Morocco: Behind the Scenes of Berber Culture

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tea

The odor of raw meat wafted in the air. Next to me, freshly slaughtered chickens were laid out on a counter with their claws still intact. I immediately looked away from that unpleasant sight, even though I was fully aware of the possibility that one of those chickens might be in my tajine later on. Below, photo of Amizmiz Market. Photo courtesy of Daniela Frendo.

Amizmiz market

To my right, a man in a soiled djellaba (a loose, hooded robe) walked abreast of me through the crowd of shoppers. He was holding something that kept tickling the back of my knees. A gut feeling told me not to look down, but curiosity got the best of me.

Amizmiz market

Amizmiz Market. Photo courtesy of Daniela Frendo.

The man’s fingers were fastened around two orange hooks holding together a bunch of black, puffed-up feathers. A gigantic turkey dangled upside down from the man’s grip, swaying back and forth. I stood rooted to the spot for a few seconds, then stepped aside to make way for a donkey cart.

The fresh meat stalls take up only a small area of the Tuesday market in Amizmiz. This dusty town at the foot of the High Atlas Mountains hosts the largest Berber market in the region. Sheltered from the fierce Moroccan sun under makeshift tents, farmers from the surrounding mountain villages sit among carts loaded with fresh produce. Some Berber farmers also sell and trade their livestock. In fact, this is the only source of income for many Berber families living in remote villages. Meanwhile, merchants from Marrakech travel to Amizmiz every Tuesday to set up stalls with packaged foods, clothes and bathroom necessities.

Amizmiz market

Amizmiz Market. Photo courtesy of Daniela Frendo.

The dusty air and blistering heat began to take its toll on me. Thankfully it wasn’t long before we started walking away from the market and towards a steep hill leading into the mountains. Eventually the hawkers’ cries grew fainter and the air became purer.

An Unusual Lunch Break

We trekked along paths cutting across cultivated fields, where a few women toiled in the midday sun. Whilst their husbands set up shop at the market, Berber women spend long hours working the fields and managing livestock. Their daily chores do not stop there. They bring wood to light the ovens for baking flatbread. They go to the nearest stream to wash clothes and fetch water. Cooking dinner also takes up a fair amount of their time, as tajine is normally slow-cooked on charcoal fire. They walk long distances on rocky terrain, and the climate in the mountains can often be unforgiving.

atlas mountains

High Atlas Mountains. Photo courtesy of Daniela Frendo.

A short distance away, a scrawny old man in a djellaba and taqiyah (a traditional skullcap worn by many Moroccan men) waited for us at the side of the path. He greeted each one of us with a handshake, his dark eyes twinkling with joy… and mischief. The first thing we learned about him was that he’s extremely ticklish. The second was his name, Mohamed. What our local guides didn’t tell us however, was that he would smack anyone he suspects of tickling him.

Our pit stop for lunch was in a Berber village of a few mudhouses overlooking a mosque. Mohamed, who had spent the last ten minutes blowing kisses at the ladies and chanting songs in Tamazight (the language of the Berbers), was now leading the way through the village’s deserted paths. We walked through a low doorway and into a courtyard, where our lunch had been cooked and a cow stood posing for pictures. The majority of Berber houses have rooms built around a courtyard. Livestock are normally kept in one of these rooms, while guests are received in a carpeted dining room where shoes always have to come off before stepping inside.

Every Berber meal starts with a glass of tea. Ours was freshly prepared by the sprightly Mohamed, while our guide, Abdul, spectacularly held the teapot high above the tray and poured tea equally in each glass. Meanwhile, our host passed around a bottle of water and a basin for everyone to wash their hands in. Bread is a substitute for cutlery in Berber households, and families eat from the same dish.

tea

Berber tea at lunchtime. Photo courtesy of Daniela Frendo.

The traditional way of eating tajine is to use your index finger and thumb to push small chunks of food onto a piece of flatbread. Scooping up pieces of vegetables is easy enough, but when it comes to tearing apart the meat, things get a bit messy. A heavy lunch calls for a nap, but we still had a good three hours of trekking ahead of us.

