The dust sprinkling the streets of M’hamid Elghizlan, as Mhamid is formally called, comes from the desert’s edge a few minutes away, where the Saharan wind and sand eat into what was once a thriving crossroads along the salt caravan routes to Timbuktu.
Against a red brick wall, a former shop door opening is partially obscured by sand. It is a condemned shopping mall, its businesses emptied by the advancing desert.
“My father’s shop was down there, on the corner,” pointed Mohammed El Aamrani, who grew up in this town. “We moved here when I was a boy, after the hydroelectric dam was built and all the water dried up.” He was referring to the Mansour Eddahbi Dam near the city of Ouarzazate, built in 1973 and acknowledged to have helped dry up the South’s waterways.
Mohammed is my guide on this visit to Southern Morocco, and his yearning for a disappeared past is palpable as he gazes across the town.
Like most men here, he is proud of his heritage. When he travels he may dress like a smart urban young man but once back ‘home’, the headdress – a black or white shesh – goes on, a sign of belonging, of community.
Growing Up Nomad
When Mohammed was a child he did what most desert children did. He ran freely across the dunes, and when he was naughty his mother made him fetch something from over there, across the hot sands. Soon his feet became accustomed to the heat so punishment mattered little – but he didn’t tell.
Like other children, he was given a baby camel to tend, a spirited redhead called Lhaymar, who followed him everywhere.
“I walked with her, slept with her during the day. The mother camels knew we were taking care of the little ones – so they would protect us from male camels. When you’re in your tent the baby camel comes searching for you and plays with you.” As the camel grows up, however, its playfulness can turn deadly; a simple rollover of such a large animal can kill you.
“Camels are almost like people,” insists Mohammed, his eyes intense. “They never forget, and they have feelings. When another camel dies, they cry. So never upset a camel or he’ll make you suffer, if not right away, someday in the future.”
The transient lifestyle of Mohammed’s Sahrawi people – the nomads of the western end of the Sahara Desert – didn’t end overnight. Like the advancing desert, it changed inch by inch, the water receding drop by drop, slowly shifting in almost indiscernible increments.
In its heyday, some 500 members of his tribe would move together but the last great nomadic migration here took place in the early 1990s. Eventually only a single scout would venture forth to find a suitable homestead, laying his still-packed tent on the ground as a signal to others that this land was now claimed before returning home to fetch the others.
Even tents aren’t always part of a nomadic life anymore. In some parts of Morocco, nomads have forsaken them in favor of caves.
Moving to Mhamid
As desertification spread, vegetation on which camels fed disappeared.
“My family had to sell its camels to buy food and then to buy a house, since we couldn’t live as nomads anymore. We moved to Mhamid,” recalls Mohammed. “We used to grow things but that all ended. Even the trees stopped giving dates. They became so bad they were only good to give to animals.”
The desert was never a welcoming habitat but the dam accelerated its demise. Water evaporated from the Draa River, and the lake in Mhamid town itself, once so deep a man’s torso would be bisected by its surface, began to shrink.
The hydroelectric dam didn’t even benefit locals, who only acquired electricity in the mid- to late-nineties.
Mohammed’s life was already different from that of his parents. The free spirit he developed as a boy along the fringes of the Sahara was constrained early when the lack of water forced his family to become sedentary.
The signs of desertification are everywhere – in the town’s shifting sands, of course, but also in the nearby desert, where water once made plants wave tall and green in the wind.
I looked around the desolation and tried to imagine Lake Iriki and the surrounding Erg Chigaga, now a sandswept expanse, as a leafy field, moist and alive and brimming with movement. I could not.
There were few signs of life along the faded track we followed across Erg Chigaga to Mhamid, one of Morocco’s two entrances to the Sahara. At times through deep sand, our 4WD lurched and whined, its engine in rebellion against our wishes until tamed into submission. At other times the sand hardened into packed earth, bouncing us forward as we gripped the car’s frame to avoid being catapulted out of our seats.
To the left, the lush springtime Atlas Mountains were covered in haze. To the right, mounds of sand were ribbed by the wind, their wavy designs like so many snakes sneaking across their surface. This was the long way towards Mhamid, the one with no phone signal, a few stray caravans, and a rare vehicle or two to remind us that we had not stepped back a few centuries unexpectedly.
