In a remote part of the Atlas Mountains, Berber villages sustain themselves on lush fertile valleys and old tested traditions. But life is changing fast in the villages, and Mohammed showed us how.


Mohammed’s burning eyes stare at us above his almost toothless grin. Is it the look of a man excited to be showing us his country, or the gaze of someone who had his last meal 14 hours ago? In spite of being in the middle of Ramadan, Mohammed has agreed to take us on a journey around the Berber villages that surround his home.

It’s nine in the morning and already a clear blazing sun burns the cracked ground. Rocks crunch under our feet as tiny lizards dart from shade to shade – the only thing moving fast in this rising cauldron.

We slowly amble up the Ouirgane Valley deep in the Atlas Mountains. Rusted earth descends into a green valley with three and four thousand meter peaks rising into the clear blue sky. The river trickling along the valley floor brings much-needed water; the source of life for Mohammed and the people that live here.

He points out plumbs and blackberries with the animation of someone showing off his greatest accomplishments. Olives, figs and almonds adorn the trees. Onions, alfalfa and barley sway in the morning light. Living is simple in the valley, but life is rich.

Our earthen trail meanders around huts made of local ingredients: a helter-skelter mess of bamboo, sticks and earth. Deeper in the village, larger houses of clay bricks – coloured in the same rusty hue as the valley – form the backbone to a local noticeboard. Used for local elections, the winner is proudly announced above the other 20 candidates.

A gleaming minaret stands tall over the huts and modest houses. The mosque beneath it – with perfectly square edges and sleek lines – is an intruder in the village; a shimmer of brightly glowing pink and red amongst a dull sea of brown. Mohammed gleams with pride, “Whenever a village has enough money it builds a mosque; when it has more money, it builds a bigger mosque.”

We leave the village and rise onto a rocky trail. The smell of mud huts sweating in the heat of the day is replaced by the sweet aromas of thyme, rosemary and mint growing like weeds along the trail.

Despite not eating all day, Mohammed marches defiantly towards the village of Tikhfist, perched on the top of a hill. We hurry behind.

MOHAMMED THE ELDER

We descend a few stairs and duck our heads under a low door frame. The thick mud walls buffer us from the sun in a damp and dark room. There is almost no furniture.

Mohammed leads us up to a small roof terrace. The valley and mountains stretch out before us in infinite waves. Sitting in a shady corner on the floor, our host Mohammed the Elder, munches on walnuts and swats flies from his face in periodic rhythm. He tells us he is 105 years old; blind but seen a lot.

As we take up a seat beside him, he explains how much has changed in the valley that has always been his home. Just 10 years ago there was no running water and no electricity. Nearby villages were like islands, visited only on tiring hikes. He lived with the sun because there was nothing to do in the darkness.

Today, most houses in the village have running water. But, the collection of satellite dishes on display from Mohammed the Elder’s terrace, hint at the priority of their new utilities. Mobile phones and homemade dirt tracks keep villages connected like never before. As one of the lucky ones, Mohammed has a fridge.

Using our poor French, we swap capital cities of the world while we crack walnuts together. Eggs sizzle in a tagine of spicy tomatoes and onions as his daughter prepares the local delicacy: Berber Omelette. Bound by Ramadan, the two Mohammed’s chat while we eat; our embarrassment at the selfless Moroccan hospitality no match for the delicious tagine. We wash down lunch with syrupy-sweet mint tea – the prophecy of this ubiquitous Berber tradition on display in the toothless smiles in front of us.

We say goodbye to Mohammed the Elder and drive Mohammed the Guide back to our hotel. But on the way, he asks us to stop and chats to a tall man in long robes bounding along the side of the road. After an animated discussion Mohammed turns to us, “what are you doing this afternoon?”

MOHAMMED THE MAYOR

A few minutes later we wind up the side of a mountain on a dirt track that’s barely wider than the car. Built by the villagers themselves, rocks spin under our wheels as we take hairpin after hairpin.

We’re told we’re heading for the village of Assif Zagawari, directly ahead of us and deep in the mountains. I check on Google Maps but there’s nothing there.

Mohammed the Guide sits in the back seat with our new friend, Mohammed the Mayor. It appears we are saving the mayor of Assif Zagawari a long and arduous walk back to his dominion. Mohammed the Guide assures us it will be all worthwhile. The mayor grins through the rear-view mirror.

