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Morocco: Sahara Desert 

Keyvan Tabari

Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2017. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.

          abstract: Morocco is exotic enough, but going to its Sahara Desert? Wow!  It must be “amazing,” you would say. For once, the adjective may be  appropriate.  The traveler does not need to traverse vast fields of sand on “camel-back,” although he can ride the beast once there. The dunes are “awesome,” but in the conventional aesthetic sense of color and design. There are “breathtaking” views, and the images I brought back would catch your breath. The solitude is “divine,” which I define as the chance to meditate on the sublime in the undisturbed void of things. And the Bedouins? I called on them and other denizens of the place, going back millions of  years, and have stories to tell. The music of the quiet land? Ah yes, the songs of chained slaves. Come, hear!


Northeast Passage

She paused, looked at me and waived her hand to say “No!” Then she resumed whistling, as she walked through the intersection, directing the traffic. I stopped taking picture with my camera. Perhaps it was not unusual for her to see another tourist seeking the exotic in the normal. However, I did not remember seeing a traffic cop in Morocco and, certainly, it now surprised me to see women traffic police.

But thinking it over, this was not out of the ordinary for this town, Ifrane [1]. We were sitting in the restaurant of Hotel le Chamonix  with a large group of visitors from France. We could have been in a French ski resort. The streets of Ifrane were neat, un-crowded and orderly. The leaves of the trees in the city park sparkled in the sun.  The French rulers of Morocco, in the late 1920s, established this town, which is located at 5500 feet on the Middle Atlas mountain range, as a resort town for relief from the summer heat. It has since become both a summer resort, and a premier ski resort of Morocco: “Over 60% of the houses are vacation homes,” we were told by our local guide. It is also the seat of the Al Akhawayn University, an English-language, American-curriculum school where “80% of professors are from the U.S and U.K.”  The school is considered Morocco’s best university. “Students are nearly guaranteed good jobs here and also abroad.” The “women traffic police” fit fine in this exceptionally “worldly” place in Morocco which was, now, our point of departure for the most “isolated” place in the country, the Sahara (Arabic sahra [2], meaning desert) Desert.

We bid goodbye to the iconic sculpture of a lion in Ifrane’s city park, which commemorates the last wild Atlas lion, shot nearby in the early 1920s. We were soon on Road N 13 that crosses the Middle Atlas [3], the northernmost of the three Atlas Mountains chain which form a large plateau extending east toward Algeria. Our destination was Rissani, some 200 miles south.

We did not see the “Berber apes,” Barbary macaque, an Old-World monkey, unique for its vestigial tail and an endangered primate known to live in the Middle Atlas. Instead, we ran into a flock of sheep on the side of the road. I talked to the shepherd with the help of our guide. The sheep belonged to the local villagers from the Berber tribe. They were raised for their meat. In the higher mountains, there was a special breed raised for their wool.

The Middle Atlas is a mountainous mass with varied geologic zones, but its attractive rocky coast is not very hospitable. We encountered few other inhabitants; the vehicles on the road were going to distant destinations . The mostly arid land around us gave way at higher elevations to forests of cedar and oak trees. But this was the exception.  Although we could now see the snow on the High Atlas Mountains in the distance, closer to us the landscape changed again to vast empty spaces which we, occasionally, shared with a few trucks .  The monotony was broken by rare small buttes . The only settlements were truck stops, like the village of Zeida .

Military Outposts

Considerably bigger was the nearby town of Midlet [4]. Its population of some 45,000 has come from the villages in the fertile surroundings, irrigated by the Moulouya River.  At nearly 5,000 feet, the area is known as ideal for growing apples. Midlet is equally important for its strategic location. It sits on the high plains between the Middle and High Atlas mountain ranges. Its name means center in the local Berber language, Tamazight. “Historically, it was a crucial link in the old slave trade route,” our guide said.  “Berbers of this area could not be easily controlled by the French colonial rulers. They made Midlet a French military base in the 1920s.” Midlet’s growth followed. The colorful Hotel Kasbah Asmaa has become many long-distance travelers’ destination for lunch.

