3. Americans are rich
Our next stop, Zagora, is the last oasis on the edge of the Sahara desert. In our quest for real Moroccan culture, this outpost is for being the jump-off point for the 52 day trek to Timbuktu. Economics, politics, deforestation, and climate change have been slowly driving the traditionally nomadic families to permanent lives in towns, increasingly dependent on tourism. We don’t even pretence to know the half of it, but our host Mustapha, an Amazight (Berber) man our own age, had a simple and revealing statement:
“My grandfather live always the desert. My father live six months in the desert, six months in the oasis. Now, my family live always in the oasis. Three years ago, we sell our camels.”
Tombouctou, 52 jours
The economic depression is only surpassed by the generosity and resilience of the Moroccan spirit. We suspect generosity is the most resilient staple of real moroccan culture, as it is the way a people have to be to survive the desert for so many eons. There's a Moroccan saying, "The Swiss have clocks; we have time." Infrastructure is terrible in the south--the nearest hospital is in Ourzazete, hours away. Moroccan women die of the slightest childbirth complication if the clinic is closed and no one is available to take her north, if her husband was in the desert with on a camel excursion, the most popular means of Morocco tourism in the south, and their best resource for making ends meet. Very little government funding trickles down from Rabat, the roads and buildings are all made of mud, the police and judicial system are corrupt. And yet the Amazight endure, nobly preserving their place in real moroccan culture, and giving a new meaning to the common Muslim phrase: "Inchallah."
"Inchallah" literally means "if God wills it." It's hard for Americans with our go-get-em attitude to deeply understand this concept. But it is a bedrock of real moroccan culture that allows them to get through each day with their spirits in-tact. We were made humiliatingly aware of the difference when working for Mustapha.
When we arrived in Zagora, they were experiencing floods from the first rain in four years--roads washed out, people, cars, whole houses swept away. We were on a bus on the road south, on a narrow road clinging to the side of the mountain, when the road simply crumbled out in front of and behind us. The Moroccan passengers on the bus were amazingly calm about it... because honestly, what could one do? Raging, as a bus full of Americans would have done, wouldn't make the rain stop. The road was simply gone, and road crews were trying to build it back. We would get out eventually, inchallah.
The roads are built on muddy terraces on the side of mountains.
We arrived on one of the only buses to get through in a three week-stretch and got to work for Mustapha rebuilding his guesthouse, Riad Dar Zaouia. A riad is a traditional inward-facing Moroccan home focused around a courtyard. Many Moroccan buildings are often made of mud mixed with straw, and many had been damaged--in Mustapha's, a staircase had collapsed. The repairs went well, but absolutely no tourists had made it through for weeks, and he was beginning to worry about how he was going to feed all his workers, so we starting chipping in and making family meals (you could buy enough food to feed twelve people for about $3).
We cannot over-emphasize how generous they all were with what they have. That’s real Moroccan culture in a sentence: they take care of you as family. Some British tourists en route to stay at the riad were stranded in the desert by the floods, and Mustapha immediately rushed with a 4x4 to rescue them. The 4x4 had to be pushed and dragged through mud at many points, but he got them out. He refused to accept money for it when he got them back--it was just what one does when friends are stranded in the desert. Another example of real Moroccan culture: They were returning customers, but Mustapha saw them as friends.
Mustapha taking tourists on excursion during non-flood times.
After a month with nearly no business (other than the Brits, who only stayed one night) the family was in a panic. The landlord was threatening eviction if rent wasn't paid soon. Mustapha's extended family got together, but given how large and expensive the property was (8 en-suite guest bedrooms, kitchen, living room, office, atelier, grand courtyard and garden) they were unable to raise enough funds to cover it. Mustapha was facing going out of business, and no one in Zagora would rent to him in the future once he was known as unreliable. He was just going to have to find some other way to survive, inchallah.
Guess what the rent is on this place.
His rent? 3,000 dihrams. That's 277 Euros, 201 British Pounds, and 311 US dollars. He was standing to lose his business (including all the improvements he'd done to the building and investments in furniture and bedding) and have his local rental credit ruined over 300 bucks.
So we paid it. It’s not that $300 is by any means small change for us. We’re pretty broke by American standards, our telecommute jobs don’t pay much. But we have the luxury that when we return to the states, we can easily get some bar jobs to pay off our debt. However grueling, tedious, or degrading some of our stateside jobs can be, they pay us over a weekend the amount of money this man’s entire family couldn’t raise to save the business. Mustapha and his family don’t have our options. With borders closed and trans-Saharan trade stopped, there is no economy but tourism for Berber peoples. So when the rain washes out the roads and no tourists can get in, we discovered that real Morccoan culture is a graceful resignation to what may come: ‘inchallah.’
Mustapha all but cried when we gave him the money. He kept trying to refuse it, but we insisted that he had treated us like family, and so we were doing the same. He told us we were family, and we would always have a home in Zagora.
Mustapha and the riad.
America’s economy has been really hard on all of us these last few years, but it’s important to maintain a sense of perspective. To not let your own desperate circumstances blind you to the desperate circumstances of others. America’s health care is notoriously bad, but (thanks to Obamacare) we both have insurance and access to hospitals, unlike the women here who bleed to death in the street because all the hospitals are too far away.
A lot of people have helped us along the way. It’s important to do the same for anyone you can that is gracious enough to treat you like family. If there's one thing we learned is the meaning of real Moroccan culture, it is generosity and paying it forward. It doesn't matter how broke we are. If we have three dollars to eat today, we are rich. The rest we'll figure out somehow. Inchallah.
We'll continue with other things we learned in our next post. If you want to read more about real Moroccan cutlure and Amazight life, we recommend this article on walking with a nomadic family, and this one on why the nomadic lifestyle is vanishing.