AN AFRICAN JOURNEY:1973

PART 1: The Mahgreb

Elon Musk’s neural technology company is already well underway in developing an implant designed to interface directly with the human brain. The initial goal of the implant is to use it to treat brain injury and trauma. Perhaps we are not so far away from an implant that could stimulate memory? For now, however, I must rely on my own fallible memory, so you will forgive me for all that I have forgotten of my life almost fifty years ago when I set out, with my then husband Bruce, on an overland travel from the UK to Australia. That which I do remember seems crystal clear but, like broken crystal, is fragmented, which presents a challenge as to how place the pieces together in a meaningful and interesting manner.

In the early ‘70’s we had been living in London for almost three years, my second stint living on the Continent, and are contemplating whether to remain permanently or return to Australia. We finally opt for Australia and determine, well in advance of the “slow food, slow travel” movement, to give ourselves time, nine months in fact, to adventure through parts of the world that are new to us. The plan is to spend six months in Africa (then three in India and S.E Asia.) Bruce was the recipient of a scholarship as a PhD student at University College London and I have been working at Imperial College setting up a student counselling service earning about twenty-five pounds weekly, plus Bruce’s scholarship, so we have only modest savings and will be on a limited budget.

Aware of the need for cultural sensitivity and of the heat to which we will be exposed, I require an appropriate outfit for travelling across predominantly Islamic North Africa. I decide a kaftan will tick the box and that cheese-cloth, a light, free breathing cotton will be perfect. I purchase two pieces of fabric, one an intense orange, the other emerald green. Not much of a seamstress, I somehow manage to make two identical garments (ankle length with 3/4 length sleeves). I have no photographic record of these travels but, as I now write, turn to Mr Google to look up kaftan and find an image, actually designed for men, that is almost exactly the same as the ones I made (sleeves a tad longer than mine)

Of preparations, I remember little other than two canvas-covered army water bottles, head covering, Swiss knife, water purifying tablets, backpacks and an array of innoculations against many dreaded African diseases, and for Bruce, now an ardent amateur photographer, a camera. It was probably during the preparatory research that I first learnt the true meaning of ‘being careful’ about food and drink. For example, drinking water as well as water used for food preparation, even teeth-cleaning,  must be boiled or have the addition of water purifying tablets, not a pleasant taste. Ice can not be ingested and only bottled drinks with sealed tops are safe. Food sitting out in the often fly-ridden air must not pass ones lips, not even cooked food unless  straight off the burner/grill/fireoven. Fruit, if peelable, is fine but lo and behold, even here I learn of exceptions – watermelon, for example, will give cause for caution. If the melon should sit on moist ground, in a field or in puddles after rain, water-borne lurgies of the most dangerous kind can penetrate and even this thicker than thick exterior affords no protection. This is 1970’s Africa.

Entitled to Student Flights, the plan is to fly cheaply from London to Spain, take a ferry across the Mediterranean to Morocco from where we will slowly travel eastward  across the rest of the Mahgreb (Algeria and Tunisia). Libya, under the rule of Gaddafi, is out of bounds, thus requiring a circuitous route skirting back across the Mediterranean to Sicily, across to Greece, after which we will enter Egypt. We will then head south through the Sudan, the last country still designated N. Africa, into Ethiopia, Kenya and finally Tanzania.  In each country across the Mahgrab, we will make a southbound loop but only in Morocco will we go far enough south to enter the Sahara.  In all, a six month journey….a kaleidescope of fragmented images and memories.

We spend a beautiful week  in Spain ‘unwinding’ with our London-based friends Lisa, a German-born sculptress and her Engish husband Robert, in their holiday home in Ibiza, one of the Balearic islands south-east of Valencia. It is my second time there, the first being in the mid ‘60’s during my first stint living in Europe. Their house is a low-set modern home on small acreage in the countryside sited on sloping land overlooking almond and olive orchards; the almond trees are a haze of white blossom, the sea visible in the distance. It is a Mediterranaen idyll after which the ‘real adventure’ begins.

A Little Background for Information Junkies: North Africa

Geography

North Africa has three main geographic features: (i)The Atlas Mountains in the west which extend across much of northern Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, the tallest peaks of the High Atlas range in south-central Morocco being snow-capped; (ii) the Sahara desert in the south which covers the southern part of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, and most of Libya; (iii) the Nile River and Delta in the east. Though most of the region is extremely dry, there are sheltered valleys in the Atlas Mountains, the Mediterranean coast and the Nile Valley and Delta, which are the main sources of fertile farming land. A wide variety of valuable crops including cereals, rice and cotton, and woods such as cedar and cork, are grown. Typical Mediterranean crops, such as olives, figs, dates, and citrus fruits, also thrive in these areas. The Nile Valley is particularly fertile and most of the population in Egypt live close to the river. It is an amazing sight to behold, this verdant narrow strip of land bordered on both sides by desert sands.