Driving further south, we came to the Ziz Gorges, which are called “Morocco’s Grand Canyon.” The Ziz river has cut its way through the Jurassic valley of the Middle Atlas Mountains here, creating dramatic sceneries in rocks which changes color as the day progresses.  In the parking area at the edge of the gorges where we stopped, vendors came up to us offering rocks with fossils

Back on our bus, we soon noticed a few drops of rain on the windshield which rapidly increased so as to blur our view .  “This weather is typical for October,” our guide said. The dried stream beds (wadi [5]) now looked wet.  The Middle Atlas contributes regular flows to its rivers. Dams have been built for flood control, and constructing reservoirs to support the agricultural industry of the region. The late King Hassan II had decreed that “All streams be dammed; and no drop to go to the sea,” our guide said.  On the left, we saw an example of the results of his directive. It was the huge lake created by the Barrage (dam) Hassan-Addakhil which was completed in 1972. The dam itself has a length of 30.86 kilometers. It was named after the ancestor of the King who, in the 13th century, was brought from the Arabian Peninsula to this area around the Ziz River, Tafilalet [6], by the inhabitants to be their Imam. They hoped that because he was a descendant of the Prophet Mohammad, his barakah (divine charisma) would “help improve their date palm crops,” we were told.

In our time, the Hassan-Addakhil Dam, indeed, has helped turn an arid area, where inhabitants had depended on subsistence farming and nomadic herding, into an impressive irrigated oasis of date, fig, and olive trees. The small fort-market town of Ksar Es Souk, another military outpost of the French, has grown into the biggest town in the region with 95,000 people. It was renamed Al-Rachidia [7] in 1972 to honor King Hassan II’s new-born second son.

On the other side of the town we saw the vast Ziz Oasis which is the biggest in this part of Morocco, going for several kilometers. An oasis (waheh [8]) is created by “date palm trees grown beside any body of water,” our guide said. “You grow layers of trees and vegetables in the shade of the palm tree. The canopy shade reduces the temperature by more than 10 degrees, allowing other plants to grow under its protection.”  An oasis needs “sweat”, in addition to water. It does not just naturally exist; it requires hard work. The guide emphasized: “It has to be date palm trees, not other kinds, like coconut palm, because the date palms tree alone can resist the hot temperature.”


Al-Rachidia at 3,310 feet was still on the Atlas Mountains but we were descending some 700 feet toward the town known as the “Gate to the Sahara Desert” because it is near Erg Chebbi Dunes. This was Erfoud [9]. A market town of 23,000 people, Erfoud is Morocco’s date palm capital. It carries that badge proudly in an annual palm dates festival . We missed the festival. But we had a more authentic experience as we walked in Erfoud’s market among the many date sellers who had spread their carts of goods on the ground, and were haggling over the price with the wholesalers from the cities . The freshly- picked dates had come from the nearby villages on vehicles pulled by horses or donkeys . We negotiated for a basket of sweet Medjool (Mejahul) at 8 U.S. dollars! The “pricy” Medjool was the best both in taste and nutritional value, we were told. Among the competition, we noted the Boufegouse and Nejda . “Twenty varieties of dates are grown in south- east Morocco, compared with about 100 in all of Arabia,” we were informed.

The area just south of Erfoud was the most important place of departure for caravans that crossed the Sahara in Medieval times. From the old town of Sijilmassa, a few miles away, they would leave for Ghana and Timbuktu (Tombouctou) in Mali.  The kasrs (fortress-citadels) from that era still stand. Typified by the one we toured, their thick walls provided protection, and in the inside, there was a spacious courtyard , with a mosque and hammam (public bathhouse).

The transition to modern times was rather dramatic, we noticed as we visited a home in the neighboring town of Rissani. The main construction material was the same, the adobe of mud and lime which remains ideal for the hot days and cool nights of the region. But the satellite dish on the outside brought the world of television into the house. Our hostess was an illiterate woman, but on her small television set she watched “first” the news, and “second,” dubbed Mexican and Brazilian tele-novellas. The furnishing style of her room was what I had seen in the modern houses of Fez’s Ville Nouvelle: wall to wall cushioned hard bench . Her son, Towfiq, told me that he wanted to be a teacher when he grew up. Her daughter was at a college in Al-Rachidia, studying English literature. My puzzled look prompted an explanation. “Many English-language films are made here, like Spectre, the 2015 James Bond edition,” our guide said.

