Morocco is not quite what you expect. If you read the brochures you will get an idyllic vision of the Sahara, its iridescent surface constantly changing under dramatic skies. Or you might picture ancient walled cities and colourful markets where souk traders sell spices and deliver oriental promise.
Very rarely do they describe the bare earthed compounds of animal markets, the chaotic litter-strewn streets or the crumbling kasbahs that are gradually sinking into the mud, their previous inhabitants now living in breeze-block shacks nearby. And even in places where local people have managed to preserve their traditional way of life, it often seems at odds with the bus load of tourists that descend for an hour to buy a souvenir.
There is a gulf that separates North-African Muslim Moroccans from their European visitors. Whereas in Europe you feel more or less at home, here you feel you are floating on the surface with no cultural anchors. The women stay in their homes, preparing food and entertaining themselves and their daughters, dancing and drinking tea.
The men are concerned with earning a living and tourists are vital. So they will put on a show that is entirely for your benefit, and one which they hope will live up to your expectations of the Morocco you have read about. They tell you ancient legends passed down by their ancestors and show you whatever castle or cave painting you want to see. They will escort you on foot to visit sand dunes or take you on camel rides into the desert. Keen to please, they play the part of the servant while you must accept the role of the honoured visitor.
So if you would like to go behind the scenes, you might find it more rewarding to travel with one of the responsible operators who support small communities and environmental projects. In 2009 Naturally Morocco was awarded the Trophy for Responsible Tourism from the Moroccan Tourism Office for its work in fundraising and supporting community projects in High Atlas villages near Taroudant.
Jane Bayley, founder of Naturally Morocco, and her staff at “La Maison Anglaise” guest house in Taroudant were short listed for the same award this year for their efforts to support an endangered bee, beekeepers and the habitat upon which bees depend.
Initiatives have included working with a local cooperative to set up the “Busy Bee Centre” which offers education for local people and tourists alike. The next step is to raise funds to plant a model bee orchard and to help beekeepers in a sustainable way with advice from UK charities Bees Abroad and Bees for Development.
Jane has designed a holiday in collaboration with Bees Abroad to raise funds for them. Whilst enjoying some winter sun and derive contentment from knowing that the holiday will also benefit the Moroccan beekeepers.
Meanwhile a little further east, a whole village has been regenerated at Ksar El Khorbat, an oasis on the south side of the Atlas Mountains, where in 2002 the traditional mud kasbah that once housed many families had reached a point of dilapidation where the families had to move out. They were living in breezeblock shacks nearby, but thanks to the efforts of Ahmed Ben Amar, Joan Castellana and Roger Mimó, the kasbah has now been restored and 27 families have moved back in. Along with this, and in conjunction with Spanish architects, the living and hygiene conditions have been transformed and the streets repaved.
The Ksar El Khorbat project focusses on income generation for the local people, so when visitors come they are seeing a fully functioning community with a school, a museum and a workshop of women’s crafts, as well as a guest house. The next phase of the project is to open up some rooms for volunteers who can stay for several days and help with pottery making and other community projects.
If you want an even more close-up experience where you will live among the Berber people in a little oasis of calm and solitude, then try Cafe Tissardmine . It is on the edge of the Moroccan Sahara, an hour’s drive south of Erfoud. Situated on the edge of a tiny traditional Berber hamlet, the local landmark is Erg Chebbi, a huge dune which is celebrated for its unique golden-orange sand.
The Cafe Tissardmine is set up as an artists and writers retreat. The accommodation is sumptuously simple, consisting of either a mud brick dwelling or a Berber tent. Writer Monica Suswin chose the traditional Berber home:
I write sitting on a roughly woven wooden stool waiting for the kettle to boil outside my room. I am surrounded by a mud and straw brick wall built in the typical Moroccan pattern with squares and triangles and little turrets on the top. It must be about seven foot high. A black hen struts into my courtyard and then out again.
The retreat opened last year after single Australian Karen Hadfield renovated the property. She is helped by Youssef who grew up locally in a nomadic Berber family, and now she is accepted as part of the small community. An early visitor, Rob Palmer, who is travelling arond Morocco with his French-Moroccan girlfriend, was struck by the simplicity of their guesthouse:
comfortable beds carefully made up in clean, crisp white linen. The solar power runs a small fridge in the camp’s kitchen and pumps the water from a nearby well. You will only find one tap in the showers but the hot tap is not something you need out here! There’s no internet and your phone probably won’t work, but who cares, this really is a place that you come to relax and be still for a little while….
It is clear that these visitors at least, have found a kind of home in the desert.
Photos reproduced with permission of Naturally Morocco
Naturally Morocco wide range of tailor-made and standard itineraries
Bees Abroad tour of High Atlas Mountains with bee focus: 29th Jan – 5th Febraury 2013
Ksar El Khorbat guesthouse and museum, 80km south of Errachidia airport, oasis south of the High Atlas