ATLAS PART 1 – INTO BERBER COUNTRY

An encounter with Mohamed and his family, shepherds in the Mediterranean Atlas

Change of scenery 

After this city episode in Meknes and Fes we have only one desire, getting back into the wild! Just south of we’re is the Middle Atlas, also called Mediterranean Atlas, and that’s where we’re heading. We leave the lush hills behind us to enter the mountain realm, and the more we climb in altitude, the colder and cloudier it gets.

Driving through the village of Ifrane, we can see that the ground is covered in white… Surely this can’t be snow?? We get out of the car to find out and discover that it is hail stones, the size of a peanut. Obviously the storm is not far, but we have no idea where it’s heading!

Earlier we spotted a lake on the map in the Khenifra National Park, and we head towards it to make our camp for the night, in a scenery feeling a lot like what we imagine Mongolian steps to look like. On the road we discover more and more tiny villages bearing the berber symbol, settled in glades and plateaux covered in short grass in the middle of a dense cedar forest, where it is rare, but not impossible to sight some wolves.

When the universe gives you a sign

As the day goes by, the temperature drops but we’re still quite far away from our destination. At some point Toni pulls the car on the side of the road, saying that he doesn’t know why, but he just had a feeling that we should stop here and check out what’s on the other side of the hill. The top isn’t far and we climb the slippery slope to discover, to our biggest surprise… A big nothing! You can’t see anything through the thick mist appart from the the slope on the other side. It’s only when we turned back to climb down, laughing out loud, that we notice the reason why, maybe, Toni was hinted to stop here…

A feminine silhouette, surrounded with goats and wrapped up in a thick coat, is climbing down the hill in front of us and comes to meet us. As we didn’t see any village around, we’re a little surprised to find her here, in the middle of almost nowhere, but she only seems super happy to see us. Her name is Ijja and she invites us, with lots of gestures, to follow her up the hill she just came from. We gladly accept, touched by her fond smile and curious to find out where she’s taking us.

The mud and the kilos accumulate under our shoes while Ebrahim and I walk with her, as Toni struggles to follow with the car skidding on the slippery ground. As we get to the top we discover a small gathering of houses, nested in a tiny depression out of sight from the road and surrounded with a protective fence made of brushwood. Ijja introduces us to Mohamed, her husband, who in turn introduces us to his second wife (yes exactly) Melila, their 3 year old daughter Maïma strapped in her mother’s back, and his step mother (Melila’s mom) Fathma.

A tea by the fire place

We enter the space guarded by the fence (and the dogs, attached during the day but freed at night) and make our way towards one of the houses, made of wooden logs and several layers of plastic canvas. We take off our very muddy shoes and bow the head to step inside. A cat is comfortably installed by the fire place, settled in the middle of the room and delivering such a nice heat that I suddenly realise how cold it is outside! In the corner, the bare ground has been shaped to delimit the area where water is used and send it straight outside trough an evacuation.

Mohamed invites us to sit down on the thick wooden blankets arranged around the fire place, while his wives prepare the tea. It is the first time we meet with a polygamist family, and I have to admit that it feels a little strange… Since that moment, we learned that it is still practiced in Morocco, though a lot less from the moment women got to have a say in the matter! Mohamed must feel our discomfort (not exactly the right word for we don’t feel uncomfortable) because he starts to explain us -or at least we understand- that Ijja is his first wife, that their kids are grown up and gone to the city, and he then married Melila, who came with a mother. It’s the first time we hear the language he speaks, and he tells us it’s the berber language called Amazigh.

Before tea is ready, Melila brings an aiguière and a basin, allowing us to wash our hands in turns without having to move. The ritual is observed before and after each meal or snack (people just love to eat) for you traditionally eat with your right hand. We then enjoy the mint tea with fresh bred, olive oil, homemade butter and olives while the discussion goes wild despite the language barrier.

Preparing the famous couscous

Ijja announce that we’re going to have a couscous tonight, usually prepared on Fridays, a holy day here. As it is not Friday, we understand that they are honouring us and one of the chickens is sacrificed for the occasion. No way to avoid it, nor to wallow the chicken even though I’m so fond of the idea… But before getting started the women get in their mind to cover my hair with a scarf they tie on my head, while the men are leaving in another room.

