Thursday, 16 May 2013



I have just returned, exhausted but elated, from the final recce for the all new EASTERN MOROCCO TOUR.  Exhausted because together with A’hammed I completed the 3000 km round trip in just 7 days [that’s because we managed to cover what will be 3 leisurely tour days for every 1 day of rapid recce] during which time we re-evaluated the route, confirmed locations and approved details.

This entirely new tour now comes with a new and well deserved title……….


Why the change in name?  There are a couple of good reasons but perhaps the most prevalent being the obvious overriding background and culture of the local population we met on the route …….. The Amazigh, better known as Berber [Free Men]…….. The free spirit, their pride and the overwhelming welcome we encountered on route was both powerful and sobering.

The Berber Flag..........The three bands represent: Blue.....The Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. Green: Nature and the Mountains. Yellow represents the sands of the Sahara Desert.

The "Yaz" symbolizes the "Free Man" which as mentioned earlier i.e. the Berber word Amazigh, the name for themselves. Red symbolizes the colour of life and also the colour of resistance. The Berber Flag as a whole is a symbol of the entire Amazigh people, living in harmony on thier own land.......Tamazgha. 
On inquiry the initial tour information will be deliberately vague. Commercially…… [Yes, although passionate about Morocco and what we do, we are a business] we are very aware that there are those who do and will continue to follow in our footsteps [we are now in our 37th year]. But perhaps more importantly we are entering a remote and unaffected region of Morocco that is almost totally without a “Tourist Culture” and are hoping that whilst we will ourselves run very limited tours in the area we are determined not to contribute to a future and perhaps inevitable influx ………. anyway, formal campsites are all but non-existent and we want to keep our own and very exclusive camping locations exactly that……..exclusive!

Of course full information and exact details will be made available to confirmed client when booking.

So, perhaps just a few pictures and brief notes taken on the recce will do for now…………

I know……that loose fitting [but cool] track-suit does make me look a tad overweight…….but that IS the ALGERIAN border in the background.  It was a strange and emotional  experience, not unlike many years ago when I was looking over the Berlin Wall, watching and listening to the calling and waving from both sides of the border………..very sad really.

Plus aside of being within yards of ALGERIA was the availability of cheap “imported” fuel…..Diesel was about 20p per ltr. The filling stations were not up to much!! 

Come on, be honest, overnight locations [two different] like this doesn’t come much better. Breaking waves of the Mediterranean, traditional fishermen and yes, night-lamping fishing trips can be arranged. And of course the evening menu is that fresh it’s still flapping.

Another exclusive…….. As welcome guests of a Forestry Commissioner and his family both the experience and location is overwhelming.

I am not easily impressed but this location has left me speechless and I can’t even type an adequate description ……… Said to stretch for over 3kms underground with lakes and rivers this truly awesome natural wonder, the largest and deepest cave system in North Africa, is accessed by over 500 steps down a HUGE 275 mtr funnel ……..just think about it! Yes, tours of various lengths can be arranged…….I did the first 100 steps decent.

This view is from an overnight location just 400 yards from the ALGERIAN border, but around 400kms south of the earlier one.

Both the stark simplicity and genuine welcome offered by this Berber family [personal friends of A’Hammed, our staff member] is humbling and will have a lasting effect.

A reminder…….. This exclusive DESERT DETOURS  “ AMAZIGH SAFARI ”  is a small group tour that  will run only twice a year. Our first tour meets later this year, on the 11th Sept, and at this moment has just ONE vehicle place available.  The exact 2014 dates have yet to be confirmed but will depart mid-May and early-September and be around 17 days duration [in Morocco] with ongoing options.

It should be noted that this tour involves more than a few locations with NO or VERY LIMITED facilities……. 

With confirmed bookings taken BEFORE the launch interest is clearly high… don’t wait, contact the office for more information and booking details. 

Sunday, 5 May 2013

IS IT MAY ALREADY?..............

By now you will have probably noticed that this “Blog”……... I hate that word, and why is it called that? ............. Tends to find its way from my desk or laptop on a monthly basis. I am always full of great intentions while on tour but never seem to have the time, distractions aside, to write and update entries. Indeed, it a struggle to find the time between tours. And anyway do remember that this “Blog” is not a diary and that other than this, the first section of a block entry, it is not all about Desert Detours…….rather, and it’s all about Morocco.

