We were all nomads once. From our earliest emergence from the slime, through our evolution to all fours, then crouching, then standing tall, we moved forward relentlessly, our bodies evolving to help us cover the ground more easily. We hunted and gathered and sought shelter where we could find it, with only the most basic possessions and provisions. Women gave birth on the road, children grew up and grew strong or faded like daisies and always we moved on. Then, we discovered agriculture and began to settle. Families became villages and villages became cities. Animals were no longer merely to be hunted, they were to be tamed and brought to shelter with us. People started to live longer and softer and millennia by millennia we crept towards our present day where we move less than we sit, cover half the distance of the world for a holiday and hate the thought of killing even though we eat voraciously.
Some though, still live in the older ways, moving with the seasons and living close to the land. The Amazigh nomads of Morocco are semi-nomadic. Every year, they migrate from their winter home in the Jebel Saghro, the Mountain of Drought, to their summer pastures in Ait Bougemez, Paradise Valley, where they can fatten up their flocks of goats and sheep on the green grass of this fertile area.
This year, I joined Addi Bin Youssef, who had been one of my companions on the Draa Expedition, and his family for a week as they migrated. I had spent three months with Addi, hearing about his family, his father’s goats, “ We have 300!, Zahra!” he’d tell me at regular intervals and trying to figure out indecipherable nomad riddles.
“What has three eyes, but cannot see and one leg but cannot walk?”
The migration fell during Ramadan, which meant everyone was walking and moving their herds without being able to eat or drink between the hours of sunrise and sunset (roughly 04.50 to 19.40 daily). I was fasting as well and I was a bit nervous as to how I would manage the hills without any water but I was also really excited to see what it would be like.
The trip was organised by Jean-Pierre from Dar Daif who was bringing along a group of European tourists. This is one way for nomads to earn supplementary income and they are very happy to have guests around. For me, there was an added bonus, my other two companions, Brahim Ahalfi and Brahim Boutkhoum would also be travelling to look after the guests so I could celebrate Ramadan with them.
I arrived a day early so that I could get to spend some time with Addi’s family before we set off. They were camped on a hill above a dry river valley, and Addi came bounding down as we drove up. I hadn’t seen him for 2 months and he had got taller and more grown up in that time. He took me up to his family home, a spacious goats’ hair tent, held up by central poles fixed into a large stone block and tied down at the edges but with the sides open and with bright handmade rugs covering the floor. There I was proudly introduced to his Mother, Ito, his sister Ftou and his sister-in-law, Aicha. All the women were small and slight and Aicha had a baby strapped to her back and her 3-year-old, Hanan, buzzing around her like a bee on speed. Ito had delicate tattoos on her face, an old Amazigh custom.
Language was a potential barrier, because although I have begun to learn Tashlaheet/Tamazight, I still only speak a little and the women spoke no Arabic. I had two good weapons in my armoury, though, lots of pictures of Addi on my phone from the Draa Expedition and a packet of henna.
I asked Ito to help me henna my feet and hands, ready for the trip ahead. She mixed up the henna powder with water and a little oil into a thick green paste and then smeared it onto my hands and feet, and tied plastic around them so that the henna could settle. There was nothing to do now but wait for the three hours that it takes for the paste to work. It was midday so we all settled down for a nap. You have to be comfortable with silence and fitting in so I lay down and let the time pass, watching the baby goats chasing each other round the tent poles. One mother goat had come to sleep next to Addi’s uncle who was stretched out next to me. The wind was quite strong on the top of the hill and if it gusted too hard, one or other of the women would leap up and grab a hold of the tent pole.
I was having a struggle of my own. I was dressed very modestly in leggings and a kaftan but we were all sardined in and because I was lying on a slope, I kept slipping down and my kaftan kept riding up. My leggings had left a little strip of leg exposed to the sun which duly burnt a dull red. I could neither pull my kaftan down or my leggings up because my hands were tied into plastic bags, and everyone was snoozing around me. The embarrassment of my hoisted kaftan was worse than the sunburn.
About two hours before sundown, the women started working for the evening meal. I had been liberated from my bags and my feet and hands were a gratifying orange colour from the dye, little Hanan had helped me get the henna off by pouring little cups of water over my hands. Henna is a skin strengthener and a disinfectant, which helps when you are doing lots of physical travelling. I was dispatched off by Ito to bring back wood and went up the hill grateful for something to do. “Good,” she smiled at me when I got back although she was probably just being nice because her bundle was much bigger. Meanwhile, Aicha, had been kneading the bread and it was sitting, proving under a cloth, ready to bake when the fire was set. She had also started the soup, which is a vital ingredient for Ramadan.
I wasn’t sure exactly where I should be. Should I be eating with the Brahims and the other camelteers who had come to help the western guests or should I be with the family? Addi soon put me right, “You’ll have break-fast with us, Zahra,” he told me.
Behind our tent, the men were laying out the rugs facing in the direction of Mecca ready for the sunset prayer and as the sun disappeared over the hills, Brahim’s voice rang out with the call and that was our signal for dates and water. That first sip is so good and brings instant relief after a day of thirst. The dates, too, are a sugar rush of goodness. I watched carefully and tried to make sure I didn’t make any horrible mistakes. The men prayed and the women got the soup and dates and bread ready. Then, we all sat in a circle and ate together. I was painfully aware of how precious food is and that there wasn’t endless supplies of it and made sure I didn’t eat too much. As a treat, we also had some eggs.
After the meal, everyone sat and chatted and Brahim came up from the other tents to join us. I couldn’t understand much of what was being said around me but could hear that the talk was about what the goats would fetch at market and some discussion on the visitors who would arrive tomorrow.
I was so happy to be sitting there with Addi and his family, seeing him in his own domain, being treated like a king by his Mum. She obviously adored him and they were joking and giggling under one of the blankets, we had all drawn up to combat the cold. Ito tried on my woolly hat, perching it on top of her head and laughing hysterically at the picture I took and making me promise not to show it to anyone outside the family. Hanan and the baby had been put to sleep under the blankets, “Watch out, Zahra!” yelled Ftou as I almost sat on them, not realising what the lumps were.
Then, Aicha, who had disappeared for ages, reappeared with a big pot of tagine. One of the benefits for the nomads of having tourists with them for a week is that they get provisions. Addi went round with the kettle of water and poured it over our hands so that we could wash them and handed me a little towel to dry them. I was pulled into the circle, tucked back up in a blanket and handed some smoky, crisp-on-the-outside bread. “In the name of God,” we said and dipped our bread into the sauce and then worked up to the vegetables. Ito gathered all the meat into a pile and then divided it exactly so that we all got a fair share of protein.
The conversation flowed around me, occasionally I was asked something by Addi, but for most of the time I sat quietly, enjoying being in a family and the feeling of human companionship, and the light of the stars, shining so clearly above us.
If you would like to join the migration for a week next year – it is in May/June – please email Jean-Pierre on [email protected] The trip is called The Transhumance and feel free to mention my name!