We started in Marrakech, staying in the medina. It still feels like another world – no cars, colour, hustle-bustle, mopeds, porters pushing barrows, butchers, bakers, clothes, carpets, knick-knacks. The jostle was intense at busy times in the narrow medieval streets, where only the tourists dawdle, window shopping with wide eyes as they lose themselves in the labyrinthine streets and retire with senses sated to quiet riads. People gather in the Djemma-el-Fnaa at sunset, the elegant minaret of the Koutoubia mosque guarding it nearby. As the light fades the drumming intensifies. People mill around – story tellers, juice stalls, tricksters, snake charmers, and food stalls. It’s not yet dominated by the many tourists – still a place where Moroccans stroll and enjoy.
Ten hours south east of Marrakech by bus lies M’hamid, a one horse town at the end of the road in the Draa valley. We stopped in Zagora, wandered the palm groves and visited the Mellah (Jewish quarter), deserted and derelict apart from a shop/museum where we watched silver jewelry being made using traditional designs. Next day we visited Tamegroute, a religious centre since the eleventh century, where there’s a famous religious school and a library with manuscripts dating to the tenth century. There were texts with superb and intricate abstract illustrations on biology, the history of Fez and a fourteenth century Koran with beautiful calligraphy in Sufic script. I was shocked to see biro notes on at least two of the ancient scripts, preserved for so long by the dry climate. We also found the potteries around the mud-baked houses of the old part of town.Tamegroute
By chance we met Allal who kindly gave us a ride to M’hamid by the scenic route, flanked by low mountains and to the west, Algeria only 25 miles away, separated from Morocco by a ditch and the countries’ respective armies. The land borders have been shut since 1994, the traditional routes of nomads disrupted by geo-politics.
We settled in our cheap and cheerful hotel, run by the ever helpful Yaya who took us across the dry river bed of the Draa to see the opening ceremony of the 2019 Festival des Nomades. It took place in the fanciest hotel in town, the Spanish owned Hotel Kasbah Azalay where an array of people circulated and bought drinks. Eventually in a mini piece of classic desert in its grounds the opening ceremony took place. And so, in a desert cliché (and why not?). A man sat on the sand with a mint tea pot, camels and their minders, splendidly garbed in their best flowing robes and turbans formed a backdrop under the palms and sand to some ‘taster’ performances from Oulad M’hamid, a local ‘desert blues’ band and Hasna El Becharia one of the very few women to play the guembre (a 3 string bass) and lead a gnaoua band. The music was excellent and got underway after some speeches by the local establishment who watched from chairs. Then back to the main entrance where giant puppets appeared and people talked. A superb band from Burkina Fasso, the Benkadi trio wowed us with their drumming, dancing and marimba playing.
The festival was a three day event (and free) with 4 bands a night starting at 8pm outside the local sport centre where a stage had been erected. In a dusty space on the edge of town, L’espace moussem, there were a few nomad tents and some ‘traditional’ activities during the day. It was strange that nowhere in town (across the river from the luxury hotel) was there a stall or tent giving out information about the festival and even Yaya didn’t know what was happening and when. He said that the Taragalte festival which takes place at the end of October and happens in dunes about 5 miles from M’hamid involves the local people more – it also charges Europeans and offers a package where you can stay at the site.
We duly turned up at the stage at eight o clock and ate from one of the numerous food stands, and waited until about 9.45 before the music started. The young men in the town wore their finest colourful robes and stylish turbans. The women tended to stay near the back often with children showing only their eyes. The four bands produced joyous performances. Oumad M’hamid played desert blues rock and had everyone dancing. The Benkadi trio were my highlight with energetic dancing and a very pure sound from their marimbas and finally Nabil Otami – more desert blues, though blues felt like a wrong description for their joyous sound which had everyone dancing and the town’s teenage boys boisterously letting off steam. The music on the last 2 days never quite reached these heights.
We watched and listened to all the music over the three nights and although it was always interesting and sometimes superb it didn’t have the consistency of the first night. But certain bands stood out: Hasna El Becharia from Algeria, Ballet Liziba from The Congo, a percussion and dance quartet who really got the crowd going after what seemed like initial scepticism. The strangest act was the finale with Nouamane Lahlou, a contemporary Moroccan singer with a small orchestra to back him. His act felt a like a Fast Show spoof – he had a good voice, a fixed smile with very white teeth and there was a backing film of dancing girls on top of a Kasbah, cut with him playing the oud, back to women letting herbs and spices slip through their hands, cut to camels trekking the desert sands as the sun set, cut to his flashing smile and so on. I don’t think we were the only ones quietly chuckling. He had followed an interminable thanking of sponsors and local worthies who had taken a bow to the general indifference of the audience.
We visited L’espace moussem in time to see the fantasia – horsemen carried ancient blunderbusses and charged up and down a dusty stretch and discharged them in unison creating a mighty sound. Later men on camels galloped up and down with turban bedecked riders and a gnaoua band sang.
M’hamid is a dusty place when the desert wind blew up on the first two or three days in the afternoon, almost blotting out the sun. It continued blowing into the night. The scarf/turbans are the perfect headgear for keeping the dirt and dust out – we failed to cut the same dash as the locals with our attempts to wear them. M’hamid is not the most attractive town and has no beautiful squares or plazas, its main street coming to an end with a view of the desert. It is also a prime base for desert tourism with various companies offering trips out. Its people are curious, welcoming and friendly.
With the festival over we visited Erg Chigaga the biggest area of desert dunes in Morocco, travelling past sparsely planted tamarisk trees and herds of camels, through reddy, brown terrain with the outline of mountains on either side of us to the east and west, the Algerian border close by. As we approached the dunes there was a small oasis called Doum Laalag…it was walled and shut, a holy site which had been the last gathering place for the caravans carrying salt and other goods to Timbuktu (52 days away according to the souvenirs in Tamegroute and Zagora). It wasn’t clear why, or when it had been walled and Yaya said that the nomads didn’t like walls, implying that it had been recent. We stopped at a part of the dunes, equipped for tourism with Bedouin tents to sleep in and food and comforts laid on. As we returned the sun set and the huge shadows of the tamarisk trees spread further and further. We crossed the Draa, a toenail moon low in the sky and the constellations shone bright.
On Monday we had a great journey back to Marrakech. It started early and in 10 hours and 600km we passed through ochre desert and low mountains along the Draa, dotted with ancient Kasbahs and a sprinkling of date palms. Then we climbed up to the snow-capped peaks of the High Atlas Mountains and down to the plain and the noisy hubbub of Marrakech. Click on the photos below and they will fill the screen on a carousel.