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Modern-Day Nomads in Morocco: From Tent to Cave

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The ceiling is low, so low I crouch to enter. The walls are rock, the ground packed earth, covered with a homemade throw rug. A few plastic bags carry the family’s possessions, bunched in the corner of what turns out to be their ‘living’ room.

Mohammed Ouhmou kneels as he pours thick mint tea, once, twice, and again a third time, back and forth from the teapot, making sure the glass stays steaming hot.

In the corner, his daughter Touda dampens the fire, her job done. Outside a few dogs bark, warning the family of an approaching vehicle.

Spinning cloth outside a Moroccan cave

Ija, the woman of the house, spins wool at the cave’s entrance

Moroccan inhabited cave

In the main room of the cave Mohammed gets ready to serve the tea his daughter Touda (right) has prepared

The Ouhmous are traditional nomads with a twist. A few decades ago they lived in tents, moving with their home each season. Here along the Boutaghar desert track, in South-Central Morocco between the Dades Valley and the Valley of Roses, these modern-day nomads have traded their tents for desert caves.

Their dwellings aren’t permanent so when food and water are exhausted, they move to the next set of caves, which they’ve spotted and ‘reserved’ by leaving something behind, a blanket or a small pile of wood, a warning to others that this cave is taken and that at some point it will be inhabited.

It’s not an easy life.

The landscape is almost lunar, an even reddish tint spreading from the earth to the hills. Roads leading here are barely tracks, at times so narrow a single vehicle can barely pass. When it rains, the track washes out and sometimes the rocks come tumbling down, cutting people off from even the nearest villages.

Desert of Morocco

The brittle rock of the desert fritters away each time it rains; when it’s dry, the dust swirls, creating a thick dust

Desert in Morocco

The main road through these hills underlines the isolation and desolation of this hidden corner of Morocco

Life revolves around survival: like many nomads in Morocco, the Ouhmous have goats, whose milk they sell in exchange for sugar, tea, vegetables and meat. What little there is for extras comes from the few coins left behind by the occasional visitor.

The Ouhmou cave is part of a complex, with a separate room for the parents, as well as a small kitchen and yard; in summer, when it’s no longer cold, everyone sleeps outdoors.

Each Wednesday Mohammed walks the 15 kilometers to town. He may be in his sixties but it only takes him an hour and a half each way. His school-age children make the same trek to school on Mondays but spend the rest of the week in government housing or with family in town, returning home only on weekends or holidays.

These days, because of new laws, both girls and boys go to school. The youngest daughter, Marianna, is the first girl in the family to benefit from these changes.

Bedouin caves

Cave complex seen from a distance

Across the stony desert, a harsh wind blows, spinning dust into the sharp clear air just as it has for a thousand years. The main road leads from one rugged hill to the next, its sweep interrupted only by the occasional fluttering plastic bag which has somehow made it this far. Sometimes, almost unexpectedly, a mountain appears.

Moroccan desert

This desert is wild and stony, not smooth and sandy like the Sahara

If you stop for a moment you might hear the rare sound of a motor, a local truck or an adventurous motorcycle taking advantage of the windswept solitude.

Drive another minute and you’ll hear nothing, nothing at all beyond the crunch of stones and sand beneath your tires.

And the barking of dogs of course, once guarding a tent but today, a warning that someone is coming to visit the cave.

Photos by Anne Sterck

Things Women on the Road should know

  • I visited the Dades region with with Desert Majesty, a woman-friendly Moroccan tour agency specialized in the South of the country. Tell director Felicity Greenlaw-Weber Leyla sent you!
  • The drive leading to the caves starts steeply on a narrow stone road but evens out after a few minutes. If you have vertigo, just close your eyes and you’ll soon be on firmer ground.
  • Be ready to tip the family a few dirhams: your visit is one of the ways they make a living.
  • This isn’t the Sahara Desert, which is further South. It’s a rocky, hilly desert, as rugged and barren as the Saraha – perhaps even more so.