Morocco, From Coast to Desert

ed my head with a long blue chech, the sun protection worn by Moroccan desert nomads. Nearby, camels snorted and moaned while handlers outfitted them with saddles for the imminent journey. Behind us loomed a long two-story dune and an ocean of sand, undulating toward the vanishing point. After a weeklong voyage across southern Morocco, I was about to venture at last into the Sahara, the culmination of a personal two-decade dream.

“Water?” asked Mohamed, the young manager of my hotel, pointing at the tote bag containing my provisions: an orange, a toothbrush and, yes, a bottle of water. The supplies suddenly struck me as recklessly meager.

I awaited parting counsel about sun protection, desert navigation, survival tactics and worst-case scenarios, but Mohamed just smiled. A spring breeze had picked up, conjuring a paranoid thought.

I tried to laugh off the remark. After all, this was only the world’s largest desert, a relentless world of sun and scorching sand some 3.5 million square miles in size, where you might stagger directionless for days or weeks in lethal heat without glimpsing any human or animal life, save perhaps a scorpion. What was the worst that could happen?

The Saharan winds first blew through my life 20 years ago when I was in graduate school. They stirred from the pages of “The Sheltering Sky,” Paul Bowles’s existential 1940s novel of the unraveling lives of three Americans traveling in the North African desert.

From the first words I was enthralled and unnerved: “He awoke, opened his eyes. The room meant very little to him; he was too deeply immersed in the non-being from which he had just come. ” Elegiac sentences carried me along paths as wondrous as those tread by the novel’s nomads, who voyage ever deeper into the indifferent desert. “She was struck by the silence of the place,” Bowles writes of Kit, who is traveling with her husband, Port. “She could have thought there was not a living being within a thousand miles. The famous silence of the Sahara.”

The famous silence of the Sahara. The phrase echoed. I ended up writing my master’s thesis on the strange fiction of Bowles’s wife, Jane, a model for Kit. (Jane and Paul Bowles were based for decades in the Moroccan port city of Tangier until their deaths in 1973 and 1999.) In the succeeding years, I nurtured the same dream as the sheltered mountain girls whose tale forms the thematic filament of “The Sheltering Sky”: to visit the desert, to climb the highest dune, to drink tea in the Sahara.

Last March the moment arrived. Having explored Marrakesh, Fez and Casablanca on previous visits, I headed to the expansive rural south, a region of less human density and vaster perspectives.

Aboard CTM and Supratours bus lines, I journeyed across the sparse mountain and canyon landscapes of the Berbers, the fair-skinned inhabitants of North Africa who predate the seventh-century Arab invaders and still compose most of southern Morocco’s population.

From Atlantic shores to Saharan dunes, the seven-day journey turned up towns both fascinating and forlorn, a kaleidoscope of centuries-old souks, dusty colonial-era outposts, livestock markets and luxury restaurants where I tried everything from French foie gras to Moroccan wine. In one town I found a strange cinematic world of biblical episodes, Buddhist masters and James Bond villains. At nearly every stop, I encountered the ghost of Bowles himself.

Agadir

After landing in Marrakesh, I took a three-hour bus ride to Agadir, a coastal getaway of modest beaches, golf courses and resorts. Mine, a clean white Moorish-modern complex called Kenzi Europa, seemed especially popular with Northern European vacationers who fly into Agadir’s international airport on budget airlines and crowd the swimming pools of all-inclusive retreats.

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Khalid and Zakaria, local students, play soccer on the beach at Agadir.CreditMalú Alvarez for The New York Times

Knowing Agadir would be my last chance to indulge in the beach, fresh seafood and any semblance of conventional night life, I set out for a quick pampering before the privations of the hinterlands. The main drag, Boulevard 20 Août, obliged my first need, leading between slightly dingy white concrete buildings (erected after an earthquake in 1960 decimated the city) to the Atlantic shoreline.

Under the late-afternoon sun, the Moroccan middle-classes — mustachioed men, shrieking children, women in long, colorful caftans — strolled among those familiar characters and rituals that unite the world’s beach boardwalks: the guy twisting balloon hats, the line for ice cream in waffle cones, the teenage boys showing off break-dancing moves for local girls.

Agadir might have been South Florida or South Texas but for the women in headscarves, the Arabic signs (including one for “McDonald’s”), and the sprinkling of words in French, which is widely spoken across Morocco (I used it for daily transactions).