The CCC tour is now behind us and I have to say it was one of the most enjoyable tours we have run to-date. A little damp for the first two or three days, a touch hot towards the end, but overall we enjoyed perfect weather.

Steve, my right-hand and Tour Leader/Mechanic worked his magic a couple of times……via our carried data/reader/computer diagnosing gadget and cured electronic faults on a couple of client vehicles [nothing to do with Morocco….it just happens!]. The good weather meant Tour Assistant A’Hammed excelled in both the number and quality of group meals. We also managed to visit a few new locations, earmarking a couple for our future and revamped “Classic Tour”.

By the time you receive this “Blog” issue the May “Discovery Tour” will be well on its way……. While I head into the mysterious and undiscovered eastern region of Morocco on a final recce for our ALL NEW…….. “EASTERN MOROCCAN TOUR”………A more suitable and exciting title will emerge in good time!
I am a little surprised at the popularity and take-up/bookings for our “Footsteps of The Moors” tours. Remember, these are a combination of both Morocco and Andalusia routes, running back-too-back. It looks like we will have to add an extra date or two!

Both the early December and our Christmas-New Year Moroccan dates are nearing shut-down [FULL], so don’t wait if you are thinking in that direction.

Other Desert Detours news? ........... The builders have done an excellent and speedy job in re-building our office and part of the house after a freak “Tornado” back in January took off the roof, one wall and oh so many windows [business as usual…….nobody other than ourselves noticed]. Bonus is that we took advantage and extended the working area, up-graded equipment and gave Pilar [Debbie’s PA/Operations] room for her “executive” desk!

I feel a change coming on………… I may……and I stress MAY retire the last of our big trucks, my very own Unimog. Do I sell it or shall I just let it withdraw gracefully in its own corner of the yard/workshop? Mmmmmmm…….don’t know!

What I am looking for is a late, low mileage, Left hand Drive, Long Wheel Base, High Roof Sprinter or suchlike …….. Suitable for a conversation, also a twin-axil Box Trailer, big and meaty enough to carry a large quad bike and equipment……..Anyone?



I thought I had it cracked……During our April tour we moved to a time that was two hours behind our base/office in Spain and one hour behind the UK. It worked out perfectly for both our arrival into and our departure from Morocco.  But I had forgotten that there was another change due while we were away, but we were not alone!  On the 28th Feb Morocco officially switched its clocks forward one hour.  I say "officially", or as "official" as Morocco can be. 

Unfortunately the change was not well publicized and many businesses reported that workers turned up an hour late, shops stayed closed, buses arrive late [so what’s new in that], vital appointments failed….a degree of chaos was reported from both the major airports at Marrakech and Casablanca while many official and government departments opened late…. all it would seem unaware that the clocks had changed.
The Minster of Public Services, Mr Abdeladim El Guerrouj, said that the time change, “will take place automatically and without any official statement”.  So there you have it.  But as a major building site supervisor said, “It would have been nice if someone had told us”.

Once again this year Morocco and split daylight saving into two parts: before Ramadan and after Ramadan. The clocks revert one hour during Ramadan. The exclusion from daylight saving during Ramadan is a peculiar anomaly because Ramadan times do not rely on clocks but on sightings of the moon.
Clocks are expected to be turned back to standard time at 3 am [03.00] on Tuesday, July 9th to mark the beginning of Ramadan.  The start of the second daylight saving period will coincide with the end of Ramadan on Thursday, August 8th.  On this day, clocks will again be advanced by one hour at 2 am [02.00] local time to 3 am [03.00].  Daylight saving will end at 3 am [03.00] on Sunday, September 29th 2013, when clocks will be turned back one hour to standard time.

Travelers would be well advised to check any departure times for transport as there have been cases in the past when airlines have failed to notify passengers of the change to daylight saving.
Of course you now know and understand what’s happening………………….


70 year old Mustapha, an extremely wealthy Moroccan widower, shows up at a friend’s wedding with his new wife, a stunning, absolutely gorgeous and breathtakingly beautiful 25 year old.  His friends can’t believe how she hung onto his arm, listened intently to his every word and catered for his every whim and need.
Baffled and amazed they cornered Mustapha and asked, “Brother Mustapha how did you get this truly extraordinary woman to become your wife”?
“Quite simple, I lied about my age”, Mustapha replied.
How very clever Mustapha.  What did you tell her you were only 50”?
Mustapha smiled and shook his head, “No my friends, I simply told her I was 95”.


