Morocco – The Return

THE next morning the calipha’s runner came back from Taroudant, where the higher native authorities had consulted with the French mission posted there. A letter from the Bureau des Renseignments very courteously advised us, because of the imperfect security of the country, not to attempt to pursue our journey further into the Souss, but to go back over the mountains to Marrakesh. We were, of course, unwilling to do this, but we had no choice, for the calipha sent us back with an escort of two soldiers. We had been detained but eight days in this strange old palace-fortress, but we felt we had been living this indolent, eventless life for a vaguely indefinite period. Time had ceased to have any significance and had become a succession of dreaming moments, a list-less, monotonous peace.

As we rode through the outer court for the last time, past the old negresses at the well, past the curious students looking down from the mosque roof, and past the sleepy guards at the gate, I wondered if Aziza’s dark eyes were among those that peered out of the gloom behind the mysterious little blue latticed windows. We took our ceremonious farewell of the calipha at the gate of his castle and, with our native guards, set out across the plain for a short-cut trail that quickly brought us into the wild and rugged heart of the great Southern Atlas.

The first two days were without important incidents for the party, but rich in the experience of travelling through scenes unbelievably wonderful, panoramas of gigantic mountains bathed in clear light, vistas of dead volcanic valleys, lurid, sulphurous, and strange ; torrents of icy water roaring from rocky caverns, and terrible ascents up almost impassable slopes. Once at nightfall we passed a small clan of migrating tribesmen in a temporary camp. The unloaded camels browsed on the scanty vegetation or lay in ruminating tranquillity under the argan trees ; the women were squatting near a dozen fires that blazed under tea kettles and kouskous bowls; and the men lay stretched out at ease waiting for their evening meal.

And one night we spent in a mellah, or Jewish village. Throughout Morocco the Jews live in villages apart from the Moslems, or, in the cities, they have special quarters assigned to them. Before I had dismounted, a young Jew came and walked by my side and held the spout of a metal teapot to my lips. It was full of maya, a drink distilled from wild honey. This is a very merry beverage, the same thing as the old English metheglin; it makes the bees buzz round in your head, the flavor of the honeycomb is in your mouth, and the world seems a wonderful place to live in. It was Friday night, and old black bearded Jews in long white mantles newly washed for the Sabbath, crowded round us and bade us welcome. Some of the younger women were very pretty, with delicate features and “eyes like the fishpools of Heshbon by the gate of Bathrabbim.” Shy groups of them, gay in their Sabbath dress and conspicuous with silver jewelry, gazed down at us from a nearby housetop, and discussed us in tantalising whispers. An old mother in Israel, a tooth-less hag of ninety years, sat in the gloomy doorway of her hut and muttered things at us as we passed, as Deborah might have against the Philistines; and Rebecca carried us fresh water in a big earthen jar from the village well. And Rahab was there among the rest, ready to quote the seventh chapter of Proverbs.

Although it was after sundown and the Sabbath had begun, when no stroke of work may be done in the mellah, one thrifty old Jacob, probably with a mental reservation about helping asses fallen into a pit, brought us a bowl of sour milk, a very tasty kouskous and a jar of honey. We expressed our appreciation of his hospitality, which he assured us was not worth mentioning; but when we had eaten the food, true to his racial traditions, he demanded an exorbitant sum in payment. And one loathsome old scoundrel whispered in our ears the infamous proposal of sending his two daughters to our camp after nightfall.

Monsieur Lapandéry and I enjoyed our excellent supper and appreciated the rather potent maya; but old Si Lhassen was not so happy, for his religion not only made him a prohibitionist, but also forbade him to touch food prepared by an unbelieving Jew; furthermore, the only thing we had left in the way of supplies was part of a ham, the product of the accursed pig! Little Kbira, who considers herself French, of course had no scruples in such matters. I often wondered how the silent old patriarch felt about the apostasy of his daughter and granddaughter, even though it brought great material advantages with it. But probably he thought nothing of it at all, for women having no souls, their religion must be a matter of small consequence.