Twenty-five dirhams netted a sun bed at Chez Aziz, a beach club. Forty-five more yielded a cold Casablanca beer. A lone sea gull wheeled against a powder blue sky as the waves crashed, dissolving all sense of time.

Come nightfall, the city’s marina, a complex of white Spanish-Moorish buildings housing Zara and Mexx boutiques, served up the second stage of pampering at Le Quai restaurant. Sunk in a white leather banquette, I slurped foie gras-topped oysters while listening to two strolling guitarists strumming an Andalusian adaptation of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” A lively group of Moroccan women with slim leather jackets applauded in between drags on cigarettes and sips of cocktails. The whole scene paired perfectly with Domaine de Sahari, a Moroccan vin gris (a light rosé) whose name evoked the endpoint of my journey.

Taroudant

A morning bus carried me across scraggly plains dotted with skeletal trees and mud-brick shantytowns. Two hours later in Taroudant, I found a maze of narrow lanes lined with low, worn buildings. Veiled women and men in djellabas drifted past the rows of halal butchers, bicycle repair stalls and machine shops. A cacophony of noises resounded: buzzing cheap scooters, honking taxis, clip-clopping horse carts, radios blasting Moroccan pop.

So this, I mused, was La Petite Marrakesh, as Moroccans have nicknamed Taroudant, mostly for the history it shares with its gaudier, more famous cousin to the north. Taroudant, and later Marrakesh, served as the capital of the Saadians, one of the powerful Arab dynasties that fought for control of Morocco in the 16th and 17th centuries, and both cities retain timeworn crenelated ramparts, labyrinthine souks and lively central squares populated with folk healers and snake charmers.

The similarities appeared to end there. Taroudant felt pleasantly devoid of the luxury sheen and global brands that crowd Marrakesh. No five-star hotel chains, no Club Med, no fashion shoots and no casinos greeted me here.

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The gates of Taroudant.CreditMalú Alvarez for The New York Times

Nor did many travelers. I glimpsed few in the outdoor Sunday market beyond Taroudant’s walls. Passing under a keyhole-shaped gateway called Bab El-Khemis, I came across a dusty field filled with piles of mismatched shoes, cheap kitchenware, children’s clothes, sundry produce and electronic parts along with fresh-squeezed orange juice (five dirhams a glass). A woman proudly swung a new scythe, almost harvesting a few customers in the process.

If you, like me, missed the cinematic release of “Dim Sum Funeral” and “Son of Rambow,” [sic] the DVDs await in Taroudant’s Sunday market. So does livestock. Sharing a motorcycle, two men rustled off a small goat, upside down, its eyes blinking in confusion. A three-wheeled utility vehicle sputtered by with a small payload of sheep. A salesman saw me eyeing his goat and grinned.

“Miyya dirham!” he bellowed in Arabic. (“A hundred dirhams!”)

Essential advice: always haggle.

The skill proves useful in Place el Alouine, the central square where buskers strum long-necked lotars and healers promote their wares. One afternoon I observed a man swinging a cobra and shrieking in Arabic to amazed onlookers. Across the square, a Berber band strummed and fiddled strange instruments, conjuring cosmic rhythms. Between them, an African man in a skullcap sat on a blanket covered with the vacant skulls, blackened bones and bowling ball-size eggs of dead ostriches.

“It’s medicine for the stomach,” he said of the eggs. Then he handed me a plastic bottle whose label was written in French. For “Frigidité sexuelle,” it read. “Remede de Testicules.”

I politely declined, saving my bargaining skills for the covered lanes of stalls that form Taroudant’s souks. My proving ground was Chez Brahim, filled with colorful boxes and bowls made from tadelakt, a lime plaster polished with black olive-oil soap for a smooth finish, and silver jewelry inlaid with red coral, turquoise, malachite, jade and other stones.

“We find these among the mountain people, who wear them for their wedding day and then sell them to us when they need money,” said Brahim, the owner, who humored my haggling attempts with the amused countenance of a father watching a child eat his first ice cream cone.

“It used to be the Jews who made them, and the artisans who make them now are following the Jewish tradition,” he said, explaining that the city once had a thriving Jewish minority. “They’re gone, but we still have the synagogue and the cemetery, with stones written in Hebrew.”

Source: The New York Times