Morocco – The Forbidden Souss

The last day of our descent down the long southern slope of the Atlas, we met with the burning breezes that blow westward from the terrible Sahara through the long African summer, drying up the rivers and streams that water the broad, rich plain, and parching the earth like the hot breath from an oven. Even under the scraggy shade of our noonday halting-place, sticks and tree trunks were painfully hot to the touch. The muddy water from an underground stone reservoir, strained through a corner of Lhassen’s woolen djellaba, gave little relief to the burning thirst that made one’s throat thick. The slope was occasionally broken by steep descents through twisted, woody trails, wild and difficult, or through thorny forests of argan trees, and down dangerous rocky stair-ways of loose stone. Except in these wild places, the region is populated with humble villages, stacked and terraced against the mountain-side, above little fertile table-lands, where irrigation gives rich crops of figs, grapes, and watermelons, besides the staple products, barley, millet, and Indian, corn.

As we passed through these little places with strange Shelluh names, almost always beginning with T,—Taouirt, Temsemlal, Tedaret, Touloua and Tamtemmazer,—the natives greeted us good-naturedly; the women shyly gave Kbira a handful of green almonds or a bowl of goat’s milk, and the men, with a hospitable word, handed us bunches of excellent Malaga grapes when we rode through their vineyards. We were on a little frequented trail; the people, not so accustomed to passing caravans, were more courteous to strangers than some of the tribes in the starved mountain valleys, and, having fuller crops, could afford to be generous. The rumoured hostility of the “fierce Soussi,” the population of cutthroats and bandits, we did not find. The commands of the great over-lords not to molest Europeans, were apparently, effective, and the probability of much booty in our little caravan was too small to risk the punishment that might ensue.

Some of these villages were named from their marabout’s shrine,—Sidi Bou Naga, Sidi Bou Aziz,—groups of huts huddled near a crudely built saint’s tomb. Holy men, both living and dead, are of the greatest importance in the life of Morocco. The cult of the marabouts is the real religion of the Berber village folk. There are mosques only in the larger towns, and the muezzin’s call is not heard in the remote, secluded places. Thoughtful souls, mindful of the faithful Moslem’s duty, may say their five daily prayers to the All Compassionate, and their lips, uttering a strange tongue, may pro-claim and reiterate the Oneness of God, but their simple hearts turn toward the hundred tombs of old saints, whose sympathetic spirit-ears may understand their homely language and human yearnings better than the Great Arbiter of Destinies aloof in his golden grandeur. These saints were withered old men, living in desolate graveyards or under some hallowed tree, subsisting by alms of the charitable, wrapping their hearts ever in holy dreams, as they spent their years counting over on old black rosaries the ninety-nine Excellent Names of God. And when they died, the villagers built them humble little tombs on the hillside, bare and crude like their own dwellings ; and here the devout will come and sit beside the coffin, knock three times to wake the sleeping saint, and whisper their hopes and needs. Then they go away, leaving some part, of their garments as an offering, or perhaps a present of food for some younger living saint who guards the shrine, and who, in his turn, may one day be translated into a local divinity.

Many of these marabouts tombs have more than a local sanctity; pilgrims journey far to pay respect to a shrine whose holy renown has reached from valley to valley, and in certain seasons the ways that lead to sacred wells and mysterious caverns are thronged with folk who come with afflicted bodies and troubled hearts. And there are wild places in the rugged Atlas slopes around which cling some vague shadow of a sanctity the origin of which is long forgotten, but pious wayfarers breathe a prayer in passing and add a small stone to the memorial pile. On one of these hillsides descending to the Souss, each traveller places a stone in a forked branch of one of the gnarled dwarf evergreens through which the trail descends. The trees of the region are loaded with thousands of stones, but no one could tell me why. Perhaps, hundreds of years ago, an evil d j inn had killed a man here, or some saint on a pilgrimage may have told his rosary here for the last time. The dead seem very near to the living in these Moroccan wildernesses, and the spirit world, with its sad old mystery and its grotesque terror, is an omnipresent reality. The worship of saints, the use of charms, the appeasing of devils and djinns are contrary to the pure religion of the Prophet, but they are older than Islam, and in spite of the zealous fury of puritan reformers the soul of Africa has remained pagan.