In the yard outside the house, we encountered our first “camels,” except that they were not camels but dromedaries with one bump.  A dromedary tolerates the heat better. Camels, who have two humps, tolerate cold better, as in China. To compound the confusion, our guide said that, nevertheless, in Morocco a male camel is called jemel (Arabic pronunciation of the same word). “The female is naqa, however.” He added: “Furthermore, there are at least 100 words, in Arabic, for different types of camel.” I decided to resume referring to the animal, hereafter, simply by the familiar, albeit unschooled, “camel”.

By whatever name, the beast was the traditional way to travel across the desert. Not so for the Germans I now met while in line at the cafeteria of the Chergui Kasbah hotel in Erfoud. They had come in some 25 special cars from Hamburg and other cities for a month-long trip. One of them told me, “Germans like to spend winter vacation here.”  As for us, we boarded rugged 4×4 vehicles for the journey.

Sand Dunes

Just east of Rissani, we entered Erg Chebbi [10], Morocco’s largest sand desert, an area extending 3 to 6 miles west from the Algerian border and 31 miles southward. An erg is also called a sand sea as it contains a huge amount of sand in the basin of a former river. It is a dynamic space with shifting dunes. The dunes in Erg Chebbi reach a height of up to 500 feet. Our destination was a tented campsite, near the village of Merzouga, some 20 miles away.

The Erg’s sand is difficult to cross because it is loose, not packed. When the firm dirt road ended, we had to deflate the tires of our vehicle to drive on the sand, making our own undulating paths among the dunes.  We felt the remoteness of the environment of the Sahara. There was no person to be seen. The total silence was paired with the bareness of the vista. A gentle wind had been here as it had left delicate patterns on the sand. All was sand except the lonely tamarisk  which provided a hint of shade.

Our campsite was circled with six tall trees in the shadow of the highest dune around. The shape of this dune was exquisite and the pink color of its mass of sand incomparable . There were dunes of other shapes and sands of other hues which would have equally amazed any creative artist. Camel caravans that quietly sailed before us dotted the sand with their marks. These marks contrasted with the straight tracks made by our 4x4s. At dusk the sky turned into a pallet of unworldly paints . It turned the sand dunes below it into a brown and grey abstract painting.

I woke up early not to miss the drama at sunrise. We climbed the dunes to the east and watched the sun peak through their dark outline. Then the sun burst through like a ball of fire from behind the mountains that formed the border with Algeria “Those mountains are guarded; Algerians are not our friends,” our local guide said. He followed with this narrative which summarized a big part of Morocco’s foreign relations, involving the very sands we were looking at:

Morocco’s relations with Algeria have been stormy from the beginning of Algeria’s independence in 1962.  Morocco never liked the borders drawn between it and Algeria by the colonial power, France. In October 1963, Morocco’s claim to portions of Algeria’s two neighboring provinces led to a short war called Sands War (ḥarb ar-rimal:[11]). In 1994, Morocco’s accusations, that Algeria was responsible for a violent bombing incident in Marrakesh, led to the closure of the border between the two countries. The borders are still closed, costing Morocco $2 billion a year. Furthermore, Algeria has been opposed to Morocco’s absorption of the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara in 1973, and has provided active support to the Polisario Front guerrilla movement there which has been fighting for independence.

There was too much there to absorb in a short conversation. What jumped out immediately was the fact of conflict between two neighbors that shared so much, in ethnicity, language, religion and history. Clearly, the end of foreign colonial rule, the evil which both liked to blame for much of their problems, did not end the problems.

Reflecting on war in the utterly peaceful surrounding that was before me was disorienting. As I gazed aimlessly, in the distance, I noticed a fellow-traveler from New York on a solitary walk. There was no person to disturb him. I imagined him being serenely absorbed in carefree thoughts, far from the maddening crowd of his usual habitat, a near perfect picture of meditation. I did not get the opportunity to ask him about his thoughts. We were all called now to go for the camel ride,

Camels and Fossils

This was virtually a mandatory ritual of the western visitors’ trip to the Moroccan Sahara Desert. The “camel drivers,” who were today in the tourist-service business, had several camels ready for us. The short fur of these Arabian- type camels came in shades of brown from almost white to nearly black. They were kneeling on the leathery skin pad of their legs. We were helped to sit, each on one camel. As the camels got up, I noticed them straightening their hind legs and then jerking up the front legs. The resulting jolt for me was a reminder that this was not going to be an ordinary ride. My camel was about 6.5 feet tall at the shoulders, but it looked huge as it must have weighed over 800 pounds. As it walked on feet cushioned by the broad pad which connects camels’ two long toes, it made almost no sound.  The pace was slow, with both legs on the same side rising and falling together. This action of the legs produced a swaying, rocking motion. I held on to its hump, a lump of fat above its backbone. “This is where the camel holds most of its fat,” our guide had told me about the hump’s real function. “It provides energy for the animal when food is hard to find.”