Second Family

We continued walking further up into the mountains, getting closer to their rugged, snowy peaks. A couple of farmers met us halfway and tagged along, their donkeys bringing up the rear. By the time we arrived at the village where we would be spending the night, dusk had already set in. We were first greeted by the local children who had gathered outside their school in anticipation of our arrival. They savored the attention they got from us, plus the treats we gave them, and then they eagerly posed for photos.

berber village

Children in the Berber village

Eight of us met Omar, our host for the night. He could only communicate with us in his native language, yet our accompanying guide, Khaled, assured us that Omar and his wife will do their best to make us feel at home. Sitting sideways on his donkey, Omar took us to his humble house. The donkey went in first, which made us wonder whether we’ll be sharing a room with the animal for the night. Picking up his crutches from the saddle, our host heaved himself off the donkey and started climbing the uneven steps leading to the courtyard. Omar was born with a disability in his legs, however this hasn’t stopped him from becoming independent and building a family of three children.

morocco guestroom

Host family guest room in Morocco. Photo courtesy of Daniela Frendo.

The walls of the guest room were bordered with cushioned seats. I spotted a pile of blankets at the far corner, a sign that we would be sleeping in the same room. Omar’s children sidled into the room and sat shyly next to him, not sure how to approach strangers in their house. He introduced them to us, indicating their age with his fingers.

“Mina (8), Osama (5), Khadija (1).”

Omar’s face beamed with pride and joy as he uttered his children’s names. His eyes mirrored his desperate need for the ability to speak to us, but Khaled was patient enough to relay everything in English.

“Mina and Osama love going to school. Omar hopes that he will be able to pay for their education when they’re older.”

Education in Morocco is compulsory until the age of 14, and admission requirements for higher educational institutes are very competitive. Omar and his wife receive children’s allowance and a disability pension, but the amount is just enough to get by.

morocco school

The local school. Photo courtesy of Daniela Frendo.

“But everyone in the village helps each other, so Omar knows that if his family ever needs help, he will definitely find it. The people here have each other, and this keeps them going.”

It was still too early for dinner, so Omar asked Mina to bring out their family albums. He started by showing us pictures of his children when they were younger. When it came to his wedding pictures, his face lit up. He also showed us faded photographs of him as a teenager, and had no qualms about showing us a picture of his prosthetic leg.

“This is John, Omar’s American friend,” Khaled smiled, holding a picture of a blond man standing next to Omar.

Omar had a lot of praise for his American friend. John and his wife first met Omar in 2010 while they were spending a few days in his village. They took many pictures of Omar and his family, and John still visits them once a year.

“Omar occasionally gets visitors like yourselves, people who choose to spend a night with a Berber family. This helps them financially, but they only get visitors twice, or perhaps three times a year,” Khaled explained as he showed us another picture of a French couple with Omar’s children.

We put our shoes on and went out into the courtyard, where Omar’s wife, Walida, was baking flatbread in a clay oven. She invited us inside the kitchen to show us how tajine is prepared and cooked. The carrots, marrows and potatoes she had just washed and chopped looked crisp and fresh, and they were all locally grown. Chunks of beef simmered in the pot, and the vegetables were thrown in once the meat started to get tender.

Back in the courtyard, the children had been chasing each other around. The temperature had dropped and they weren’t wearing much, so running kept them warm. They gradually opened up to us, especially Mina, who after a while started using the men’s big body frames to hide from her brother. Sometimes they poked us in the back, meaning they wanted us to be ‘it.’ The family’s guard dog, an aged Labrador, watched the spectacle from the roof of the doorway. Even little Khadija tottered around, and whenever she fell, Mina picked her up and comforted her. It made Omar very happy to see his children finally being comfortable around us.

Khaled reminded us that we need to use bread to go through the tajine. Walida had prepared two dishes, and the whole family dined with us. Omar’s dark eyes had a sparkle in them as he watched us devour dinner till the last drop of juice at the bottom of the pot.

olives and jam

Olives and apricot jam at dinner. Photo courtesy of Daniela Frendo.

“Omar says he’s glad that you enjoyed the food and he hopes that you feel at home.”