These humble villages with their little orchards, terraced gardens, and local shrines, stretch along the southern Atlas slope between the market towns. The markets are named for the days of the week, El Arba, Wednesday, or El Khemis, Thursday, towns that have practically no existence except on market days. Then from dawn till sunset these souks are thronging centres of life and bewildering activity. Butchers, grain dealers, sellers of olives, oil, spices, and vegetables, donkey traders, camel merchants, pottery makers, and Jews who sell cloth and jewelry, all come once a week to supply the needs of the peasant villagers, and to trade their wares for the produce the villagers may bring in. For one day there is picturesque movement and fascinating local colour—absolutely black negro slaves in short ragged burnouses, brown Shelluh Berbers in striped djellabas, and dignified, canny Arab merchants in spotless white. Then toward sunset the crowd thins out, the villagers trot home on their little donkeys, the merchants camp in the fondak for the night, and the town is empty and deserted for another week.

We reached one of these towns in the plains, the Souk El Khemis, just at nightfall when the market was breaking up. While Monsieur Lapandéry and Si Lhassen bought half a sheep and a quantity of grapes for our dinner, Kbira and I enjoyed the admiration of a hundred gaping peasants and a vast drove of almost naked little imps, who blinked and stared or danced around us, sticking out their tongues and twisting their comic little faces into fantastic grotesques. Kbira sat demurely on her mule enjoying the situation, for only two years before she had been one of these funny little creatures herself.

The common people here in the plains are poor, for, though the soil is very rich and by means of irrigation can be made highly productive, the unsettled lawless state of the region in recent years, through continuous local feuds, has kept it desolate. And the lot of the lower orders in Morocco is wretched at best. The bandit tribesmen of the mountains leading a wild and dangerous life out-side the pale are happier than the peace-loving valley folk whose lords and chiefs allow them no peace. But the people we met here at El Khemis on market day were pleasant and cheerful with a simple sense of fun. When I tried to photograph them they laughingly thrust forward a hideously old negro into a prominent place, to his great rage and confusion.

By eight in the evening, very sore and weary from the last long day of riding through the unrelieved heat, we arrived at the house of two of Si Lhassen’s sons-in-law, for this country of the Souss is our old Shelluh guide’s native land. We waited long at the door for the house to be prepared to receive our unexpected visit. The little court, where the family principally live, must be cleared of goats and chickens and children, and the dirt floor carefully swept, and the women must have time to put on their best caftans. Our hosts were two young Shelluhs, stupidly pleasant with very dark brown eyes. They welcomed us with simple expressions of hospitality, offering all their means afforded to make us comfortable.

We pass into the little court, climb the notched beam which serves as a ladder, and install ourselves on the roof. The evening air is a joyous relief, and fragrant whiffs of excellent cookery steam up from the court below us, where the women, helped by chattering neighbours, are preparing a feast. I lie, pipe in mouth, chin on hand, looking down upon the busy groups about two round clay stoves. The ruddy charcoal flames throw bright reflections over their faces, as they ply the bellows, or lean over the savoury smoking cooking-bowls. In one corner of the court, the light from a Moorish lantern falls upon quaintly shaped water jars and earthern platters, and in the midst, sits white bearded old Si Lhassen, enjoying his long kief pipe with inexpressible placidity. His younger daughter smiles indulgently at him from time to time, showing her perfect, white teeth. She sits peeling some curious long-necked vegetables with a curved dagger, and as she works, sings this Berber peasant song:

I have wandered everywhere in the whole world, I have travelled in every direction; I have seen there is nothing better in life for a man Than to rest in his own house, With wife and children beside him; Though there is only a single mat, simple and bare, Which he may lie upon when he has supped.

By half past ten, after the usual oriental ablutions and several glasses of mint-flavoured tea, a platter of excellent mutton stew is brought up to us, steaming hot and very peppery. We dip in with our hosts, who have the advantage of us in that their long practised fingers are less sensitive to hot handfuls of food, and I feel some regret as the clean platter is handed down the ladder. But the next course is a great roast, sufficient to satisfy more appetites than ours. And then comes the usual kouskous of steamed white millet walling in a richly delicious mess of vegetables. And after grapes for dessert and many more glasses of tea, we stretch out in indolent ease and enjoy the sense of having achieved a quest. We have reached the forbidden Souss. And now what kind of life shall we find here, and what possible adventures are in store?