Clients who join our popular "Classic Tour" will be aware of a very special pause between Todra and Ouarzazate................ Here we take a little time to visit a tiny shop owned by "Fatima" and her two daughters and where a powerful fragrance of Argon and Rose is complimented by walls covered in a dazzling display of texture and color............ Dozens, of silk scarves shawls and head-dresses.

Fatima's little shop, within the Oases of the Dade's Valley, is just past a Moroccan jewel known as the heavenly pink town of El-Kelaa M'Gouna or more affectionately referred to as the Valley of the Roses.  The town is famous for its sea of pink Persian rose landscapes.  El-Kelaa Des Mgouna has a vast distilling plant, Capp Et Florale that accounts for producing litres of rose water popular in the nation's cooking and perfumery.  The rose capital also produces other goods made of eau de rose such as hand and body soaps, oil, creme perfume and dried flowers that are popular among Moroccans and tourists.

The Damask rose was brought to El Kella Des Mgouna in 1938 by the French.  At that time El Kelaa Des Mgouna's first rose water distillery was opened.  Shortly after the first Rose Festival begun and has been a tradition ever since. 

In the Valley of Roses you will find miles of pink, small persian roses-cultivated as hedgerows dividing the plots of land.  In spring, you can buy a garland of fragrant roses from one of the Berber children who line the route.

During the month of May, an annual three-day Rose Festival takes place in the Valley of the Roses.  Morocco's Rose Festival occupies the souk area of El Kelaa Des Mgouna, the town responsible for the rosy festivities.  During this time, travelers come from all over to attend the festivities where a Rose Queen is elected to reign over the year's scented crop.  The factories in El Kelaa Des Mgouna produce 3000-4000 petals a year.  With ten tons of petals required to produce a few litres of precious oil, the harvest is understandably a labour of love and the culminating festivities of the annual Rose Festival are all the livelier for it.

Surprisingly, Rose water is expensive for Moroccans. The reason for its price tag is the fact that the four thousand two hundred kilometres of rose hedges can only produce one thousand four hundred litres of the product. The process uses approximately three thousand kilograms of rose petals to extract a litre of rose oil (known as rose otto from the Arabic itr, meaning perfume). Visitors who attend the Festival of Roses will therefore see tons of rose petals being transported to the factories to extract the precious oils, leaving a trail of rose scent throughout the town.

As with all festivals in Morocco, the annual Rose Festival boasts delicious food alongside traditional Berber local tribes singing, dancing, displaying sword manoeuvres and playing traditional musical instruments; plus a parade of floats with the nominees for Ms. Roses who sit upon them.

Unique to this festival are the rose perfumed streets, Moroccan women wearing traditional head scarves decorated with bright colored velvety flowers, and boys and girls wearing rose-garlands.  Floral decorated floats, camel-rides, and an excursion organized by the festival co-ordinators to take a bus ride from Ouarzazate to the Valley of the Roses are a few of the highlights available to all.

The crowds at the festival are thick as a pink cloud, however, if you are a traveler you are in luck. Look for a spot reserved for tourists and dignitaries for the best views of the festival.  Don't forget to look out for well dressed women in pink organizer and tulle and men dressed in white turbaned robes.

The purpose of the festival is for rose farmers to celebrate the year’s crops and to celebrate the beauty of nature. The Rose Festival is one of the prettiest and most popular celebrations in Morocco. Visitors come to enjoy breathing in the sweet scents of the petals as well as being surrounded by the natural beauty of the Drâa valley and the High Atlas Mountains.


I was reading the other day that when a group of school kids were questioned about where they thought milk came from, most of them had no idea it came from a cow. A fridge shelf in Tesco seemed to be the main suspect. While it may be easy to snigger at the ignorance of modern children of some of the basics of life, it occurred to me that there are plenty of things that we take for granted, totally unaware of the story behind them.

Take the beautiful babouches, the soft leather slippers we see in rows lining walls in tiny shops in the souk. Perhaps you bought a pair, but did you ever think about where they came from? Probably not, but they certainly did not just appear thanks to the babouche fairy. Admittedly some are now being mass produced, but others are still made by hand, and their story, and that of much of the beautiful artistry we take home as gifts and souvenirs, is intricately woven into the whole fabric of life in the Medina.