Our group went in a row, as our camels were tied together.  The camel-driver walked along and obliged us with taking our pictures with our cell phones . We climbed a few low dunes and came down near a place called Yasmine Oasis. The camels bent their front legs and dropped their knees. They then folded their hind legs and sank to the ground, coming to a stop in a kneeling position. My legs had been stretched afar too long to get off comfortably by myself. The camel-driver obliged again with giving a hand. The camel’s large eyes on the side of his head were covered with thick eyebrows to shield them from the desert sun. I put my sunglasses back on.

Camel-drivers were not the only group benefitting from our visit. That afternoon, we drove in our 4x4s looking for rocks with fossils in the desert. Spotting a collection, we stopped. Before we got out of our vehicles, however, a group of four little girls, accompanied with an adult woman appeared out of nowhere, and spread their trinkets to sell right on the sand before us. Among their offerings were whimsical camel dolls which proved to be ideal souvenirs for the aficionados who could not bring back the real animal.

The animal we now turned our attention to was a squid- type creature, long dead. It lived in an ocean which was formed here half-a-billion years ago. As the sea water disappeared, the marine animals died and sank to the bottom.  Their fossils were preserved in sedimentary rocks like the limestone under our feet, the Moroccan Sahara having eventually taken the place of that pre-historic ocean [12].   We noted that the currents of the water had lined up the straight shells of the animals in rows.

These squids (Orthoceras) lived approximately 400 million years ago. The rich fossil beds discovered in this part of Morocco since 1960, has yielded many other types of animals and created a small industry of their fossils. The road between Erfoud and Rissani was lined with several shops catering to the tourists. The job of cleaning big rocks to bring out the fossils requires expertise. Artisans process fossil layers into large items such as tables, bathtubs and floor paneling. On a smaller scale, there were soap dishes and plates with fossils of squids and ammonites which lived 240 million years ago. My favorite was a free standing Tribolite (three lobes) which dated back to 521 million years ago.  It looked like E.T., the Extra Terrestrial made famous by the 1982 Movie.


We did not buy anything from the nomads we visited in the Sahara. They only had goats to sell which they raised themselves. The routes in this area were once known only to the camel and goat-herding Tuareg nomads. Now only 4,000 Moroccans live the nomadic life, according to official records. The nomads’ tent , made of camel and goat hair, was distinct. We were welcomed by a smiling turbaned man who wore a blue robe, over a shirt with Latin lettering on it . Inside the tent, we sat down on a red nomadic rug and listened to him tell us about the life of the nomads. He had 20 goats and 4 camels. He sold goats to earn money which he would spend in the market, to which he travelled on his motor bike. Their water was supplied by a well close to the tent.

All along as the nomad talked, his wife sat on the bare sand in another tent, spinning sheep wool to make a blanket. She was barefoot, but otherwise covered with a face veil , a shirt, a skirt and pants, each in a different attractive color and design. I asked where he had met his wife. “In another household,” he said. There were three households living in this location. His own household included his brother and mother, in addition to his wife and children. In summertime, they lived in the buildings which were a few yards away from the tent. They had built those adobe structures by themselves, he said. They left the buildings here after the summer when they migrated, for use after their return.

In death, as in life, the nomads were simple. I visited their cemetery. It was just dirt, adorned only with rough, uncut stones which marked where the deceased were buried, undifferentiated by any sign. According to their creed, they were all returned, indiscriminately, to dust from which they had been made, in graves with rows of stick stones pointing toward Mecca.


Ali was not migratory. He had developed a thriving produce farm in the middle of the desert and already had one of his two sons committed to continue his work. This was subsistence farming and not of interest to the agri-business which concentrated on Morocco’s fertile northern plains.  However, Ali was happy with a wide grin as he welcomed us, holding his little granddaughter in his arms. A white turban on the head, he was wearing a checkered button-down shirt under his djellaba. A shiny motorcycle stood at the entrance to his adobe house, with a television dish on one side. Two solar panels could be seen on the next structure .