The next afternoon we started on the trail that leads up over the great lonely peak of Tizi Ouicheddan. From below, mighty crags loom over our heads, forbidding and almost impassable. The narrow, perplexing path we must climb is lost a few yards above us, and the black hard face of the cliff seems to go up hundreds of feet almost sheer to the sharp sky line. The two agile soldiers of our guard have climbed on ahead. My mule plants her sure feet in the ledges and crevices that afford her scanty footing; her straining neck reaches forward and I lean over to keep the balance and loosen my feet in the stirrups, ready to jump should some stone in the path give way under us. Half way up the ascent I look down and wonder how we have been able to make the climb, which seems as impossible from above as from below. Kbira is riding behind Monsieur Lapandéry’s saddle, her arms clutching his waist, for the path is too difficult for her to ride her heavily loaded mule. Kino is a sure-footed horse, but this is no journey for a horse; he is much less sure of himself in the mountains than the dogged, experienced little mules.

In a very dangerous place, Kino’s hind legs slipped, and, frantically trying to save himself, he slid toward the edge of the precipice. I was like one in the throes of a terrible nightmare, compelled to watch a ghastly tragedy going on a few yards below me, and utterly powerless to help. The scene, which chilled one’s blood to watch, must have taken but a few seconds, but it seemed to be going on for many tense and terrible minutes. It was like the experience of being in an aeroplane that is sideslipping close to the ground; an eternity of waiting for the inevitable final crash.

Kbira fell over the slope, but saved herself by clutching a scraggy shrub twenty feet below. Monsieur Lapandéry, in his effort to save Kbira, could not leap from his horse, but he and the animal slid toward the slope together and stopped at the very edge. A large loose boulder rolled on Monsieur Lapandéry and for a moment pinned him to the rock; Kino was unhurt, but lay still, terribly frightened. I rescued Kbira from her position, bandaged Monsieur Lapandéry’s injured hand and badly bruised chest, and dealt out a generous ration of maya to restore the shaken morale of the party.

Monsieur Lapandéry protested that he was not hurt, and after a short rest we resumed the climb. In another hour, we reach the great barren peak in a fierce cold wind that blows from a still higher snow-capped summit miles off to the north. The sky over the distant mountains has turned a threatening leaden blue, and thunder rumbles over the valley into which we must descend. For the first hour we lead the animals down the dangerous slope, and then reach the zone of vegetation. We halt in a wild olive grove to rest and allow the tired animals time to eat.

Monsieur Lapandéry now shows that he has been badly hurt. His nerve has kept him up so far, but his chest pains him severely and he breathes with difficulty. We make a bed of rugs and blankets for him under the wild olives. He becomes terribly depressed in spirit and evidently can go no farther. A wild rain storm is raging to the north; strange misty masses of cloud, like grotesque Protean animals, detach themselves from the dark northern sky and move rapidly over the high mountain peaks; and fierce lightning-flashes tear the gloom that hangs thickly over the lofty D j Djebel Mskrin. The sun has set in the great valley below us, but up here among the hills, its golden rays stream through the western clouds and break into lights and shadows on the hundred summits piled in confusion around us. An amber shadowless glow fills the sombre olive grove where we are resting.

Monsieur Lapandéry, very pale beneath his tanned skin, lay propped up on a pile of brilliant rugs I had bought in the Souss. His fine spirit, which I had never seen desert him before, seemed to have gone. In a dull voice he talked of his past life, of his serious boyhood in Burgundy, of his education for the priesthood, and of his loss of faith in everything except the power of God. And then he told of his wandering life in the colonies, of his aimless struggles, with the usual lack of success of a rolling stone, of his constant dissatisfaction with life, and of his final resignation to his growing belief in oriental fatalism.

“This may be my last cigarette,” he said in a tone that implied that nothing mattered. “Well, if it is, so be it! Ishallah!” Little Kbira was sitting beside him softly crying, and old Si Lhassen sat cross-legged at a little distance, smoking his kief pipe, his wrinkled face placidly inscrutable.

