The Middle Atlas Mountains, an Experience like no other

October 10th, 2010

It’s a little embarrassing to be making this post a week late, but a week late is better than two weeks late.  Last weekend, almost all the IES Rabat group went to the Middle Atlas Mountains to hike, explore some of the cities, and spend some time in a Berber village.  This weekend excursion revealed the huge disparity between urban and rural Morocco, and reminded us all that Morocco is definitely still a developing country.  Last weekend was definitely one of, if not the most culturally enriching and spiritually satisfying experiences I’ve had in Morocco to date.

On Friday right after Arabic class (and the purchase of some avocado juice), the group headed out of Rabat towards the center of the country and the cities of Azrou and Ifrane.  I had already been through Azrou before; we drove through the city on our way to the Sahara desert.  Although I’m pretty sure I’ve already said this in an earlier post, the name of the city is a Berber word meaning “big rock.”  Why?  Well, there’s a really big rock in the middle of the city, that’s why.  Azrou is also home to a lot of monkeys who live in the mountains and grow fat from eating the cookies the tourists give them.  We didn’t stop to see the monkeys this time, we had other plans.  Instead of stopping to see monkeys were were stopping to see trout.  Yes, that’s right, I got to visit a trout farm.  Let me describe a trout farm for you.  It is a place with a lot of different pools of water, and each pool of water contains a lot of trout all at different stages in the development process.  This trout farm had two kinds of trout, Rainbow trout (imported from the United States), and the Moroccan Golden Trout.  I got to feed the trout too.  That was fun.  I threw some fish pellets into the water and it was like all the trout in the entire tank descended on the handful of small pellets I threw in.   There was a lot of frenzied splashing, and I got a lot of water on myself since the fish were practically leaping into the air trying to get at the food.

After seeing the trout farm we all clambered back on the bus and headed to Ifrane.  Ifrane is an interesting city, I think it would be more appropriate to call it Little Switzerland.  It was built by the French during the Protectorate, and you can definitely tell.  All the houses have peaked roofs.  This is mostly for practical purposes because Ifrane gets a lot of snow during the winter.  However, the layout of the city, and the details of the buildings give it a distinctly European flavor.  Al Akhawayn University ( is also located in Ifrane, and certainly adds a little bit of flavor to the atmosphere of the town.  We didn’t really explore the town too much, we only really had time to walk around one of the little garden ponds and take awkward group pictures in front of a big statue of a lion.

We spent the night in a little village called Ben Smim.  The people in this village spoke Berber as there first language, Arabic as there second, and a few words of French and English if we were very lucky.  We were also very lucky to have electricity and running water inside the house.  Really, I’ve come to the conclusion that after electricity and running water, everything else is an extra added luxury here, like having a western toilet, and toilet paper.  I had brought a box of tissues with me for my allergies, and I quickly became one of the most sought out people in the group because most people had forgotten their own TP.  Additionally, the concept that Americans have of having your own bedroom is something that people just don’t have here.  I have my own bedroom here in Rabat, but the rest of my family sleeps on the sofas in the living rooms.  It was the same in Fez, and it was the same in Ben Smim.  In Ben Smim though, my roommate and I didn’t have a bedroom, but we did sleep in the nice salon.

Our host family in Ben Smim was fantastic!  My host parents spoke Berber and Darija (colloquial Moroccan Arabic), and they had very little French and no English.  My roommate and I speak English and French, “survival” Darija, and only the Berber words that we were given on a sheet today by our director.  You learn a lot about communication in situations like these, if you don’t know the word you can act it out, or draw a picture, or point, whatever gets your point (haha) across.  You also learn how to be in uncomfortable situations.  For example, we knew when our host family was talking about us, but we had no idea what they were actually saying, and it was a little uncomfortable.  It’s just something you have to become accustomed to.  I am accustomed to being the object of amusement at times when I clearly misunderstood something, or didn’t pronounce something correctly.  It’s just something you have to have a good sense of humor about, that’s all.