An Unfriendly Neighborhood
Mhamid is Southern Morocco’s end of the road, where the crumbling asphalt of the N9 Nationale ends abruptly and turns into sand. The town is bordered a kilometer or two to the South by a Kasbah, or traditional fortress, whose inhabitants, it is said, are descendants of freed slaves from Mali. Their physiognomy provides clear evidence that however close they live to town, they come from elsewhere. The women are shy and quickly slip into a doorway when approached. Only the children, much as they do elsewhere, gather around, savvy enough to ask for pens.
Beyond the Kasbah are a few farms, still far enough from the desert to yield crops, especially during the floods of the rainy season. Step away from these small lots and you’ll be at the edge of the sand.
With Algeria only 45km (27mi) away, it’s not hard to imagine how a motley army of 40 or so vehicles filled with Algerian-backed Polisario fighters – the Polisario has been fighting Moroccan rule over the Western Sahara for decades – rumbled into M’hamid Elghizlan one day in 1981 to wage war. It is indicative of the town’s robust spirit that the Polisario were turned back by a ragged crew of exactly seven people.
The river had just flooded on that spring day and a normal crossing was impossible. The Polisario convoy was forced to squeeze through a narrow passage and as the head car came through, a local man, a former soldier, rose from the water, opening fire and killing the Polisario leader. It’s driver now dead, the head car blocked the way into town and the long line of vehicles, now immobilized, retreated helter skelter while under fire.
“My father had been in the souk shopping when he heard the gunshots,” Mohammed said, “but we are all connected in this region and we had heard they might be coming. Seven men hid in the river and when the Polisario arrived, our men opened fire.”
The seven defenders of the town were military on leave and had their weapons with them. The Polisario convoy bore a Moroccan flag so when a single Moroccan military plane overflew, it returned to base, unaware of the attempted ‘invasion’. The story gets murky here but involves Algerian support for the Western Sahara, the Polisario refugee camp at Tindouf over the border, and slavery in the camp, about which a documentary film was eventually made.
The relationship between Morocco and Algeria remains acrid as they eye each other with mistrust over the Western Sahara issue and many others that have sealed their lengthy border.
But that wasn’t the end of the ‘invasion’.
As they headed home, the Polisario soldiers encountered a Moroccan wedding, killed a few people, stole everything, scaring the people of Mhamid so badly many of them moved north to Zagora town, well out of reach.
These days the region is quiet, although spending a night in the desert, I gazed over the hills to Algeria beyond, wondering, a little nervous perhaps.
As for the town of Mhamid, it stands proudly, knowing it may be the last town at the edge of the country but that it is tough, resilient and capable of taking care of itself, dust, sand and all.
According to an old local saying, “If we didn’t smell the dust it wouldn’t be comfortable.”
Perhaps. That dust has been kicked into the air for centuries by camels whose caravans once traded here on their way South. These days, the dust is kicked up by 4WD vehicles whose passengers are also on a journey, perhaps to meet a camel and experience the desert of the ancestors for a few hours or even better, for a few days.
Things haven’t really changed – they’ve been rearranged.
Photos by Anne Sterck
Things every Woman on the Road should know
- I met Mohammed through Desert Majesty, the friendly and affordable Moroccan-based travel agency that organized my week-long visit to the South of the country. Its manager, Felicity Greenlaw-Weber, is particularly aware of the safety needs and concerns of women travelers.
- Mhamid is about 7 hours’ drive from Marrakech at the tip of Zagora Province. It’s name, M’Hamid El Ghizlane, means gazelle – there were once many in the oasis.
- I’m a coffee drinker and if you’re a fan of great espresso, head for the central Cafe Restaurant Mhamid Azawad, which in my opinion serves the best small cup of brew south of the Atlas Mountains.
- The documentary film Stolen, by Violeta Ayala and Daniel Fallshaw, has won a number of awards and tells the story of slavery in the Tindouf camp within a backdrop of the politics of the Western Sahara. See the trailer here.
- The one thing I regret missing in Mhamid is the International Festival of Nomads (see this great little You Tube film). I’d like to come back – and this time I’ll make sure I meet the music. (If you don’t speak French make sure the English subtitles are on when you watch the interviews.)