Then Monsieur Lapandéry talked of Kbira, of how she had been the only interest of his life for the last two years. When he discovered that be-sides her childish charm she had a keenness and aptitude for learning, he had devoted himself to her training. Making a future for her had given him a new ambition. Then, still talking in an unaccustomed low voice, he made his will, leaving all his small property to Kbira. He closed his eyes and remained silent for a long time. There was no sound but the animals munching their barley and little Kbira softly crying. After a few minutes, he opened his eyes and looked at the marvellous scene before us, the lightning storm playing round Djebel Mskrin away to the north, and the uncanny quiet light in the wild olive grove.

“Lamartine would have loved to die here in this wonderful spot high up among the eternal hills!” said he, clutching his bruised chest with one hand and making a gesture with the other. At last I had the key to the situation. He was a sentimentalist finding a melancholy pleasure in his own painful emotions. As his pulse was strong and no ribs were broken, I could not believe that he was as badly off as he felt he was. He breathed with difficulty and was doubtless in some pain, but he be-longed to the romantic generation of Lamartine, and could not resist indulging in deathbed emotions in the most romantic spot in the world. I felt that the mood would eventually pass, and so I played up to it as well as I could, meanwhile keeping a careful eye out for any change in his actual symptoms.

Suddenly he pulled himself together, and, starting up to his feet, exclaimed, “But my work is not yet finished!” and patted little Kbira’s curly head. And soon with some assistance he mounted Kino, and we started on down the mountain, hoping to camp at the junction of the Oued Agoundis with the Oued Nfis. I kept near him on foot for fear he might fall. “If I do not make it,” he said, “I wish to be buried there where the rivers meet.” Several times during the descent he reined in, and in the mood of one reluctant to leave the beauty of the world, which more than compensates for the sorrow of it, exclaimed with a sweep of his injured hand toward the glorious darkening mountains, “Ah, que c’est beau, Monsieur Andrews ! Que c’est beau!”

At dark we reached the camping spot and made preparations for the night. The two Shelluh soldiers who had protested all along that they were ordered to take us to the kasba of the Goundafi at the upper end of the valley, now became unruly and showed ugly symptoms. We refused to go to the kasba because the detour would considerably lengthen the journey, and we feared we might be detained for several days more. The soldiers, how-ever, preferred the fleshpots of the chief’s castle to a night in the open. I ordered Si Lhassen to unpack the mules and busied myself with pretending to polish my very efficient-looking automatic.

The soldiers at once dropped their threatening manner and went off in search of food. In an hour they returned with nothing, and as Si Lhassen’s efforts in the nearest village were unsuccessful, there was nothing for it but to go supperless to bed.

Monsieur Lapandéry had a little fever, and his hurts were so painful that he could not sleep. I made my bed beside him and lay awake till early morning, drinking strong cold tea and smoking a very old and very consoling pipe. I dreamily spelled out the constellations until the late moon came up and blotted most of them out. It was my turn to become the sentimentalist enjoying emotions. I thought of the astrologers and the lovers and the dreamers who had puzzled over the stars in this same valley six hundred years ago, when these Atlas tribes had suddenly developed into a militant power that conquered Morocco. Not ten miles up the valley are the ruins of Tinmel, in the eleventh century a rival of Marrakesh, a city of perhaps a hundred thousand souls, which a great barbarian queen destroyed centuries ago. And today there is nothing left but the fragment of a mosque and a great desolate cemetery, where greedy natives dig for buried treasure among the broken tombs.

If you would know the age of the world, my brothers, Ask of the changeless stars Fakarden, How many races and realms of earth they have seen Following one another on through time, And how long each endured. And ask them how long it has been since days Have followed in succession, day by day, And for how many nights their shining fire Have lighted the ways of travellers o’er the world.

