Come with me to the kas­bahs

Into the cleans­ing reaches of the Sa­hara

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - STAN­LEY STE­WART

IN Mar­rakech, the rest­less and the ro­man­tic talk of the Sa­hara as some kind of so­lu­tion. For all its plea­sures, the nar­row lanes of the fa­bled pink city tend to claus­tro­pho­bia.

The desert of­fers es­cape from the crowds, the noise and the sense of ur­ban cor­rup­tion. Long-time res­i­dents dream of the Sa­hara the way New York­ers dream of Mon­tana.

I hire a car and head south to see what it’s all about. Traf­fic is light — a few don­key carts, a cou­ple of wheez­ing trucks, a shep­herd run­ning af­ter his flock. In the At­las foothills, women are wash­ing clothes in streams be­neath red stone vil­lages.

Along the road­side men hold up things to buy — ce­ram­ics, rock crys­tals; it’s the last gasp of Mar­rakech com­mer­cial­ism be­fore I cross the wa­ter­shed.

From the top of Tizi-n-Tichka pass I spin down the south­ern flanks of the At­las fol­low­ing the switch­back road through spec­tac­u­lar canyons.

Far be­low, the desert is open­ing, stretch­ing to un­fath­omable dis­tances. A thou­sand miles away, straight as the camel gal­lops, lies Tim­buktu.

On the out­skirts of Ouarza­zate, at the be­gin­ning of the Dades Val­ley, I stop to give a lift to an el­derly gen­tle­man. A young boy is hold­ing his hand.

It is only as the two climb into the car that I re­alise the old man is blind. He sits for­ward in the front seat be­side me, his head turned. He doesn’t want to miss a sound.

We chat about the weather, about the road over the moun­tains from Mar­rakech. The boy, pa­tient with my school­boy French, is act­ing as in­ter­preter. ‘‘But why did you want to come to the Dades?’’ the old man asks at last.

‘‘ Gouter l e desert,’’ I re­ply, com­ing over all Paul Bowles. To taste the desert, hop­ing the phrase con­veys the idea of ex­pe­ri­ence and not just lunch.

‘‘Stones,’’ the old man laughs. ‘‘That is what my fa­ther used to say. ‘‘The desert air tastes of stones. A clean noth­ing­ness.’’ Be­yond the win­dow, spec­tac­u­lar ex­panses of noth­ing­ness run away to­ward the moun­tains.

The old man in­vites me to his house. I de­mur. It is late; his vil­lage is out of the way. But there is some­thing else — Mar­rakech has made me cyn­i­cal. In Mar­rakech, in­vi­ta­tions al­most al­ways have an agenda, whether a sale, a ho­tel book­ing, a visit to an un­cle’s shop.

How­ever, when I reach the old man’s turn­ing there is a car al­ready wait­ing for him; he is not look­ing for a ride to his door. There has been no agenda, only a ges­ture of hos­pi­tal­ity.

The old man leans in at the win­dow. ‘‘You are busy. Come to see me when you have time.

‘‘Ouled Mer­zoud,’’ he adds, nam­ing his vil­lage. ‘‘Ask for Ibrahim, the blind mu­si­cian.’’

An evening wind has picked up, flap­ping his robes. And then a great cloud of dust en­velops him and he van­ishes in the rear view mir­ror, like a mi­rage.

The Dades Val­ley runs for about 160km be­tween the At­las Moun­tains and the Djebel Sahro range in the north­ern hin­ter­lands of the Sa­hara. Its land­scapes are harsh and ele­men­tal. It is a back­drop that has drawn film di­rec­tors here since the late 1950s. Lawrence of Ara­bia was shot here, as were The Shel­ter­ing Sky (based on Paul Bowles’s book), Gla­di­a­tor, The Jewel of the Nile and scores of other films whose di­rec­tors wanted their land­scapes to be big char­ac­ters.

For cen­turies the Dades was one of the chief des­ti­na­tions of the great trans-Sa­ha­ran car­a­vans as well as the step­ping stone for on­ward routes across the At­las to Mar­rakech and the rest of Morocco.

Dades came to be known as the Val­ley of a Thou­sand Kas­bahs, founded on the prof­its of this desert trade. Morocco’s equiv­a­lent of the feu­dal cas­tle, the kas­bahs were built in the desert’s Manichean se­cret — the oases, those sud­den is­lands of green­ery that are ev­ery­thing the

Far be­low, the desert is open­ing, stretch­ing to un­fath­omable dis­tances. A thou­sand miles away, straight as the camel gal­lops, lies Tim­buktu

desert is not. Desert trav­ellers tend to come over all emo­tional when it comes to oases. Many liken them to the ar­rival in paradise, oth­ers to a fem­i­nine em­brace af­ter the harsh bat­ter­ing of the desert.

The won­der is that you en­ter an oa­sis as you would a house, step­ping across the thresh­old, cross­ing in a sin­gle stride from the desert to the sown, from bar­ren waste­lands to green shad­ows and bub­bling wa­ter, to blos­som scent and bird­song.