The People, Language and Religion

Arabs came to North Africa in the seventh century. The region is now largely Arab-Berber but the Berbers have inhabited this part of the world since the dawn of history. Thought to have been an indigenous ethnic group, a recent DNA study indicates that they have a close genetic relationship with Mediterranean Europeans but also possess some characteristics of Sub-Saharan Africans. Berbers represent 80% of the population in Morocco and Algeria, more than 60% in Tunisia and Libya and 2% in Egypt. However, in the case of Morocco, the high mountains inhibited intermingling of the two peoples, and although the Berbers were eventually converted to Islam, their ethnic and linguistic purity has been preserved until today. Arabic and Amazigh (Berber) are the two main languages spoken in Morocco, and standard Arabic is the country’s official language and primary form of communication. Amazigh is mostly spoken in vernacular settings and has seven major varieties. French, the former colonial language across the Maghreb, is still spoken, mostly only by the upper classes. But is a complicated affair. At the time of our travels, it was the language used in schools but that has waxed and waned in the intervening years as Arabization took further root.

After the Muslim conquest of the Maghreb 661-750 AD most Berber tribes followed Islam. The Maghreb formerly had a significant Jewish population, almost all of whom emigrated to France or Israel when the North African nations gained independence. Prior to the establishment of modern Israel, there were about 600,000–700,000 Jews in Northern Africa, including both Sephardi Jews (expelled from France, Spain and Portugal during the Spanish inquisition) as well as indigenous Mizrahi Jews who had been there since biblical times. Today, less than fifteen thousand remain in the region, almost all in Morocco and Tunisia, and are mostly part of a French-speaking urban elite.

The Mahgreb: Morocco,Algeria,Tunisia

Morocco Fragments

Given that I have no photos or diary as record, I cannot recall all the places we travelled to, but from Spain we arrived in Tangiers, then travelled largely in local buses going to Fes, Meknes, Marrakech, the Atlas mountains and before heading slowly toward the northern fringes of  the Sahara.

Fes

Of Fes my only memory is of a large area dedicated exclusively to leather processing and dying. Fez is famous for its leather products most of which come from the leather bazaar, or souq. Fes is home to three ancient leather tanneries, the largest and oldest being the Chouara tannery, which is almost a thousand years old. Stone vessels filled with a vast range of dyes and various liquids spread out like a tray of watercolours, a wondrous sight.  The hides of cows, sheep, goats, and camels are first soaked in a mixture of cow urine, quicklime, water, and salt. This caustic mixture helps to break down the tough leather and loosens excess fat, flesh, and hair that remain on them. The hides are soaked for two or three days after which tanners scrape away excess hair fibres and fat to prepare them for dyeing. They are then soaked in another set of vats containing a mixture of water and pigeon droppings which contain ammonia, acting as a softening agent. Dozens of tanners, tramp around in the vats in their bare feet, often thigh deep, as they knead the hides for up to three hours in the hot sun to achieve the desired softness and malleability so the hides can absorb the dye. The pungent stench of pigeon poo and cow urine fills our nostrils. The hides are then placed in pits containing natural vegetable dyes, such as poppy flower (red), indigo (blue), henna (orange), cedar wood (brown), mint (green), and saffron (yellow). Staggering to think of the quantity of these organic materials required for such a task. Other materials used for dyeing include pomegranate powder, which is rubbed on the hides to turn them yellow, and olive oil, which will make them shiny. Once died, the leather is taken out to dry in the sun. The tanneries process the hides and the finished leather is then sold to other craftsmen who turn it into high quality products such as the famous Moroccan slippers, babouches, wallets, handbags, coats, furniture, and other leather accessories which we see in the souks. Many of these products make their way into the European markets.