The injured man tossed restlessly at my side, the Oued Nfis gurgled sullenly over the stones in its half dry bed, and the jackals barked as they came down from the hills to drink. By three o’clock mule caravans began to go by, the drivers singing their strangely beautiful yodels, one answering another as they filed into the valley, and the mountains echoed refrains. The yodels were punctuated by the sharp calls to the mules, “Arrr Zit! Zit!” to urge them on, and “Shoah! Shoah! Ouzay!” to hold them in. At dawn a flock of bleating sheep passed, pushing and crowding to drink from the river. One shepherd lad carried a new-born lamb on his arm, and the other, a laughing young barbarian, thumped a pottery tom-tom, and I heard his sprightly rhythms blending with the bleating of the sheep, as they passed down into the river gorge.

After a morning’s rest, Monsieur Lapandéry was able to continue the journey. We got rid of the two objectionable Shelluh soldiers by paying them well, and sent them back to the Souss, and we started on our way north. During the afternoon and the next morning we went back through the wonderful valley of the Oued Nfis, superb in its wild scenery and fascinating with its primitive population living in terraced cliff-dwellings and picturesque mountain castles. The rest of our way led through territory we had not traversed on the trip south.

We passed a delightful day as the guests of the Sheik Assou Ben Abderrahman, an old friend of Monsieur Lapandéry. His agadir is in the midst of an upland valley in the marvellously beautiful hillslopes of the lower Atlas. The lovely spot is called in Shelluh the “Liver of the Mountains.” The liver among the Berbers, as it was with the ancient Greeks, is the seat of the affections, and so is used where we should say “heart.” The trail into this mountain paradise winds for hours through a flowery, bowery way, over-arched with tangles of trailing vines of white clematis and incense-breathing honeysuckle, varied with orange-coloured wild rose fruits and purple-stained elder berries, or occasionally the scarlet splash of joy of a ripe pomegranate, from seeds blown south from the garden of the Hesperides. On three sides of the agadir steep summits rise two thousand feet above the valley. Down the side of one of them rushes an icy stream that tears a deep gully through the hollow, and waters flourishing groves of figs and olives and hanging, terraced patches of millet and melon vines.

The Sheik Assou Ben Abderrahman receives us most courteously, and feeds us with the usual bountiful hospitality of a Moorish chieftain. We are left in a little tower chamber to rest and sleep through the afternoon, lulled into drowsiness by the roaring stream, the wild doves moaning in the fig trees, the intensely shrill, hot cry of innumerable cicalas, and the buzzing of a million flies. At six in the evening I go down the valley for a bath in an icy-cold pool I have discovered, below a little waterfall, and revel in the sharp contrast between the stifling heat of the afternoon and the coldness of this mountain stream. Two young Shelluh girls driving diminutive cattle, come by and frankly stare at me. The astonishment at suddenly discovering a white, naked, and apparently insane European splashing about under a waterfall and diving into a boiling torrent pool, is so great that they quite forget the proprieties. Perhaps they take me for some crazy djinn, and will ask the local sorcerer for another protective amulet to add to the collection around their necks.

After our tea with hot pancakes and butter and honey, we sit on the roof of the square kasba tower and wait for dinner. Here we enjoy the same calm evening scenes that we have met everywhere in the Moroccan countryside. Far across the hillsides the flocks wind straggling down to fold, labourers come by singing from the threshing-floor, and the sounds of a lonesome pipe, or the desultory rhythm of the omnipresent tom-tom floats on the air. Distant lights begin to appear in the little villages, a mysterious bright beacon fire flashes high up on a mountain top, and a cool fresh breeze stirs through the valley.

After dinner old Si Lhassen lights his kief pipe and tells a quaint folk-tale to little Kbira, who sleepily cuddles up to him and listens, as children always have, everywhere in the world, ever since there have been grandfathers who knew animal stories. I lay rolled in a blanket and listened to the old man mumbling over the tale and little Kbira quietly chuckling.

Once upon a time an ass, a cock, a sheep, and a sleugi-dog all lived together in the courtyard of a woman’s house. The woman was going to have a child. From time to time she became very peevish. She made so much trouble about the animals in the yard that they became afraid. The sleugidog said that next she would boil the cock for soup and kill the sheep for his fleece, and beat the ass and himself out of the house with rods. So they took counsel together. All decided that it would be safer to go and live in the mountains. They went off to the mountains and lived in a cave.

