Morocco – Toward The Great Atlas

THE next morning, with a wild crimson dawn for a background, and Monsieur Lapandéry’s numerous household for spectators, I made the acquaintance of my she-mule, Aziza. She began by very deftly kicking me off twice, and then she tried bucking, with considerable success. She was a temperamental lady, but by a judicious combination of patting on the nose and kicking in the ribs with my inlaid silver stirrups, we came to an amicable understanding, and eventually she proved to be “a gentle beast and of a good conscience.”

The Bureau de Renseignments had refused to give us permission to go beyond the limit of the actual Protectorate which extends at present only to the northern foothills of the Great Atlas. They informed Monsieur Lapandéry that the country beyond was not safe for Europeans, and that until the military occupation was extended, all permission to prospectors and traders would be refused, because some difficulty with the natives might force the government to premature military action. This decision did not deter us; we had expected it. We were going without permission.

We set out from Gueliz at about six o’clock, just as the African pipes were skirling and the big drums were booming for the daily morning concert of the Spahis. With these barbaric martial rhythms vibrating in our ears we rode down a newly planted avenue of young eucalyptus trees, past the straggling houses on the outskirts of the French town, the last we should see of western civilization, and started southward across the great arid Bled. Aziza took the trail and fell into a good steady pace. When she heard her eccentric rider bursting forth into

Non eget Mauris jaculis nec arcu,

she showed a genteel surprise, and, like her Wordsworthian relative, with motion dull Turned on the pivot of her skull Her long left ear, but she soon became reconciled even to my singing and decided to bear it with Moslem resignation. A few clouds that had blown over during the night from the sea, which is only about one hundred and thirty miles away, kept off the heat and glare for the first few hours of the journey.

Old Si Lhassen led the way, riding a tough wiry little mule that did not seem at all troubled by the weight of two bulging chouari bags between which the old man sat, his shrunken bare legs hanging over one side, and his old babooches dangling from the tips of his toes. Then came little Kbira perched between the panniers of another mule. The trip was a lark for her; her eyes were always laughing as she hummed French nursery tunes her step-father had taught her. From time to time she shrilled “Arrr Zit!” to the mule and poked his neck with a stick to make him keep pace with her grandfather’s mount. Beside her walked the young Lhassen, her fourteen-year-old cousin,—stupid and useless, but always ready to show his white teeth in a smile. Now and then, as we passed a clump of cacti, he would pluck some yellow ripe Barbary figs, roll the prickers off in the dust with his calloused bare feet and hand the sweetish seedy fruit up to us as we rode. They were not very good but they served to moisten our dry throats when the hot sun began to tell. Monsieur Lapandéry and I rode side by side, he astride of Kino, his much prized horse. At first we chatted idly in the gay mood in which one begins an adventure, occasionally bursting into snatches of old songs, or halting a moment for a cigarette. But old Si Lhassen rode steadily on, never turning his wrinkled and gravely patriarchal face from the looming outline of the Great Atlas range.

We left behind, the brown, towered walls of Marrakesh, the confusion of huddled flat house-tops, the Koutoubia tower, and the turquoise-tipped minaret of the Kasba mosque. As we look back, the city is swallowed up in the great green oasis of palms bathed in painful white sunlight.

We pass numbers of wide mouthed wells, which tap the vast system of underground conduits that bring water from the hills to feed the fountains and garden reservoirs of Marrakesh. In some of these, which go down very deep, there are natives digging, and we hear the hollow voices of djinns reverberating down underground. In one place a conduit breaks forth into a clear stream through a deep ravine, and here we dismount to water the animals. A flock of black goats are watering here too, and a half dozen nearly naked children squat about and wonder.

From time to time we pass groups of Moors in great peaked straw hats, one or two carelessly hanging ragged garments, bare brown arms and feet. They are driving troops of little asses over-loaded with straw or pottery, or sun-baked bricks, or melons and quaint vegetables. They stare curiously and raise their open right hands in sign of greeting. In one place, where a broken conduit breaks out and moistens the clayey soil, are slaves making bricks with slow African indolence, even as the Children of Israel made them for Pharoah millenniums ago. Here is a small field of scanty barley stubble wastefully reaped, and in the middle, a threshing floor, where a heap of grain is being winnowed by the wind blowing the chaff from each scattered shovelful. One remembers scriptural parables.

We begin to feel the sun. The barren Bled shimmers, parched, brown, and arid, broken by dry gullies cut by winter rains. Beside some rare well an olive clump or a single date palm varies the brown monotony. Ali Baba passes us with eight donkeys each loaded with two oil jars big enough to hold a robber. In the distance, the legs of a dozen camels in a caravan twinkle on the horizon. Rarely we pass a large or a small oasis, where a supply of wells supports rich green palmeries and olive groves. Once we go past a very large one surrounded by crumbling, low barriers of clay—a dead, deserted city inhabited only by hyenas. The rain-melted ruins suggest Sumer or Akkad, and the imagination dreams of the courts where Jamshid gloried and drank deep.