In the dry wastes of the Sa­hara, this sweet­ness verges on the mirac­u­lous.

I am head­ing to Sk­oura, one of the great palmeraie of the Sa­hara and the largest and most beau­ti­ful of the Dades oases, fed by sea­sonal rivers and un­der­ground springs.

Its groves of date and co­conut palms, laid out in the 12th cen­tury by the Al­mo­had sul­tan Ya­coub al-Man­sour, have been passed down through gen­er­a­tions like fam­ily heir­looms.

Car­a­vans set off from the kas­bahs of Sk­oura laden with dates and al­monds, figs and olives, grapes and pomegranates, bound for Mar­rakech, a week’s jour­ney over the moun­tains.

Sk­oura is a green labyrinth. Fol­low the dust lanes that me­an­der through the palmeraie and in a mo­ment you are lost among the or­chards and the blank adobe walls hid­ing un­seen houses.

Don­keys and bi­cy­cles flicker through the shad­ows, chil­dren chase de­flated foot­balls, women carry bun­dles of cut al­falfa home for their an­i­mals, and au­gust gentle­men come out to stroll in the late af­ter­noon, greet­ing passers-by with a slight bow and elab­o­rate salu­ta­tions.

At night, be­neath a vast sky of stars, a heavy si­lence falls, bro­ken only by frogs croak­ing and the oc­ca­sional voice drift­ing through the palm groves.

There are up to 100 kas­bahs in Sk­oura, sail­ing like galleons above the waves of green­ery.

Its land­scapes are harsh and ele­men­tal. It is a back­drop that has drawn film di­rec­tors here since the late 1950s

They are huge, ram­bling, fan­tas­ti­cal, a child’s dream of a cas­tle with a full com­ple­ment of tur­rets and tow­ers and colos­sal gate­ways. Many are in ruins, the ul­ti­mate haunted houses. Inside, you climb nar­row stair­ways, flit along dark pas­sage­ways, fum­ble at the latches of heavy doors, duck be­neath low arches and emerge even­tu­ally on flat roofs with views over the heads of the sur­round­ing palm trees.

In the gar­dens of Ait Abou, one of Sk­oura’s largest and best-pre­served kas­bahs, the walls rise above us like a gi­ant sand­cas­tle. Milk wa­ter bub­bles through the ir­ri­ga­tion chan­nels.

‘‘Kas­bahs may be for­ti­fi­ca­tions,’’ jokes Muhammed, the owner, ‘‘but I think they were chiefly a de­fence against the en­emy within — the wives.

‘‘This was my grand­fa­ther’s kas­bah. I was brought up here. But even I am not re­ally sure how many wives there were.’’ Moroc­can sheiks tended to overdo it on the wife front.

If the kas­bahs sprawled, lo­cals say it was be­cause the harem did. If they con­tained labyrinthine pas­sages and a plethora of rooms, it was be­cause com­plex fam­ily ar­range­ments re­quired a great deal of space and dis­cre­tion.

The fol­low­ing day I go to find Ibrahim. In the vil­lage of Ouled Mer­zoud I pick my way through the lanes, cross­ing and re-cross­ing tiny foot­bridges over the ir­ri­ga­tion chan­nels.

Ibrahim lives with his wife, sev­eral chil­dren and a small tribe of grand­chil­dren. I am ush­ered up­stairs like vis­it­ing roy­alty into the room where Ibrahim sits on a low di­van by an open win­dow, en­joy­ing the sounds and the smell of the oa­sis.

‘‘My friend,’’ he says, tak­ing my hand and draw­ing me to a place be­side him, ‘‘how is the desert’s taste?’’ His voice has a teas­ing note. ‘‘My wife is go­ing to bring al­mond cakes . . . we don’t want to leave you just with the taste of stones. How is your Sa­hara?’’ ‘‘Too big to com­pre­hend,’’ I tell him. ‘‘It is. The desert goes on and on. That’s why we have oases. Some­thing fi­nite. They say if you go far enough in the desert, you will reach paradise. But no one comes back from that jour­ney to tell us the way. My­self, I think paradise could be some­where closer, in the oa­sis.’’

His wife brings glasses of sweet mint tea and the promised al­mond cakes. Grand­chil­dren walk in and out to get a glimpse of the for­eigner. Each of them comes for­ward and kisses the old man’s hand as a mark of re­spect when they en­ter the room.

Af­ter some prompt­ing from his wife, Ibrahim con­sents to sing for me. He turns his face to­wards the light from the win­dow and sings in a voice like the land­scape — harsh, ele­men­tal and beau­ti­ful. When he has fin­ished I ask about the words. The grand­son trans­lates. ‘‘My heart is a desert. It wants to flower like an oa­sis. Do not leave me with the taste of stones.’’ Stan­ley Ste­wart was a guest of Aud­ley Travel.

ALAMY

THINKSTOCK

GETTY IM­AGES

Amer­hidil Kas­bah in Sk­oura; a moun­tain de­file; an At­las oa­sis; desert dwellers

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