We assured him that we were very grateful and couldn’t ask for more, except for a good night’s sleep after a day of trekking, but Khaled warned us that the night was far from over.

“Omar also wants me to tell you that now you have to be prepared to dance.”

Berber Entertainment

We followed Omar on his donkey through the rocky paths of the village. Guard dogs barked continuously as we walked past farms and houses. The village was shrouded in pitch darkness. The only thing we could make out was the silhouette of the mountains. At last we came in sight of a lit-up house, where the rest of our group and the village’s best musicians had been expecting us.

Music is an ancient tradition for Berbers, one which they are very willing to uphold. Songs have been passed on orally from generation to generation, and many Berbers in mountain villages occasionally come together to sing and dance in a ring. Although Berber women also sing and play instruments during these gatherings, our musicians for the night were solely men. Instead, the women decided to watch the entertainment from the kitchen doorway.

Most of our entertainers were possibly grandfathers, with the exception of a few young men. In fact, we had the honor to meet the oldest person of the village, an energetic, ruddy-faced man of 98. His liveliness put him on a par with Mohamed, who was also one of the musicians for the night.

Mohamed started banging away on a circular drum, known as bendir, and the rest of the men promptly followed suit, some of them making do with home utilities like metal basins and plastic cans. But they did not want to sing and play on their own. They taught us the words to the songs, invited us to create our own beat, and urged us to dance.

bendir

Bendir. Photo courtesy of ermess via Shutterstock.

After a short while, their drumming became hypnotizing, and we couldn’t help but dance to the beat of the drums. I had already come across traditional Berber music in Marrakech, but when played under a starry sky on top of a mountain, Berber drumming and chanting arouses a powerful sense of ancient magic and mysticism.

In the midst of all that dancing and swaying, my hand inadvertently brushed against Mohamed’s back. He swiveled around and delivered a hard slap on the first person he found. And that person was me. When he noticed the look of shock on my face as I rubbed my sore arm, he grabbed me by the shoulders, pressed a kiss on my cheek, and pulled me into the circle to dance with him.

guides

Guides Khaled and Mohamed

Leaving Home

Omar’s main concern in the morning was whether we had slept comfortably and warmly. Walida had woken up very early to make sure that breakfast would be ready by the time we got up. She walked into the room with a big pot of soup that looked and tasted like porridge. It was followed by bread, three different types of olives, apricot jam, honey, and more bread.

Mina and Osama came to say goodbye before heading off to school. Judging by the fresh, cheerful look on their faces, their school is a fun place to be. Or perhaps they couldn’t wait to tell their friends all about the strangers who had just spent a night at their house.

We promised Omar a new photo for his family album, so we gathered in the courtyard for a group snapshot. Then it was time to say our goodbyes. Once again, Omar entrusted Khaled with a heartwarming message for us.

“Omar and Walida want you to know that you are always welcome at their home. They wish you good health and a safe trip.”

Words alone couldn’t express my heartfelt gratitude for being treated like one of the family. I asked Khaled to tell Omar that I hope that I’ll return one day.

Omar looked at me with that unmistakable sparkle in his eyes, then said something that didn’t need translating.

Inshallah.

This post originally appeared on Grumpy Camel. Featured image courtesy of Curioso via Shutterstock.

Contributed by guest contributor Daniela Frendo, a travel writer and photographer from Malta.  

 

Jessica Festa
Jessica Festa is the editor of the travel sites Jessie on a Journey (http://jessieonajourney.com) and Epicure & Culture (http://epicureandculture.com). Along with blogging at We Blog The World, her byline has appeared in publications like Huffington Post, Gadling, Fodor's, Travel + Escape, Matador, Viator, The Culture-Ist and many others. After getting her BA/MA in Communication from the State University of New York at Albany, she realized she wasn't really to stop backpacking and made travel her full time job. Some of her most memorable experiences include studying abroad in Sydney, teaching English in Thailand, doing orphanage work in Ghana, hiking her way through South America and traveling solo through Europe. She has a passion for backpacking, adventure, hiking, wine and getting off the beaten path.
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