Morocco is like walking into another world for many people. In the big cities, one had to be discrete in how and who one photographed in the streets and Medinas. For me, that meant mostly using zoom lenses held at waist level. This became a necessity after having a vast majority of people warn me off about aiming my camera at them even before I started to bring the camera up to my eye.
For our trip into Berber country in Morocco, we were not sure what to expect nor whom we might meet, but plenty of SD cards were at the top of my packing list. So far my Fuji XT-2’s had performed flawlessly as well as the multitude of Fuji XF lenses I carried in my trusty Think Tank Airport Essentials backpack. However, on this trip, I had the notion to use prime lenses aimed directly at my subjects. Never having been to these remote villages I was not sure how receptive Berber villagers might be to a camera aimed at them, but I had a surprise for many of them.
With our driver and guide, we headed South East from Marrakech to the High Atlas mountains. The Berbers inhabit mainly rural areas and it is estimated that 15-20 million Berbers are currently living in Morocco. Most speak only Berber even though Arabic and French is widely spoken in Morocco. Berber is only a spoken language and not written. As a cultural group, the Berbers really have no interest in learning Arabic nor French as France held the country as a protectorate from 1912 until 1956. Their lives revolve around the family and the close-knit community or tribe they live amongst. Few men speak French, but generally not women.
This first day we drove about 7 to 8 hours non-stop through numerous mountain gorges and over hundreds of mountain switchbacks in order to reach our first Berber village. We had crossed many mountain streams spilling over the road due to freshly melted snows higher up in the mountains. Upon exiting the car at this first village, I witnessed many women washing recently woven rugs in the streams. As I ran my hand through the fresh water it seemed to be under 40 degrees F. Other women were packing as many washed rugs as possible on donkeys for the trip high above the village for drying the rugs in the warm afternoon sun on the ground. I followed a heavily laden donkey up the narrow path to the first home we would visit. I could not begin to keep up with the donkey’s slow gait on the unsteady trail, not to mention that the altitude got to me since this path was extremely steep. Luckily the home we were stopping at was below where the donkey went which was out of sight and high above the doorway to this family’s home.
As we entered the home I noticed the back wall was the actual rock cliff. One side wall was made out of old stones. The other side wall was stone, natural rock and some cinder block.The front wall was non-existent as they had hung an old woven rug up for some sort of protection from the elements and a bit of privacy. The rug was so old that a good strong gust of wind would bring it down in seconds. The floor was either dirt or natural rock somewhat leveled. I am under 6 feet tall and I had to keep crouching low in order to keep from hitting my head on the natural rock and intermittent wooden ceiling as we were lead from room to room.
This family had only the bare essentials, but smiles from ear to ear. It is customary for Berbers to offer strangers some food or snack in a gesture of hospitality. It is an affront for the guest to refuse what is offered. In this case, we were presented with a large round flatbread and homemade butter which looked like a thick opaque mayonnaise. We were told the husband harvested cherries and walnuts. Fadma, the wife, politely washed the cherries for us to eat. They had just been picked and tasted like the cherries I remember eating as a kid some 60 years ago. The walnuts were in their shells so we cracked them open and they were very fresh tasting.
Just then my cell phone beeped with a text message from Verizon to pay them some amount in order to use my cell phone for roaming in Morocco. Of course when I brought it out all eyes were staring at me as they had not yet seen nor heard the ring of an iPhone. Nor did they need one in their environment. I tried to show them some apps, but that got lost to all present, so I resorted to taking a selfie without thinking about any camera shyness on their part. Well, I must say that broke the ice as everyone took selfies of themselves as they passed the phone around. This was just the time to break out the serious gear. I had a surprise in my camera bag. It was a small Fuji printer for X camera use which printed out small polaroid like images I could give to each person. I printed a shot of my wife first and after that, all present wanted a print of themselves. What you see below is a selection from new photo enthusiasts generated by using this printer.
Because Berbers live in the High Atlas Mountains, they live in harsh conditions. Snow and ice cover their village paths and nomadic routes during the Winter months. Summer months can bring heat beyond what we might consider as acceptable living conditions. Spring, as elsewhere in the world, is harvest season when wheat has grown to 2-3 feet high. They use sickles to cut their harvest by hand due to the rocky environment. Some use curved blades about a foot long while others use flat blades in the shape of a wedge. It can be backbreaking to stand over a wheat field in direct sunlight and cut wheat all day long except for a short lunch break which might be their largest meal of the day.
The next day we headed for another even more remote Berber village and after many more hundreds of mountain switchbacks the road opened out for us to see for miles across mountains and valleys. It was here I saw three individuals cutting wheat on the hillside below us. We stopped hoping to catch a quick telephoto shot of the group along with their donkey. But just as I was walking away from the car to get a better angle a young man started yelling at me from a different hillside. Startled, I stopped shooting, but then realized he was actually saying hello. I walked down to say hello only to find he was the designated chef for their lunch that day. He was cooking over an open fire in an old pot behind a rock outgrowth. After asking what he was cooking, he proudly removed the lid on the pot which revealed a stew consisting of chicken, spices and water. Then I watched as he added potatoes, carrots and more spices to the pot. The aroma was enticing, to say the least. In order to show hospitality even out in the open fields, he offered me some sugar-sweetened tea which was about the best tea I have ever had. He broke off a huge wedge of sugar that he added to the teapot plus a little spice. While I sipped my tea, he walked over to the others cutting wheat and came back saying they would be stopping for lunch shortly and would we be so kind to be their guests. At first, we declined since the portion in the pot looked just enough for the four of them, not to mention they had been cutting wheat all morning long. He insisted and we agreed only after offering him our cherries, walnuts and a melon we had with us. We waited for them to start eating as we assumed they were hungry. The meal was eaten by breaking off a piece of flatbread from a pizza-sized flatbread in order to use the bread to scrape and dip into the stew broth and meat. What a feast. It was very tasty and flavorful indeed. They do not know the word organic, but everything we ate sure seemed to be organic.
