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Morocco: Erg Chebbi, Living Beside the Nomads

September 1, 2015

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At Erg Chebbi, an outpost in southeastern Morocco, we experienced nomad life for several days. When we arrived, we rode camels across top of the dunes in the Sahara Desert. When I looked into the distance I saw the extraordinary tan sand, and the pink and blue reflections of the sun on  the foothills of the snow capped Atlas  Mountains.  Except in epic movies, we had not seen such surreal landscapes.

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Tent of a Nomad Family

Our three day, two night stay in the dunes at Erg Chebbi in southeastern Morocco, was the most provocative segment of an 18 day trip. While riding camels across the desert and sleeping in tents, we felt drawn into the endless flow of time and the simplicity of life. Yet there were signs that younger generation is slowly moving into a 21st century, and our stay tied together observations in other areas of the country. Before reaching Erg Chebbi, we spent two weeks making a counter clockwise trip from Casablana, to Rabat, Fez, and Marrakech, the imperial cities with their huge markets, and south through the Atlas Mountains. As we moved from one section of the country to another, we saw many partially abandoned 17th century casbahs (castle like apartments of adobe and straw), where nomads settle into apartments when they no longer live in tents. Often, structures built in the same style of architecture, but with new materials, stood nearby; those buildings were the next step  up from the old casbahs. However, consciousness of their nomadic tradition is apparent, no matter what the socioeconomic level. Moroccans introduce themselves by name, and then quickly say the tribe of their ancestors.

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Ahmaa With Goat and Camel Wool to Reinforce Her Tent

We visited nomads in their tents. When we came to Ahmaa’s tent, I bent way down to get in through the open tent flap, walked hunched over to sit on the corner of a blanket, and hand gestured to the nomad woman that I, too, was a knitter. I wanted to make a connection with her. Ahmaa sat cross legged, with huge wooden needles, and surrounded by piles of grayish brown yarn. After four or five more of us were sitting on the blanket, she began to demonstrate carding. She grabbed handfuls of goat and camel hair, placed the wool on a large square with spikes, pulled on it, and then began spinning out the yarn. When she handed the carder and yarn to me, I tried it, and failed. We both giggled. Ahmaa then knit while her fourteen year old daughter served us mint tea, the favorite drink of Moroccans.

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Our Tent With Bathroom in back

I keep thinking of Ahmah, who sat in her tent showing us how she carded, wound, and knit a combination of camel and goat’s wool to mend the holes in her tent. Her fourteen year old daughter, who served the tea, insisted that she will not  be building her own tent, as has been the tradition for women. She will most likely marry a man with an apartment in one of the old casbahs that are a step up from nomad life. The widowed Ahmah, who looks to be around forty, but does not know her true age, has seven children, 5 dromedaries (one-humped camels), and 8 goats. One of her sons herds. Another has gone off to work at a hotel in a city. Another was our cook at Erg Chebbi. Morocco is changing fast. Get there before the nomads vanish. We took the trip with Overseas Adventure Travel http://www.oattravel.com, a company that arranges visits with locals.

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