This point was brought to mind when I was taking a walk through the Medina with my old friend Abdellatif Benhrima. Born and bred there, he knows the maze of alleys like the back of his hand, and as we wandered through the streets behind the Musee de Marrakech, he suddenly ducked into a vaguely disreputable-looking foundouk, one of the antiquated courtyards that provided both accommodation and sales space for travelling merchants for hundreds of years. Some of these foundouks have been restored as Riads, but equally as many still maintain their original function as small workshops and commercial premises. Unfortunately, while some have been kept in reasonable condition, others suffer badly from years of neglect. It was strange to compare the world I’d stepped into of freshly-dyed skins drying in the sun, mopeds and beat up old handcarts with the décor of Le Foundouk, the Chi-Chi restaurant of choice of the tantalizingly rich, almost next door.

We went into a workshop tucked in a corner, no more than about three metres by one-and-a-half, where a man in white skull cap and thick brown corduroy jacket against the cold was carefully applying a soft white leather covering to the thicker leather of a belt. This was where, between the ages of twelve and fourteen, Abdellatif had worked, making slippers, belts and soft leather bags, sharing the space with four others.

In the inevitable ceremony of welcoming a friend, Abdellatif and I were offered tea. (And here I was introduced to one of the finer points of the Moroccan tea ceremony; if you are offered a glass of tea you are welcome, if you are asked to sit, chat and watch the tea being made, you are very welcome, as it’s an opportunity to chat and while away a few minutes while the tea is brewing.) While Abdellatif and his friend, Mustapha, caught up with their news I picked up a soft, beautifully embroidered shoulder bag in warm, rose-pink lying on the makeshift sofa beside me. I could see it draped across the shoulder of my daughter, and her smile as she received it. The bag was not quite finished, it needed a strap and fastenings, but I asked how much it was.  “You are here to take tea”, said Mustapha, “not to buy something”.

As the guest I was offered the first sip from the single glass in Mustapha’s workshop, and when we’d each had a drink and the pot was being topped up for a second round, he climbed on his bike and rode off into the souk in search of a strap so my daughter’s gift could be finished. A few minutes later, an elderly gentleman in a white djellaba appeared at the doorway, enquiring about the belts Mustapha had been working on. After exchanging a few pleasantries with Abdellatif, he took them and went on his way. He was the buckle man, who would punch the holes in the belt and fix the buckles.

He would bring the rough leather belts to Mustapha for covering and either sell the finished product himself or pass them onto someone else who had ordered them.  And that’s when the inter-connectedness of the Medina struck me.

Mustapha would decide on the products he would make that week, whether to order or for him to sell direct to a shop. He would buy the few skins sufficient for his needs from the daily auction in the leather market and would then dye them himself and dry them in the courtyard of the foundouk or hand them over to someone to dye to his choice of color. When the skins were prepared he would cut them to the pattern of the model he was making that week and then hand them to a woman who did the painstaking embroidery at home, as a way to supplement family income. When the pieces came back he would assemble them, then cycle to a cupboard-size shop to buy the silken cord that would make the shoulder strap, of exactly the right shade to match the dyed leather.  He then covered the press stud fastenings in leather and fixed them in place.  

One day each week he would gather his bags, or belts, or slippers together, and perhaps those his family made in other miniscule workshops, and take them to his customers in the souks. If one shop didn’t buy them, another would. He would buy his vegetables from the food market and bread from the bakery that form part of the five ‘hearts’ of the quartier, his meat from the local butcher with a whole lamb hanging from a hook, and his groceries from one of the dozens of narrow cavernous shops almost within an arms-reach of his home. Everything contained within the walls of the Medina, each having his role to play in the highly organised chaos of life within the rose-pink walls.

I understand how confusing and at times intimidating the souks and medina can feel…….but perhaps next time take a closer look, for a while immerse yourself in the activity……… feel what’s going on around you ………. Trust me; it is a whole new and wonderful experience. 


“Oh no” I hear you cry……..”Please, not another carpet shop”.

There are two ways most people buy Moroccan carpets. The first is to carefully mull…….. Will the color clash with the furnishings in the living room? Will it get too much wear in the hall? Is that orangey one better value than the brownie one?  The second is to simply have the smiling vendor throw half a dozen down on the floor, take off your shoes and squish your toes in the pile to see which feels good.  I like the second way.

And don’t think the salesman is taking the mickey when he grins and says, ‘You only pay for the front, the back is free,’ because in the High Atlas Mountains, where some of the looser pile carpets come from, the shaggy side is for winter warmth while the smoother reverse is for summer wear. And speaking of wear, some rugs actually are worn as a winter wrap or used as bed covers.

