“Alice, Alice, mamantcadgit?” (‘How are you?’), my neighbour Rachida called as I got back from an early morning training run, hot, sweaty and thirsty. “Do you want some milk?” That sounded like the best thing in the world at that moment. I sat down beside her on the steps outside my house in the small family compound (‘douar’) that I live in, as she unscrewed the top of the plastic mineral water bottle and poured the still-warm fresh milk into my cup. Creamy and pure, I gulped it down and silently thanked the cow, who lives in the room downstairs from me and who I hear lowing every morning as she waits to be fed.
In July 2018, I had moved to Douar Aghan, above Imlil in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, to train for the Everest Trail Race which I had undertaken to run the following November. It is a 160 kilometre, six day ultra-marathon with 15,000 metres of positive ascent; and it is run at altitude so I needed to train in similar conditions to have any chance of completing it. I had lived in Morocco for nearly five years and had been to Imlil many times. I thought I knew it well, but I had only scratched the surface and my last six months of living with the Imazighen has been a privilege and a chance to learn much more about them.
The Imazighen make up 40% of Morocco’s population and were the indigenous people of the country until the Arab Conquests in the 7th century began a wave of migration and mixing which has formed the country as it is today. They initially got given the name ‘Berber’ by the Romans, who couldn’t understand their language so called them the ‘blahblahblahs’ in Latin. The French, who colonised Morocco called them ‘Les Berbères’ – which connotes ‘barbarian’. In fact, Amazigh (in the singular) means ‘The Free Man’ and the symbol for the Imazighen is a man standing with his arms upraised.
The douar, where I live, comprises three family houses owned by three brothers and my little house, all surrounding an open courtyard. My house is built into the side of a hill and looks over a sea of walnut trees – I can reach out from my bedroom window and actually pick the ripe nuts. The valley is enclosed by peaks 3000 metres and more, rising in sharp serried ranks – brown and green in the summer, but blazing white with snow in the winter.
Family is at the heart of life here and it is the defining social construct. Socialising is naturally segregated, with the men going out to work and to the mosque and the women working within the home. Second breakfast at 11 am, is a chance to meet and eat freshly baked bread, smothered in home-made melted butter, and drink sweet mint tea and chat.
The women of my generation and younger are all illiterate and speak Tashlaheet, an Imazighen dialect, rather than Arabic, as they didn’t go to school. Their daughters, though, all go to school and board in nearby Asni during the week so that they can complete their secondary education. My neighbours have taken me to their hearts and shower me with affection, but my life choices are incomprehensible to them. “Alice, why aren’t you married, you need a husband to have children. A woman without children has no value, no worth,” I was told at one of our breakfasts when I tried to explain that I was happy without children.
The women work in the home but also look after the cow, sheep, and chickens. They go down to the valley every morning to cut fodder from the farm for the animals. I recycle all my vegetable scrapings by leaving them outside for the women to take. My landlady is in her mid-fifties and as rosy-cheeked as a fifteen-year-old – she is a mother of six and a grandmother of three. She is the primary carer for the latest baby, who spends her day tied to her back in a sling and has finally stopped crying every time she catches sight of my scary foreign face.
Imlil is a centre for hiking in the Atlas and is also where the Marrakchis come in summer to escape from the heat, so tourism is one of the mainstays of the economy and many of the men have jobs in the sector as well as tending the small, sustainable farms that provide the families with their courgettes, onions, wheat, barley, tomatoes and turnips. Imlil is also a giant orchard. The rich soil makes conditions ideal for fruit trees including cherry, apple, peach, plum and pear. Come in spring and the valley is a paradise of blossom. Walnuts are the other big crop and they are harvested in October, when you will see boys perched precariously in the branches knocking down the nuts with long sticks so that the girls beneath can collect them.
It is an idyllic place and life here does continue unchanged in many ways, but the influx of tourism and its opportunities and the influence of the internet – which shows young people all the myriad things that are available in the wider world – are having an impact.
Hassan is a young Amazigh man navigating this complex landscape. He is proud of his culture and heritage and eager to share it with the visitors who join him on his treks. However, he combines his love of tradition with a fierce determination to succeed in his chosen field of tourism and a keen understanding of the tools you need to use in this modern age to achieve that. Through hard work and determination, he remains the No. 1 guide on Trip Advisor for Imlil.
Marrakech is only an hour and a half away and many young people have left the village to go and work there, coming back to build houses in the family compounds. I often pick up young lads hitch-hiking to school and when I ask them what they want to do when they leave, the answers are as varied as they would be in any western country: football coach, teacher, lawyer, mechanic.
One of the defining characteristics of the Imazighen, for me, is their hospitality and generosity. They are known for being canny with their money, and if you bargain hard in Marrakech, you’ll be told laughingly, “Ah you are a Berber”; but I cannot walk down the main street of the village without being invited in for tea or handed an apple or a handful of walnuts.
Friday is couscous day, and on this particular Friday, I had been out on a very long run/hike and had come in soaking wet after being caught in a thunderstorm. I dashed into the shower and washed off the mud and cold. Warm at last, I emerged into my bedroom stark naked to find my landlady standing in the doorway holding a plate of couscous for me. I am not sure who was more surprised. The couscous was delicious, though, and that will probably remain my stand out memory of this wonderful place.
For more from Alice you can check out her website:www.alicemorrison.co.uk or she is @aliceoutthere1 on Twitter and Instagram or @alicehuntermorrisonadventures on Facebook. She is also the author of two books – see www.alicemorrison.co.uk/books.
Photograph: Alice Morrison
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