What We Can Learn from the Berbers in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco
By Richard Glover
“The desert is life and life…Is the desert.” Gwafa, our guide looks on beyond the horizon, weaving our camels across the vast sea of sand-dunes. He spoke the line with such profoundness, it was as if encased between each word were all the secrets and wisdom of the universe.
As little as 6,000 years ago, the Sahara Desert was decorated in tropical grassland, thriving with life. As the centuries passed, the climate shifted, and with-it life departed. All that remained was an endless track of rock and sand, stretching from Morocco, 9,200,000 square kilometers across Africa, towards Egypt and Sudan.
The Peaceful Sahara Desert
“The Bedouins would travel 56 days across the desert.” Gwafa said, his eyes barely lifting from the sand. “From Egypt they would travel to trade and sell slaves here.” 56 days? I thought, I could barely last 56 minutes. Despite how gracefully Peter O’Toole may have presented camel-riding in 1962’s Oscar-winning epic “Lawrence of Arabia”, my presentation was anything but. Aching back and battered thighs was all I was greeted with. I held on tight and persevered, turning my focus to the golden plains that surrounded me.
The Sahara Desert brings with it a special magnificence, a mystique. Its endless array of golden dunes was beyond magical, it was as if I had strayed into a dream. Wave upon wave of light golden silk showcased their rich geometric patterns. It seemed highly likely that I had strayed onto an alien world rather than a place on this planet.
We rode on quietly, daring not to speak. Not wanting to disturb the tranquility we had become surrounded by. Instead choosing to take in every moment of this wonderful wilderness. All around us was silent, peaceful, as if even mother nature herself was lost for words as she gazed into the soul of the desert.
As I looked across the horizon, awe inspired by what I was witnessing, my mind cast back to earlier that morning. We had stopped by a local Berber village, just by the Todra Gorge, nestled deep within the High Atlas Mountains. During the French occupation beginning in 1907 until 1934, roads were constructed all across Morocco, connecting the capital of Marrakech, through the mountains and on to the Sahara, providing a huge boost for tourism, making visits such as mine, possible.
Life in the desert is tough. Dry, burning sand, no natural source of water, and little electricity means that life as a modern-day nomad, can be excruciatingly difficult.
We had visited one of the Kasbahs, were groups of women and children spent each day picking and harvesting wheat, cauliflower, and alfalfa. Each day spent, bent over in the blistering heat, picking plant after plant. For hours they would do this, until it was time to stop. Then they would eat, rest, and do the same again.
Those that worked indoors, would either work in the kitchen, preparing food, or crafting exotic Berber rugs. Each rug would boast its own impressive selection of patterns and symbols, celebrating the three distinct Berber tribes in Morocco – The Riffians, who reside within the Rif Mountains, the Zayanes, who live between Fez in the north to Marrakech in the south, and the Shilhah, considered the largest tribe, stretching from the Atlas Mountains to the Sahara Desert.
Three Months to Make a Rug
Each rug would take approximately three months to craft, its intricate patterns carefully stitched to create a rug that would be both durable and sustainable. Each rug is stitched with materials gathered there within the village, either from the wool of goats and sheep, or from vegetable silks. Nothing is outsourced, everything is self-sufficient.
As an outsider, it would be very easy to write off their way of living as poverty stricken. They live far from the luxuries many of us are used to. Living in old clay houses, dimly lit by candles, there doesn’t seem to be any source of entertainment or escape. Yet everyone is committed to their daily tasks, they do what needs to be done for the good of the tribe, and yet between these two worlds, is a purpose. That purpose is simply to live.
Patience is the ultimate gift that this ancient tribe possesses. They made the rug out of necessity, and it took three months to make, because that is how long was needed to make it. They do not think about which rug came before it, nor the rug that will come after it. They focus only on the one they are making, and as a result, they create something truly unique, no two rugs are alike.
Their day is not clustered by the distractions we are used to in modern society. They are not checking their phones every five minutes to see how many likes their Instagram photo has, nor are they worried about missing important calls from work. Petrol prices, food shortages, the war in Ukraine, it all may as well have been taking place on another planet
The tribe did not concern itself with the happenings of elsewhere, for those happenings did not affect them. Very little from the outside world affected them, all they had to focus on was the task at hand. The biggest importance for them, was food and water. All that matters was the village.
“There is no yesterday, or tomorrow,” one of the villagers said, as he pours us a glass of mint tea. “All we can focus on, is what we are doing right now, yesterday won’t help us pick our crops, tomorrow won’t help us finish our crafts any quicker. We can spend all our hours worrying about when the rain will fall, or if the water will run from the mountains, but worrying won’t change God’s will, no more than it will change the weather. All we have is now.”
Pouring the Tea
Even as he spoke, his concentration was firmly placed on the pouring of the tea, as if each drop that hit the glass was as precious and important as anything else.
Within these words seemed a secret so simple and so straightforward, that it was remarkable how people like myself could have forgotten it. We spend so much time worrying about work, deadlines, money, rent, relationships, that we rarely truly live in the moment. Our purpose has become lost amongst an endless sea of opportunity.