In Morocco, every carpet tells a story – quite literally, although you may not be able to decipher its meaning. Each tribe has its own repertoire of imagery which differs by village and region, but there’s no such thing as a pattern or design. Every weave and weft is learned at the feet of a mother and grandmother  -  and a carpet weaver is always a woman.

The designs tell of grand ceremonies and minor happenings in the village, but the essence of a carpet is the story of the weaver, the rhythm of her daily life. Her trials and tribulations, her small joys and larger happiness’s are woven into her carpet, as a painter puts his emotions on canvas by the subtlety of his brush.

Wander Marrakech’s higgledy-piggledy souks and you will find carpets everywhere; piled, rolled, unfolded and folded, spread on floors or cascading from hooks and balconies, casually thrown or elegantly presented like a perfect pearl in a Bond Street jewellers. Technicolor existed in the shades and subtleties of color in Moroccan carpets long before the idea hit the silver screen. Subtle or screamingly outrageous ……..  They’re all there.

But buying a carpet is a serious business, a special moment to be savoured, accompanied by mint tea sweetened with cardiac-arrest levels of sugar. ‘There is no need to rush, madam.’ ‘No hurry, no worry.’ ‘This price is special only to you so please don’t tell your friends.’ ‘If only I could give you a better price, sir, but anything less and my children won’t eat today.’ ‘Do you have a credit card?’


Chicken was for so long the luxurious dish one served for special guests.  That was before the spread of modern butchers who now provide people with all kinds of meat [except pork of course] any time of the day.  People back then used to raise animals, especially poultry, to meet their needs for meat.

Nowadays, as chicken becomes widespread and cheaper it has become an essential element in the Moroccan cuisine.  Moroccan families use it to prepare different kinds of food.  Since tagine is the most famous daily dish for nearly all Moroccans, they usually, for the sake of diversity, switch to chicken when preparing their most cherished dish, Tagine.

However, most families tend to make the chicken tagine very light; they use only a few vegetables.  Unlike the normal well known Moroccan Tagine, made with several vegetables, the chicken tagine is more often made only with onions, raisins, pickled lemon and with some olives for decoration and extra exotic flavor.  

This recipe will take you through very simple steps to prepare easily your own tagine quickly.


1 whole chicken cut into 8 pieces cleaned and soaked in salty water with some vinegar.
2  chopped onions.
Some raisins.
½  cup of olive oil.
1 tsp. ginger.
1 tsp. paprika.
½ tsp. turmeric.
½ tsp. ground black pepper.
½ tsp. saffron.
3 cloves of minced garlic.
1  pickled  lemon.
2 tbsp minced parsley and cilantro.
100gs red  or green olives.


In a bowl mix some water, ginger, turmeric, garlic, pickled lemon pulp, saffron, black pepper, 2 tbsp. oil, parsley and cilantro. Clean the chicken pieces and marinate them in the mixture, letting them stand for an hour or so.

Place the tagine on the stove and set to a low heat. Add olive oil, the seasoned chicken and onions.

When it starts to boil simmer for half an hour and then add olives, raisins and the rind of pickled lemon (cut into strips). Add some water and salt if necessary.

Cook again for another half an hour or until the chicken is well cooked.

PUBLIC LETTER-WRITERS……a long lasting trade!

Registering complaints, drawing up judicial documents or letting leases, drafting administrative letters or writing love letters and proffering advice, public letter-writers are still in great demand by numerous Moroccan citizens; so they survive in spite of the sometimes prevailing electronic mail. But like many others they often find it hard to make ends meet in our fast moving world where they have little or no real command of the translation into foreign languages…….. but, at least, they exist!

Of course, because of their experience they are not simply letter-writers: most are also able to offer all kinds of advice and guidance. Proficient in the “old ways” and knowledgeable in the “new” they know who is worth knowing, who’s strings to pull and what doors lead to where……they are the true masters of personal skills and intrigue.

The necessary attributes require knowing how to listen to people and how to transcribe their often complicated request in black and white……and how to express coherently in the appropriate administrative, judicial or amorous words, what they are saying.