This was an oasis. There was a water well. The water table was about 10 feet below the ground. “Well water is everywhere in the Sahara of Morocco,” Ali said as our guide translated.  In fact, “Merzouga is said to have the largest natural underground body of water in Morocco.”  For drinking, Ali used a donkey to fetch water from a “better well” one kilometer away.

The key to Ali’s success was the date palm tree. Indeed, exactly one male palm tree, Ali said, as he proudly took us toward it. He climbed the robust green, healthy tree all the way up and picked a frond. Back on the ground, he now collected a bunch of fronds from a female palm tree. Then, Ali put the male frond in the midst of the female fronds and tied them together. This was the way to reproduce palm trees, he said, but the pollination has to take place in March. One male palm tree is enough, Ali emphasized, the rest here are female palm trees. He now grinned: “I call this male tree Moulay Ismail.” His reference was to the Moroccan Sultan (1672-1727) who is proverbial for having sired hundreds of children.

He said there were 5 varieties of date palm trees in this area. He showed us a 7-year-old date tree. “This tree gives fruit but it is not good enough for people. We use its fruit for animals, until it is 10 years old. The tree has to be taller for the date to be fleshy.”  Bayout was the only disease that afflicted palm trees. It has destroyed about 10 million trees in Morocco, according to some sources [13]. Ali said the remedy was “to burn the tree down to the lowest part of the trunk and then water it a lot.”

Ali’s produce and fruit farm was made possible by his date palm trees which provided the needed mitigating shade, in the otherwise unbearable heat of the desert. Under the date trees he planted fruit trees such as pomegranate, and vegetables such as corn , kale , eggplant, carrot and cucumber.  Ali showed us an underground irrigation network he had built in the farm. There was even a shrub of cotton here; Ali impishly said the plant, native to tropical and subtropical regions, had grown here “by accident”.

I was curious to know what Ali used as fertilizer. “Sand mixed with the manure of my animals, sheep and goats,” he said. The rest of the world depends heavily on phosphate as fertilizer. Morocco is said to have almost three-quarters of the world’s phosphate reserves, and the additional fact that its best phosphate lies in the disputed Western Sahara makes the subject, both politically and economically, the focus of much interest.  Morocco’s output is 20% of global production of phosphate. “Morocco exports 90% of its production,” our guide said. “Of the rest, it uses 8.5% as fertilizer.” The phosphate’s other uses have been in making detergents and food additives, while the demand for it as a component of lithium-ion batteries has been increasing recently.


Ali only sold his dates; he kept the other products of the farm for his own use. There were 13 farms like his in the area. They formed a cooperative at the suggestion of the government to get its assistance, such as “new breed of dates,” our guide said. Those farms probably supplied some of the ingredients for the food served in our tent camp.

Hosted by the American company Overseas Adventure Trips, the camp had a well-equipped kitchen with a staff that set a dining table worthy of a city restaurant, in the middle of the desert. We were served the traditional breakfast of the local Berbers, bread and tea, and the regular American fare. For dinner, we had the Berbers’ couscous, but also what they ate for lunch, “vegetables and pieces of meat cooked in an oil sauce with many spices added” –as I read in a museum a few miles away.  On our dining table, there was always the hot sauce harissa [14], which is made from several chili peppers, spices, herbs, garlic, and olive oil. One evening we had bstila, the meat pie with many layers of flaky dough, but with shredded chicken instead of the traditional squab. The highlight of our dining experience here was the class given by the chef in preparing her specialty in the tagine, the clay pot with the conical lid.

The chef placed on a table before her a tagine, and a round wooden tray with small plates of spices, including cumin powder, coriander powder, and turmeric, tomatoes, olives, and chickpeas.  On two bigger plates, she had chicken pieces and sliced onions, carrots, cauliflower, potatoes, and squash. The chef began by laying the chickpeas at the bottom of the deeper part of the tagine, with the chicken pieces above them and, finally, the vegetables on the top. She garnished the pile, sprinkling the spices by a spoon .  While the domed lid of the tagine pot trapped the steam and returned the condensed liquid to the pot, the chef’s slow-cooked stew turned into a delicious dinner for us. We ate it with bread as is customary is the Moroccan desert.

