A journey through the Atlas Mountains

‘The mountains which surround Kashmir are never monotonous. Infinitely varied in form and colour, they are such as an artist might picture in his dreams’. So writes Walter Lawrence in The Valley of Kashmir. The French artist, Eugene Delacroix, visited Morocco as part of a diplomatic mission in the 1830s and wrote that he felt ‘like a man in a dream’. Walter Lawrence acted as a Settlement Commissioner in Kashmir a century and a half ago and was later knighted for his services. I was astonished when I read in his book that a British Sahib could compile a complete encyclopaedia of Kashmir after only a brief stay – ‘six seasons in the Valley’, in his own words. But his observations are a staple of many conversations at wedding functions in Srinagar to this day. He included some Kashmiri proverbs in the glossary at the end of his book. Though their meaning had always been on the tip of my tongue, I have come to know the precise meaning of a few old Kashmiri sayings only by reading their English translation. 

Living in London, I always yearn for the mountains. And the Atlas Mountains, which stretch from Morocco to Tunisia, are a lot nearer to London than the Himalayas. My fascination with Morocco is twofold. Robert Plant – a son of the Black Country – wrote his famous song ‘Kashmir’ for a Led Zeppelin album while travelling through Morocco. He had never been to Kashmir but the lyrics of his song always evoke its mountainous landscape in my imagination. Secondly, in London I am often mistaken for a Moroccan. 

In mid-November I took a cab to Gatwick airport very early in the morning to catch a flight to Marrakech. At first I found the name of the city confusing because Morocco (the country) is known as Marrakech in Kashmir. And the country shares its latitude with that of Kashmir although it always seems improbable to me that Srinagar, the town of my birth, is on the same latitude as Fez in North Africa. 

I would have liked to buy some Moroccan dirhams at the airport but the exchange rate was extortionate. When I asked the cashier at the bureau de change why it was so costly, he asked me spontaneously if I was Moroccan as normal tourists wouldn’t have been inclined to question the rate. In fact, I had popped into a currency exchange bureau in my own neighbourhood in London the day before but they didn’t have any Moroccan dirhams (the currency code of which, incidentally, is MAD). I went to another bureau and the cashier told me that I wouldn’t find any dirhams because it is a ‘closed currency’ and cannot be exported out of the country. But his explanation seemed unconvincing to me. A Moroccan friend in London had advised me against changing any British pounds for dirhams in the UK because he knew the rate was bad. 

I wanted to see the Atlas Mountains, a range in the Maghreb in North Africa that separates the Sahara Desert from the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. I was searching somewhere for the nearest city to the High Atlas when I read that you could see them from Marrakech. I have worked with quite a few Moroccans in London during the last two decades and all of them were very hospitable but they mostly came from Tangiers, Agadir and other cities in Morocco so my indigenous contacts were few. 

Mine was an impromptu trip, although seeing the Atlas Mountains with my own eyes has been on my bucket list for a long time. I decided on impulse to fly to Marrakech and booked my ticket only a few days before as it was still pleasantly sunny enough for a journey through the Atlas Mountains. Also, the tourist rush had finished and it cost me the same to fly to Marrakech as a cab ride from my home to Gatwick Airport. 

Crossing the Mediterranean ocean looks much the same from above as crossing the English Channel. The aircraft then cruises over a vast expanse of barren landscape before it touches down in Marrakech, a city with an indigenous population of one million and (in 2019) three million visitors. 

There were just a few aircraft at Marrakech’s Menara Airport, one of which had developed a technical fault. Our pilot waited for the way to clear but then let the passengers disembark at some distance from the terminal building. 

Marrakech hosted COP 22 in 2016, an event that was still advertised on the walls inside the terminal. Six years later, in the same week many world leaders headed again to Sharm-el-Sheikh for Cop 27, without much progress made in the talks on climate change. 

The greetings by staff at the airport seemed genuinely warm. Most airports around the world are notorious for offering poor rates of exchange but the rate at Menara airport seemed very generous compared to the one at Gatwick. I changed some money as I needed cash to pay for a taxi from the airport to the hotel. My guidebook described the fare as ‘artificially high’. The advertised rate for a petit-taxi is 70 dirhams but the cab driver demanded 200. I offered him a 100 as my hotel was very close to the airport. He didn’t accept and so I walked away. A car park attendant intervened and shortly after informed me that the driver would now accept 100 dirhams. I felt somewhat guilty for haggling over a cab fare. 

The driver warmed up a bit to me when he drove out of the airport and explained that petrol was now very expensive. November is usually a rainy month in Marrakech but it was dry and sunny that day. When I checked the weather on the BBC website it showed the image of a cloudless sun for many days in a row. 

