Published: January 2005

Among the Berbers


Among the Berbers

Isolated in Morocco's High Atlas range, the mountain Berbers take pride in holding on to a traditional culture now largely lost to their urban kin. But life is still a hard climb in these rugged hills.

By Jeffrey Tayler
Photograph by Alexandra Boulat
Storm clouds had given way to a scorching noontime sun as we descended a hairpin trail into a ravine of striated pink-and-yellow rock, heading toward a distant promontory atop which clustered the stone and adobe houses of the village of Tamalout, where Driss, my guide, had a friend, Hossein Ounaminou.

We came upon Hossein riding a bony mule down the trail outside the village. He was a gaunt, bearded man in his mid-50s. From under a threadbare black turban, his warm eyes and snaggletoothed smile conveyed pleasure at seeing Driss again, and he welcomed us to Tamalout. Hossein leaned down and shook our hands, after each shake kissing the tips of his fingers in accordance with local custom. Driss asked if we could stay at his house. Dismounting to walk with us, Hossein said he would have it no other way. In Berber culture, hospitality graces even the simplest of homes.

On the outskirts of the village we had passed a circular lot some 50 feet (20 meters) wide with a stout pole poking through a foot of cut barley. Three young men in turbans and sweaty white smocks were threshing the grain, using whips to drive a half dozen donkeys tethered in a line to the pole. As the animals plodded through the grain, the dust flew up and caught the sun like powdered gold. In the surrounding fields of wheat and alfalfa, men plowed by mule, reaped by hand.

As we entered the village, children saw me and cried, "Arrumi!" ("Roman!"), an offhand tribute to rulers 16 centuries gone and the name by which Berbers still refer to Westerners. Little appeared to have changed since the days of the Latins: Barefoot boys used sticks to prod sluggish cattle toward their pens; turbaned men sharpened scythes on whetstones; women trudged by, amphorae of sloshing water on their backs.

Hossein lived in a dwelling typical of Berbers in the High Atlas—a squat house with stone walls and a wood-raftered roof. The ground floor was a stable in which he quartered his mule, a cow, and a few scrawny chickens. In a room on the second floor, a tarnished bronze dagger dangled from a hook; from another hung a long-dormant clock. Carpets of faded orange, red, and green wool overlapped on the floor. To freshen the air, Hossein opened the windows, and in rushed flies from the stable. Shooing them away, we stretched out on the carpets as Hossein ordered unseen women in another room to prepare lunch.
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