The few next hours are dedicated to the couscous preparation, and more specifically the semolina. In my recipe, it only take about 10 minutes and it’s super simple. But here it is all about art, and you have to delicately massage the grains between times of steam cooking until you get the prefect texture. Melila regularly checks up on me to make sure I’m doing good and seems happy 😉

Between two massaging sequences, I flee to go see what the men are up to, and find them in a very cold room, buried under blankets. Why come here when it’s so warm in the other room? Maybe because we’re preparing food? Or men just like to have « men conversations »? The mystery remains, but nevertheless we all enjoy the food together, in a way that is new to us: first came the chicken with an olive sauce and some bred, and after that came the semolina with the veggies and some warm and salty milk poured over the dish last minute. The combination is a little surprising in the beginning, but the milk gives the whole dish a nice smoothness and the result is quite good.

A night under the blankets 

As Mohamed feeds his little girl with mouthful couscous boulettes, the conversations goes on aided with a child book filled with images, really handful tool to communicate. He confirms that there is indeed wolves in the forest, and that the dogs are here to keep the camp safe. We are warned to be extra careful when going outside on our own, which he doesn’t let us do anyway! And noway we can find our route in the dark, so we’re warmly invited to stay over for the night. Melila made some beds for us in the cold room, and was about to go get the sleeping bags when I noticed we wouldn’t need it… A mountain of thick and heavy woollen blankets awaits us, and we slid ourselves inside before falling in a deep sleep, still under the weight of the blankets.

At dawn, we wake to the sound of the ships loudly screaming their hunger for the world to know! We get out of the room and find ourselves plunged in the middle of the morning ritual. Take the goats out, feed the hungry ships, milk the cow, fill the troughs and the kitchen barrel… There is plenty of work to do before breakfast, that we enjoy fervently while Mohamed is getting a bag ready. He makes us understand that he wants come with us so we can drop him in the city of Mrit, some forty kilometres away. Before leaving we all gather to make some pictures, and we use our little printer to print some as a souvenir.

Mohamed seems happy to go with us, but Ijja and Melila look quite sad to see us leave… Despite the shortness of the time spent together, it’s not easy to say goodbye but the idea of seeing them again someday softens the moment and we finally get on the road, with Mohamed in passenger seat and me behind, huddled by the fridge (laughs). Even though Mrit wasn’t on our route, we’re really happy to spend this moment with him. He tells us about his dream to come live in France one day, and we couldn’t find it in ourselves to explain that his life wouldn’t be any better, on the contrary… Instead, it’s our turn to offer him to come visit us, if he was ever around. By the look on his face, we understand that this really means a lot to him…

Race against the rain in the cedar forest

After dropping Mohamed in Mrit, we get on with our journey towards the Auguelmam Zigza lake, our initial destination. At the end of a track roaming through the cedars, we reach a plateau in the middle of which, leaning against the forest line is the lake. Some macaques are here and seem to be ruling the place. In front of the few berber tents set up on the shores overlooking the lake are slowly stewing tajines, appearing to insistently calling our names somehow… We too easily yield to temptation and take a sit while having a look to the map. We finally choose a track running through the forest to reach the road going east, on the other side of the mountains.

As we enter the track, we run into a group of bikers turning back because of the rocks making the way too difficult for a motorbike. We keep on going anyway and the more we drive, the less we’re sure of getting through to the end. The track is roughly carved on the mountain side and as the rain begins the visibility lessens, but the 4WD does the job and we slowly make our way.

When the mist arises, the views get mystical. The bottom of the valley disappears and the cedars stretching majestically up seem to defy the sky, while we navigate between earth and and sky at who knows what altitude. A multitude of sinuous streams formed with the rain runs under the trees on the ground, covered with lush green grass. We can see a perfect camping spot there, but the rain redoubles it’s efforts to keep us going… Apparently it should be better on the other side….

We drive until late to take over the rain, and leave the mountains behind us, along with the clouds still gathering upon it. We can see the rain falling in there, but our night will be dry and we’ll even get to have breakfast under the sun!

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