The Night Market in Marrakesh, (Jemaa El Fnaa)

In all my years of travelling there are some places that resonate as truly magical. The Marrakesh night market is such a one. Set on an enormous square, it is surrounded by traditional granite stone buildings typical of much of the old city. The square is without electricity; everything is washed in soft orange lantern-glow. It’s bursting with life. Vendors wear the traditional garb – the djellaba, a long, loose, usually hooded outer garment with full sleeves, worn by both men and women. It is the item of traditional clothing most associated with Morocco, but having Berber roots, can be found in other North African lands where Berbers settled, for example Algeria and Tunisia. On their heads they sport a little fez-like hat, the tarbouche, or a crocheted cotton skullcap. Local shoppers and travellers add to the number.  All manner of goods are arranged on the ground including beaten tin and silverware, ceramics, metalwork lamps often embellished with glass inlays, leather-goods including the traditional Moroccan ‘slipper’ and huge mounds of spices of every colour… and much more, faded in memory. The air stirs with excitement and energy, voices ring out attracting my attention here then there. Drumming and the sound of musicians add to the cacophany. Astrologers sit quietly by their lanterns, waiting to provide passers-by with insights, monkey handlers sit with a monkey on their shoulder to grab attention. Snake charmers practise their ancient art- hooded cobras, vipers and grass snakes brought up from the Moroccon Sahara, uncoil from woven lidded baskets, rearing up as their handlers play a flute-like instrument. Being deaf, it is, in fact, the hand movements of the charmer to which they are responding. Like most, I am not partial to snakes, certainly not at close distance or to such an unfamiliar breed, so I keep a cautious distance from these threatening-looking fellows!

The scene is vibrant with colour as is the nearby souk, the very large market with narrow passageways and stalls displaying a huge array of goods. The souk is beautifully shaded from the heat by narrow timber overhead slats which throw dramatic striped shadows to the ground and cast black stripes across white djellabas of the thronging locals, the shadow stripes rippling with the movement of their bodies.

As we wander through the streets of the old town, our eyes feast upon magnificent buildings both public, and the private riads, traditional courtyard homes. The most recognizable ‘Moroccan’ architecture was developed in the Islamic period, 7th century and after, part of the wider Hispano-Moorish culture (Morocco, Al-Andalus-Muslim Spain, Portugal, parts of Algeria and even Tunisia and Sicily). Its distinctive elements are its heavy use of stucco (relatively cheap and easily sculpted) and wood for carved and sculpted decoration across walls and ceilings with motifs including floral, vegetal, geometric and calligraphic compositions. Tilework, particularly mosaic tilework, is a standard decorative element along lower walls and for the paving of floors.

The Atlas Mountains

We travel on crowed local buses throughout Morocco along with chickens and goats and head from Marrakech to the Atlas Mountains area. Often there are no bus timetables and no specific stops along the route. The bus stops in the middle of ‘nowhere’ and someone alights or descends, wandering off into the distance. This mostly rural region is marked by numerous kasbahs (fortresses) and ksour (fortified villages) shaped by local geography and social structures, typically made of rammed earth and decorated with local geometric motifs. The houses can have three to four levels, with very few windows, thus  protecting the inhabitants from the high summer temperatures; also terraced roofs, used for resting during the summer nights. The rich earth colour of the buildings which clamber up hillsides, permeates the village-scape.  In this exclusively Berber region, we see an interesting mix of people, dark, blond or red-haired, due to the historic racial mix described above. Some Berbers live sedentary lives, others are nomadic, tending goats, sheep, and donkeys, usually remaining in each place for few days or weeks while food for their animals is plentiful. This was more relevant at the time we were travelling but they are gradually changing their way of life from roaming herders to a more sedentary lifestyle. The men wear thick hooded robes, often striped and woollen, each clan having its own variations. Berber women of this region are famous for their embroidered wool and cotton izars, loose-fitting, body-covering tunic worn by Muslim women who do not cover their faces, and hendiras, small wool blankets worn as an overcoat. They wear a variety of head coverings including fringed scarves knotted at the back. Berber women often carry their family’s wealth in their jewellery including headdress with dangling coins and it was in this region that we purchased three wonderful pieces. Handmade silver jewellery is worn by most women and many wear large elaborately decorated fibula pins, an ancient article of jewellery that holds capes and other garments in place, studded with stones with long chains hanging from each pin. Large beaded necklaces strung with silver and big chunks of amber are greatly prized, worn at important events such as weddings. Elaborate henna designs are applied to feet, hands, wrists, ankles, fingers, and toes for cultural ceremonies and weddings. Headdresses, jewellery, belts, and shoes show great variety from one region to another.  

As we walk through a small town, a young man starts chatting with us. He introduces the young woman accompanying him as his sister Jamila. She is wearing a black burka, not seen so much in the cities (and banned in Morocco since 2017), which covers her from head to toe, leaving visible only her eyes. He invites us so warmly to their home, so accepting the invitation, we follow them through the small streets and enter the house through a doorway leading directly off the street-front into an inner courtyard and thus into the house. As soon we enter, Jamila to bends down, grasps the hem of her burqa, and pulls it off over her head. It is an amazing moment. A most beautiful woman with huge dark smiling eyes and thick dark hair piled up om her head is revealed. She is wearing a knee length dress.