The driver told me that he was from Ourika valley and the snow on the Atlas Mountains is gradually disappearing. Marrakech gets its drinking water from the rivers that originate in the mountains surrounding it and therefore its future hangs in the balance because of climate change. 

On arriving at my hotel I asked Taufiq the concierge about a sightseeing bus tour of the city that I had read about in my guidebook. He told me that the Covid-19 pandemic had put paid to it and offered instead to arrange a guide for a walking tour of the walled-city known as Medina. 

My guide had arrived before the appointed time when I came down to the lobby the next morning. He wore a straw hat and a tightly-fitted shirt, which reminded me of the uniformed Gondoliers in Venice. He told me that his name was Abdulrazak and informed me with evident pride that he was a Berber. He had a lanyard hanging around his neck with an ID as proof that he was an official tour guide. Without such identification, the police would question him if they saw him accompanying a tourist. 

We took a cab from the hotel to Medina. In fact, the night before, I’d taken a walk to the square called Jemaa el-Fna in Medina. It comes to life in the evening when the locals and tourists alike descend on it for food, entertainment or just a stroll. 

When I asked for directions to the square, the doorman told me to turn around the corner; I would see the high minaret of Koutoubia in the distance and I should walk straight in that direction. It was indeed a straightforward walk and when I reached this landmark darkness had descended and you could hear the call to prayers coming from the loudspeakers fitted in the open window spaces at the top of the minaret. It occurred to me that Koutoubia means ‘a congregation of booksellers’ and I felt drawn at once to see its interior. The thick white walls and splendid arches have created a most tranquil contrast to the hustle and bustle of the nearby square that has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO for its demotic liveliness. Two or three men wearing turbans and long robe-like garments known as djellaba were playing flutes. This was reminiscent of the flute players of Kashmir who travelled from neighbourhood to neighbourhood in my childhood, entertaining children and collecting money from their parents. The Moroccan reed flute is known as a nai – the same name people use for a flute in Kashmir. There is also a trumpet-like flute called ghita in Morocco – the children in Kashmir call it baja – and a flute player is known as a baja-wallah

There was a very long line of horse-drawn carriages for hire near Jemaa el-Fna. I had seen a few of these carriages on the road on my way to Medina, the horses moving effortlessly among the cars and motorbikes. The carriages have brightly-coloured upholstery and white-rimmed wheels. The thumping of the horses’ hooves on the tarmac creates a musical rhythm for pedestrians. It reminded me of Michael Palin, in one of his travel documentaries, arriving in Alexandria and a horseman named Ahmed giving him an off-the-cuff tour of the town. It is certainly a grander way of seeing a city than riding in an open-top bus. 

Abdulrazak took me to Dar el-Bacha Palace, which has recently been converted into the Museum of Confluences (of African/European/Middle Eastern cultural forces). As an official guide, he was exempt from paying an entrance fee. He often used the expression ‘of course’ in his explanations, just as native Italian speakers repeatedly say ‘more or less’ when they converse in English. 

When I was searching online for accommodation in Marrakech, I noticed that many hotels were called riads without knowing that these were old mansions with a courtyard and a water fountain, converted into hotels. The palace is just over a hundred years old and built like a traditional riad. incorporating the European influences of the Pasha for whom it was built. There are Jewish artefacts on display in one room and Islamic ones in the other. Abdulrazak pointed to the different types of stars used as motifs in the mosaic of the palace. He said that the eight-pointed star represented the eight gates of paradise. My mother often mentioned the four rivers of paradise when I was young but seldom mentioned its gates. Abdulrazak then showed me the six-pointed star of David, also used as a motif in the Palace. Elaborating further, he used his favourite expression – “Of course, the five-pointed star in the flag of Morocco represents the five pillars of Islam.” On display in a shop in a souk [market] outside the palace, he showed me some silver hands called hamsa that are believed by Jews and Muslims alike in Morocco to ward off evil. Some of them had a star of David engraved on them. An identical silver hand is tied to a pole and brightly-coloured pieces of cloth are tied around it and held aloft by Shia mourners during the month of Muharram in Kashmir. 

My guide showed me a tricolour Berber flag with a letter at its centre that represents the freedom of its people. Berbers live in the villages that dot the Atlas Mountains. He told me that the word Berber is derived from ‘barbarian’ and hence people living in the Atlas Mountains don’t like to be called Berbers, preferring to be known as ‘Amazigh’ which means ‘free men’. He pointed to a sign written in the Berber language, its letters bearing a resemblance to the Greek alphabet. Abdulrazak stressed that Arabs only make up a minority of the population and yet Arabic is the official language in Morocco. However, they are now introducing the Berber language in schools and the teaching of French will soon be replaced by English. The Francophone Maghreb is thus

going to become Anglophone. Quelle surprise! Abdulrazaq said it was more useful for their children to learn English than French in order to give them better opportunities in the English-speaking world. Morocco’s relationship with France, its former colonial master, is currently at a low ebb. 