The sun is high now; the Bled becomes intensely hot; the glare is frightful. Poor Lulli the hound scratches the burning soil for a possible place to rest and pant a moment without scorching. The poor beastie is tired, for he goes zigzagging six miles to our one, stopping to roll in the dust, or to snap at a scorpion, or make ugly noises at a rough, black, desert cur that is sniffing at a sun-baked carcass. The faint, hot breeze dies out; and now and then revives in tiny spinning cyclones of dust, that whirl over the hot ground, filling our mouths and eyes. The heat becomes terrific, merciless; the air “Through which the sun walks burning without beams,” makes shimmering distortions over the road ahead, like the halo of refraction around white-hot iron.

By half past eleven we reach the edge of the oasis of Tameslout. We hoped to spend the siesta time with the sheik of the village, a mile or so farther on, but the animals are exhausted, and we decide to camp for lunch here on the outskirts in the scraggy shade of an olive grove. Three men who have been threshing a vast mound of barley are resting, stretched out under a straw hut. One of them brings us water in a tall, round-bottomed amphora that suggests ancient Egypt. The porous jar has kept the water surprisingly and gratefully cool. We lunch on cold chicken and Dutch cheese and drink a tin cup full of Si Lhassen’s boiling tea which, strangely enough, is refreshing.

We tried to sleep for a few hours until the sun should get lower, but the heat made sleep impossible. There was nothing to do but endure life for five hours with what comfort might be derived from tobacco and stoicism. Out in the sun, which beat about us and invaded every possible opening in our sparse shade, the temperature was over 150 degrees. The breeze that spasmodically blew over the burning ground was like the hot breath of some terrible animal breathing close to one’s face. It burnt our lips black and scorched our eyes, pained by constant squinting from the white glare. To add to our torture, we could vaguely see cool patches of white snow streaking the lofty peak of Djebel Mskrin forty miles away through the hazy air.

Our jar of water was soon empty; the men had gone away, and we did not know where to find more. One’s throat felt thick and clotted; the whole body cried for water. I thought of the tale a gaunt, worn Frenchman told me a few days be-fore in the café. He had spent nineteen years in Africa. On one trip he had been a hundred and fifty days in the Sahara on a geographical expedition. Once the party went fifty days without finding water. In parts of the Sahara it is possible to find water at a depth of six feet, but in the region he was exploring they went for five days in one direction, returned, and started five days in an-other, and so on, for fifty days. Fifty days with no water but what they robbed from the neck vein of a camel! They set out with fifteen hundred camels and came back with one hundred and twenty-five, and lost three quarters of their men. It was a fearful tale of horror and heat and thirst and tenacity to life. And then he told of Timbuktu, the great mysterious black city three months journey across the desert, a ruined and wretched place, once a great centre of civilisation, but now swarming with a miserable population whose ears and lips are perforated with pieces of native gold.

There was nothing for us but to endure the heat, to look out over the shimmering Bled, and wait with oriental patience for the sun’s rage to calm a little. Our Berbers, of course, did not suffer from the heat and did not mind waiting. Waiting quietly in the shade is their ideal of the perfect life. The old man slept for a while with the complete relaxation of an animal or a young child, and then sat up cross-legged and meditatively retired into himself. The young Lhassen spent most of the time observing me as though I were some curious variety of beetle, and his expression seemed to say, “Isn’t nature wonderful!” He was a most amusing oaf, good-natured and quite useless, with no interest in anything but food. He was very small, but had the largest feet ever known, so large, in fact, that he felt that something ought to be done about them. He once consulted a sorcerer, he told me later when we had become better acquainted, about having them reduced by some charm or apothecary’s potion, but even the sorcerer could hold out no hope. He reminded me of the folk that old Sir John Mandeville says inhabit Ethiopia, and have one huge foot “so large that it schadowethe aile the body agen the sonne whanne thei wole lye and reste hem.” I spent my time smoking and learning a few words in Lhassen’s Shelluh dialect.

About half past four we set out again, trying to become interested in other things than the thirst that tormented us. We soon reached a threshing floor where half a dozen Moors were winnowing grain. A sheik squatting in the door of a tent, watching the work, filled for us an earthen bowl full of muddy water which we emptied many times. The bowl tasted of rancid cooking oil, but our wish that Allah might reward the giver (`Barak allahaufik!”) came from the heart.