Typical of the hospitality we experience throughout Muslim North Africa, she immediately offers us tea, and crouches down to light a small burner positioned on the floor, and proceeds to boil the water. In so doing, her dress rides half-way up her thighs, thus revealing a substantial amount of bare leg (perhaps this is the reason Bruce thinks she was wearing a mini skirt!). She is completely at ease in our presence. Her sister, who has a small baby, is similarly comfortable breast-feeding openly in front of us. The disjunction between what is acceptable outside the house and within, is quite an eye-opener.  During our visit, Jamila offers to paint henna designs on my feet and hands, elaborate and beautiful but also such an intimate woman to woman encounter which we both enjoyed.

Heading Toward the Sahara

After leaving Jamila and her brother, we head south-east toward Ouarzazate in the middle of a bare plateau south of the High Atlas, at an elevation of 1,160 metres and considered the ‘gateway’ to the Sahara. But we track further east back to the Atlas heading to the Dades Gorges area. Sadly, I have no clear memory of this. At Ouarzazate we meet a Dutch couple travelling in-can you believe this detail which Bruce remembers- a World War II Volkswagen Kubelwagen, a vehicle designed under Rommel for Germany’s N. Africa campaign! It was a type of ‘dune buggy’ perfect for these desert conditions. They invite us to join them. In retrospect, this is rather creepy, a bit too close for comfort for a Jewish person to be riding in! The landscape becomes increasingly dry as we pass through valleys where we begin to see long ribbons of deep-green oases as they stretch out towards the Sahara. Oases are the historical lifeblood of the Moroccan south – indeed, oases here are traditionally measured by the number of date palms, rather than in terms of area or population – and even today, still play a vital role for their communities. Families continue to toil over individual plots that have been handed down through the generations, growing apricots, pomegranates, figs and almonds among the palms, and tomatoes, carrots, barley, and mint in the shaded earth below.

We continue toward the dry and barren expanse of the Sahara making our way to Erfoud, (about 500km south-east of Marrakech) and via Tinghir and on to Rissani from which we enter the Erg Chebbi, vast rolling sand dunes, or ergs. Our preconception of these dunes is that they epitomize the Sahara; in fact, dunes cover only about 25% of the entire Sahara, the rest being comprised of stone plateaus, gravel plains, dry valleys, wadis, and salt flats. Vast underground aquifers underlie much of the region and the desert is cut in places by these irregular wadis, streams that flow only after the infrequent heavy rainfalls, often resulting in flash floods. Wadis often form oases. Because of this sub-surface water, wadis and oases tend to be associated with centres of human population. Irrigation methods have barely changed in centuries. The fields are watered by a combination of communal wells and underground channels that can run for long distances.  And now, with our Dutch friends, we are on foot, walking up a dune in a world hilled with sand. We proceed a short distance and before us the dune rolls down toward an area of intense green, which we now recognize is a profusion of date palms, in what appears to be a tiny settlement. This sudden verdancy amid a sea of orange is unforgettable, our first close-up experience of an oasis; soft footfalls on sandy ground, palm fronds arching overhead like fernery, cooler by degrees than on the open dunes, lush, serene. I have no memory of houses or dwellings – just a tranquil sparseness and deep quiet, a couple of men in their long djellabas, the traditional cloth or shesh wrapped around the head, a versatile item, as a length of it remains unbound and may fall down the upper back or be wrapped around the face to protect the eyes from blowing sand. They lead us to their deep wells amidst this wonder.

In an area of bare plateau in the High Atlas region, we are told about an exciting traditional event, a tbourida, an ancient Moroccan equestrian sport in which  a group of horse-riders charge along at the same speed forming a firm line and at the end, fire into the sky using old muskets. It’s an expensive and dangerous sport, the Arabian or Berber horses costing up to $30,000. It is linked to festivals, events and holidays. Riding horses in Morocco has roots dating back to the 15th century, the riders dressed in traditional white robes and head turban, their horses are skilfully decorated and studded. This was a thrilling, high energy event to watch, accompanied by hoots and cries from the onlookers, the horses kicking up a large amount of dust from the dry ground.