With twenty-four-hour access to the world in the palm of our hands, we are constantly seeking distractions and escape. What is our purpose? For many of us, I imagine that meaning has been lost, like coins beneath a sofa.
Life for us is no longer about surviving, nor is it about being in the present moment. It is as though modern society is perpetually holding its breath, waiting for something to happen.
Waiting for the weekend, our next holiday, waiting for our break. We believe that peace of mind is something we have to wait for, something we have to earn, something that it is unattainable until we complete a checklist dictated by society.
Go to school, graduate college, get a job, get married, buy a house, and start a family, only then can we finally settle down. We spend so much time preparing for the future that our entire lives are passing us by minute by minute.
Of course, modern advances bring with it a multitude of benefits. Our quality of life has dramatically improved, medicines now cure illnesses that would have been a death sentence just over half a century ago. Travel has never been more accessible, and we are now connected to billions of people all around the globe via our mobile phones.
Yes, there is plenty to be grateful for, yet with depression and mental health related illnesses rising dramatically across the western world, could the answer be something so simple, yet so archaic as realizing our purpose and staying in the present?
Sense of Gratitude
Regardless of how tough and difficult life in the desert is, there is a growing sense of gratitude and appreciation for their surroundings. The wilderness has given them strength, nature has developed their patience. I cannot help but be humbled by their way of thinking and their approach to life.
Each person has their role to play, and by playing that role, they benefit themselves and the village. It is because of that in which they prosper. All their attention is fixated upon their role. The Berbers have occupied Morocco since the beginning of recorded history, their knowledge is as ancient as their culture, yet still completely relevant to us today.
Back in the Sahara, and Gwafa brought our camels to a standstill, “this is where we will watch the sun set.” He says, bringing out a rug for our backs before bringing each camel to its knees. This sudden jolt was almost enough to throw me from the camel. I held on, calves cramping and ego slightly bruised, I climbed from the camel and looked out beyond the great desert.
I felt more at place in a science-fiction film than any real place on earth. Everything was so barren, yet a distinct beauty shimmered across the sands.
“How tough is it to live out here?” I ask, emptying the mounds of sand out of my boots.
“Tough?” Gwafa, looked confused, as if he did not understand what it was I was asking. “Life is tough everywhere, that is the nature of life. If we chose what was easy, then there is no way for us to grow, to become stronger. You can see the plants in the desert, if those seeds wanted somewhere that was easy, then they would not be here. The desert teaches us to be strong, to be tough. Nowhere is easy, and life shouldn’t be.”
Embracing Challenges in the Desert
I was beginning to understand. Life is about embracing challenges; it is about growing under difficulties. Each day is meant to test us, and we should meet each day as though it is only that day that we have, to act. If a plant decided to wait until tomorrow for water, then it would cease to survive. It would shrivel up and die.
The villagers know that each day is precious, they know that crops must be picked when they are ready, for tomorrow they might succumb to pests, or heat. They know that water must be collected when the river grants them the opportunity. For tomorrow it might have dried up.
The Berbers have grown strong and wise over centuries of hardships, yet it is precisely because of those hardships, whether through war or drought, that they have grown strong.
I, like many across the western world, have surrounded myself with comfort. I have my TV and internet to distract me from life’s problems. I don’t need to harvest crops for food, as I can visit the supermarket instead. I don’t need to worry about water, as I have access to an abundance of it. Yet within this blanket of comfort that modern society has provided me with, I seem to have lost that burning desire to survive, to live.
So, what is the answer? I’m not advocating that we all give up our jobs and live in the desert, however the more we look at our indigenous cultures, the more we can find knowledge and advice that is still applicable to our life today, just as it was centuries before.
During my trip through the Atlas Mountains and across the Sahara Desert, I found myself less concerned with Instagram updates and email notifications from my phone. In fact, I barely looked at it at all. It was as if time was non-existent.
The Sahara had within it, its own bubble, one where the outside world and all of its problems were non-existent. I did not think about work, money, or the stress of my day-to-day life, my mind was occupied only by my surroundings, by the wonders of the desert.
Why Do We Go on Holiday?
That is of course why many of us go on holiday, whether it is an adventure across the desert, or sitting around the pool at an all-inclusive – We go on holiday to escape. We want to forget about our daily woes, our problems, our stresses, and just relax. We spend the year working hard to save up enough money, to take a week, perhaps two away to some far and exotic place.
Whilst we are on holiday, we are in bliss, we switch off, attuned only to our surroundings. Yet as soon as we land back home, the feeling completely vanishes, we suddenly feel empty and it is as though we never went away. Suddenly all the worries and anxieties that had been put on hold, return.
Perhaps there lies the secret. Life is not about regretting yesterday or worrying about tomorrow; it is to be lived today. If we can take the mindset we have whilst we are away, and find a way to implement it into our day to day life, then perhaps that is the key to happiness. For all there is, is now.
Richard Glover is a writer and photographer from the UK, with a passion for travel and adventure. Combining his love of the mountains, and all places remote, with philosophy and wellbeing, Richard enjoys creating writings that looks towards nature to answer some of the bigger questions in life.