A Month in Morocco: Desert Elder

Ouarzazate (War-za-zat) has a notable history in the film industry. It is home to a major studio (Atlas Film), regularly used for major Hollywood productions. Films such as Babel, The Hills have Eyes, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Lawrence of Arabia, Indigenes and many others have been filmed here. With my guide Abdul, I walked along the “Moroccan Nile,” where less than a week earlier flash floods uprooted countless date palms and destroyed nearby villages. Abdul told me that never before had the area experienced this much rain; and though he felt the devastation of the tragedy, he wasn’t surprised by the weather. He said that the Koran foretells of climate change and subsequent weather anomalies. Our hike was Abdul’s first since the deluge, and he warned me of his penchant for collecting rocks. Right then I knew we’d get along fine during our three long days of hiking together.

Abdul was Touareg. He told me Touaregs were the Sahara elders and for centuries were nomadic desert traders. They followed the salt route through the desert trading everything: gold, camels, slaves and more. Abdul said that Touaregs are responsible for the shady date palms found in hidden oases. They brought dates from east Africa across the desert and littered the sand with pits which sprouted into trees. Abdul also believed that his desert knowledge was passed down genetically. He told me that he can read the clouds and the sand like a language. If he wakes up and sees clouds over the the Anti-Atlas mountains, it’ll be windy. If clouds come later in the day, wind won’t be an issue. On our first hike, the morning clouds were plentiful. I had to wrap my head and face in a turban to keep from eating sand all day.

Together we walked about twenty miles/day across trail-less moonscapes to Fint Oasis, the ancient kasbah of Ait Ben Haddou, and, at his insistence, to the larger of the two movie studios nearby. Come to find out, he used to work there and wanted to see his pals. At first I wasn’t interested in its touristy vibe, but when he took me to the back lot it got interesting. Before me stood an actual-sized set of Jeruslem’s walls, Mecca, and other contextually confusing props from films.

One day, after six hours of hiking to the middle of nowhere, we came upon a desert set where Ben Kingsley was currently filming King Tut. The crew had just called it a wrap and a giant crowd of extras dressed as ancient Egyptians was walking towards a fleet of buses while checking their cell phones. I found the scene surreal. Abdul recommended we alter our route back to Ouarzazate and walk instead across a horizonless expanse of flat desert, rippling in the heat. Even with a cigarette in his mouth, his pace scorched me. Every once and a while he’d stop, look back, and wait for me to catch up. I finally told him he was the fastest walker I know—that folks usually have to keep up with me. Abdul just smiled, adjusted his aviator glasses and said, “My friend, you obviously don’t know any Touareg people, then.”

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