We rode on after sunset, past many Berber strongholds, all built alike with square, mud walls flanked by four square towers, past threshing floors and stubble fields and wells that tap great water conduits from the mountains. The mountains begin to get nearer. We climb low rolling foot-hills, barren but at least a relief after the monotony of the Bled. Higher up we cross innumerable small tablelands cut with ravines and dry river beds, the sides of which are deeply scarred with erosions. Sometimes beside shrunken streams hidden in little protecting valleys, rose-laurels bloom in profusion, and the scent of honeysuckle blows across the twilit trail. Olives and clumps of prickly cacti still occasionally appear, but we have left behind the palms of the oases in the plain.

After riding on for an hour after the moon came up, we selected a place to camp for the night. We spread out blankets on a sandy beach beside the Oued Nfis, a shallow and rapid river that flows northward out of a long valley that splits the Great Atlas range. High above us, built on the very verge of the abrupt cliff, is a large Berber house where several families or rather, several households of one family, unite in a community. Si Lhassen bargains with the men to get something for our supper. We exchange cigarettes for a dish of sour ewe’s milk, a handful of black tea for some eggs, and pay three francs apiece for rather sinewy chickens. While supper is being prepared, Monsieur Lapandéry and I enjoy a moonlight bath in a pool of cold black water below a big rock, around which the stream splashes and gurgles, tangling the white moonbeams and whipping them into silver foam. How far off seems the terrific tropic heat of our noonday halt at Tameslout !

After supper I roll in a blanket, for the night falls cool. Two storks that have a big straggling nest up on the housetop resent our intruding presence with an amusing, laugh-like clatter of bills, and volplane down over our heads, making sinister black shadows of great wings across the moonlight. Kbira, who is sleepy and perhaps a little homesick, is snuggled up to her grandfather, who tells her a quaint folk-tale. His voice was very low and I could not make much out of his language, but the next day I got it down with the help of Kbira.


The he- and she-stork in the early days were two human beings. Then they lived in great ease and possessed much goods. They owned flocks and much wheat. One year came a great famine. Many suffered and died of hunger.

These two people had a maidservant brought up in their house. One day the man went out into the market place and called folk about him: “Come all ye who wish to buy grain. Come to my house and bring only half as much money as they ask you in the grain market. I live at such and such a place.” When he had finished speaking he went back to his house; he called his maidservant; he said to her: “Go make ready much soap and pieces of glass. When these folk arrive let them all come up to where I am. Then shut the door of the house, and upon the stairs from the top step down, smear layers of soap and stick the pieces of glass on it. Do so from the top step even unto the very bottom.” “It shall be done, my master,” she replied. And the servant rose and took glass broken in small pieces, and much soap, and she tied up each in woolen rags. And behold the folk who would buy grain came to the door of the house. And when they knocked at the door, the maidservant opened. When they were all in, the servant showed them the way saying, “Go up,” and one after another they went up. And the maidservant closed the outer door, and, taking the woolen rags full of glass and of soap, she went to the top step, holding the soap in her left hand and the glass in her right. And when she came to the stop step of the stair she began to smear all the steps with the soap stuck full of glass, and upon the steps she applied this many times from the top to the bottom. When the thing was done she opened the outer door and fled away.

The man sold his grain and received the price agreed upon. He said to them: “Come now, get ye all down stairs and go!” He seized a stick and began to lay about him sorely, shouting, “Come, get ye down, get ye down!” Then the people started to go in a great hurry. When the foremost reached the top step and put his foot upon it, he slipped on the soap and rolled to the bottom. He had no time to pick himself up. Another fell tumbling on top of him. While the people were rolling and tumbling one over the other, the master of the house and his wife roared with laughter. Then God changed them into storks who make a clacking noise as if they were laughing.

That is the reason the man and his wife were changed to storks way back in those old times.

Just as we were falling asleep we saw what looked like half a dozen burning red fire-flies flitting slowly down the face of the cliff. They were our Berber friends coming to visit us, each lighting his way by holding a stick with a glowing ember end. These little torches moved down the cliff path making bright circles and figure eights like spent Roman candles. Our friendly visitors brought us a present of thick barley pancakes and butter, and Si Lhassen made tea and gossiped pleasantly for an hour.

The first night in camp one does not sleep well. I woke up before the moon had set and lay watching the great, pale constellations wheel over the looming shadow of the house roof. The moon shone very white on the strangely still, sleeping forms beside me, and made fearful shadows under the bushy cacti along the river bed. Lulli the hound whimpered in his sleep. The river sang strange, unfamiliar, quiet things; bullfrogs croaked like deep-throbbing bass viols in a sad symphony. A dog up on the cliff barked sharply, and another one bayed his answer somewhere far off over the ghostly white hills. From time to time, a guttural Berber voice startled me from the shadow of the house above us.