The full moon shines on a few deserted mud houses with gaping black holes in the roofs, and on a ghostly ruined kasba, destroyed long ago in some savage baronial feud. The broad rocky bed of the dry Oued Souss stretches for miles through the plain, which seems as white, desolate, and dead as the moon seen through a telescope. One fears to go to sleep in this intense inhuman silence, and longs for the cry of an owl or bark of a dog to give a hint that the world is still alive.

Early the next morning, Si Lhassen woke us, bringing generous cups of excellently brewed coffee with a rare aroma which only the orientais can produce. We lay back deliciously lazy on the rush mats spread out on the housetop, and sipped our coffee, and watched the rosy dawn-light flood the brown plains, the red-brown ruins, the rich green clumps of cacti and laurel that fringed the dry river bed, and the endless Atlas range that now loomed behind us to the north. Soon the coolness of the night was over, and the sun drove us down into the house to find the most comfortable place to spend the day resting. We moved our mats to a darkened passage-way that opened on the court and caught whatever breath of air might be stirring; and I passed the time—a very hot and scorching time—sprinkling myself with native rose water, eating rich ripe grapes, smoking my oldest, sweetest pipe, and watching the women at their house-hold tasks in the little courtyard.

Off from the court, opened two or three rooms and a passage-way which, in turn, led to several more. The only furniture was a few floor mats, which were carefully rolled up when not used to sit on. In one room was a loom with a half-woven woolen burnous in it, and in another dark hole, a huge mud oven. There were two quite primitive hand mills, one for grinding barley for bread, and the other for making cooking oil of argan nuts. One of the women sat in the shadow of the wall, making bread. She picked over a few handfuls of barley, blowing away the chaff that was still mixed with it after the simple winnowing in the field. The mill in which she ground the grain consisted merely of two round flat stones held in a baked mud casing which permitted the upper stone, which was fitted with a handle, to be turned round.

Where there are swift-flowing streams in Morocco there are water-mills, but these are for the rich; the humbler folk must grind their handful of grain wherever they prepare a meal. The woman smiled as she saw my interest in her simple housework, and as she turned the stone she sang the Shelluh song of


Said the water-mill to the hand mill: “Go to sleep! For, when the water rushes through the flume, Many a measure of grain will I grind.” But the hand-mill in the house, answering replied: “I envy not your solitude of streams and gardens; It is with the tribe of fair charmers that I have my home, I am turned by the hands that bring soft caresses.”

When the flour was ground it was kneaded into little round loaves and baked in the blackened oven, which had been heated with charcoal embers. When bread is wanted quickly, as it was the night of our unexpected arrival, it is baked in thin pancakes in a flat red earthen platter over the little clay stove.

The household duties were performed by the women in a very leisurely way. Life in the Souss is so free from complication that there is not much to worry about. Time has no value, and these people are too “uncivilised” to worship efficiency for its own sake. Their homes are simple, their possessions very few, and their cookery always the same. The women have no beds to make, for their bed is a mat which is rolled up in the daytime ; their daily cookery is usually limited to one dish for a meal; the dish-washing merely requires dipping the tea glasses in hot water and pouring the contents of the kettle over a single platter ; their weaving does not keep them very busy, for the household wears but few clothes and wears them out; washing, a task not often thought necessary, consists in rubbing the garments on a flat stone in a running stream and hanging them on a bush to dry. And none of the duties in this simple existence are carried out with much expenditure of energy. There is always leisure for gossip or story-telling or singing, as the women sit together husking corn or washing in the river. And through the long lazy afternoons one sleeps. The occidental mind to be happy must be doing something, expending energy even to enjoy itself, but the oriental finds perfect happiness in doing nothing, and values sleep as one of the highest goods. An eastern proverb says:

It is better to stand still than to run; It is better to sit than to stand; It is better to lie down than to sit; It is better to sleep than to wake.

The news of our arrival had reached the great Shereefa Moulay Ali, a descendant of the Prophet and an important chief in this part of the Souss. He sent word that he would come to pay us a visit and conduct us to his own kasba where he hoped we should remain for some time as his guests. In the hottest part of the hot afternoon he arrived, a very simple and affable, white-bearded old gentle-man in a patched white dejellaba and very old slippers, but a large and spotless turban. He has the dignity of a patriarch, and the sureness of his social position as a member of a Shereefian family makes him simply and naturally democratic. He comes bobbing along seated sideways on the croup of a very small donkey, like one of his humblest retainers, his old babooches dangling from the tips of his toes. At the low doorway of the house he slides off his comic mount, and is respectfully greeted by the male householders with whom he familiarly shakes hands. We go through the elaborate formalities of Arab courtesy, “Peace be with thee!” “Safety be with thee!” “Allah’s blessing upon thee!” “May he prolong thy days!” “May he protect thy house !” “May he increase thy goods!”

