South of Marrakesh, the Draa Valley still exerts an indefinable pull, retaining traces of its now almost-vanished Berber kingdom.
THE SHAMROCK GREEN of Casablanca graded into a flat plain of beige. From the tarmac itself, I could see the beige run into a towering wall of white — the Atlas Mountains. Edith Wharton, in her 1920 travelogue, “In Morocco,” had felt herself fall under the spell of the Atlas and the desert beyond as well. “Unknown Africa,” she writes, “seems much nearer to Morocco than to the white towns of Tunis and the smiling oases of South Algeria. One feels the nearness of Marrakech at Fez, and at Marrakech that of Timbuctoo.”
To be in Marrakesh on that morning in late February was to feel the nearness not of the Sahara but of Stansted and Orly. The “great nomad camp” of the south — which had once attracted the Tuareg, the West African tribe who had plied the caravan route through the Sahara since at least the fifth century B.C. and were known as “the blue people” of the desert because of their indigo-dyed robes — was awash with the tourist trash of Europe — the EasyJet set. This was a city where glamorous European families, such as the Agnellis, owned houses, where the name of the garden designer Madison Cox, the widower of Pierre Bergé (Yves Saint Laurent and his partner, Bergé, had fallen in love with Marrakesh in the 1960s) was whispered like a holy name among the demimonde. It was impossible now to smell Timbuktu in Marrakesh. Colonial boundaries and modern tensions — the border with Algeria has been permanently closed since 1994, after a conflict broke out between the two countries — had pushed the desert back. One had to go much farther south, across the Atlas and into the Draa Valley, an 8,900-square-mile oasis that ran along the Algerian border, to get a whiff of that world to which the exchange of goods and ideas — first salt, silver and slaves, then religion, manuscripts and notions of kingship — had given an inner cohesion. A Persian friend in New York, a man of taste and refinement, had spoken to me one evening of the Draa. He told me of medieval Islamic libraries in small Saharan towns, of shrines to desert saints and of old Jewish houses.
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I wanted badly to go. I was mourning an impression of Arabia that I had received 10 years before, while traveling in the Hadhramaut region of Yemen, known for its key position on the incense trade, and researching my first book, “Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands” (2009). I feared that civil war in Yemen in recent years had laid waste to that fairy-tale ideal of crenelated mud-walled cities set in a belt of blue date palm, full of cool and shade. It may be odd to go to one place in search of another, but so much has been lost of late, here in the spread of a homogenizing modernity, there through the destruction of ancient sites in places like Bamiyan in Afghanistan and Palmyra in Syria. Our time is the enemy of the past, and increasingly I find the wonder of travel lies less in the discovery of new places than in tracing the outline of those that have ceased to exist.
IT WAS A RELIEF to see Monsieur Azzdine — burly, bearded, bespectacled, all flesh and blood, with a chipped-tooth smile and a predilection for Winston cigarettes — materialize out of the speculative haze of a WhatsApp chat. He had come to me as men only can in our time. A year before I met a handsome Moroccan yogi on an Etihad Airways flight to Delhi, India. We became fast Instagram friends. When I needed a driver to take me south into deepest Morocco, it was he who suggested Azzdine. Soon we were all on a WhatsApp group chat titled “Maroc.” Once the recipient of the French prize at college, I now speak an execrable but energetic French, full of unwarranted ambition. When Azzdine expressed fears about le sable, I thought, “Le sable?” dimly recollecting the title of a 1985 novel by the great Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun: “L’Enfant de Sable.” “The Sand Child” … aah no, I assured Azzdine, it was not the sand of the Sahara I was after but the world of the Sahara. We agreed on a price and arranged to meet at Marrakesh Menara Airport.
We made a brief gas stop at an Afriquia station, then we sped out of the pink city, whose streets were lined with orange trees, their fruit-laden canopies pruned into perfect cubes. I caught flashes of bougainvillea in deep shades of cerise framed against a sky of such intense blue that even the French Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix, in 1832, had not attempted to paint it until his return to France months later. We ascended into the Atlas, heading southeast via the Tizi n’Tichka, a road renowned for its sweeping vistas and sharp spiraling gradient.
The girdle of the Atlas Mountains that gives Morocco its crooked spine had also served as a barrier of sorts between worlds. The bled al-makhzen, the region of law, lay on one side; the bled al-siba, literally the “region of anarchy,” lay on the other. These were precolonial distinctions that divided the area under the rule of the 17th-century Alaouite dynasty from the ungoverned tribal area in the south that had not submitted to its authority. Half this humpbacked country faced the sea, from which the influence of Phoenicia, Carthage and Rome had washed over it; the other half gazed out at an ocean of sand, no less a world unto itself. Out of the east had come Arabia and Islam, blending with the oldest element in Morocco’s syncretic character — the Berbers. These were the indigenous inhabitants of North Africa who spoke Afroasiatic languages, a world away from Arabic, and who practiced various animist cults. Their history, their language, their dress and customs served as a link to the ancient past of the land, as distinct from the history of the Islamic faith brought about by the successive waves of conquest starting in the seventh century.