I was brave at this point in the day and asked if photographs were possible. After some consultation, they agreed, but not the mother of the family. I took a group photo and then printed out an image for them. That was all it took and I just keep shooting until such time as it was evident they had to get back to cutting the wheat. With some persuasion, the mother agreed to be photographed. Finally, we had to say goodbye, but at least we had made some new friends and shrunk the world yet again. In the end, we are all men and women on this earth where the Berbers work for the very basics in life, but where we seem to work for much more and with way much more stress.
Once the harvest day has finished, the farmers then wrap small bundles of hay about the size of what one’s hand will hold between the thumb and forefingers with a stringy piece of hay to hold each small bundle together. Those fortunate enough to own a donkey then load these cuttings on the animal for the trip home. Community elders allocate a section of the totality of fields under their control for each family to harvest. The community essentially functions as a co-operative with those having more giving to others less fortunate.
Once home they feed their goats and/or cow, feed the chickens and then have some nice warm goats milk laced with sugar and spice to renew their energy levels. Flatbread and homemade butter might be their only dinner followed by fresh fruit or nuts. Like the family at our first stop, many Berbers are lucky to be able to harvest cherries and/or walnuts which the men then sell or barter for other weekly nutritional needs at nearby markets in the largest city closest to them on Saturdays. The traffic jam of donkeys laden with produce and Berbers heading home on Saturday afternoon can make driving a vehicle on the road near a market slow going for sure. They use large woven baskets tied to the side of the donkey for hauling foods back home.
What was most noticeable to us was that it seemed that women performed the worst of chores, such as cutting wheat in the fields and transporting the cuttings on their backs if necessary when no donkeys were owned. Imagine bending over two feet high wheat all day cutting as close to the ground as possible. Then wrapping hundreds of bundles of hay which then must be mounted on a woman’s back for the walk home which could be many miles and usually up steep inclines. In the Springtime this scenario played out day after day as we could see where entire fields had been cut. One could see evidence of these cuttings in the valleys as well as up steep hills as far as the eye could see.
The final day took us even deeper into the mountains where our road dead-ended at a remote village. Up ahead we could see steps cut into the terracotta earth which was the main street of the village rising above us. This was the oldest village we would visit and the living conditions here looked the most primitive. As I got out of the car two young women were approaching with cuttings from a nearby field on the back on one woman and the other woman with a sickle over her shoulder. I used my city shooting technique to grab a quick shot of this pair.
The steps to this village seemed to go onward and upward forever, but I walked almost the entire village shooting where ever possible, but discretely. One young boy of perhaps 10 years old kept following me around. He asked me to photograph him and followed me until my return to the car where I printed him out the first image of himself he had ever seen.
Springtime also means that the melting snow from the Atlas Mountains fills streams and rivers to their highest levels of the year. This becomes the best time of the year to wash clothing even though the water can be just above freezing. The washing is usually a community project as the women get out to the stream early in the day, wash the many pieces of clothing from various households and then place the washing on the fields for drying in the hot sun.
Based on what I saw, one must respect Berber women for their heavy daily workload. Berber women seem to be happy people and wear colorful clothing perhaps to keep their spirits high or at least that’s the way it seems. Some women weave rugs for selling at the Saturday markets. Often they will use old scraps of cloth in the weaving process.
Above it all, Berber women seem to keep up their appearance with a black eye makeup called kohl. Some have said that in addition to beauty aids, kohl replaced sunglasses years ago just as it does today. Women also use facial makeup mixed from the terracotta earth. This makeup is also used on newborns or small children in order to protect their new and fragile skin from the harmful sun’s rays. In addition, a henna dye is used on hair to redden it where it shines in the direct sunlight.
As for camera gear, two bodies worked well. I most often used the 16-55 or 50-140 Fuji zooms when possible on one body and the Fuji 10-24 almost fixed on the other body for waist level shooting needs. The Fuji 23, 35 and 50 primes also served me well.
Our days amongst the Berbers were the most enjoyable days of our voyage to Morocco. We spent time in Essaouira on the Atlantic in addition to Marrakech and found each area very different from one other. As it is such a diverse country, we could not venture to all corners of the country in the short time we spent there. It can be a country of mystery and intrigue and can lure one back to see more. We want to return to take in other regions of Morocco including the gold and salt trails the nomads used for years while transporting goods from Morocco to Timbuktu and return across the Sahara. On our next expedition, I am tempted to add some of my Phase gear to the mix, but that would add greatly to kit size and weight. On this trip a small and agile camera system worked extremely well.