The odour of raw meat wafted in the air. Freshly slaughtered chickens were laid out on a counter with their claws still intact. I immediately looked away from that unpleasant sight, even though I was fully aware of the possibility that one of those chickens might be in my tajine later on. To my right, a man in a djellaba (a loose, hooded robe) pushed his way through the crowd of shoppers. He was holding something that kept tickling the back of my knees. A gut feeling told me not to look down, but curiousity got the best of me.
The man’s fingers were fastened around two orange hooks holding together a bunch of black, puffed-up feathers. A gigantic turkey dangled upside down from the man’s grip, swaying back and forth. I stood rooted to the spot for a few seconds, then stepped aside to make way for a donkey cart.
The fresh meat stalls take up only a small area of the Tuesday market in Amizmiz. This dusty town at the foot of the High Atlas Mountains hosts the largest Berber market in the region. Sheltered from the fierce Moroccan sun under makeshift tents, Berber farmers from nearby mountain villages sit among carts loaded with fresh produce. Some of these farmers are also there to sell and trade their livestock. In fact, this is the only source of income for many Berber families living in remote villages. Meanwhile, merchants from Marrakech travel to Amizmiz every Tuesday to set up stalls with packaged foods, clothes and bathroom necessities.
The dusty air and blistering heat began to take their toll on me. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before we started walking away from the market and towards a steep hill leading into the mountains. The hawkers’ cries grew fainter and the air felt cleaner.
An unusual lunch break
We trekked along paths cutting across cultivated fields, where a few women toiled in the midday sun. Whilst their husbands set up shop at farmers’ markets, Berber women spend long hours working the fields and managing livestock. Their daily chores do not stop there. They bring wood to light the ovens for baking flatbread. They go to the nearest stream to wash clothes and fetch water. Cooking dinner also takes up a fair amount of their time, as the food is normally slow-cooked on charcoal fire. They walk long distances on rocky terrain, and the climate in the mountains can often be unforgiving.
A short distance away, a scrawny old man in a djellaba and taqiyah (a traditional skullcap worn by many Moroccan men) was waiting for us at the side of the path. He greeted each and every one of us with a handshake, his dark eyes twinkling with joy… and mischief. The first thing we learnt about him was that he’s extremely ticklish. The second was his name, Mohamed. What our local guides didn’t tell us, however, was that Mohamed would smack anyone who dared tickle him… or accidentally touched him.
Our pit stop for lunch was in a Berber village, where a pink mosque rose above a tiny cluster of mud-houses. Mohamed, who had spent the last ten minutes blowing kisses at the ladies and chanting songs in Tamazight (the language of the Berbers), was now leading the way through the deserted paths of the village.
We walked through a low doorway and into a courtyard, where our lunch was being cooked and a cow roamed around freely, posing for pictures. The majority of Berber houses have rooms built around a courtyard. Livestock are normally kept in one of these rooms, while guests are received in a carpeted dining room where shoes always have to come off before stepping inside.
Every Berber meal starts with a glass of tea. Ours was freshly prepared by the sprightly Mohamed, while our guide, Abdul, spectacularly held the teapot high above the tray and poured tea equally in each glass. Meanwhile, our host passed around a bottle of water and a basin for everyone to wash their hands in. Bread is a substitute for cutlery in Berber households, and families eat from the same dish.
The traditional way of eating tajine is to use your index finger and thumb to push small chunks of food onto a piece of flatbread. Scooping up pieces of vegetables is easy enough, but when it comes to tearing apart the meat, things get a bit messy. A heavy lunch calls for a nap, but we still had a good three hours of trekking ahead of us.
We continued walking further up into the mountains, getting closer to their rugged, snow-streaked peaks. A couple of farmers met us halfway and tagged along, their donkeys bringing up the rear. By the time we arrived at the village where we would be spending the night, dusk had already set in.
We were first greeted by the local children, who had gathered outside their school in anticipation of our arrival. They savoured the attention they got from us, plus the treats we gave them, and then they eagerly posed for photos.
Eight of us met Omar, our host for the night. He could only communicate with us in his native language, yet our guide, Khaled, assured us that Omar and his wife will do their best to make us feel at home. Sitting sideways on his donkey, Omar led us to his house. The donkey went in first, which made us wonder whether we would be sharing a room with the animal for the night.
Picking up his crutches from the saddle, our host heaved himself off the donkey and started climbing the uneven steps leading to the courtyard. Omar was born with a disability in his legs, however this hasn’t stopped him from becoming independent and building a family of three children.
The walls of the guest room were bordered with cushioned seats. I spotted a pile of blankets at the far corner, a sign that we would be sleeping there. Omar’s children sidled into the room and sat shyly next to their father, not sure how to approach strangers in their house. He introduced them to us, indicating their age with his fingers.
“Mina (8), Osama (5), Khadija (1).”
Omar’s face beamed with pride and joy as he uttered his children’s names. His eyes mirrored his desperate need for the ability to communicate with us, but Khaled was patient enough to relay everything in English.
“Mina and Osama love going to school. Omar hopes that he will be able to pay for their education when they’re older.”