There is a kindly and pleasant twinkle in the old Shereefa’s small eyes as we sit down together on the mat. His cordiality is sincere, for our visit will relieve the lotus-eating monotony of his serene, patriarchal life. Hospitality to the oriental is not only a sacred duty, but a pleasant opportunity of contact with the world, and a chance for gossip and the exchange of ideas. We converse in Arabic, and Si Lhassen and his sons-in-law sit in respectful silence not understanding a word. The old Shereefa has travelled about Morocco and often makes visits to Marrakesh. He has a canny knowledge of the world and a genuine liking for the French. His son, in fact, who to our disappointment is not at home, has even visited France.

Monsieur Lapandéry finds it somewhat difficult to explain to the Shereefa just what my occupation is, for a university professor in a Moslem country must of course be a religious person, an Alcoranic doctor living in holy sanctity and steeped in sacred thought. This does not accurately describe me. And so Monsieur Lapandéry introduces me as a writing master who teaches boys their A. B. C. Moulay Ali is much amused at meeting this sort of a Nazarene, and merrily recalls the stinging switch that his writing master found an aid to instruction in calligraphy.

After the usual three glasses of mint-flavoured tea and a half hour’s talk, we bid farewell to our hosts and ride across the dry river bed and burning dry plain to the kasba of Moulay Ali. The little group around the doorway wave us good-bye, and then sit down to discuss the visit of the great Shereefa and congratulate the hosts on the honour that has come upon their house.

The Shereefian families, to one of which Moulay Ali belongs, are very numerous in Morocco. Their descent from the Prophet gives them a specially sanctified character, although they are not necessarily religious men, and a social prestige far greater than that which wealth alone may give. In fact, many of these Shereefs are gentle loafers with no other means of support than their reputed ancestry. They attach themselves to some sheik or wealthy townsman and become one of his numerous hangers-on. How pure blooded Berbers like Moulay Ali can pretend to a descent in the male line from the daughter of the Prophet is not very clear. Possibly he may claim it through some distant Almohade ancestor, for the founder of that Berber dynasty successfully established his long and imposing genealogy of saintly names beginning with the Prophet himself.

After a half hour’s ride through the white hazy air of three o’clock in the afternoon, we reach the new mud-built kasba of Moulay All, a rudely imposing stronghold in the pasture land south of the Oued Souss. We cross two great outer courtyards, where the flocks are kept at night, and go through several dark, roughly beamed passage-ways, that lead to a small inner court. A narrow stairway goes up to a corridor with three Moorish arches made in sun-baked clay; and off this, opens our apartment, a dark, very plain room with three little latticed windows that pierce the thick walls, and admit slant, narrow shafts of burning sunlight, that fall in little spotted lozenges on the floor. Everything in the castle is so plain as to give a sense of emptiness. The three clay arches are the only approach to art or decoration. There are no pavements, no tiles or mosaics, not even plaster. Everything is stark in its simplicity. Our room is furnished with two barbarically gorgeous carpets woven in banded designs of brilliant colour, a startling contrast to the brown monotony of everything else in the kasba.

Moulay Ali’s life is no more complex than that of the peasant folk we have just visited. Although he is wealthy and powerful, his ideal of life is not the gathering together of “things.” His wealth consists in hundreds of fat sheep, sleek goats, and a huge troop of asses and camels, all of which are tended during the day by a dozen or so of children and a few drivers. At night the flocks and troops are driven into the courtyards of the stronghold, and the vast wooden gates are barred at sunset, just as the Shereefa is saying his evening prayer. This is life in the patriarchal age. Moulay Ali is only one degree removed in his way of living from the nomadic Abraham and Esau.