The use of tagine began in the north of the Atlas Mountains; in the desert, ordinary clay pots were commonly used.  This came up in the conversation I had at dinner with an erudite Berber who had come to talk to us about the religion of the people of the desert. He mentioned that there were several theories about the etymology of the word. He knew that some thought it was the Persian tah-chin [15], meaning “laid at the bottom (of the pan),” referring to the way it is cooked. He said that may be true about the Tunisian dish which is similar to the Persian food tahchin , made with rice and meat, but the Moroccan word probably has another Persian word as its root. He had read that the Persian tayan [16], meaning a large pan, was Arabicized as ṭajin [17].

Sunni or Shiite

The Berber’s lecture on Islam was no less nuanced. He had a hazardous shoal to navigate, in presenting “the Five Pillars of Islam” to an audience which he assumed to be at best skeptic. The Pillars, considered as the foundation of Muslim life, he said, constituted a program for actions: prayer, helping the needy, self-purification, and pilgrimage to Mecca. In following these commands, a believer could not possibly harm others. Not only in theology, but in current affairs, Moroccans as good Muslims were peace-loving, he said. In particular, they had no ill intention toward the Jews and no interest in defending bad practices of the Palestinians. What was more, the Berber said, Muslim Moroccans did not condone violence by the Sunnis any less than by the Shiites against each other.

The last point had special significance for Morocco’s place among its quarreling neighbors. I was surprised to hear the Berber tell me what it meant personally for him as well. “Sometimes I wonder where the Berbers came from,” he began. “Maybe we are related to the Kurds,” he reflected loudly. The Berbers, of course, were here before the Arabs arrived and made them Muslims. Yet even the Arabs in Morocco have been divided: most are Sunnis, but like some Moroccan rulers, many can trace their history to a Shiite root.

“How about us?  Have the Berbers been Sunni all the time?”  I had a suggestion for him. I asked him if he was familiar with Rumi’s poems about the Shiites and Sunnis. In his Masnavi, the 13th century Sunni poet laments that in some cities of Islamdom all inhabitants are Shiites, as one can tell by their names, to the extent that no person with names popular among the Sunnis is found there. The Berber was listening,  and I continued,  “Maybe you can apply Rumi’s test.” I asked: “What are the names prevalent among the Berbers?” He became pensive. “Let me see.  We have Omar but not Abu Bakr and Othman.” These were Sunni Caliphs. “On the other hand, we have Hassan, Hossein, and Reda.” These were Shiite Imams. Then there were “Berber names which could be either Shiite or Sunni: Mohammad, Mustafa and Ibrahim.”  Our test was not conclusive, and our data was not exhaustive enough. He said he would look into doing further work on the subject.

Gnawa Music

A power generator, augmented with solar panels, lighted the rooms in our camp, and worn-out flat-weave Berber rugs covered its grounds to keep the sand off. Tonight, however, the glow of a camp-fire in the darkened sand a few yards away, beckoned. When we arrived, two local musicians had come to play. One was wearing a white turban, different in shape from the ones we had seen worn by the farmer Ali or the nomad. The color of his skin was black. The musicians were warming the skins of their several drums of different sizes . When they began to play, their music was exotic yet familiar to our ears. They invited us to join, passing two drums around. I found it possible to beat out some sounds that did not conflict with their music.

I asked what music they liked the best. “The Gnawa,” they said.  Our guide explained “Gnawa is the traditional desert music, loved by most Moroccans.” One of the musicians who, with his spectacles, looked like a music historian, elaborated further. “It is the music of the Gnawa tribe that was brought to Morocco during slavery times and bought and sold by Arabs and Berbers,” he said. The tribe’s original home was in the South Sahara. Gnawa is the Arabic pronunciation of kanawa [18], the residents of Kano which was the capital of the ancient Hausa-Fulani Emirate, our guide explained. The musician added: “As they were forced to cross the desert on foot, hands chained, the Gnawa sang to soothe their suffering.” If you pay close attention, he said, “in their music the sounds of instruments imitate the sound of chains.”

Our guide said: “Every year the Gnawa, who are dispersed throughout Morocco, come to Khamlia to celebrate their heritage at a festival which is attended by thousands of people.”  The village of Khamlia was about 4 miles from our camp. The next morning, we drove there. The festival was several months away, in June. The adobe house where we heard the music, however, was crowded with tourists. One from northern Europe told me “You know, this music had a great influence on the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix.” We were sitting on the benches that circled the rooms. One of our hosts poured us tea into the glasses which were set a foot down on a tray.