Education in Morocco is compulsory until the age of 14, and admission requirements for higher educational institutes are very competitive. Omar and his wife receive children’s allowance and a disability pension, but the amount is just enough to get by.
“But everyone in the village helps each other, so Omar knows that if his family ever needs help, he will definitely find it. The people here have each other, and this keeps them going.”
It was still too early for dinner, so Omar asked Mina to bring out their family albums. He started with pictures of his children when they were younger. When it came to showing us his wedding photos, his face lit up. He also passed around faded photos of himself as a teenager, and had no qualms about showing us a picture of his prosthetic leg.
“This is John, Omar’s American friend,” Khaled smiled, holding a picture of a blond man standing next to Omar.
Omar had a lot of praise for his American friend. John and his wife first met Omar in 2010 while they were spending a few days in the village. They took many pictures of Omar and his family, and John still visits them once a year.
“Omar occasionally gets visitors like yourselves, people who choose to spend a night with a Berber family. This helps them financially, but they only get visitors twice, or perhaps three times a year,” Khaled explained as he showed us another picture of a French couple with Omar’s children.
We put our shoes on and went out into the courtyard, where Omar’s wife, Walida, was baking flatbread in a clay oven. She invited us into the kitchen to show us how tajine is prepared and cooked. The carrots, marrows and potatoes she had just washed and chopped looked crisp and fresh, and they were all locally grown. Chunks of beef simmered in the pot, and the vegetables were thrown in once the meat started to get tender.
Back in the courtyard, the children had been chasing each other around. The temperature had dropped and they weren’t wearing thick jackets, so running kept them warm. They gradually opened up to us, especially Mina, who started using the men’s big body frames to hide from her brother. Sometimes they poked us in the back, meaning they wanted us to be ‘it.’ The family’s guard dog, an aged Labrador, watched the spectacle from the roof of the doorway. Even little Khadija tottered around, and whenever she fell, Mina picked her up and comforted her. It made Omar very happy to see his children finally being comfortable around us.
Khaled reminded us that we need to use bread to go through the tajine. Walida had prepared two dishes, and the whole family dined with us. Omar’s dark eyes had a sparkle in them as he watched us devour dinner till the last drop of juice at the bottom of the pot.
“Omar says he’s glad that you enjoyed the food and he hopes that you feel at home.”
We assured him that we were very grateful and couldn’t ask for more, except for a good night’s sleep after a day of trekking, but Khaled warned us that the night was far from over.
“Omar also wants me to tell you that now you must be prepared to dance.”
We followed Omar through the rocky paths of the village. Guard dogs barked as we walked past farms and houses. The village was shrouded in pitch darkness. The only thing we could make out was the silhouette of the Atlas mountains. At last we came in sight of a lit-up house, where the rest of our group and the best musicians in the village had been waiting for us.
Music is an ancient tradition for Berbers, one which they are very willing to uphold. Songs have been passed on orally from generation to generation, and many Berbers in mountain villages occasionally come together to sing and dance in a ring. Although Berber women also sing and play instruments during these gatherings, our musicians for the night were all men. Instead, the women decided to watch the entertainment from the kitchen doorway.
Most of our entertainers were possibly grandfathers, with the exception of a few young men. In fact, we had the honour of meeting the oldest person in the village; an energetic, ruddy-faced man of 98. His liveliness put him on a par with Mohamed, who was also one of the musicians for the night.
Mohamed started banging away on a circular drum, known as bendir, and the rest of the men promptly followed suit, some of them making do with home utilities like metal basins and plastic cans. But they did not want to sing and play on their own. They taught us the words to the songs, asked us to create our own beat, and urged us to dance.
The drumming soon became hypnotising, and we couldn’t help but dance to the beat of the drums. I had already come across traditional Berber music in Marrakech, but when played under a starry sky on top of a mountain, primal drumming and chanting evokes a powerful sense of ancient magic and mysticism.
In the midst of all that dancing and swaying, my hand inadvertently brushed against Mohamed’s back. He swivelled around and delivered a hard slap on the first person he found. And that person was me. When he noticed the look of shock on my face as I rubbed my sore arm, he grabbed me by the shoulders, pressed a kiss on my cheek, and pulled me into the circle to dance with him.
Omar’s main concern in the morning was whether we had slept comfortably and warmly. Walida had woken up very early to make sure that breakfast would be ready by the time we got up. She walked into the room with a big pot of soup that looked and tasted like porridge. It was followed by bread, three different types of olives, apricot jam, honey, and more bread.
Mina and Osama came to say goodbye before heading off to school. Judging by the fresh, cheerful look on their faces, their school is a fun place to be. Or perhaps they couldn’t wait to tell their friends all about the strangers who had just spent a night at their house.
We promised Omar a new photo for his family album, so we gathered in the courtyard for a group snapshot. Then it was time to say our goodbyes. Once again, Omar entrusted Khaled with a heartwarming message for us.
“Omar and Walida want you to know that you are always welcome at their home. They wish you good health and a safe trip.”
Words alone couldn’t express my heartfelt gratitude for being treated like one of the family. I asked Khaled to tell Omar that I hope to return to the village one day.
Omar looked at me with that unmistakable sparkle in his eyes, then said something that didn’t need translating.