Almost an hour after leaving, a group of teenagers stand on the road waving mobile phones in the air. It’s the last hairpin before Assif Zagawari and the only place the village gets phone reception.

Assif Zagawari means green river, and it’s apt. The village is beautifully set on the edge of a ridge overlooking a long valley of green surrounded by grey barren rock. The snow-covered peaks of the Jebel Toubkal massif – the highest mountains in Morocco – tower above. Mohammed the Guide was right, it’s a stunning scene.

The mayor gives us a tour of his village. There are chickens and goats everywhere and tiny plots of land for subsistent living. But there are wires too. Electricity came here in 2018 and the odd hut has a shiny new satellite dish. Mohammed the Mayor excitedly promises more are on the way.

Before they built the road just a few years ago, it was a half-day walk to the nearest town. But now the village has a car, which makes a daily trip to the market, transporting goods and workers. With life-changing so fast it’s an exciting time to be mayor.

In fact, it’s an exciting time to be a Berber. New infrastructure and new technology is bringing a revolution to how they live. And yet the old ways of life and the friendliness of the people is still there. We’ve experienced warm hospitality, been accepted into homes and stuffed with home-cooked food. We’ve heard stories from mayors and reminisced with ancient citizens.

But as we make the journey home, with Mohammed the Guide happily clasping a haul of walnuts donated by the mayor, we realise that our experiences understanding the incredible progress of the Berber people were all delivered by local men. We have barely seen a woman, let alone spoken to one.

ACROSS THE ATLAS TO AÏT BOUGUEMEZ

We get in our 4×4 and head east along the sinuous spine of the Atlas Mountains. It’s five long hours of gravel crunching under our tires and plumes of dust swirling into the sky before we reach the Aït Bouguemez Valley. Well off the beaten track, it is a green slither of heaven in a rocky barren wasteland.

The next morning we strap on our hiking boots and set off to explore the valley. The path takes us up over the hills, where men sit in the cool mountain air tending to their sheep and goats. On the other side, dropping back to the next valley, luminous crops sway in the breeze.

Every now and then a head pops up amongst the growth; arms vigorously attacking wheat with a scythe. A bundle of cut wheat rises out of the field and staggers a few yards forward before slashing at some more. Under every stack of wheat is either a donkey or a woman – both struggling against the heat of the midday sun as the men look on from the shady hills.

Such is the traditional hierarchy of life here, but even this is changing.

A BETTER LIFE FOR BERBER WOMEN

As we head into the next village, a brightly painted school defies the colour of the local clay. There are children everywhere. Morocco is a young country, growing fast. Schools are trying to keep pace with a new trend: educating girls.

Shifting cultural norms mean girls, who for generations often stayed at home to tend the fields, are now being sent to school. And those schools are working better. Lessons that were once in Arabic – the official language of Morocco – are now also taught in Tamazight (the main Berber language) making them more accessible to the less educated. As a result, female illiteracy is falling dramatically.

And it is empowering new endeavours.

A mile down the road, the Imelghas Woman’s Co-operative sits slightly above the town proudly displaying ‘Tapis Berberes’ (Berber Carpets) in a white hand-painted sign on the red mud exterior. Inside women are washing and preparing wool and weaving carpets, each one hand made with 100% natural wool and dyes.

In a program of blossoming enterprise, the carpets are also sold online with the proceeds shared between the co-operative members. It’s a golden opportunity to ply a trade, learn new skills and earn some money away from backbreaking fieldwork.

These women are clearly proud of what they have built. As they should be, because together they are building a fairer, better Morocco.

WHERE NEXT?

If you found this guide useful, please head over to Instagram and follow us to stay up to date with our adventures.

For more of our writing from this fascinating country, head over to our Morocco page.

Getting off the beaten track in Morocco was just one of the many places that have fascinating us on our travels. Our thought-provoking page has more of our musings from the road.


Paul Healy

Paul was born in Australia and moved to London in 2008 where he worked as a change manager specialising in organisational design. Now a full-time travel blogger, Paul writes destination guides and articles for Anywhere We Roam.

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Paul Healy

Paul was born in Australia and moved to London in 2008 where he worked as a change manager specialising in organisational design. Now a full-time travel blogger, Paul writes destination guides and articles for Anywhere We Roam.

All articles

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In a remote part of the Atlas Mountains, Berber villages sustain themselves on lush fertile valleys and old tested traditions. But life is changing fast in the villages, and Mohammed showed us how.