They have this endearing habit in Morocco of calling bearded men ‘Ali Baba’. I earned the title for the first time when we stopped for our first ‘activity’ while on an organised tour to the foot of the Atlas mountains. We had finally, one hour later than advertised, left Marrakech. The buildings lining the sides of the road had given way to fields, farmland or simply grassy plains. Ahead of us the snow capped Atlas mountains were becoming increasingly prominent.
Our guide for this excursion was named… wait for it… (first huge surprise of the day)… Mohammed. He confessed during one of his enthusiastic explanations that he had only been working as a guide for a year and had learned his English during his time.
“First stop. Camel ride!”
Two German women, a young English backpacking couple, a Singaporean student who studies ‘Process Engineering’ in Zurich and a Maltese family of three were helped to put on traditional desert garb and headgear. Each one of us was given a nickname for the day. Gianluca became Mohammed, Sue was Fatima, while I would be called Ali Baba. We were then helped to mount a camel’s back. I had ‘Zidane’ and a look at him shocked me to the core. He had a muzzle and his mouth was frothing. He was nervous and restless. We walked in a train, Zidane going along with the flow but clearly very uncomfortable. Ali Baba was perched on top of him, two metres above the ground with an unsound lower back and holding on to the saddle handle for dear life. I could hear bubbling in Zidane’s mouth and thought he would choke. We bumped along for half a kilometre into a country lane and then turned back to the roadside. Somehow, Zidane hadn’t run amok. He was forced to kneel down and I hopped off as fast as I could.
Please bear with me, dear reader, while I go off on a tangent. We humans have much to be ashamed of the way we treat other animals. We’re the ultimate, arrogant bully of the natural world. We decided that a supreme creator gave us a divine right to do what we wish with other fellow creatures, for our own whims. Claiming divine right, just like the typical tyrant. We did this to justify to ourselves the cruelty that we bestow on animals. We enslave them, force them to do hard labour for us, keep them in atrocious conditions. You may wish to google “industrial farming” or “animal testing”… but maybe you don’t, because we prefer to keep the permanent, ongoing atrocity out of sight and out of mind. I’m just as guilty as anyone else. I eat meat as much as the next man. I love it and I need the protein, but I’m trying to lessen my impact by consuming less animal products. To assuage our conscience we say that animals are not intelligent or even that they don’t have any feelings. But how can we ever know that this is true? I maintain the opposite, in fact, i.e. that animals are conscient beings with feelings and that they are aware of their own state. Just as I wouldn’t harm a human, neither should I harm an animal. But then I have to eat meat. Nature has made me this way and this makes me rather uncomfortable with myself. At the very least, we shouldn’t cause other animals to suffer simply to entertain ourselves. Poor Zidane.
There is hope yet, though. One Chilean woman who was with us refused to ride a camel. Later, when we were ‘offered’ a meal at a ‘typical Berber home’ (at the end of which we were charged for it…), four out of nine of us claimed to be vegetarians and asked not to be served any meat. I find this to be a good sign of a possible growing sensitivity in this regard.
Next stop: the obligatory argan oil enterprise. The oil is strictly produced by women, apparently, by very patient grinding of argan seeds from a tree which grows in Morocco. For the less cultured among us, the main attraction of the place was the toilet, which we used with relish and enthusiasm. One of the women who works at the place was explaining about the various oils they produce, using the word “argan” an average of twice every sentence. The oils are good for the skin, for hair, the usual claims. We smeared some fragrant samples on our arms and soon after went out to a pleasant shaded back yard to taste the culinary version of argan oil with some pieces of bread. It was delicious. As usual, the proceedings were working towards a climax: a visit to the argan oils shop.
I escaped outside to take pictures of a hillside village across a valley.
A wizened old man who could have stepped straight out of a caricature book approached me at the roadside, carrying touristy souvenir things.
“Ali Baba!”… and then proceeded to try to sell me some stuff.
What! Ali Baba? How did he know my nickname? Had our guide, Mohammed, told him about his little game with the whole group? Seemed it was being taken seriously by the world in general. “No, thank you,” my standard reply.
We drove further uphill. The surroundings were becoming ever more scenic. Another stop, this time without any commercial purpose, to appreciate the view and take a few pictures. Mohammed, ever the shy introvert, climbed up a tree and posed for our photos. Contrary to the general impression, the Singaporean student of Process Engineering thought this was an excellent idea and asked to pose for a picture himself, up the same tree. A visibly concerned Mohammed obliged, but it was a bit of a scary moment for us onlookers. Thankfully, no branches snapped and he came back down safely.
We wouldn’t have snapped Mohammed’s picture if he were a woman. As we approached his home village at the foot of the highest mountain in north Africa (Toubkal, 4167 metres above sea level) he explained that we could take photos of anything we wanted, but not Berber women. Except that, when we arrived at the typical Berber home for lunch, the walls were adorned with old pictures including of women. Maybe they were not Berber, or the rules have changed since when they were photographed (or they were not women…?). I wondered aloud if we were allowed to take photos of a picture of a Berber woman. But we all respected their wishes, of course. When in Rome, you don’t upset the Romans especially if you need them to drive you back.
Mohammed then took us for a walk in the valley. We stopped at a genuinely authentic abode of theirs – impressively primitive. We walked some more, past a shop selling carpets, leather and metal ornaments, which JUST happened to be on the same hillside path we had taken. In the background, you could see snow capped mountains and ochre coloured villages perched on their slopes. Beautiful.
The terrain was rough. The day before, I had slipped while going down the stairs of the Zeitun Cafe in Marrakech, spraining my knee, which became very unsteady (in addition to my chronic back and hip trouble…). I had to be extra careful especially when walking downhill on the bone dry gravel. Approaching a waterfall, you need to cross a stream on some tree trunks placed next to each other. I couldn’t risk it, and had to wait for the others to come back from the waterfall. It’s a fact of life and I have to accept it. Physically, I have seen better days.
The drive back to Marrakech went by without any hitch. We descended from the mini-bus at the Jemaa El-Fna square inside the medina and forged our way through the crowds to get back to our room at Riad Les Hibiscus.
“Ali Baba! Come and have a look in my shop!”
Again! And suddenly, finally, it clicked. It’s a Moroccan complimentary title for a bearded man. Alas, this bearded man has a heart of stone:
“No, thank you!”