On entering the courtyard in Dar el-Bacha, I found fig, orange, banana and palm trees. It was a most serene courtyard, seemingly miles away from the buzzing souks outside. After leaving the palace, Abdulrazak showed me the Ben Youssef School, one of the finest architectural gems in Marrakech, and we then walked through the warren-like alleyways of souks to get back to Jemaa el-Fna. I asked him about the origin of this name, which means ‘congregation of the dead’. He told me its origin was uncertain as there are several interpretations of this name. Before bidding me farewell, Abdulrazak obliged me by stopping a cab and asking the driver to drop me back at the hotel. The cab driver wanted to give me his own tour of Marrakech and asked me if I wanted to buy any souvenirs. 

We passed the famous La Mamounia hotel where Churchill and Roosevelt had once stayed. A tall doorman wearing a red Fez and a white silk robe ushered the guests in. Some of them arrived by car, some by horse-drawn carriage. These days, many celebrities who can afford to pay a hefty bill stay in this hotel. Abdulrazak had told me that an imposter called Anna Sorokin, who posed as a German heiress, had stayed in La Mamounia, and a big crew from Netflix had hired the hotel later for scenes from a documentary about her double life. 

I had booked a tour online to see a few valleys in the Atlas Mountains and catch sight of Mt Toubkal. When I returned to the hotel the night before this trip, I asked Taufiq if he could call the travel agency to reconfirm my booking. He rang them and they promptly told him that I would be picked up from my hotel at 8:30 am. Just above Taufiq’s cubicle, the sign ‘Conciergerie’ was affixed in metal cut-out letters, bringing to mind the Conciergerie built on an island in the middle of the river Seine in Paris that had become one of the principal places of detention during the French Revolution. 

The tour guide arrived in a black van exactly at 8:30 am. There were four more people in his van going on the same tour. Two of them were from London, one from Australia and the fourth was from Estonia. The tour guide introduced himself to me as I was the last one to join the tour. His name was Maruaone. He didn’t look Moroccan to me. Without being asked, as if anticipating an oft-repeated question, he informed us that his father was an Arab and his mother a Berber and he hailed from a city to the south of the Atlas Mountains called Ouarzazate. Maruaone listened to rai music on his phone. When I asked him for the name of the artist he told me that he was himself a singer. He worked as a tour guide during the day and as a singer in a shisha bar at night. As he worked long hours, he kept himself awake with espressos. He needed extra money for the education of his younger brother. When work dried up during the Covid-19 pandemic, Maruaone had taken up kickboxing to keep himself fit. But he remarked ruefully that he was now heavier than before as he didn’t go to the gym anymore. 

On the way to the first valley in the Atlas Mountains, we drove past a long line of SUVs and I asked Maruaone what was taking place there. He told me there was a tomb of a rabbi nearby and Jewish pilgrims from all over the world came regularly to pay their respects at his shrine. Maruaone made a stop at a shop for us to see how they extracted oil from argan nuts. But he emphasised that we had no obligation to buy anything in the shop. Two or three cab drivers in Marrakech had mentioned a women’s cooperative to me and I was aware that they were using le deuxieme sexe and the co-op as selling points to lure visitors. However, I couldn’t bring myself to leave the shop empty-handed as I saw an elderly woman making peanut butter on a stone grinder in a corner and the shop was exclusively staffed by women. One of the staff members explained how they extracted inedible as well as edible oil from the nuts of argan trees. It is also known as liquid gold. I was familiar with the high price of argan oil because an acquaintance had once asked me to buy a very small bottle for her at Selfridges in London. It is sold as Moroccan oil in high-end shops. 

Just like Marrakech, the Ourika valley was teeming with tourists. Maruaone handed us over to a guide called Jamal who would lead our small group on a hike to see a waterfall. There were busloads of schoolchildren from other countries arriving in Ourika at the same time. On our way back from the waterfall, we had to stop a few times along a narrow path to yield the way. You find stalls full of souvenirs and makeshift restaurants along this route. I asked Jamal if it snowed in the valley during the winter. He told me that it should have already snowed there but climate change was now making the snowfall more unpredictable. We crossed a footbridge over a mountain stream and there, laid out on its bank, were red rugs and seating cushions, an enchanting spectacle. 

As we had driven from Marrakech to Ourika, the landscape had turned from arid to fertile. Jamal told us that Morocco gets its water from seven rivers, all of which originate in the Atlas Mountains, and if it didn’t snow on the High Atlas, the cities and towns would be without water in the future. There was no traffic on the way to the next valley and the mountain air was pleasantly fresh compared to the petrol fumes that you inhale while walking along the streets in Marrakech. 