Our host ushers us into our apartment, and a slave pours water over our hands and brings the charcoal brazier and the kettle for tea. The Shereefa is most oriental in the cordiality of his welcome. With smiling eyes and genial manner he tells us we are as members of his own family and safer than his own life. To be hospitable to strangers is his greatest pleasure. If we will stay a month with him as his guests, he will kill a sheep every day! In his hand he always carries two massive keys ten inches long, like St. Peter, and I wonder what they may open. With his benignant patriarchal smile and his flowing robes he would make a wonderful model for an old Italian painter.

Funny little black boys scantily clothed in a rag each, come staggering in, embracing huge watermelons that have been picked before dawn and kept in a dark closet. St. Peter lays aside his keys, draws his long poignard from its richly ornamented sheath, and severs three melons one after the other at a blow, until he finds one perfect enough for his guests. He continues chatting merrily, and brandishes the wicked looking poignard as he gesticulates. As I watch the flashing arcs of the blade the thought occurs to me that it has not always been used to slice melons.

Moulay Ali professes the greatest admiration for the French. The victory of the Allies in the War has made a profound impression on the Soussi and the tribes in other unsubdued regions of Morocco. Success in war means a kind of superiority which they can understand and appreciate. They accept the eventual French occupation as the inevitable will of Allah. During the War, German agents tried to stir them up, and, it is rumoured, made considerable headway in this very region with Moulay Ali’s over-lord, the caïd at Aoulouz, but Moulay Ali leaned always on the side of the French. He also professes an admiration for America, which he has heard of in a vague way as strong in wealth and military power. And though he knows me only as an American “writing-master” he many times expresses the hope that we should be friends forever. During our talk we shake hands in the bonds of an eternal guest-friendship.

As we sit chatting and drinking tea in this upper chamber, we are startled by fearful sounds coming through the window that looks on the outer court, sounds as of the slaughtering of a whole zoo. It proves to be nothing but the bellowings and snortings of three or four camels that are being loaded. The ill-natured beasts groan and snarl and try to bite, although almost nothing is being packed on their backs, but this is the usual habit of these creatures, the most evil tempered of all domestic animals. They twist their long necks around, showing their ugly faces, their heavy eyelids and cynical mouths, disgruntled with life and ever scornful of the world. But these are not the ordinary camels of the Moroccan Bled; they are white dromedaries, tall, magnificently built animals that thrive only in the intense heat of the Great Sahara itself, the true “ships of the desert.”

The dromedaries belong to some strange, striking fellows, evidently of another race than the Shelluh Berbers. These men are graceful as Greek statues, supple in their movements as wild animals, finely handsome with perfect white teeth, very dark skins, and long black hair to their shoulders, and their eyes have the superb haughty freedom of men who dwell in the Great Desert. Moulay Ali tells us they are a party of distant tribesmen, his especial friends, who live eight days’ journey by camel, to the southeast, over the distant ranges of the Middle Atlas, in the land of Mauretania. He goes down to the court and invites two of the men to drink tea with us before they set out for home. They wear long baggy white breeches and light flowing loose robes of dark blue, and dark blue turbans. One of them comes in ready for his long ride, his face swathed like a Moslem woman in a blue veil to protect him from the heat and dust, only his deep eyes showing, like wells in the twilight. He unwinds the veil and sits with us on the mat—an Antinoüs carved in dark marble.

These Mauretanians have ever been a wild free people, nomads roaming over the western desert, owing allegiance to none but their tribal Chief, except when stirred and united by some fanatical reformer of Isham, when they have carried the Holy War to Marrakesh itself. Their language is Arabic, and they have little in common with the sedentary Shelluh of the Souss. Antinoüs with graphic gestures describes their country. It is a land of sand, sand, sand, with never a palm tree. The only things that grow are scrubby bushes and short grasses on which their camels and flocks feed. Their food is milk and goat’s flesh. Water they carry from distant wells and store in reservoirs. Theirs is a land of burning sun and cloudless skies, with rarely a drop of rain. They are a roaming free people who dwell under the tent, and despise those who live in houses and pay taxes.

Soon the Mauretanians mount their magnificent dromedaries and ride off toward the southern mountains, their heads held high and their dark blue garments fluttering in the wind. And my heart yearns to go with them to see the barren land that produces such men. In truth these must be the “blameless men” with whom the gods of Homer were wont to dine in the Land of Ethiopia.

Strange, that romance should be always somewhere else ! Two weeks ago it was here in the heart of the forbidden Souss, but now it lies in the wild barren land of the blue Mauretanians down toward the fabulous Mountains of the Moon.