There is no administrative control over them: the authorisations to this trade are passed from father to son! Though they often have a school leaving certificate, they do not all master either French, English or another language or are expert in a particular field. In which case they will often refer customers to one writer or another………

Of course it’s not always the case that only “locals” may require the services or knowledge of the Letter-Writer.  Indeed, over the many years that I have been living, operating and visiting Morocco I have used numerous writers, generally after being passed aimlessly and seemingly without point, from one confusing and inefficient public office of authority to another ………

It was many years ago, at the end of one such mind-numbing day, that I first met Abou Faris. Even then he was clearly of advanced years but with awareness in the eye matched only by his hoarded knowledge.  Today he still sits in his tiny office on Massira Street, near the northern exit of Essaouira …… The office that has seen better days but should not change. There is an unmistakable ambiance of mystery and intrigue of secrets and riddles. Few places would have heard as many a tale.

The old Hermes Typewriter still sits atop a battered steel filling cabinet, retired… day he will accept my offer…… A mechanical writing gem, replaced long ago by the current Underwood Five.  The sole ashtray still continues to offload its contents across a desk that doubles as a depository for any number of mint-tea glasses.

Most of the time it is quite…..then they seem to appear waves, the clients, one after the other. Patently they wait, chatting in a low voice and exchanging news while Abou, the letter-writer, is takes notes, listening attentively to what problem his male or female customer is exposing for all to hear, sometimes showing some papers then putting them back into a little plastic bag while deep in muffled conversation.

The first public letter-writers were the “talbas”, the men who knew the Koran by heart and who then sometimes went on studying. Abou Faris is from that era.  

All documents don’t cost the same: the public letter-writer has a rate scale going from 25 to 150DH, sometimes to 200DH. It all depends on the length of the letter, therefore on the quantity of paper and of ink used but also on the time it takes to write the letter and especially on the intellectual effort invested into it.

While there will be letters to write, public letter-writers will go on existing, here like elsewhere in the world!


There is a type of building in the Kasbah of Essaouira that is even more noticeable than others, as many have been turned into luxury homes, classy establishments or trendy galleries. One such striking examples of this type of conversion is the hotel/restaurant “Riad al Madina”…….. Many readers will be aware of this location as it is the stunning venue for our final/farewell group meal at the end of the Desert Detours “Classic” Tour.  

It was the Jewish or Berber traders coming from Sous, or the famous toujar sultan [the King’s merchants,] settling in the Kasbah and in the derb Ahl Agadir, who first built the two or three storey houses with a roof terrace often with a panoramic view overlooking the sea. They became known as the Menzeh or “panoramic view” in French.

Generally they offered huge spaces with high ceilings, multiple freestone arches, architecturally simple and beautiful with arcades, whitewashed walls and a very high ceiling made in tassiout. The menzeh was built like an urban house with front walls fitted with openings. Typically this type of house had two entrances as trade and private life did not mix. 
The first door gave access to the workplace that was the storage place for goods intended for exportation via the harbour with sacks piled on top of one another as high as the ceiling containing shelled almonds, wheat, skins, carob and especially gum (lagracha) hence the name ahraya dyal lagracha (gum warehouse) .

In this particular warehouse, following on from its long and diverse history, women used to filter and clean the gum during the Great Famine at the end of 1920 and at the beginning of 1930: the gum was brought back from the huge Berber thuja forests in the south of Essaouira. The additional second door opened onto the floors: the ground floor was intended for the storage and the trading of goods, while above was for living with the first floor for the family and the second one for the guests.

At the time there were no hotels and all passing trade was welcomed either at the merchants’ menzeh or in the douiriya, a small house adjoining the house proper or dar. In fact, everywhere else in the old medina, each home had two adjoining houses: the dar (or house) for the family and the douiriya for guests and single people.  As mentioned the ground floor of the house … the warehouse…. was distinguished by huge freestone arches (manjour), a material used for the foundations of the old Kasbah and for the harbour fortifications.

[In the Essaouira hinterland, one can still find excellent stone cutters of this sandy rock, in Had Dra, Akermoud and Tamanar in particular.]

When passing through the medina, one can see that very often the Muslim houses have little or no opening out: the light comes down from above. But in Essaouira Jewish houses have windows and doors that have wide openings, particular above the level of the ramparts and give out to the sea: these people did not have to hide their women. 

In some main streets like Alouj Street (alouj referring to old converts caught at sea by Barbarian pirates and who used to work as gunners at the Scala of the Harbour) the street leading to the sea, one can even see large ornate balconies. It is the typical house of the Jewish traders and of the Christian Consuls who settled in Essaouira as early as its foundation in 1794. 