So anyway, my host mother dressed us both in these beautiful caftans before dinner.  Mine was an olive green with black embroidery around the cuffs.  It looked like just the kind of caftan my sister Maggie would look gorgeous in.  My roommate had a nice azure blue caftan to wear.  So, we got all dressed up for a beautiful dinner of couscous, fresh eggs (one of the most delicious foods ever!), bread, jam, spices, you name it.  The food was so fresh and delicious, I knew it was going to be really hard to go back to eating “regular” food after this.  After we had eaten our fill, we were invited outside to watch what they told me was a “Berber tradition.”  My roommate and I sat outside on small stools and kissed all the neighbors hello and watched a group of caftan-clad women walk slowly down the street playing drums and tambourines, and singing at the top of their lungs.  The music was so joyous, both my roommate and I were caught up in the moment, and I think we both secretly wanted to jump up and join the crowd of women who were now dancing right in front of our house.  We asked out host brother, who thankfully spoke French, exactly which tradition it was that we were watching.  He looked a little confused, and told us that he didn’t really know the words for it in English or French, so he started to describe it to us.  He began with “It’s an Arab tradition, with a small boy…” Okay, yes, I figured out what we were watching…a circumcision party.  Muslims, like Jews, circumcise boys as part of religious ritual, however, Muslims circumcise there sons between the ages of 4 and 8 years, not 8 days old like Jewish baby boys.  It is a sign of a  boy entering into the Ummah (universal Muslim community) and it is an occasion for much, much celebration.  I’m not going to lie, it was a little bit startling at first, but we figured this was part of our cultural immersion, so let’s just go with it.  We actually didn’t stay outside long after that because we were both tired, so we pretty much just passed out in the salon.

The next day we visited a number of NGOs in the village.  We visited a women’s organization that sold medicinal herbs, made rugs, and honey.  I bought some honey and some extract of thyme, which is supposed to help with colds and other respiratory ailments when drunk mixed with tea.  We also hiked for about an hour to eat lunch (couscous of course) with a bunch of school children who were of course, adorable.  A Peace Corps worker stationed in Ben Smim also ate couscous with us, and he talked with us about his experiences in the Peace Corps and in Morocco.  After lunch (an naps) we visited the Aïn Ifrane bottled water factory.  It was funny, nobody was really interested in seeing how they bottled water, we were more interested in their super duper nice bathrooms 😉  The bottled water factory isn’t really on good terms with the surrounding villages because they are basically stealing their water from them, and selling it to tourists.  After our bottled-water-bathroom visit we went back up the mountain to paint pictures with the children we had just eaten lunch with.  I must say, it was very therapeutic.  I had a wonderful time painting a giant flower.

By this time, I would say that it was about 5pm, time to head back to the village.  Our director had rented the village hammam for us for two hours, so when we got back to the village we were supposed to ask our host mothers to come with us to the hammam.  However, when we communicated with our mother about the hammam she told us we couldn’t go until we had eaten first.  So my roommate and I sat down in the salon and ate malawi bread, bagharir (a kind of pancake), and drank hot atay b’nAnA (mint tea).  Only when we were finished eating were we allowed to go to the hammam.  What’s the hammam?  Oh yes, I forgot, the hammam is the public bath house.  In a place where nobody had baths or showers inside, the hammam is a very important place where one goes to bathe and socialize.  Socialize you say??  Yes, I absolutely mean that.  From what I can tell, the hammam is a hip and happening hangout spot for men and women of all ages (although not at the same time of course).  So my roommate and I went to the hammam, and we walked in and it was basically like a mosaic version of a YMCA locker room.  Benches ran down both walls, and there were shelves where you could keep your clothes while you were bathing.  The first thing we did was stand around awkwardly because nobody was sure what exactly we were supposed to do.  My host mother answered that question for me.  While at the hammam the only thing you are allowed to wear is your underwear, no tops, and even those are optional.  The actual place where you wash is steamy and hot, like a sauna, and there is a place to fill buckets of hot water, which you take back to your spot.  Then you get scrubbed from head to toe, until all the dead skin peels off your body.  One of the women scrubbed me down, and then dumped a big bucket of water over my head to rinse me off and I was done.  Let me tell you, if you are ever in Morocco, visit the hammam.  It is definitely WAY outside most American’s comfort zones, but isn’t that the point of visiting another country?  And it is definitely one of the most intimate ways of experiencing a culture.  And it wasn’t bad, I’m still alive, and you know what?  I’d go back.

Anyway, that night we got dressed up in even NICER caftans, and our family laid a traditional decorative rug with fuzzy things and silver sequins and embroidery down on the couch for us to sit on, and then they did henna on our hands.  It was such a hospitable thing for them to do.  I felt so welcome.  If there’s one thing Moroccans do REALLY well, it is hospitality.  They are just so warm, friendly, and generous, it really helps soothe the culture shock you might feel jumping from American culture, to a culture of predominantly Arab influence.

Our last day in the mountains was spent actually hiking up the mountains.  I was so glad we did though, because the view from the top of the mountain was TOTALLY worth the three-hour hike up.  Spending time in such a rural setting is eye opening.  You are surrounded by so much natural beauty, and at the same time living in such primitive conditions, by American standards.  It is oddly refreshing to be without all the headache and stress that comes with all the technology we are constantly surrounding ourselves with.  More than once on this trip I thought I would be perfectly happy moving to the country and growing figs for the rest of my life, but I also would not give up a good education like the one I’m receiving at Wooster for anything.  Both worlds have good things to offer, and I think the trick is to find an appropriate balance of both, although isn’t that the key to everything in life?  Finding the perfect balance.

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