One day the cock was scratching about. He found a pit in which men had hidden a quantity of grain. The ass ate greedily of the grain and soon became very thirsty. The cock told him to go down to the brook and drink but not to make any noise. The ass went down and drank, and the grain in his belly began to swell. Soon he became very ill. He rolled on the ground and hee-hawed wildly. A hyena heard the noise and came to the place. He was going to eat the ass. The ass told the hyena that he had three friends, a cock, a sheep, and a dog who would make better eating. He was too old and tough. He led the hyena up to the cave. The sleugi-dog saw them coming and knew what had happened. He told the cock and the sheep to pretend to give the hyena a fair reception. The ass and the hyena reached the cave. The cock and the sheep went out to say, Salamalek! and pretended to kiss his shoulder in humility. The cock flew at the hyena and pecked out his eyes. And the sheep butted him to death against the rock. They took the hyena’s skin and dried it in the sun.

Another day the cock was scratching about. He found another pit in which men had hidden a quantity of grain. The ass ate greedily— (and so on as before. A second hyena appears and in the same way is brought to the cave). The cock and the sheep and the sleugi-dog greet the hyena respectfully. The cock says to the sleugi-dog, “Go get the hyena skin. Our guest wishes to sit down.” The cock fetches the skin. “No, take that back and bring a finer one,” says the cock. The sleugidog takes the skin away. He comes back again with the same skin. “No, not that one,” says the cock. “There is a finer, bigger one.” The sleugidog goes away again with the skin. The hyena becomes frightened. This must be a bad place for hyenas. He decides to run away. And so the animals escaped a second time.

After this, the story wandered on for many more episodes, but I was very sleepy. I lay listening and staring dreamily up at Leda’s swan, until somehow it turned into a hyena. And I never heard the rest of the tale.

From the “Liver of the Mountains” to Marrakesh was a very long day’s ride from early morning till nine at night, with three hours’ midday halt. We reluctantly left the wonderful green valley and filed down past the fig orchard and the hill slopes, where the dark olive trees still dreamed in the dawn, and the early breeze ruffling the silvery underside of their foliage, made pale waves in a sea of green. We soon struck the Oued Reraia, where the place-names begin to fill in the sketchy thin outlines on the map. The trail from here on is broad and level, passing through a thickly popu-Iated and well-watered region, where innumerable streams from the hills meet the Oued and try to replenish its shrinking volume, as it winds sluggishly through a broad valley, which opens out into the plain. Just before we left the foothills we passed the famous Marabout shrine of Sidi Brahim, which we could just glimpse far above our heads on the edge of the cliff. The trails, which lead here from every direction, are cluttered with cairns heaped by pious pilgrims, who throng, in certain seasons, from all parts of southern Morocco, and as they approach the sacred shrine, purify themselves with prayers and penances, of which these stones remain as ‘ memorials. Farther on down the trail, a little flume sluiced off from the Oued, turns the lumbering wheel of an old stone mill that leans in mournful dilapidation against a huge rock.

The last stage of the journey, a blazing afternoon through the terrible treeless plain, without a single shadow to relieve the pitiless glare, seemed the hardest of all the hard ways we had travelled. For hours and hours we watched the Koutoubia tower grow from a small speck, scarcely visible through the shimmering heat waves vibrating over the brown dust, to a lighthouse towering above a green sea of palms. At sunset, as we crept slowly on toward our goal, the oasis city of Marrakesh loomed vast and splendid, its ancient walls drenched in the blood of the sun, its minarets of glowing turquoise reaching up over rose-brown roofs and sombre cypresses and palms. As the twilight deepened, silhouetted flocks of sheep and hurrying, belated caravans moved toward the ten great city gates, and night shut down over the roofs and courtyards that enclose the thousand mysteries of Moorish life, and the lonely stars brooded over the walls and mosques, with their terrible memories and mournful dreams.