By contrast Muslim houses are distinguished by blind front walls, with a small side entrance door opening onto a garden or alley, with a light shaft coming from above……. an architecture that expresses the sense of modesty according to which the woman should not take off her veil.


The story goes…………..“One day, following a family picnic on the grass and taking advantage of a general siesta, a farmer had the idea, out of curiosity, to look at how a “doum leaf” was made, a palm leaf of the dwarf palm tree that was at hand reach. With the help of a hairpin that he removed from his sleeping wife, he plucked this leaf and realized that it was made of long fibres linked one to the other by chlorophyll………… The idea of an organic fibre was born.”

Going through the countryside, one’s attention is frequently drawn to long and abandoned buildings: now in ruins most of them are old manufactures dating from the Colonial era which still worked until the seventies.

Towards El Hanchane, a few hundred metres further on the Meskala road, lay a house with grand pillar entrance in major disrepair. It is easily missed and you need to look closely as it is all but hidden by eucalyptus trees and tangled undergrowth.  Beyond one can just see numerous other buildings, also in ruin.

It is one of the organic horsehair manufactures sites from the North African Company which owned around ten in Morocco, split up between the north and the south of the country; three of them being in the area in Imintlit, towards Talmest and at Douar Arbalou in the town of El Hanchane. The latter was operational as early as 1920 and collapsed in 1970 as organic horsehair was abandoned for synthetic fibres and foam.

Until the middle of the 19th century, seats and armchairs were padded with animal horsehair coming from the mane and the tail of horses and mattresses were stuffed with wool, which made these extremely costly. With the birth of the car industry in the 19th century, it became necessary to find a
Substitute to animal horsehair and wool: the “doum” or dwarf palm tree, (chamaerops humilis), being plentiful in the Maghreb, was found to full fill this role. This plant grows naturally all around the Mediterranean Basin; it is a kind of a branched bush whose roots are sometimes centuries old in North Africa and which grows into low close packed thickets.

Essential for the spinning pulleys both house and the factory were fitted with electricity very early on with a supplementary hydraulic engine. In all about 50 men worked and lived here, with the wives taking their place during the war, when fuel and charcoal coming from France replaced the electricity.

Various steps were necessary to condition the doum before it became horsehair, string or rope. Here, it was mainly destined for stuffing: gathering, plucking and combing were the first steps in the production of the fibre; then a carder cleaned the fibre of any waste that would damage the quality of the horsehair. The women then stretched the filaments onto a paved area, shaking them into the air between sun-drying, before bringing them back to the weaving workshop.

The obtained product was very harsh. As a safety measure, the workshop was separated from the one where the fibre was prepared in order to avoid any risk of fire as the filaments were extremely dry. Still standing the workshop section is about 20m wide and 60m long, where spinning machines and pulleys interlocked in an intricate technical pattern releasing, after various operations, ropes, strings and fibre lengths. During the Second World War much of the product, in the form of ropes and camouflage netting, went to the French Army.

Once the factory was abandoned, one family stayed to live there: Grand Father A’Hammed has since passed but old father M’Bark and his son Omar also used to work there and both are now the guardians of memory.

The Omar family now occupy the only now habitual building, which used to be the factory manager’s house. It adjoins the still usable workshops that are now full of heaps of bags of argon tree nuts or other produce, depending on the season. A garden has partially survived; it is filled with orange, tangerine and lemon trees and with a gigantic fig tree. The big tank, which used to provide water for the garden or which was used as a swimming pool for children in very hot days, is a witness to this place past wealth.

Ancient stables and animal pens, also in ruins, are on one side of the garden and, at the other end, the factory stretches out with its huge paved workshops: scattered ruins occupied in part by the family goats. All the machinery has vanished but Omar and M’Bark love telling the story of the factory, making it come alive: here was a 50 HP English engine, here was the spinning workshop and there was the packaging workshop from which bundles left by boat from Essaouira or Casablanca to foreign parts, mainly Europe. Here I sat and there worked my father…….One can feel a great nostalgia but also some pride when they mention the tubs where sometimes the horsehair was dyed following a special order from the Royal Palace.

Omar tells me that here, in front of the big building; the first flour mill in the area was erected. This mill was in use day and night and the women working there used to encourage one another by singing, making up a chorus around the boss’s name. Omar sings the chorus while laughing like a child!