The music began with five musicians who had positioned themselves on the floor, barefoot. They were all men, black-skinned, and wore all white: a robe and a turban like that of the musician we had seen at the camp-fire. The one at the center was playing a string instrument the size of a guitar, the man next to him played a large drum. The three others joined with clapping their hands. This was part of “Pigeons du Sable, Groupe Zaid,” or the musical Group Zaid of the Sand Pigeons. The instruments were the sintir [19], a three-stringed bass plucked lute, covered on the playing side with camel skin -which is an ancestor of the banjo- and the drum tbel [20] -which is one of the oldest percussion instruments. The group had one more characteristic instrument, the large iron castanet, krakeb [21]. We saw them playing the krakeb in another ensemble when the five of them played standing up. As they swayed gently, they evoked the image of walking across the desert by the enslaved Gnawa, with the castanets producing the sound of their chains.

The dominant sound, however, was that of the big drum. It was the sound that led the Gnawa’s rituals which combined music with poetry and dancing. Our hosts invited us to take a few steps with them and we followed enthusiastically in a circle. Aside from the “danceable” tunes, the group played two other types of music. The nostalgic numbers were exemplified by a tune called soudani, which recalled the Gnawa’s origin in an area then called “Sudan,” in Central and Western Africa -not today’s country of Sudan. Then there was the “healing” music, exemplified by the tune “lailaha ella allah.” That name is the phrase (there is no God but Allah) which is a part of the Islamic creed. This phrase was chanted by a vocalist, over and over for the length of the tune, as the instruments accompanied him.

The Groupe Zaid offered their recorded music in CDs for the equivalent of $10 each. Music presumably does not provide enough income for them, as the musicians have second jobs as well. Khamlia had three small shops, a coffeehouse, and 150 residents, the majority of them black. Barriers to marriage with members of other groups in Morocco have kept the Gnawa’s physical features intact over centuries. This was evident in the very place their future integration in Moroccan society could be expedited, Khamlia’s only School [22].

This was a coed institution (Ecole Mixte). The four Gnawa were easy to distinguish in the class we visited. Two of the boys were sitting together on a two-person bench, but the third was sitting with a Berber girl on another bench, while the only Gnawa girl in the room was left sitting alone by herself on a different bench.  This was the French language class, taught by Amal who had grades 3 and 4 students together here –due to “shortage of teacher.”

These students were also taught that they had more in common by what were hung on the walls of the class.  There was a framed copy of the Moroccan National Anthem (alnnashid alwatani [23]) with the flags of the country on the top, an outline of the map of the country in the middle, and, at the bottom, the Morocco’s motto (sha`ar [24]): “God, Homeland (Country), King” (alllah, alwatan, almalik [25]). A portrait of the King, on the next wall, looked down paternally on the students.


The uncommon environment of the Sahara Desert induces a persistent sense of detachment. The infinite fields of sand and the sublime curvatures of the dunes insist on the majesty of nature. The more it is so, however, the harder it becomes for you to find your place in this scheme of things. Technology facilitates the observation of the elements of the Sahara, but engaging with them remains elusive. They are solid but your contact is ephemeral. You come away only with impressions, still longing for comprehension. It is the feeling of a transient travelling in his own bubble.



  1. يفرن
  2.  صحرا . (In North Africa, صحرا  is also a word used to mean الصحراء الكبرى , aṣ-ṣaḥraʾ al-kubra , or  “the Greatest Desert'”.
  3.    الأطلس  المتوسط
  4. ميدلت
  5. وادي
  6. تافيلالت
  7. الرشيدية‎‎
  8. واحه
  9. أرفود‎‎
  10. عرق الشبي‎‎
  11. الرمال‎‎ حرب.
  12. “The Sahara sits atop the African Shield, which is composed of heavily folded and denuded Precambrian rocks…. The age of the Sahara has been a matter of some dispute. Several studies of the rocks in the region indicate that the Sahara became established as a climatic desert approximately 2–3 million years ago.”
  14. هريسة
  15. ته چین
  16. تیان,
  17. طاجن or طجين
  18. كناوة
  19. سنتير‎‎
  20. طبل
  21. قراقب

This recording of the Les pigeons du sable’smusic was on the following YouTube site, accessed on March 23, 2017:

  1. مدرسةالخميله
  2. النشيد الوطني
  3. شعار
  4. الله، الوطن، الملك