And now, in real time, something else happens! Janet, my oldest friend from university days, has found some letters I wrote to her, one from Morocco. Sadly, it contains no travel descriptions; for this I had referred her to letters written to my parents- if only I still had them! However, the letter mentions Ouarzazate, the gorges of Todra and Dades in the Atlas Mountains and Tinghir close to the Sahara. Though I am confronted by a failure of memory, at least I gain something, because now I look at maps and can roughly re-configure our itinerary and thus have added to the above text. It further prompts me to look to Mr Google which perhaps might trigger more memories. But no…. the nature of memory is indeed illusive-back to Elon Musk!  My passion, indeed, compulsion to document photographically apparently developed somewhat later. Bruce was the exclusive photographer on this trip. I have assiduously documented all my post-Bruce travels in photographs, journals and sometimes artworks, and having done so, was able to commit a great deal to memory. But in the case of this distant journey, time lapsed is a factor.

Janet’s letter prompts me to contact Bruce, my assumption being that his memory is better than mine.  As it transpires, there are detailed events I remember which he does not, and vice versa. But a few days later he phones to say he has found a box, forty-five years after we parted ways, that appears to be mine. He tells me it includes two diaries which I hope are travel journals. He says that somewhere he also has black and white proof sheets and other photographs which he will send. I eagerly await their arrival in the hope that this will prompt further recollections.

A few days later, the treasured box arrives. No proof-sheets but fifteen wonderful black and white photographs, unlabelled, but I can mostly identify the country of origin. Of the diaries, none include the Mahgreb; instead, a wealth of information about the Sudan and a little of India and Ceylon, as it was still called then, great for future use. A few days later, he tells me he has found the proof sheets and a few boxes of colour transparencies which I now await.  It is exciting and perhaps Elon Musk’s non-existent memory-enabler, becomes a little less necessary.

Algeria Fragments

Bruce reminds me that while the rest of our travels in N. Africa were by bus, old, local, rickety, in Algeria we hitch-hiked. One such hitchhiking experience is firmly embedded. We have been picked up by a driver of an open utility or truck. We are the only people in the back driving through semi-desert in absolutely searing heat. We are seated leaning against the back of the cab, our backpacks beside us. The air rushing over us is oven- hot and dry. We have already consumed one of our two bottles of water from our small canvas-covered water bottle. Not knowing how long it will take to reach our destination, we carefully meter out the remaining water, one restrained gulp at a time. I am  seriousy overheated and indulging in obsessive thoughts of swimming pools and the immersion of  body in water. It is like a dream arising from the parched air. Eventually we arrive, the dusty earth a rich orange. Might there be anywhere where we can swim?, we ask the driver who crosses a barren dusty area of ground before grinding to a halt infront of an amazing hotel, the likes of which I have never seen before. Clearly designed for well-heeled tourists. An elegant, earth-coloured, single-storey building, it blends into the desert environment, drawing upon traditional Moroccan architecture and detailing, and, behold, offers a magnificent swimming pool! We enter the foyer and ask whether it is accessible to non-guests and for a small price we are in! Never has plunging into cool water felt more restorative, an instant relief as the body temperature drops to normal.

We are in a small village and note that in these Algerian villages it is the men, not the women, who cover their faces. We meet a woman who explains she is divorced and invites us into her home.  She has a small baby, and again contrary to the modesty we might have assumed of women in a Muslim society, she bares her breast and, completely comfortable in our presence, proceeds to breast-feed.

Elsewhere in Algeria, we come across a wedding feast. An area has been set aside for the guests who sit crossed legged on the ground which is covered with tribal rugs enhancing the colour and beauty of the eleborate traditional  clothing they wear. In a display of typical Muslim hospitality, we are invited to join them. A continous stream of food is brought out in large bowls and trays and set down amidst the gathering where everyone dips into the food placed before them, using flat bread held in the right-hand in the absence of plates or cutlery. This is the traditional manner of eating, even today practised in many parts of Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The left hand is considered unclean because, at least in principle, it is used for ‘personal hygiene’! Although I cannot recall the food exactly, typically a Berber wedding  in a rual area might include cous-cous, roasted chicken, lamb with prunes cooked and served in a beautiful ceramic tagine. And then the ubiquitous sweet mint tea.

Tunisia has faded into conglomerate memory, HELP ELON MUSK! And thus here ends Part 1, the Mahgreb.

Part 2, the Mashriq (Egypt and Sudan) will follow in due course and you can look forward to considerable detail regarding the Sudan, a quite extraordinary travel adventure.  Thanks to Bruce’s ‘find’ I have access to extensive journal letters we wrote throughout.

Stay tuned!