You find an abundance of fruit trees in the valleys of the Atlas Mountains. I could see walnut, apple and pear trees. Some villagers were loading crates of fresh fruit in a pickup van and they handed a few free apples to Maruaone (Jamal our prior guide having departed after our hike). He remarked that such hospitality was commonplace among the Berbers. 

While driving through Oukaimeden, Maruaone told us it was a ski resort. It sounded bizarre that a ski resort existed in North Africa. But this resort gets a lot of snow during winter and has half a dozen ski lifts and hotels for skiers, whereas the UK lies 1400 miles to the north of Morocco but doesn’t have a reputable ski resort due to its low altitude. 

Our next stop was Sidi Fares. Maruaone explained that Sidi means ‘Monsieur’ in Maghrebi Arabic He parked his car and led us to a Berber home for a meal (all included in the tour fee) of tajine and couscous. There were two tables surrounded by seating cushions on its terrace. We took off our shoes before sitting on the floor. The sun shone in the azure sky and there was complete silence, broken only by the braying of a faraway donkey. 

Our host brought out olives, hot bread and finely chopped tomatoes. I have never had lunch in a more picturesque place. It is customary for Berbers to cook couscous on a Friday just as it is a longstanding tradition in the UK to eat fish and chips on a Friday. As we were about to start our meal, half a dozen French men and women arrived with their guide for a similar treat and took their places at the second table at the far end of the terrace. Maruaone had forewarned us that if we didn’t finish our food, it would be construed by our host that we didn’t much like their cooking. But the slow-cooked food was so delicious that the second helping proved irresistible for everyone. The meal was followed by mint tea. The practice there is to pour the tea into small cups, holding the kettle two feet above. It’s believed in this part of the world that if there are no bubbles in a cup of tea, a guest can take it that the host doesn’t appreciate his or her company. Bubbles are created by holding the kettle high – it needs practice because the cups are quite narrow. 

It was a wonderful setting, as if you were being transported on a magic carpet from A Thousand and One Nights to a different realm. Sidi Fares is just a few hours’ drive from Marrakech and yet it is galaxies away from the Red City. We bid farewell to our host to continue our journey through the next valley. Maruaone drove up a winding road and we caught sight of snow-clad peaks. He stopped to enable us to have a good look at Mt. Toubkal, the second-highest peak in Africa. It was a greatly pleasing view of an undulating dreamscape. Our guide told us that he had climbed up Mt Toubkal just before the Covid pandemic. It had been a strenuous hike and he wouldn’t try it again. He pointed to a road on the other side of the valley and said it led to Imlil village and it usually takes a couple of days to climb up Mt Toubkal from there. 

Two flags were pitched in the ground next to a parked car, signifying that a bike ride was in progress. Maruaone said that bike rides like this were organised regularly in the Atlas Mountains. We had driven past two or three cyclists in professional gear on our way from Marrakech to Ourika. There is even a designated bike lane shared by cyclists with motorcyclists and they don’t seem to mind each other’s company. 

After driving through Asni, Maruaone drove us straight back to Marrakech. I was due to fly back to London on the following afternoon. However, I wanted to see the Orientalist Museum in Medina before leaving. In the morning I asked for directions from the hotel to the Museum and the doorman suggested that I take a cab to Jamaa el-Fna. The Museum was a 20-minute walk away through the souks

It is easy to get lost in the labyrinthine souks of Marrakech but the pull of the Museum proved too strong for me, even if it meant risking getting lost and missing my flight. It was easy, at least, to ask for directions as the Museum is located near the Ben Youssef School. The shopkeepers gave me directions mostly in French. I only understood the word ‘droit’ and kept going straight until I reached the School. A shopkeeper near the school was unaware of the existence of a museum in the area and so I popped into Ben Youssef and a booking clerk directed me to the rear of the School. 

When I entered the Museum, I was surprised to see at the reception desk the same man I had seen the day before at a gallery called MACMA in Villa Nouvella. I had gone there to see some orientalist paintings but he told me that the collection had been moved to a museum in Medina. 

The Museum is housed in a newly renovated 17th-century riad. The bright white walls seemed perfect for the display of paintings. I went there to see one or two works by Eugene Delacroix as I can never get his painting The Death of Sardanapalus out of my mind. it is even on the cover of my copy of Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil. No paintings by Delacroix could be seen that day, although I was surprised to see, instead, a surrealist painting by Salvador Dali in the Museum’s collection. 

Pretty soon it was time to go, my mission accomplished. But one is seldom quite finished when travelling abroad. My guidebook says that Morocco is a place that many people return to again and again. I for one certainly wish to revisit this captivating, multifaceted country. 

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