on her face. She would ask us to come in in Moroccan Arabic ‘Aji! Aji!’ (Come in! Come in!) And a whole bunch of us (ten or twelve of us) would walk in. She would take us to a large room furnished with many chairs, a piano (the first time I saw one), a cross on the wall, and a bookshelf full of books. She would make us sit on the chairs arranged for the event, and she would sing to us hymns in broken Arabic. I can still remember one half sentence from her many religious songs: ‘something (I can’t remember the word) will take me up to the Lord.’ After about twenty minutes or so, she would stop singing, and give us pictures of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. Then she would invite us to the kitchen and give us the thing we cherished most: French bread and cheese or bread and chocolate, one day French bread and cheese, the next day bread and chocolate. Hungry as we were, at 6 o’clock we would flock to Madam Mestiry’s house to be fed food which we had never had at home: Boulanger (French Bread), red cheese and chocolate. We did not care as much about the religious songs or the pictures as we cared about the food, which we, the miserable kids, enjoyed very much. One day my uncle, having found the pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary in my satchel, asked me how I came to get them, and I told him the truth. He gave me a thrashing and ordered me to never go to Madam Mestiry’s house. ‘She will make a Christian of you, you donkey.’ I promised him to never go there again. But I did not keep my promise. I just could not resist the temptation of ‘boulanger” and cheese or chocolate.
My generation still remembers Mme Mestiry. I do not know any one (from among the circle of my friends) who converted to Christianity, but I heard of some who did actually embrace Christianity.
This is my story of Mme Mestiry. She was well known in Sefrou.”
Thanks, Ali, for shedding light on the mysterious Mestiry and the Sefrou that was.

The Peace Corps Book Locker

The Booklocker

I lived in Sefrou, but worked 20 miles away in the provincial capital, Fes. I commuted every day by taxi or bus, which I caught across from the Bab Mkam. During the half-hour rides, I read voraciously. In the early years, volunteers were furnished “book lockers,” collections of classic and contemporary books. The “book locker” collections were a varied mix, and, as volunteers added and subtracted from them, they grew ever more diverse. Volunteers visiting Rabat would find book lockers in storage at the Peace Corps office on rue Van Vollenhoven, and look for new titles.

The book locker was an American idea, conceived in the earliest days of the Peace Corps. The names of those who put the original collections together seem to be lost. The Peace Corps knew that volunteers in remote places might find it difficult to find reading, and that they would have lots of time to read.

In Morocco, I found English language books at a certain newsstand in the ville nouvelle as well as at the missionary run store, La Bonne Nouvelle. I did a lot of reading in French, and searched the medina booksellers for old items on climbing and mountaineering, my passions, as well as history.

Since that time, I have never had so much time to read.

This may seem like a slow start, but the trivia of everyday existence is as relevant as anything else. I am not aiming at profundity, just a start to the blog.

Source: Peace Corps Morocco Beginnings