magic, millers, and the atlas mountains

“Oh, no, we don’t go up there.  Not now. There are bad people”.  We were intrigued. It was my second time back in Morocco, and Khaled had announced one morning that we were heading up with him into the mountains to see a family friend.  It sounded like an adventure, and whilst hours spent playing by the waterfall were wonderful, seeing a new place was something we could never say no to. I should have known, bringing Siany to Morocco, and introducing her to Khaled, that we would have ended up somewhere weird and wonderful… After, all, he’d already had us dressed up like Berber , playing with the monkeys, and showering in one of the littler waterfalls up near the plateau, with the ubiquitous drums providing our very own soundtrack, who knows what this next escapade had in store!

It was after many hours squashed into the car laughing and chatting with Khaled and his two friends who were coming along with us, getting progressively further and further into the High Atlas, and passing through fog and rain and eventually back into the sunshine, that we asked about one of the roads heading  over the river and up one of the gullies.

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We asked about the so-called “bad people”, and it soon transpired, as far as we could make out, that they were referring to a Taliban training camp. With wide-eyes we glanced at each and decided to leave it at that.  The fewer stories we heard (and then somehow managed to overlook when reporting back home!) about AK47-wielding,  extremists-in-training terrorising the very roads we were driving the better. And in any case, looking back out the window it was easy to concentrate instead on the beautiful scenery unfolding with every curve of the road. The idraran draran, the mountains of mountains, as they are known amongst the Berber, are certainly breathtaking, with a tough, rugged beauty…

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Sometime later, we, almost accidentally it seemed, fell off the road and into the village where Khaled’s old friends live. He introduced us to the family, fed us the mint tea that is such a staple of Moroccan hospitality, and decided that we ought to go for a walk.  So off we went!  Along the way Khaled and Kachty talked to us about the world around us, gesturing to the house perched on top of the hill as the shaman’s, so positioned so he can always see everything going on in his little kingdom, calling greetings to the women with their scythes, and befriending the local donkeys.   It was harvest time, and as we walked, we came across women, tiny and insignificant against their endless, towering landscape, doing battle with the crops, slowly but surely making their mark with huge piles of feathery wheat.

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Some time later, having waded through streams, wandered through forests, and weaved our way through marsh and field alike, we came across a little cafe serving, of course, chai.  In a misplaced streak of confidence, Siany challenged Khaled to a game of pool on the ancient, rickety table, and when that finished (fairly swiftly) we left him with a few local lads who had picked up the fight, and retreated back outside where I found Kachty regaling Siany in French with his tales of life as a desert Berber.  With the limited French I know , and quick translations from Siany in French and Khaled in Berber, I could follow the conversation just enough.  Madani, it transpired, had been one of the Berber who accompanied an Australian lady in her attempts, on foot and camel, to cross the Sahara. Many stories of blisters, dehydration, scorpions, and angry, grumbling camels ensued, keeping us entertained long into the hot afternoon.

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After finding out way back with the help of a kindly local and his 4×4 pick up, Khaled took us deeper into the village, up on to the hills, to see the millers at work.  It was quite something to see, with all the local horses and donkeys lined up and being driven round and round, before the men with their pitchforks had a turn separating the wheat and chaf. It wasn’t long before Khaled dived on in, of course, and gave it a go, hollering and whistling to get the line moving.

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The harvest is extremely hard work, we were told, for everyone involved, from the women in the fields to the donkeys in the milling, but it is one of the only reliable sources of income for the village.  After Khaled had thoroughly worn himself out, he flopped down next to me and I had a chance to ask about the mountain magic, and the shaman.  He told me of the various curses and talisman’s available, from porcupine heads to dried scorpions, destined to bring love, malice, sickness, healing, all manner of good and bad to those to ask.  The shaman is a formidable public figure, not one to be ridiculed or taken lightly, and real respect for the consequences of magic still rings through the mountain villages.  What did Khaled think, I was interested in knowing? With a half smile, he turned to look up at the hilltop house and remained quiet, fingering the star compass he wore and would later pass on to me for safe travelling.

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A late night of revellery and laughter chai, cards, smoke rings, and mountain herbs (accepted in an “ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies” kind of way) followed and when, approaching dawn, we all settled down in nests of blankets, curled up to avoid the cool night air, I looked up towards the shaman’s house, there was a flickering light emanating through the windows, glowing in the blackest night, and a hundred thousand stars, memories of  time and history, pinpricks of light, I wondered how long both had been watching over this little world high in the Atlas Mountains, and how much longer still they would be able to protect it.

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